The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform “Welcome Yule,” a concert of six centuries of holiday music, including Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols,” this Friday night.

December 16, 2014
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will perform “Welcome Yule,” featuring the well-known “Ceremony of Carols” (at bottom is an excerpt in a YouTube video) by British composer Benjamin Britten.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir with Gehrenbeck RWV

Benjamin Britten

The concert is this Friday night, Dec. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Grace Episcopal Church (below in exterior and interior photos), at the intersection of West Washington Avenue and Carroll Street on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

Advance tickets are $15 for the public and $10 for students; at the door, the prices are $20 and $12, respectively.

grace episcopal church ext

Grace Episcopal harpsichord

Welcome Yule! traverses six centuries of music in celebration of Christmas.

Benjamin Britten’s cheerful Ceremony of Carols, (accompanied by harp) is paired with Renaissance motets by Giovanni di Palestrina, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Raffaella Aleotti, and a set of rousing medieval carols.

After intermission, we pay tribute to the late Stephen Paulus (below top), who died this year, with his bright and uplifting Ship Carol, accompanied by harp, followed by a rarely-heard Magnificat and Nunc dimittis by Herbert Howells (below bottom), originally composed for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. Howells’ visionary music is accompanied by organist Mark Brampton Smith.

Here is a link to a post The Ear did about Stephen Paulus,who had many links to Madison. Be sure to read some of the local reader comments:

stephen paulus

herbert howells autograph

Also on the program are inspiring works by contemporary composers Jean Belmont Ford and Wayne Oquin; a lush jazz arrangement of Silent Night by Swiss jazz pianist Ivo Antognini; and a Christmas spiritual by Rosephanye Powell.

Advance tickets are available for $15 from, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Willy Street Coop (East and West locations) and Orange Tree Imports. Student tickets are $10.

Founded in 1998, 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), who directs choral activities at the UW-Whitewater, is artistic director of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE


Classical music Q&A: Co-artistic directors Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman Rowe discuss the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival that begins this Saturday and ends next Friday. It will explore the German Renaissance and the bridge between pre-Baroque and early Baroque music including J.S. Bach and Handel, and it will feature several major early music groups as well as a new Handel aria competition.

July 2, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

The fact that it is the ONLY Wisconsin classical music festival listed in The New York Times summer guide and NPR’s summer guide tells you something about the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF).

Specifically, those honors tell you that MEMF has come of age and is now a firmly established classical music event with a national and even international following and audience as well as performers (Cantus Consort Leipzig, Dark Horse Early Brass Consort, the Renaissance band Piffaro and the Parthenia Consort) and students.

Here is a link with complete information about the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival, including venues, dates and times as well as performers and programs. As a general rule, FREE pre-concert lectures are at 6:30 p.m.  in Room L-160 of the Elvehjem Building of the Chazen Museum of Art and concerts are in Mills Hall at 7:30 p.m.

I recently spoke with UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe his wife soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe, who serve as co-artistic directors of the festival. (Both are seen below in a photo from the 2012 sold-out MEMF concert by Anonymous Four.)

Here is their email Q&A:

MEMF 2012 Anon 4 Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe

How successful is this year’s festival compared to others in terms of enrollment, budgets, performers, etc.? Is MEMF clearly established now nationally or even internationally?

We are running ahead of normal this year in terms of participants, and we are sure that once the festival gets closer we will have a larger number of people involved than usual. This is partly due to the success of last summer’s festival and partly to the music and era that we are focusing on this summer.

memf 14 logo

The addition of the Handel aria competition has given us a different kind of visibility. The large number of entries and inquiries shows how established the festival is nationally. It is gratifying to see that we are now being listed in several national publications.

This year’s music has something for everyone interested in early music since it is situated during the change in styles between what is usually called the Renaissance and the early Baroque.

This means that while music was changing there was still a great deal of carry-over in terms of musical style and the instruments that are used. So there are recorders, sackbuts (early trombones, below top) and shawms (early oboes, below bottom) but also violins, cellos, harpsichords and other more instruments that are more familiar to “classical” audiences.



What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and performers?

The main differences this year are the addition of a masked ball on Wednesday night and the new Handel Aria Competition, the finals of which will take place on Monday night. (A portrait of Handel is below.)

handel big 2

Why was the topic of the German Renaissance chosen for the early music festival? What composers and works will be highlighted?

The specific time of the international celebration in March of 1616 gives a specific focus to the festival this year. The reason for the two-week party was the christening of the fifth son of the Duke of Württemberg (below), who was very well-connected in social and political circles.

