The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are we hearing more Brahms? If so, why?

October 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear got to thinking about concerts, recordings and Wisconsin Public Radio programs over the past year and the ones coming up this season.

And it seems like there was a lot of music by Johannes Brahms (below), often given multiple performances – the “German” Requiem, the symphonies and concertos, the solo piano music, the string quintets and sextets, and the piano trios and other chamber music with piano.

This season alone, in Madison we will hear three performances of the famous Piano Quintet. Two of them will be in the usual version at the Wisconsin Union Theater (the Takacs Quartet with pianist Garrick Ohlsson) and at Farley’s House of Pianos (the Pro Arte Quartet with pianist Alon Goldstein), and, recently, the earlier two-piano version at Farley’s by Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro. (You can hear the gorgeous slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Now it is true that Brahms is one of the standard composers who never really go out of fashion, especially for the way he combined the craft and polyphony of Classicism with a Romantic sensibility. Not for nothing was he lumped in with Bach and Beethoven.

Also true is that Brahms is often described as “autumnal” and fits the concert season.

But not everyone loves Brahms. The British composer Benjamin Britten hated his music and the American crime writer James Ellroy also can’t stand Brahms.

Still, it seems to The Ear that we are hearing more than the usual amount of Brahms.

And if that is true, he wonders, why is it the case? Why does Brahms appeal so?

Is there something in Brahms that matches the times we live in?

Or perhaps something that reassures and consoles us about the times we live in?

Anyway, do you think we are hearing more Brahms?

And if you do, what do you think explains it?

Finally, if you like Brahms what is your favorite piece by Brahms?

Tell us in COMMENTS and provide a link to an audio or video clip is possible

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The inventive and unpredictable Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society wraps up its 26th season with an impressive display of virtuosic vocal and piano music as well as hip-hop dancing

June 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson, who also took the performance photos. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season is in the books.

This weekend’s Friday performance at the Overture Center’s Playhouse Theater was repeated in Spring Green on Sunday afternoon and was entitled “Cs the Day,” which continued the series’ Alphabet Soup theme. It was a full-bodied program that left the audience in full anticipation for what the BDDS will bring next summer.

Bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below) — whom the Madison Symphony Orchestra featured last month in its performance of Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem — has a wonderfully rich, dynamic voice.

In the collection of songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) and Roger Quilter (1877-1953) — all of which were aptly named “Carpe Diem” songs in the program booklet — Jones showcased the sensitivity of his higher notes and the power of his mid-low register, all the while showing a bit of charm and theatricality. I felt at times that the rich sonorities from the piano covered up Jones’ diction, so texts of the English poems came in handy.

A surprise performance came after the art songs. The night’s entire cast of musicians — Stephanie Jutt on flute, Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Hye-Jin Kim on violins, Ara Gregorian on viola, Madeleine Kabat on cello, and Jeffrey Sykes and Randall Hodgkinson on piano — began playing an arrangement of music from Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville.

They were quickly joined by Blake Washington (below, in a  file photo), a hip-hop dancer who studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He performed a rendition – in movement – while the ensemble played. Judging from the audience’s approval, it’s safe to assume that similar collaborations would be welcome in the future.

One annual program event is a chamber music arrangement of a complete piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

This year, Jeffrey Sykes was keen on presenting the Piano Concerto in D Major, K. 537 (1788), called ”Coronation.” Sykes (below) labeled the work a “miracle piece” in brief remarks before the musicians listed above, minus Hodgkinson, began.

As a pianist, I sympathize with anyone who takes on such a Mozart work, since the smallest of mistakes – uneven passage work, unclear ornamentation or misplayed notes – are magnified. Nonetheless, it’s a treat to hear such an expansive work in an up-close, intimate setting like the Playhouse Theater at the Overture Center.

Judging by the audience’s reaction alone, Carl Czerny’s Grand Sonata Brillante in C minor for piano four-hands, Op. 10 (1822), proved the highlight of the program.

Not only does the work live up to its “grand” and “brilliant” title, but Sykes’ and Hodgkinson’s dexterity and acrobatics throughout were displayed – literally – for all to see.

A camera was suspended over the keyboard, and that eagle’s-eye view (below) was projected onto the large, white backdrops at the rear of the stage. Czerny’s four-hand sonata was the perfect piece to utilize this multimedia aspect, as well as show off two virtuosic pianists. (You can see and hear the first movement of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Last on the program was Cool Fire (2001) by American composer Paul Moravec (b. 1957). All of the performers on stage — the same cast from the Rossini on the first half of the program minus Sykes — were completely committed to the demanding and energetic score.

