The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival’s 20th anniversary Grand Tour includes a silent movie and rare books as well as lots of varied music to mark its success after 20 years. Part 2 of 2

July 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

A big anniversary deserves a big celebration – and that is exactly what the organizers of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival, which is marking its 20th year, have come up with.

All concerts include a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. The concerts begin at 7:30 p.m.

Here’s the link for all the information about MEMF: https://memf.wisc.edu/

Tickets are $90 for an all-event pass. Individual concerts are $22, $12 for students. Tickets are available for purchase online and by phone at 608-265-ARTS (2787) with a $4 service fee; or in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing Box Office @ Memorial Union.

Co-artistic director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe recently wrote about the festival in a Q&A for this blog. Yesterday she spoke about the overall concept and the first weekend’s concerts. Here is a link to Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/07/05/classical-music-the-madison-early-music-festival-will-present-a-grand-tour-of-musical-styles-a-movie-and-rare-books-to-mark-its-success-after-20-years-the-tour-starts-this-saturda/

Here is Part 2 of 2:

What events take place next week?

The concert on Tuesday, July 9, is going to be a unique experience for MEMF audiences. HESPERUS creates the soundtrack for the 1923 silent film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with music (below) from 14th- and 15th-century France. (The cathedral was started in 1163 and finished in 1345.)

Compositions include French and Burgundian music from 1300 to 1500, featuring Guillaume de Machaut, Jehan l’Escurel, Guillaume Dufay, as well as lesser-known composers such as Vaillant, Morton and Borlet.

On Friday, July 12, the vocal ensemble Calmus (below) performs “Faith and Madness,” a program of a dialogue between sacred music masterpieces followed by madrigals that portray madness, love, war and loneliness.

Composers include Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Heinrich Schütz, Claudio Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo, Clement Janequin and others.

All of the singers are graduates of Leipzig’s renowned St. Thomas Church Choir School. Calmus was founded in 1999. This a cappella quintet embodies the rich choral tradition of its hometown, the city associated with Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn.

To hear a preview of their arrangement of Bach’s “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” BWV 659, visit: https://youtu.be/WNzzUU0GcF4

Can you tell us about the program and performers for the All-Festival concert on Saturday, July 13?

The All-Festival Concert includes all of our workshop participants and faculty. We work together to prepare the concert all week and it is truly a MEMF community project. Grant Herreid (below) has created the All-Festival program this year. Grant is a genius at designing a program that tells a musical story featuring MEMF’s faculty and participants.

“Musical Postcards from The Grand Tour” features a narrator, loosely based on Thomas Coryat (below, at sea and in the Alps), the English 17th-century century travel writer, who, as a young man, travels throughout Europe in search of music. Beginning in London, 1641, the musical itinerary continues to Venice, Rome, Naples, Dresden, Paris, and back to London.

The program features so many wonderful composers, and the large ensemble pieces are: the Gloria from Monteverdi’s Selva morale et spirituale; the beautiful Miserere of Gregorio Allegri; Nun danket alle Gott by Heinrich Schütz; Domine salvum fac regem setting by Jean-Baptiste Lully; and, as an ending, This point in time ends all your grief from Ye tuneful muses by Henry Purcell.

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

All the planning that goes into each festival leads me to encourage the general public to attend everything! The concert series, lectures and workshops have so much to offer.

The special moments that I’m looking forward to are singing in the All-Festival concert and performing Allegri’s  Miserere,a stunning piece that I have never heard performed in Madison. (You can hear it in there YouTube video at the bottom.)

I also look forward to hearing the fantastic musical soundtrack created by HESPERUS for the silent movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the Calmus singing connection back to Bach through their musical education in Leipzig, plus experiencing all the different travelogues of the past as they come to life through narrations and music.

Special events include a dance with a live band drawn from the MEMF Faculty with dance instruction by Peggy Murray, Grand Tour Dance Excursions, at the Memorial Union in the Great Hall on Thursday, July 11, at 7:30 pm. https://memf.wisc.edu/event/07-11-2019-2/

The lecture series features some well-known Madisonians like J. Michael Allsen (below top), who writes program notes and lectures for the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Maria Saffiotti Dale (below bottom), curator at the Chazen Museum of Art.

There will be a special exhibit created for MEMF in the lobby of Memorial Library by Jeanette Casey, the head of the Mills Music Library and Lisa Wettleson of Special Collections at Memorial Library. This curated display includes materials about the Grand Tour, including one of the oldest travelogues from 1611 written by Thomas Coryat.

