The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW Choral Director Beverly Taylor talks about her life with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which she will conduct this Sunday afternoon and night

April 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always ranks high on the short list of the greatest choral works ever composed.

And for good reason.

It represents a peak of Bach’s sacred music and his choral compositions.

This Sunday afternoon and night in Mills Hall, Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the UW Choral Union (below) — comprised of university and community singers — plus soloists and an orchestra, in a performance of the complete work.

At 4 p.m. they will do Part 1 and then at 7:30 p.m., Part 2.

Tickets (one ticket is good for both parts) are $15, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Tickets will also be available at the door.

The Ear is always curious to learn more about the relationship between a professional musician and a towering masterpiece.

He found out more when Taylor (below) recently answered an email Q&A about her past and current experiences with the “St. Matthew Passion”:

When did you first hear the “St. Matthew Passion” and what was your reaction?

I never heard it until my late 20s, would you believe? I’d been through grad school and all its training, and learned German, knew a lot of Bach; and when Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony did it on Good Friday, I sat spellbound for over three hours.

I was shaken to the core by its beauty, and even though it was hardly an early music performance, it was well handled, and one of my favorite British singers, Robert Tear, was the Evangelist. I’ve never forgotten it!

Where do you place the “St. Matthew Passion” among Bach’s works and especially among his many choral works?

As with all masterpieces, it’s hard to choose. It’s the longest work, and its size and scope alone make it a frequent choice of many for favorite work.

It’s more dramatic than the breath-taking B Minor Mass and more meditative than the St. John Passion, but I also love the unbelievable variety of cantatas that Bach (below) produced.

Don’t make me choose!

What role has the “St. Matthew Passion” played in your personal and professional life?

I’d say it’s a pinnacle work. This is only my second time performing it, and I’m unlikely to have the chance again, although one hopes. So I’m invested in its beauty and in its core message of hope in the face of tragedy.

Are there things you would like audiences to know about your upcoming performance?

There are several things.

We have a wonderful cast of soloists, and the orchestra is not the usual student orchestra, since the UW Symphony Orchestra is committed to another program in the near future, but is instead a mixture of students, semi-pros and pros.

The work is set for the two choruses and two orchestras that play with them. Many of the choral movements are set for both orchestras, but Bach varies the texture of each movement by varying who plays in what.

If a listener hasn’t been to a Passion performance before, then you might want to know that:

The character of the Evangelist (sung superbly in this case by Wesley Dunnagan, below) is the narrator of the drama. He is accompanied by the continuo part—which is made up of a keyboard (usually organ with sacred works) and a low melody instrument, usually cello.

The chorus members sing sometimes in the character of Greek chorus commentary, sometimes as characters in the roles of Mob, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, and disciples. Most of this text comes from the book of St. Matthew. However, German theologians wrote commentary that is used for the beautiful Chorales-which basically are hymn-style settings of well-known Lutheran tunes. These chorales turn personal—for instance when Judas betrays Jesus, the chorus, after being a mob, turns around and says in repentance—It is I, I’m the one that killed you. (You can hear the final chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The text is so important, and Bach uses myriad details to bring it out. It is typical that when the text is about death, or evil, or sin, the writing is chromatic, or full of augmented fourth intervals (once nicknamed the devil’s interval). When Jesus has died and been buried, the chorus sings what feels like a lullaby, with the rocking cradle motion. When an earthquake follows Jesus’ death and the curtain of the temple is torn, the continuo cello breaks out of accompaniment mode and tears down the scale like lightning

Although this work presents Bach’s Christian view in the heart of the church year, the scope and issues of faithfulness and disloyalty, trust and fear, should resonate with listeners of all faiths.

We’ve chosen, as some other presenters have, to have a dinner/snack break between the two parts of the three-hour work. One ticket will get you into either or both halves. We do this to give singers and players a little rest, and a little movement to our listeners. Part I runs from 4 p.m. to about 5:15 p.m., and Part II runs from 7:30 p.m. to about 9:15 p.m.

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Classical music: Here are many of the major figures that classical music lost in 2017

January 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the traditional ways to start a new year is to take stock of the past year.

That often means compiling lists of the best performances, the best recordings, the best books, and so forth.

It also means listing the major figures who died in the past year.

Two of the more prominent classical music performers who died in 2017 were the renowned Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below top), who died of a brain tumor at 55, and the conductor Georges Prêtre (below bottom in a photo by Dieter Hagli for Getty Images).

There were many more, but they seem harder to find or to remember.

It seems to The Ear that such lists used to be more common.

It also seems to The Ear that many more of such lists for classical music are being incorporated into a overall lists of entertainers and celebrities in pop, rock, country, jazz, folk and even film stars who died. That is what National Public Radio (NPR) and The New York Times did this year.

Does that trend suggest that classical music is gradually and increasingly being marginalized or ignored? It is a reasonable question with, The Ear fears, a sad answer.

Does anyone else see it the same way?

But at least one reliable source – famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City – has provided a list of performers, presenters and scholars of classical music who died in 2017.

Moreover, the list comes with generous sound and video samples that often make the loss more poignant.

Here is the link:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/music-made-classical-artists-lost-2017

Has someone been overlooked, especially among local figures?

If so, please use the COMMENT section to leave a name or even your reaction to the other deaths.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The legendary St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig will perform Reformation music at Luther Memorial Church this Sunday night

November 14, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Luther Memorial Church will host the historic and legendary St. Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor) of Leipzig, Germany.

The famed boychoir will perform this coming Sunday night at 7 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave.

The program will present music of Johann Sebastian Bach (the motets “Fürchte dich nicht,” “Komm, Jesu, komm” and “Der Geist hilft”) and unspecified choral music of Heinrich Schütz, Johann Schein and Felix Mendelssohn.

Tickets are available at www.luthermem.org/st-thomas at $20, $30 and $50. Student rush tickets will be available day of concert.

The St. Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor) of Leipzig, Germany, was founded in 1212. Johann Sebastian Bach (below) served as Thomaskantor, director of the choir, from 1723 to 1750. (For more background about the group, its pedigree and the music of Bach, see the YouTube video at the bottom.)


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