There were moments of athleticism in everyone’s part, and several times, the hands of Hodgkinson (below) — and his body — had to jump the length of the keyboard in an instant. His playing, in general, has always been vigorous and brawny – similar to Madison’s own Christopher Taylor. Fittingly, the two pianists studied with the same teacher, Russell Sherman.

This season of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society was exceptionally consistent. Every concert featured interesting music, skilled musicians and engaging surprises.

In the first week, attendees were treated to sandwiches served by the Earl of Sandwich and the Queen of Sheba. In Week Two, Madison’s City-Wide Spelling Bee Champion proved his expertise in musical lingo. Lastly,  Week Three provided dance moves of fellow Wisconsinite Blake Washington.

It was nice to encounter many works I had never heard. In future years, I hope the BDDS’s repertoire list can be widened more to be inclusive of non-Western and female composers. Through continued diversity of programming, the BDDS should not only retain its most loyal of patrons, it might also broaden its audience base even further.


Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Magic Flute” proved enjoyable, opulent and superb

April 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and opera veteran filed this review:

By Larry Wells

I attended last Sunday’s matinee performance of the Madison Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” (Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

The opera’s mystifying combination of fairy tale and Masonic ritual has been better explained by others, including the legendary Anna Russell. Those who know her only through her analysis of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle should seek out her lecture on “The Magic Flute, which is accompanied on the CD by an equally humorous look at Verdi’s “Nabucco.” A search through the iTunes store will easily yield these treasures.

The scenery and costumes (below), which were borrowed from Arizona Opera, were superb. I was captivated by the clever set, the opulent costumes and the amazing props.

The choice to have the spoken dialogue in English, while the sung parts remained in German with supertitles in English, was a smart move and helped move the ridiculous plot lines along.

The playing by members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor from the Juilliard School, Gary Thor Wedow, (below) was, as usual, brilliant.

And the singing was, for the most part, first-rate.

Special mention should be made of Andrew Bidlack (below top) as a consistently arresting Tamino and Amanda Woodbury (below, right, with Scott Brunscheen as Monostatos) as a crystalline Pamina. Their first act duet was perfection.

Likewise, Caitlin Cisler played the Queen of the Night (below center) and her vocal fireworks were spectacular, plus she was a delight to watch in her bizarre winged costume. (You can hear the Queen of the Night’s astonishing and virtuosic aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I enjoyed Alan Dunbar’s Papageno (below). He has a gift for comedy.

And probably my favorite characters, the three ladies (below, from left, with Tamino) portrayed by Amanda Kingston, Kelsey Park and Anna Parks were brilliantly sung and acted.

UW-Madison graduate Anna Polum (below) did not disappoint in the smaller role of Papagena, and we will be fortunate to hear her again soon in Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem” with the Madison Symphony Orchestra next month.

The three spirits, sung by local schoolboys, were fun to watch with their steampunk attire and props, but they were vocally rather thin.

Nathan Stark’s Sarastro tested the limits of his vocal range. It’s a difficult role in any event since Sarastro has the unfortunate habit of stopping the opera’s action in its tracks whenever he appears.

The audience loved the whole thing, laughing at the comic absurdities and applauding whenever the music paused. But I cannot help wondering why “The Magic Flute” is such a popular opera. Its plot is basically incomprehensible, its second act goes on a half hour too long, the Queen of the Night’s downfall is never satisfactorily explained, and despite a number of memorable tunes, there are, in my mind, many more musically satisfying operas.

Next season we can look forward to yet another of the countless performances of Bizet’s “Carmen” and yet another Mozart opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” Madison does seem to love its Mozart. But we will also be hearing the late Daniel Catan’s lush, Puccini-esque “Florencia en el Amazonas,” for which I give praise.

I got to thinking about what other lesser performed operas that are not 200 years old might please the Madison crowd and quickly came up with: Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul”; Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”; Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe”; Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa”; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love.”

Each of these is as melodic as “The Magic Flute” and each has certainly more compelling storylines.

What are your suggestions?


Classical music: John W. Barker finds the Wisconsin Chamber Choir “moving” and “overwhelming” in its performance of the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms.

April 21, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, 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. He also provided the performance photos for this review.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

Having already established an enviable level of achievement with his Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below), conductor Robert Gehrenbeck led it to new heights with the concert on Saturday night at Luther Memorial Church.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir with conductor Brahms 2015 JWB

The program opened with two examples of Gehrenbeck’s interest in promoting new choral works through commissions.