The exhibit will be in the lobby of Memorial Library (below) and open to the public from Saturday, July 6, through Thursday, July 18, with a special talk about the exhibit during the festival on Monday, July 8, at 11:30 a.m.

This partnership allows the library to display rarely seen original and facsimile publications, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries within the context of the MEMF theme.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

In 1611 Thomas Coryat, the author of the travelogue Crudities foretold what you will hear at MEMF in 2019:

“…I heard the best musicke that ever I did in all my life…so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to heare the like…the Musicke which was both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like”.

Get your tickets for the concert series. Attend the lectures. Take some classes. See a movie. Come and dance with us. Join us to experience the ultimate musical gap year at our 20th anniversary celebration!


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Classical music: Saturday brings percussion music, chamber music and choral music, much of it free

April 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you can tell from earlier posts this week, this weekend will be very busy with music.

But Saturday is especially, offering percussion music, chamber music and vocal music, much of it FREE.

PERCUSSION MUSIC

At 1:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Percussion Ensemble of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras will perform its 18th annual Percussion Extravaganza.

It features the world premiere of “Common Mind” by composer and WYSO alumnus Jon D. Nelson (below). For more a bout Nelson and his music, go to: http://jondnelson.com

More than 150 performers – instrumentalists, singers and dancers – will be featured.

Here is a link to details about the event, including ticket prices:

https://www.wysomusic.org/wyso-percussion-ensemble-to-present-the-2019-percussion-extravaganza/

CHAMBER MUSIC

At 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the Perlman Piano Trio plus two guest artists will give a FREE concert.

The program is the “Kakadu”Variations in G major, Op. 121a, by Ludwig van Beethoven; the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49, by Felix Mendelssohn; and the Piano Quintet in F minor by Cesar Franck. (You can her the first movement of the Mendelssohn Trio performed in the YouTube vide at the bottom, by pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.)

Members of the quintet, based on an annual student piano trio supported by Kato Perlman (below), are: Kangwoo Jin, piano; Mercedes Cullen, violin; Micah Cheng, cello; Maynie Bradley, violin; and Luke Valmadrid, viola.

A reception will follow the concert.

CHORAL MUSIC

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Concert Choir (below top) will perform a FREE concert under conductor Beverly Taylor (below bottom), who is the director of choral activities at the university.

AN UPDATE: Conductor Beverly Taylor has sent the following update about the program:

“I’m happy to update our Saturday, April 6, free concert at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall:

“The Concert Choir is singing a program called “Half a Bach and other good things.”

“We’re singing just half of the B Minor Mass: the Kyrie and Gloria (12 movements), which were what Bach originally wrote and sent off for his job interview!

We have a small orchestra and a mixture of student and professional soloists: Julia Rottmayer, Matthew Chastain, Wesley Dunnagan, Miranda Kettlewell, Kathleen Otterson, Elisheva Pront and Madeleine Trewin.

The remaining third of the concert is an eclectic mix of modern composers (Petr Eben’s “De circuitu eternal,” Gerald Finzi’s “My Spirit Sang All Day”), Renaissance music (Orlando Gibbons’ “O Clap your Hands”), spirituals and gospel.


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians will give their eighth annual Baroque Holiday Concert this Saturday night

December 3, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians will give their eighth annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below in a 2014 photo by Kent Sweitzer) on this coming Saturday night, Dec. 8, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

The critically acclaimed and well attended annual concert will follow the usual format with a 7:15 p.m.  lecture by founder, artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson (below) followed by the concert at 8 p.m.

A critically acclaimed chamber ensemble of voices and period instruments will perform masterworks from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Performers include: Hannah De Priest, soprano; Margaret Fox, mezzo-soprano; Ryan Townsend Strand, tenor; Matthew Chastain, bass-baritone; Arash Noori, theorbo; Katherine Shuldiner, viola da gamba; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.

The Ear asked Stephenson: Why are vocal music and Baroque music both so popular during the holiday season?

He answered: “Many holiday traditions focus on soulfulness and reflection. So, as my great-grandmother used to say, “Pay attention to the singing, it is closest to the soul.””

“On top of this, Baroque music—as one of the great achievements of Western culture—is a natural when reflecting upon the past,” Stephenson adds. “Baroque music is also festive and uplifting, and there is, I believe, some message within its intricacies and design that suggests that there is “a beautiful crystalline structure within which we all live.” (These words come from my colleague Norman Sheppard.)