John Frederick Duke of Wurttenberg

This time in history saw many such celebrations all over Europe and normally included theatrical, sacred and other celebrations. Much of the music and other details about the activities were printed in a kind of souvenir book that was distributed among the important guests. The events included a sacred mass (which will provide much of the music for the all festival concert), a masked ball, dances and theatrical presentations on allegorical themes.

This was also the time of many great composers including Heinrich Schütz (below), J.H. Schein, Samuel Scheidt, Michael Praetorius, Claudio Monteverdi, Hans Leo Hassler, the two Gabrielis and many lesser-known names.

This was also the first flowering of music publishing so much of the music from this time is available to us.

Heinrich Schutz

How does the German Renaissance in music differ from its counterparts in, say, Italy, France and England. What is the historical origin and role of the music from that era in that part of the world?

There is a great deal of crossover between the musical styles. International music was heavily influenced by the Italian composers, with whom many composers from other countries went to study. There was some attempt to incorporate styles to suit the language and fashion in each country.

In Germany, this meant attempts at opera in German most famously in Heinrich Schütz’ opera “Dafne,” which was presented some 10 years after the event we are using as a starting place. Germany also attempted to blend the dominant Italian style with the post-Reformation church music including the Becker psalter and the hymns of Martin Luther (below).

martin luther color

What music and composers of the era have been most neglected and least neglected by historians and performers?

Schütz is the most famous German composer from this era but there were many other including the aforementioned Schein, Scheidt, Praetorius (below), Hassler and also Matthias Weckman, Christoph Bernard, Heinrich Albert and Johann Kaspar Horn.

michael praetorius

Can you tell us about the program “Stuttgart 1616” for the All-Festival Concert on Friday, July 12?

Most of the music for the final concert will be drawn from the mass that was composed by Leonhard Lechner (below top and at bottom in a YouTube video), for the christening along with traditional chant and other sacred music by Ludwig Daser, Balduin Hoyoul, Simon Lohet, Gregor Aichinger, Michael Praetorius and Hans Leo Hassler (below bottom).

Leonhard Lechner

Hans Leo Hassler

Are there other sessions, guest lectures and certain performers that you especially recommend for the general public?

The lineup of guest groups is very strong this year. Most of the groups will be familiar to Madison audiences with the exception of Calmus Ensemble Leipzig from Germany and the Dark Horse Consort from New York. Calmus (below top) is an award-winning vocal ensemble whose concert will feature music from several different eras, including some works by J.S. Bach. Dark Horse Early Brass Consort (below bottom in a photo by Tatiana Daubek) is presenting a program of music for brass, voices and continuo.

Some of this music will be the most familiar music of this time with the Venetian-influenced double choirs and echo effects and extremely powerful blocks of sound for which brass ensembles are known.

Calmus Ensemble Leipzig

Dark Horse Early Brass Consort CR  Tatiana Daubek

Is there anything else you would like to add?

This summer promises to be a window into this time in history when many changes were in the air. It was a time of peace and prosperity all over Europe that was soon to end in the Thirty Years war.

In some ways it is similar to our “Roaring” Twenties with all kinds of musical styles mixing together as fashions shift. All the economic activity encouraged exchanges of art, music and literature, which was promoted further by the expansion of print.

It is also different to examine Germany at this time when we normally look at Italy, England and northern Europe. Germany was seen as a kind of artistic backwater but this era is what began a change in that perception.

Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival sees its reputation continue to expand. It is the only Madison-area event listed in NPR’s latest guide to classical music festivals for this summer. Check out other music festivals all around the U.S. And if you can, help WYSO meet its fundraising goal at the end of its fiscal year today.

June 30, 2013

ALERT: It has been a good year for the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), both artistically and financially. But with the fiscal year deadline of June 30 looming, WYSO is nonetheless falling short of its $97,000 funding goal by $6,655, according to WYSO executive director Bridget Fraser.  This exceptionally worthy organization that builds both musicians (below) and audiences through lifelong learning needs your help. If you can help, in whatever amount, WYSO to meet its goal, please visit the following link and make an on-line donation by the end of Sunday:

wyso horns

By Jacob Stockinger

The past two weeks, I have written various posts about how the summer season is now almost as busy as the regular concert season in Madison.

Here is yet another proof.

One summer festival made it into NPR’s nationwide round-up of summer classical music festivals for 2013.

It wasn’t the three-weekend run in June of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. And it wasn’t the two-week Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in late August.