The first, sung by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chamber Singers at his academic base, was by American composer Christian Ellenwood (below).

Entitled “Prairie Spring,” it set a poem by Willa Cather, celebrating the Nebraska landscape, scored for choir and string orchestra. This is a gentle piece, full of lyric grace, in a neo-Romantic style, and reflecting a confident command of choral texture. It made me think a little of the music of British composer Gerald Finzi. The words were somewhat obscured, but that may partly have been a function of the church’s spacious acoustics.

Christian Ellenwood copy

The second new work was by the older British composer Giles Swayne (below) that sets selected lines from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, under the title of “Our Orphan Souls.” Solo baritone Gregory Berg (below) delivered reflections of Captain Ahab, with chorus, alto saxophone, harp, double bass and percussion.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Ahab JWB (1)

The solo writing has strength, and might have been built into a more extended soliloquy—and baritone Gregory Berg delivered it with strength. But the choral writing — sung by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir itself — was unsettled and unidiomatic, running from word to word without much continuity of lines.

Giles Swayne

Ah, but the main event! Nothing less than the “German” Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), one of the greatest of choral works, by one of the greatest of choral composers, Johannes Brahms (below). Setting passages from Scripture in the Martin Luther translation, Brahms made this a big work, both in length and in performing demands.

brahms3

The chancel of Luther Memorial has only so much space, forcing a lot of crowding. The orchestra—37 players, familiar local performers—was arrayed through the center, while the two blended choirs were stationed on risers to either side: sopranos and tenors on the left, altos and basses on the right (below).

Wisconsin Chamber Choir, Brahms altos, basses JWB (1)

Such an arrangement could have strained ensemble coordination, but in fact it worked quite well. Indeed, it actually made it possible to follow the interaction of voice parts better than when the whole choir is in a single clump. German diction was a bit blurred, but, again, acoustics must take some blame. (I should note that I sat close and up front, so that what and how I heard may have been somewhat different from those in seating further back.)

The two soloists were both engaging. A last-minute replacement, soprano Catherine Henry (below left), was deeply expressive, a rich-voiced exemplar of the comforting mother we would all want to have.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Catherine Henry soprano JWB (1)

The baritone, Brian Leaper, was a deft guide to the mysteries of mortality.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Brian Leaper JWB (1)

The orchestra took on its large assignment with skill, and the choral singers were simply magnificent. But the highest praise must go to Gehrenbeck himself. His tempos were flexible, his balances neatly coordinated, and his sense of what each of the seven movements had to say was perfect. This is not only a superb choral conductor, but a musician of true artistry.

I write as someone for whom the Brahms Requiem has profound meaning. I have known and loved it since student days. I have sung in it several times, and listened to it in many recordings and performances. It is one of the musical threads of my life.

But I think I can honestly say that this was the most meaningful performance of the work that I have ever experienced. I often felt moved to tears by the beautiful, truthful messages that Robert Gehrenbeck (below) — who heads the choral program at UW-Whitewater — brought to realization out of it.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

There is a small lifetime list I keep of concerts and performances that I forever cherish, and this one is a rare addition—a presentation I will remember for the rest of my days.

One more reminder, then, of the riches Madison offers in choral music alone!


Classical music: JFK was assassinated 51 years ago today. He loved Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” In his memory, here it is – in two forms.

November 22, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Nov. 22, 2014.

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (below) was killed in Dallas, Texas, 51 years ago to the day.

jfk

The Ear remembers the deep sadness and immense sense of frustration that surrounded the assassination. American politics has never seemed the same since his death.

He also remembers hearing broadcasts of the Requiem by Gabriel Faure and the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms – both fitting choices to honor the dead president.

But since then, The Ear has learned that JFK -– whose own family was well acquainted with tragedy and loss — especially liked the saddest of all music, the “Adagio for Strings” by American composer Samuel Barber. Barber (below) had arranged it from the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1 in B Minor to a String Orchestra at the request of the world-famous conductor Arturo Toscanini.

barber 1

By the way, in the original string quartet form, the work was given its world premiere by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte Quartet in Rome in 1936. And the original quartet form seems somehow less lush and self-indulgent, more restrained and dignified or even complex, while the string orchestra version seems more overpowering and Romantic.

Compare the two versions for yourself by listening to both of them on YouTube.

Here is the original string quartet version done by the Cypress String Quartet in a live radio performance for WGBH in Boston, which was JFK’s hometown:

And here is the more familiar version for string orchestra in a version that has more than 3 million hits:

Which one do you like best and why?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Today is the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. What music will you play or listen to in order to commemorate the tragic events and loss of life?

September 11, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today marks the 13th anniversary of 9/11 and the tragic events during the terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda on the United States, in New York City on the Twin Towers; on Washington, D.C,, and the Pentagon; and on United Airlines Flight 93, which passengers made crash into a Pennsylvania field before it could destroy the U.S. Capitol or White House.

Twin Towers on 9-11

There is a lot of great classical music that one could play to commemorate the event and loss of life. There are, of course, requiems by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn, Giuseppe Verdi and Gabriel Faure.

There are masses and other choral works by them and also Ludwig van Beethoven and others. And there are a lot of opera arias and choruses as well as art songs.

There are large-scale symphonic and choral work as well as more intimate chamber music and solo works, especially the solo cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, one of which, thanks to cellist Vedran Smailovic (below) in 1992, became am emblem of the awful and bloody siege of Sarajevo by the Serbian army. Chamber music by Franz Schubert — such as the slow movement of the Cello Quintet — would at the top of my list.

Sarajevo cellist Vedran Smailovic 1992

Then there is the contemporary work “In the Transmigration of Souls” by the American composer John Adams. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was written specifically, on commission from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, to remember 9/11 and which uses actual tape recordings of the events and responses of that awful day. And another work by Steve Reich.

Myself, I tend towards the tried-and-true, the pieces of music that never fail to take me to the appropriate place in memory and sorrow.

So today, at the bottom, I offer a YouTube video of the last movement of the profoundly beautiful and moving  “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms. It is more secular than religious, and it asserts that “Blessed Are the Dead … for They Rest from Their Labors and Their Works Shall Live After Them.”

Hard to disagree, don’t you think?

So here it is.

But be sure to let us know what music you will be playing and what piece or pieces you favor to commemorate 9/11.

 

 

 


Classical music: A “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms will be performed for FREE on Sunday and Monday in the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green.

August 6, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is there any better choral music to mourn the dead than the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms? The Ear doesn’t think so.

So I was pleased when longtime friend of and contributor to this blog Kent Mayfield (below), who directs the Rural Musicians Forum, wrote to The Ear about an upcoming MUST-HEAR concert in Spring Green:

Kent Mayfield at Taliesin

“The beloved German Requiem by Johannes Brahms receives long-anticipated local attention in Spring Green on this coming Sunday, August 10, and next Monday, August 11.

The Sunday performance is at 5 p.m.; the Monday performance is at 7:30 p.m. Both performances will be in the architecturally unique Hillside Theater (below) on the Taliesin estate of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

taliesin_hillside2

Conducted by Taliesin’s music director, Effi Casey, the work is a powerful, profoundly moving work with a spiritual message that is as enduring as it is distinctly modern.

Its immediate inspiration may well have been the death of Brahms’ mother and, probably, the death of Robert Schumann, as well.

But the focus in Brahms’ German Requiem — his first large-scale work — is not so much on the departed as on those left behind and the work of memory. (You can hear that emphasis in the gloriously beautiful and  moving concluding movement, “Blessed Are the Dead for Their Works Live After Them” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Instead of the traditional Latin liturgical text, Brahms (below)  uses passages from the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament plus the Apocrypha) that emphasize a sense of the mystery and fragility of life and inevitability of death, the hope for the future, and the value of patience and endurance.

brahmsBW

In this way, A German Requiem creates a sense of spirituality in a secular age. This is a “human” or “humanistic” rather than merely a “German” requiem.

The music can be lush, and vivid orchestral detail and radiant voices ensure plenty of momentum and buoyancy.

For the Spring Green performances, a notable orchestra of professional caliber has been assembled uniquely for these concerts.

The Taliesin Chorus, drawn from across southwestern Wisconsin, will be joined by soloists Monica Dunn, Madeline Ehlinger and Carl Leaf, to make sense of the text, sung in German, with insight and sensitivity. (Below is a rehearsal photo taken by Dick Ainsworth, who also shoots great photos for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.)

Brahms Requiem at Taliesin CR Dick Ainsworth

Taliesin’s Hillside Theater is located at 6604 State Hwy 23, Spring Green. The concert begins at 5 p.m. on Sunday; 7:30 p.m. on Monday. Seating is limited.

The concert is sponsored by the Rural Musicians Forum and is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spring Green Area Arts Coalition and generous gifts from the choir itself and others in the community.

There is no admission charge for the concert. However, a free-will offering assists in providing further support for the event.

For more information: www.ruralmusiciansforum.org OR contact Kent Mayfield ruralmusiciansforum@yahoo.com

The “German” Requiem happens to be The Ear’s favorite large-scale choral work, rivaled only perhaps by the calm and reassuring Requiem by French composer Gabriel Faure. So he asked Taliesin’s music director and conductor Effi Casey (below), who is leading the German Requiem, what she wanted to say about the work. Here is her reply:

Effi Casey

People said: ‘“You want to do the Brahms Requiem? Isn’t that reaching a bit high for a non-professional director and chorus?”’

“Of course it is!” I answer. “But the dream of introducing a beautiful work like the Requiem to a community who might not easily have the opportunity, let alone the possibility to experience such a work “from within,” has been a long harbored desire of mine.

“Brahms himself might have called his Requiem “A Human Requiem” but chose to differentiate it from other Requiem settings, commonly known with liturgical Latin texts as part of the Catholic Mass.

“I cannot imagine anyone, whether amateur or professional, NOT being affected by a work that expresses the complexities of the human existence, blessings, hope, fear, death, sorrow, transformation, comfort and peace in such a deeply moving form as Brahms’ Requiem.

“As Clara Schumann (below left, with Robert on the right) –- whom Brahms loved and hoped to marry after the death of her husband Robert — wrote in her diary:

‘“Johannes has been playing me some magnificent movements out of a Requiem of his own and a string quartet in C minor. The Requiem delighted me even more, however. It is full of tender and again daring thoughts. I cannot feel clear as to how it will sound, but in myself it sounds glorious.”’

Schumann_Robert_and_Wieck_Clara

“Drawing on the amazing talent in our community and being supported by many professional musicians in the orchestra, the study of the Brahms German Requiem has been immensely rewarding for all of us.

“As part of a quote by Walt Whitman reads in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Hillside Theater: “… Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul…”

“We hope to stir the souls of the listeners with our two performances of the glorious “German” Requiem by Brahms.”


Classical music: The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble gives its last concert of the summer this afternoon at 3 with music of Brahms, Bruckner, Josquin des Prez, Rachmaninov and Andrew Rindfleisch. Don’t miss this annual treat.

August 3, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor will be a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform the second concert of its fourth season on Friday, Aug. 22, at 7:30 p.m., in Music Hall. Utevsky is also the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a review of this weekend’s concert by the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble.

The Ear immediately took him up on the offer. After all, Utevsky is a discerning listener and a perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour three summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Utevsky

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below), now in its 13th season with founder Scott MacPherson, delivered a polished and professional concert Friday night at Christ Presbyterian Church.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble group concert dress

The performance opened with a wrenching rendition of Imant Raminsh’s “Come, my Light,” followed by a pure and beautiful “Hear My Prayer” by Henry Purcell (below).

purcell

Two back-to-back settings of “Mille regretz,” the first by Josquin des Prez (below top) and the second by University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate Andrew Rindfleisch (below bottom), made for an interesting comparison — Rindfleisch produced an introspective, dark reading, while Josquin’s famous setting was ably rendered beside it as well.

Josquin Des Prez

Andrew Rindfleisch portrait

The crown jewel of the first half was the final motet by Johannes Brahms (below), the anguished, searching “Warum ist das Licht gegeben?” (Why Is the Light Given to Those In Misery?, which can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom).

In four movements, this motet is, apart from the “German Requiem,” which the IVE has announced they will perform — with orchestra — for their 15th season in 2016, Brahms’ greatest choral work, with densely chromatic lines and twisting, intricate counterpoint. The chorus dug into this tremendously difficult music with gusto, singing with a complex and varied sound and excellent blend.

brahms3

The second half began with a work by Anton Bruckner (below), “Virga Jesse floruit,” another German masterwork, again sung with a secure sound and attention to the drama of the composer’s setting.

Anton Bruckner 2

“Tebe poyem” (from the Orthodox liturgy) by Sergei Rachmaninov (below top) was my favorite piece on the concert, displaying a depth and richness of sound surpassing anything else on the program. The solo line by Chelsea Propst (below middle) soared over the chorus, whose basses rose to the challenge of Rachmaninov’s tremendously low writing with aplomb. Another Russian work captured much of the same magic, “Ne riday Mene, Mati” by Alexander Gretchaninov (below bottom).

Rachmaninoffold

Chelsie Propst USE

Alexander Grechaninov in 1912

Lionel Daunais (below), a French-Canadian composer and singer, produced a comic treat in his “Figures de danse,” a suite of six hilarious settings of short, original poems about dancers and theater performers. The only work with piano on this program (with a difficult and prominent part performed excellently by Jane Peckham), these little vignettes had the audience in stitches.

Lionel Daunais

The concert concluded with two spiritual settings by Moses Hogan. The first was a soulful solo rendition of “There’s a Man Goin’ Round,” sung by Kathleen Otterson (below), who teaches at Edgewood College, over the hummed accompaniment from the chorus.

Kathleen Otterson 2

The second was a rapid-fire, high-energy “Elijah Rock” to close out the evening. (A humorous encore will remain unidentified — go hear the repeat Sunday to find out what it was!)

My only programming regrets were the absence of any works between Purcell and Brahms — surely that two-century gap must have yielded some works worthy of inclusion! — and the preponderance of Christian sacred music.

Certainly it forms the backbone of the choral literature, but on a program of 11 works (if “Mille regretz” is to be counted twice), to have only three (again, including the above twice) works that were not both sacred and Christian seems striking, especially for a chorus with no religious affiliation. A little more diversity in selection would be welcome on both counts.

 

Throughout the performance, the chorus (below top) sung with clear diction and strong sound, rising to the technical challenges of every work with apparent ease. IVE founder and conductor Scott MacPherson (below bottom, conducting a rehearsal), who teaches at Kent State University and is a UW-Madison graduate, directed with energy and excitement, and the chorus clearly responded.

Isthmus vocal Ensemble men

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble rehearsing with Scott MacPherson

Despite its once-a-year schedule, this group is clearly a Madison fixture, and thoroughly earned their full house and standing ovation Friday night.

The performance will be repeated this afternoon, Sunday, August 3, at 3 p.m. in the Covenant Presbyterian Church (below) on 326 South Segoe Road. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 students and seniors. Children 12 and under are admitted free.

Covenant Presbyterian Church chancel

 

 

 

 

 

 


Classical music: What music does the assassination of JFK bring to mind for you today on the 50th anniversary of his death?

November 22, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (below), or JFK, in Dallas, Texas.

WH/HO Portrait

It was a momentous event in so many ways for the country. And like many of you, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news flash of his shocking death.

One of JFK’s legacy, one deeply encouraged and acted on by his First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, was to revitalize the American art scene and enhance it with involvement and help from the government.

That so now irks the conservative philistines who want to zero out the budgets for NPR, PBS, the NEA and the NEH, who want an ignorant citizenry that will buy into their distorted lies and mean-spirited stupidities.

But how fitting for the New Frontier was that quiet cultural revolution promoted by JFK during his short tenure in The White House.

Artists responded enthusiastically to JFK and his death. How I recall the music that was put together quickly and performed on the then relatively new medium of television. I think the requiems by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Giuseppe Verdi were performed and broadcast, as was Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” – a favorite of JFK and a work that was given its world premiere by the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet in 1936. Gustav Mahler‘s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” were also performed.

Here is a link to a great story on NPR about what music was played in JFK’s hometown of Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Erich Leinsdorf:

http://www.npr.org/2013/11/21/246328972/moved-by-kennedys-death-the-boston-symphony-played-on

I remember the specific works that for me struck the right chords, so to speak, about the murderous death of the President.

One was the Requiem by Gabriel Faure (below). The whole work is so beautiful and gentle, peaceful and calm – and how we all needed beauty and gentleness, peace and calm, that awful weekend — and it was completely unknown to me.

faure-1

I liked all the movements. “In Paradiso” was one. But I also liked the “Pie Jesu” and the “Libera me.” But what stuck me most and keeps resonating is the “Sanctus.” Here it is in a YouTube video, and be sure to read the comments from other listeners:

The other work I remember from those events is the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms (below). I had known it before. But this was when it took on real meaning.

Johannes_Brahms

I remember hearing and loving the movement “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” But the part that really got me choked up was not that one or the Funeral March or even the fabulous “Here on Earth We Have No Abiding City,” with its fabulous fugue “Death, Where Is Thy Sting; Grave, Where Is Thy Victory?.”

It was the final movement, “Blessed Are The Dead for Their Works Live on After Them.” I loved the secular, but respectful and even loving quality of the text and of course the music. That allowed it to appeal to the entire nation and to all people everywhere around the world, regardless of their faith or beliefs.

It seemed so fitting and so true, then; and it still does now.

Here it is:

What works of classical music come to mind for you when you think of that awful day in Dallas and terrible weekend in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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