“This concert marks the Madison Bach Musicians’ eighth consecutive year in the magnificent setting of the First Congregational Church. I simply cannot imagine a better acoustic and spiritual ambiance for this music. (Below is a performance from the 2016 concert in the same church.)

“The program will progress in chronological order from the very early 16th century up to the middle 18th century, from Josquin des Prez to Johann Sebastian Bach.

“We’ll start with the Kyrie and Gloria movements from one of Josquin’s last completed masterworks, the Missa Pange Lingua (c. 1515). Martin Luther’s praise for Josquin’s compositional genius was boundless: “Joaquin (below)  is the master of the notes. The notes must do as he wills; as for other composers, they have to do as the notes will.”

“MBM is thrilled that virtuoso lutenist Arash Noori (below) from New York City will join us for this concert; second on the program, Noori will perform (on theorbo, which is a mega-lute) Niccolo Piccinni’s sparkling Toccata Chromatic and Gagliarda Prima published in the early 17th century.

“We’ll follow this with three musical gems for vocal quartet and continuo from the Kleine geistliche Konzerte (Short Spiritual Concerts, 1636−1639) that Heinrich Schütz (below) composed specifically for small ensembles, which were all that were available during the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War (1618−1648).

“The second half of the program is devoted to works by Bach. We’ll start with the exquisite Sonata in G major for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord; gambist extraordinaire Kate Shuldiner (below) from Chicago will be featured and I’ll accompany her at the harpsichord.

“We’ll follow this with two Christmas songs from the Schemelli Songbook—a collection published in 1736 of more than 60 spiritual songs for which Bach wrote most of the harmonizations and contributed several great original tunes to boot.

“Soprano Hannah De Priest (below top) and mezzo-soprano Margaret Fox (below bottom) will be featured in the bouncy and charming duet, Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten (from Cantata 78, “We hasten, with weak, yet eager steps, O Jesus, O Master, to You, for help!”), which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Bach not only worshipped God, but also felt comfortable enough in the relationship to occasionally party; this work is an ingenious fusion of high art and polka romp!

“The concert will conclude with Bach’s glorious motet, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, All Ye Nations). It was Mozart who — when he journeyed to Leipzig in 1789, or 39 years after Bach’s death, and heard the Thomaskirche choir perform a Bach motet, from memory, no less  — exclaimed, “Now here is something one can learn from!””

TICKET INFORMATION

Advance-sale discount  tickets are $30 general admission.

Tickets are also available at  Orange Tree Imports and the Willy Street Coop East and West.

You can also purchase advance tickets online: www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are  $33 for general admission, $30 for seniors 65 and over. Student Rush tickets are $10 and will be on sale 30 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. lecture.

For more information, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


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Classical music: This Sunday brings a preview of Bach Around the Clock 5. Plus, a FREE song recital is on Friday at noon.

March 1, 2018
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CORRECTION: The two performances by the Madison Symphony Orchestra the were listed earlier in this post took place last Sunday, and are NOT scheduled for this coming Sunday. The Ear apologizes and regrets the error. 

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo (below) and pianist Jeff Gibbens performing music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy, Andre Caplet and Maurice Ravel. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

On this Sunday, March 4, you can hear a sample of the Bach Around the Clock marathon that will take place a week from Saturday, on March 10, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopalian Church, 1833 Regent St.

The preview of the event that celebrates the 333nd birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) will be this month’s Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen concert. It starts at 12:30 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery No. 3.

NOTE: It will also be live-streamed from the UW-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art via the following website:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/about/news/in-the-news/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-march-4-with-back-around-the-clock/

The program features the popular Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major (with flutist Dawn Lawler, below top, as soloist) and the familiar Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D minor (with Mark Brampton Smith, below bottom, as soloist). (You can hear the opening of the Harpsichord Concerto in the YouTube video below.)

There will also be selections by Bach from the books for the Suzuki method.

Information about the program and performers is on the website above.

For more information about the complete Bach Around the Clock, as well as the Chazen preview, including the full schedule of works and performers with times and information about live-streaming, go to:

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com

 

 


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will sing a varied holiday program about peace on Earth this coming Saturday night

December 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will sing its holiday concert featuring works about peace on Earth.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium, (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The holiday message of peace and good will to all people resonates across the centuries. Tragically, the proclamation, “Peace on earth” is every bit as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.