This year, what NRP included is the six-day 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF), which will be held from Saturday, July 6, through Friday, July 12. It has the theme of the “German Renaissance.”

 memf 14 logo

The MEMF features some outstanding groups including the Renaissance band Piffaro (below top), the Calmus Ensemble of Leipzig (below middle), the Dark Horse Consort and the viol-consort Parthenia (below bottom).

Piffaro oudoors

Calmus Ensemble Leipzig

Parthenia viol consort

Here is a link to the festival homepage with links to specific concerts, workshops and lectures including the inaugural Handel aria competition on Monday, June 8.  (At bottom s a YouTube video with countertenor Andreas Scholl singing the most frequently heard video of a Handel aria on YouTube. Can you guess which one? Do you think it will be sung in the MEMF competition?)

Of course you can also get to the MEMF site by clicking on the name in the NPR listing. Here is a link to that round-up, which might prove especially helpful if you plan on traveling this summer and want to hear some love classical music in the East (Mostly Mozart Festival), Midwest, South, Southwest and West:

Classical music education: Next summer’s Madison Early Music Festival will explore the 17th century German Renaissance.

July 18, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

The final All-Festival concert of the 13th annual Madison Early Music Festival took place Saturday night on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and surely left a lot of people – both performers and listeners — with a lot of good memories as well as a newly informed appreciation of early music in North America. (Last year’s theme was the early music of South America.)

But first things first – by which I mean there is NEWS to report.

Co-artistic directors Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe announced that the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival will take place next summer from July 6 to July 13, 2013. The theme will be “Stuttgart 1616: A Festive Celebration of the German Renaissance.”

More details about performers and repertoire will be forthcoming. But for the moment, you can find more information about attending the festival – as either a participant or a listener – by visiting the website’s home page at:

As for the final all-forces-combined concert of this summer’s festival, the theme was “Oh, the Happy Journey.”

As a metaphor, the theme of voyage served the program very well. The program started with music that musically said good-bye to the Old World and gradually worked into the arrival in the New World, where indigenous music itself proved yet another voyage that took different routes as it developed and evolved.

Like most long journeys and extended voyages, there were ups and down, moments where we seem becalmed and moments when the wind stirred our souls.

Mostly, of course, it was a historical journey through time from the Colonies to the Federalist period that started with Shaker hymns, Moravian songs in German, fuguing tunes, Federal and Presidential marches, dances, and songs by such American pioneers as Boston-based William Billings and New Haven-based Daniel Read (below).

In short, the ear-opening unusual program proved both instructive and enjoyable.

The combined forces of vocal and instrumental students, teachers and guest artists formed an impressively large body of musicians. They once again performed under the capable direction of the Milwaukee-based early music conductor Kristina Boerger (below)

The inventive conductor even had singers performing in the aisles (below) before moving onstage and placed brass players in the upper back balcony – all to terrific effect.

Others might disagree but The Ear heard several highlights, most of which came during the livelier second half.

One was a work taken from the official and impressive music library of President Thomas Jefferson who practiced his violin (below) up to three hours a day.

The work was English poet Alexander Pope’s “The Dying Christian to His Soul” set to the “Stabat Mater” music by Pergolesi. The poignantly close harmonies and bittersweet dissonances showed just what exquisite taste Jefferson (below) had in this, as in so many other things. What we don’t even know about our own heroes!

Another highpoint was to hear the variety of music composed by William Billings (below). He was a tanner by trade who was also a largely self-trained composer. Some of his music seemed pretty typical of 18th century. But when the performers got to “Jargon” (at bottom, with different performers), Billings used wild dissonances and weird sound effects, including animal noises. It was the kind of iconoclastic Yankee music and humor that reminded one of the later Charles Ives — or even of Mozart’s “A Musical Joke.”

A friend asked me: How come so much of this music seems so naïve and simple when it was composed after Vivaldi and Bach, Haydn and Mozart had finished their careers and more sophisticated works?

UW-Whitewater professor and bass trombone player J. Michael Allsen (below), who also writes the outstanding program notes for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, provided the answer.

In his pre-concert lecture, which fittingly took a fabric sampler (below), with many different stitches and patterns, as its theme or metaphor, Allsen discussed how American composers set out to create a distinctly American sound, to write music of the New World homeland and not its Old World roots.

Sometimes, it seems, such an evolution can seem like re-inventing the wheel. But as the concert showed, that long and seemingly repetitive process can yield unique and unusual , if not mainstream, results.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,257 other subscribers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,402,625 hits
    January 2023
    M T W T F S S
%d bloggers like this: