By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a record review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.
A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.
Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.
Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).
It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”
It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.
Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)
Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.
The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.
Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.
Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.
I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.
They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.
While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.
One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.
This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear is not alone in viewing the official opening of the new fall season as being the annual FREE Karp Family Labor Day concert, which takes place on the holiday Monday night before classes begin at the UW-Madison. (Below and from left, in the 2011 photo, are pianist and violinist son Christopher Karp; violist Katrin Talbot; the late pianist Howard Karp; cellist son Parry Karp (who is married to Katrin Talbot); and pianist wife Frances Karp.)
This year, that means the concert is on this coming Monday night, Sept. 5, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.
In the decades-long history of the event, pieces never get repeated.
That may help to explain why this year’s program features the new and the neglected rather than the tried-and-true.
Here is how cellist and patriarch of the Karp family Parry Karp (below) explains it:
“The program includes a world premiere performance of a brand new piece for Cello and Piano by Joel Hoffman (below), to be performed by my brother Christopher Karp and myself. It is entitled “Riffs on a Great Life.”
“The great life he is writing about is our Dad’s, longtime UW-Madison pianist Howard Karp, who died two years ago at 84.
“Robert Kahn (below) was a wonderful composer of chamber music and lieder whom Johannes Brahms admired very much. They initially met in 1885 when Kahn was only 20 years old. Brahms was impressed both by his compositions and his piano playing. We are greatly enjoying learning his Piano Quartet No. 2, which will feature my mother Frances Karp.
Pro Arte Quartet second violinist Suzanne Beia and my wife, violist Katrin Talbot, will join in the performance.
“The “Rhapsody” by Rebecca Clarke (below) is an unjustly neglected masterpiece that unfortunately has never been published. Frances and I are playing it from a copy of the manuscript. It was commissioned by Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1923, and is a very romantic and expressive piece.
Also on the program is “Fratres” for cello and piano by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (below), who turns 82 on Sept. 11. According to one source, he has been the most performed living composer in the world for five consecutive years.
The dramatic and insistent piece was used as part of the soundtrack or film score for the movie “There Will Be Blood” with Daniel Day-Lewis. Here is a link to a performance with over one million hits on YouTube:
By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting that is perfect for Christmas Eve. It is a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
On last Saturday night, at the fully filled Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, director Robert Gehrenbeck led the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) through a program that managed blessedly to combine the seasonal with the musically substantial.
The program was constructed with very great insight and imagination, around the Magnificat, the hymn in the Gospel of St. Luke that the Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth are supposed to have improvised during their Visitation.
The Latin version is probably, with the exception of passages from the Mass Ordinary,, the most frequently set of all liturgical texts, given its varied utilities — not only for Advent celebrations but as the culminating part of the Office of Vespers.
Of the absolutely innumerable settings made of this text and its counterparts through the ages, Gehrenbeck (below) – who directs the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — selected six versions, mingling them among related musical works. The program was organized in six segments, three given before intermission, three after.
An initial German segment was dominated by the Deutsches Magnificat, which uses Martin Luther’s translation, a late and very great Baroque masterpiece for double choir by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).
That was supplemented with a five-voice motet by Johannes Eccard (1553-1611) that absorbs some of the Magnificat imagery, and a textually unrelated double-choir German motet by the post-Baroque Gottfried Homilius (1714-1785) — a piece that reminded me strikingly of the neo-polyphonic style that Johannes Brahms would develop a century later for his own motets.
Johann Sebastian Bach found his place with three of the four Advent texts that the composer inserted in the original E-flat version of his Latin Magnificat setting. One of those adapts the chorale Vom Himmel hoch (From Heaven High), so the three were prefaced by a chorale-prelude for organ by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) that elaborates on that hymn. (NOTE: Bach’s lovely full choral version of the Magnificat can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom. It features conductor John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and period instruments played in historically informed performances.)
Then we had settings of the Latin text.
First, one that alternates plainchant on the odd-numbered verses with organ elaborations by Johann Erasmus Kindermann (1616-1655) on the even ones.
Second, we had a full setting by the late-Baroque Czech composer, Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), with a skeletal “orchestra” reduced to oboe, violin and cello played beautifully by, respectively, Andy Olson, a graduate of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, who works at Epic and who has performed with the Middleton Community Orchestra; Laura Burns of the Madison Symphony Orchestra; and Eric Miller of the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble.
A clever venture was made into Orthodox Christian treatments of the text in Church Slavonic. The full text in that form was given not in one of the more standard Russian Orthodox settings, but in a highly romanticized treatment by César Cui (1835-1918), a member of the “Mighty Five” group.
This was supplemented with beautiful settings of the Bogoróditse devo and the Dostóyno yest hymns of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, both of which paraphrase parts of Luke’s text: the former composed by the Estonian modernist Arvo Pärt (below, b.1935), the latter by the Russian Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998).
English-language treatments finally came with one of the settings by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis pairing that is standard in the Anglican church. This was prefaced by a simple organ elaboration by John Ireland (1879-1962) of an unrelated English Christmas song.
The final group drew back from the Magnificat motif by presenting two works each of two contemporary American composers who, for their time, are able to write with lovely and idiomatic results for chorus: Peter Bloesch (below top, b. 1963) and Stephen Paulus (below bottom, 1949-2014).
Each was represented by an arrangement and an original piece. Paulus’ treatment of the traditional “We Three Kings” carol went with his setting of a charming poem by Christina Rosetti (slightly suggestive of what Gian-Carlo Menotti portrayed in his opera Amahl and the Night Visitors).
Bloetsch’s elaboration of an old French Christmas song was balanced with his lovely setting of a 15th-century poem that does vaguely hint at some verbiage of the Magnificat after all. Both works by Bloetsch, who was in the audience, received their world premieres.
The 53-voice choir sounded superb: beautifully balanced, precise, sonorous and often simply thrilling. Along the way, four women from the ranks delivered solo parts handsomely. Mark Brampton Smith (below) was organist and pianist as needed.
It proved a superlative seasonal offering, in all, organized with a rationale that was both ingenious and illuminating.
For more information about the Wisconsin Chamber Choir and its future concerts, go to:
By Jacob Stockinger
Maybe I missed it.
Or maybe my memory doesn’t serve me well.
That’s too bad. The music by the 79-year-old composer (below), who was born in Estonia and now resides in Germany, is quite lovely. Plus, programming a popular contemporary composer might just draw in some new audiences.
But it is the same story for Philip Glass, who is perhaps the most performed living composer but whose works are rarely heard in Madison.
Anyway, here is something of a miniature. It is called “Spiegel im Spiegel” and is usually translated as “Mirror in Mirror” to suggest the endless reflections you get if you put mirrors opposite each other.
It is a lovely piece, which possesses a minimalism and a certain kind of Asian austerity to it. It seems “reflective” also in the calm and meditative sense. You can hear how Gregorian chant influenced Arvo Part’s own style.
The work must be popular somewhere because there are many arrangements of it for viola, cello and harp.
The Ear thinks it is a MUST-HEAR piece and hopes that you enjoy it — and that maybe it will convince some local individuals and ensembles to perform more music by Arvo Part.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison-based duo Ensemble SDG will perform a concert of early music on this Saturday night, November 22, 2014, at 7 p.m. in the Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue, in Madison, Wisconsin.
The concert will feature special guests William Hudson, tenor, and Katherine Shuldiner, viola da gamba.
The program includes settings of Psalm texts by Heinrich Schütz (below with his psalms at bottom in a YouTube video), Johann Hermann Schein, and Jacques de Bournonville, with a setting by Johann Philipp Krieger of the anonymous canticle Laetare anima mea, as well as sonatas by Giovanni Battista Fontana, Dieterich Buxtehude and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre.
Ensemble SDG (below) features Madison musicians Edith Hines, baroque violin, and John Chappell Stowe, professor of harpsichord and organ at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. The duo has performed across the United States, and their recording of the complete works of J. S. Bach for violin and keyboard is soon to be released by Arabesque Records.
William Hudson is a founding member and director of LIBER: Ensemble for Early Music and was recently appointed Assistant Professor of voice and diction at Illinois Wesleyan University (Bloomington, Ill.).
Katherine Shuldiner recently graduated from Oberlin Conservatory of Music, specializing in viola da gamba performance. She lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.
Admission to the concert on November 22 is $15; admission is free for students with a valid ID.
Ensemble SDG, a baroque violin and keyboard duo formed in 2009, performs music spanning the entire Baroque period, with a particular focus on the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The duo has presented works by German, French and Italian composers of the 17th and 18th centuries in recitals from the Midwest to the East Coast. Venues include Fringe Concerts at the 2009, 2011, and 2013 Boston Early Music Festivals; a recital featuring the Brombaugh organ at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois; the biennial meeting of the American Bach Society and the annual joint conclave of the Midwest and Southeastern Historical Keyboard Societies; the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music; Wisconsin Public Radio’s Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen; and multiple appearances at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, one being a performance of J.S. Bach’s six sonatas for violin and obbligato keyboard. This fall the duo will release a recording of Bach’s complete works for violin and keyboard.
Ensemble SDG takes its name from the epigraph (below top) used by Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom) to sign many of his works. Soli Deo Gloria (“to God alone the glory”) represents the members’ common approach to music and to life, and it is with this grounding that they approach their technique, choice of repertoire, and interpretative decisions.
Highly sought after as a specialist in historical performance, tenor William Hudson has been described as “positively hypnotic” by Gramophone magazine. An accomplished ensemble singer, Mr. Hudson has performed with many of the nation’s leading early music ensembles including the Boston Early Music Festival Opera, The New York Collegium, The Waverly Consort, The Rose Ensemble, Boston Bach Ensemble, and Ensemble Project Ars Nova (PAN).
As a founding member and director of LIBER: Ensemble for Early Music (formerly Liber unUsualis), he has performed extensively throughout North America and abroad at international music festivals in England, Wales, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, France, Latvia, Estonia, and Spain. Mr. Hudson also enjoys an active solo career, singing the Evangelist in Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, Apollo in Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the title role in Giacomo Carissimi’s Jephte, Lucano in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Mercury in Eccles’ Judgment of Paris, and Alessandro Stradella’s oratorio San Giovanni Battista with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.
An active scholar and clinician, Mr. Hudson (below, in a photo by Tall & Small Photography) was the winner of the 2009 Noah Greenberg award and has presented at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. He has led master-classes and given lecture-demonstrations in medieval performance practice at universities throughout North America. He has recorded with Naxos, Passacaille, Arsis, Titanic and Dorian. Mr. Hudson holds a Master’s degree in Historical Performance from the Longy School of Music and a Doctor of Music in Early Music from Indiana University. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of voice and diction at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois.
Katherine Shuldiner graduated from Oberlin Conservatory in viola da gamba performance under the tutelage of Catharina Meints. She has performed with Chicago based ensembles such as The Newberry Consort, BBE: Bach and Beethoven Ensemble, and The OC (The Opera Company).
She has also performed with Washington Bach Consort and La Follia Austin Baroque. Katherine recently finished her two-year term on the board of the Viola da Gamba Society of America and was chosen to perform in the first Early Music America’s Young Performers Festival during Boston Early Music Festival. This past summer, Katherine taught at the Madison Early Music Festival as well as the VdGSA Conclave.
By Jacob Stockinger
Two fine and FREE concerts are on tap this Saturday night:
WISCONSIN CHAMBER CHOIR
The concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church (below top is the exterior, below bottom the acoustically terrific beautiful interior), located at the corner of West Washington Avenue at Carroll Street, on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.
The concert features Russian music. But it worth noting that even an event this small and this local shows the ripples of the political situation in Ukraine where Russia has illegally annexed Crimea. Tickets are $15 for general admission; $10 for students. “Because of the situation in Ukraine (below), the choir made a decision to change the title of the concert from “Back to the U.S.S.R.” to just “Spring Concert,” the choir says. “We are confident the change will help our audience focus on the beautiful music and not current politics.”
The riches of Russian choral music will be represented by selections from the Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below top) along with ravishingly beautiful works by Alexander Grechaninov (below middle in 1912) and Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov (below bottom and at bottom in a YouTube video).
The scope widens to include sacred and secular music from various former Soviet Republics. Works by Veljo Tormis (below top) of Estonia), Pēteris Vasks of Latvia (below middle) and Vytautas Miškinis of Lithuania (below n bottom) exemplify the vibrant choral traditions of the Baltic states.
Sacred and secular works from Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus round out this fascinating and varied program. There is also the possibility of something by the Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney (blew left and right, respectively) to bring things to a rousing close.
Advance tickets are available for $15 from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Willy Street Coop (East and West locations) and Orange Tree Imports. Student tickets are $10. Founded in 1999, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Joseph Haydn; a cappella masterworks from various centuries; and world-premieres. Robert Gehrenbeck (below) is the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s artistic director.
WISCONSIN BRASS QUINTET
The Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below, in a 2013 performance photo by Jon Harlow) in residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, will perform a FREE concert on Saturday night, March 29, 8 p.m. in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Maidson campus.
WBQ members include John Aley, trumpet; Jessica Jensen, trumpet; Daniel Grabois, horn; Mark Hetzler, trombone; John Stevens, tuba; and special guest Abby Stevens, soprano, who is the daughter of John Stevens, who is retiring this May.
The program offers “Distant Voices” by David Sampson; “Brass Calendar” by Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach); “Contrapunctus” by Johann Sebastian Bach; and a selection of songs by George Gershwin sung by Abby Stevens.