WCC director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who directs the choral program at the UW-Whitewater and who is celebrating his 10th season with the group, writes in his program notes to the concert:

“According to New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges, “Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” “This evening’s program by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir explores humanity’s yearning for peace through the centuries. 

The centerpiece of the WCC’s 2017 holiday concert is British composer Gerald Finzi’s exquisite retelling of the Christmas story, In terra pax, for choir, soloists and chamber orchestra. Baritone Brian Leeper (below top) and soprano Ann Baltes (below bottom) are among the featured soloists, performing with members of Sinfonia Sacra, the WCC’s professional orchestra.

In his own program notes, Finzi explained that the Nativity “becomes a vision seen by a wanderer on a dark and frosty Chrismas Eve, in our own familiar landscape.”

Finzi scholar Andrew Burn elaborates: “On New Year’s Eve, 1926, the 25-year old Gerald Finzi (below) joined the bell-ringers of the tiny church of St. Bartholomew perched on the crest of Chosen Hill, near Gloucester, as they rang in the New Year. For Finzi, the experience was unforgettable—the frosty starlit night with bells ringing out from churches far and near across the Severn valley—and from it sprang the orchestral New Year Music and [25 years later] In terra pax, his last major composition.

In terra pax is a masterpiece in miniature. Finzi’s pacifism is at its heart, and his belief that men and women of goodwill should live harmoniously together. Weaving through the music are three ideas: the pealing of the bells with their joyous message, a phrase from the carol The First Nowell, and the alleluia refrain from the hymn Lasst uns erfreuen (‘Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones”).”  (You can hear the opening of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Complementing Finzi’s music are two other works with instrumental accompaniment: Felix Mendelssohn’s moving prayer for peace, Verleih uns Frieden, and an energetic Gloria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in A major.

Several more recent works bring the concert’s message up to date, including Cry Peace by Libby Larsen (below top) and the haunting Winter Solstice Carol by Giles Swayne (below bottom).

A varied selection of carol arrangements rounds out the program, including a resplendent setting of Silent Night by one of the WCC’s favorite composers, Peter Bloesch (below).

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres.

Advance tickets for the Dec. 16 performance are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (all three locations).

Tickets will also be available at the door for $25 ($10 for students).


Classical music: Women composers and performers are featured in FREE choral and guitar music this Sunday afternoon at Edgewood College and in a FREE noontime concert of vocal and instrumental chamber music this Friday

October 19, 2017
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ALERT: The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features “Kassia” with sopranos Rebekah Demaree and Susan Savage plus Sharon Jensen, piano, and Hsing-I Ho, flute, as well as “Aspects of Women” with music by composers Chaminade, Hairston, Laitman, Moore, Rodgers, Saint-Saens and Walker. The concert runs 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, the Edgewood College Choirs and Guitar Ensemble will perform a FREE concert.

The concert features performances by the Women’s Choir (below top), with conductor Kathleen Otterson (below top); the Guitar Ensemble with director Nathan Wysock (below middle); and the Edgewood Chorale and Chamber Singers, both conducted by Sergei Pavlov (below bottom).

The program features a performance of the Gloria in D major, RV 589, by baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.  This performance features all choirs and student soloists Brandon Glock, baritone, and Summer Wluestenberg, soprano, as well as faculty soloist Kathleen Otterson, mezzo-soprano (below). (You can hear Vivaldi’s “Gloria” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Edgewood College’s Music Department has been recognized by the readers of Madison Magazine with the Best of Madison 2017 Silver Award.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble excels again in a varied program of rarely heard Baroque vocal and instrumental music

November 30, 2016
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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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9.  For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble offered its latest specimen of intimate Baroque chamber music at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street last Sunday afternoon.

As always, each of the performers—six in this case—had one or two opportunities as soloist.

wbe-st-andrews-11-27-16

Mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo (below), for instance, was featured in two solo cantatas.

One, by Giovanni Bononcini was on conventional emotional themes.

But the other was a real curiosity. By the French composer Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, it was written for the Nativity season, and has been given a French title as “Hymn of the Angels.” But its text was no more or less than the Latin words of the Gloria section of the Mass Ordinary.

wbe-mezzo-consuelo-sanudo

A new member in the group, recorder player Sigrun Paust (below), delivered the Sonata No. 1 from a 1716 collection of works written by Francesco Veracini alternatively for violin or flute.

wbe-sigrun-paust

For flutist Monica Steger (below) the vehicle was a Sonata Op. 91, No. 2, for Flute and Harpsichord duo, by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier.

wbe-monica-steger

The spotlight was on viola da gambist Eric Miller (below) in another duo with harpsichord, no less than the Sonata in D Major, BWV 1028, by Johann Sebastian Bach, but Miller also participated in continuo functions elsewhere. (You can hear the Bach sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

wbe-eric-miller

Likewise active in continuo work was viola da gambist Anton TenWolde (below), but he had one solo, a Capriccio for cello, by Joseph Ferdinand Dall’Abaco.

wbe-anton-tenwolde

And the harpsichordist Max Yount (below), also involved in continuo roles, presented two contrasting keyboard pieces, a Toccata by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and a Fantasie by Johann Jakob Froberger.

wbe-max-yount

For a colorful finale, Paust and Miller joined TenWolde and Steger (on harpsichord) in a Trio Sonata in F by Georg Philipp Telemann.

The artistry of these performers (below) was fully up to their own high standards, and their delight in trading off assignments to play together is palpable.

wbe-telemann-trio-sonata

St. Andrew’s Church (below) on Regent Street may have been a bit bigger than a Baroque salon or parlor, but still served well as a setting for this kind of amiable gentility in musical substance.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Madison Front

The group’s next Madison concert is at St. Andrew’s on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. No program has been announced.


Classical music: New York Polyphony opens the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival with a perfectly rendered composite portrait of Elizabethan sacred music. Plus, the winners of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition are announced

July 11, 2016
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ALERT: In case you haven’t yet heard, the winners (below) of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition, held on Friday night in Mills Hall and accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, have been announced.

Eric Jurenas (center), countertenor, won First Prize; Christina Kay (right), soprano, won Second Prize; and Nola Richardson (left), soprano, won Third Prize and Audience Favorite.

Handel Aria winners 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear left the concert hall thinking: Well, this will be an easy review to write.

Just give it an A-plus.

An easy A-plus.

On Saturday night, the acclaimed a cappella quartet New York Polyphony (below) opened the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) with a flawless performance.

new york polyphony

This year, the MEMF is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of poet and playwright William Shakespeare (below top) and the 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I (below bottom), who oversaw the English Renaissance.

shakespeare BW

Queen Elizabeth I

And the program – performed before a large house of perhaps 450 or 500 enthusiastic listeners — was perfectly in keeping with the festival’s theme. It used sacred music rather than stage music or secular music, which will be featured later in this week of concerts, workshops and pre-concert lectures.

In fact, the program of New York Polyphony was based on two of the group’s best-selling CDs for BIS Records and AVIE Records: “Tudor City” and “Times Goes by Turns.” It was roughly divided into two masses, one on each half. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Adding to the variety was that each Anglican or Roman Catholic-based mass was a composite, with various sections made up like movements written by different composers. Thrown in for good measure were two separate short pieces, the “Ave Maria Mater Dei” by William Cornysh and the “Ave verum corpus” of William Byrd.

The Mass on the first half featured music by Byrd, John Dunstable, Walter Lambe and Thomas Tallis. The second half featured works music by Tallis, John Pyamour, John Plummer and excerpts from the Worcester Fragments. The section were typical: the Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

There was nothing fancy about this concert, which marked the Wisconsin debut of New York Polyphony and which spotlighted superbly quiet virtuosity. The four dark-suited men, who occasionally split up, just stood on stage and opened their mouths and sang flawlessly with unerring pitch and superb diction.

New York Polyphony MEMF 2016

A cappella or unaccompanied singing is hard work, but the four men made it seem easy. The countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass each showed confidence and talent plus the ability to project clarity while not overshadowing each other. This was first-class singing.

The beautiful polyphony of the lines was wondrous to behold even, if like The Ear, sacred music from this era – with its chant-like rather than melodic qualities – is not your favorite fare.

New York Polyphony provided a good harbinger of the treats that will come this week at the MEMF from groups like the Newberry Consort of Chicago with soprano Ellen Hargis (below top) and the Baltimore Consort (below bottom) as well as from the faculty and workshop participants. On Friday night is an appealing program that focuses on Shakespeare’s sonnets and music.

MEMF newberry consort

Baltimore Consort

And on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m., will be the All-Festival concert. That is always a must-hear great sampler of what you perhaps couldn’t get to earlier in the week. This year, it will feature the music as used in a typical Elizabethan day.

Here is a link to the MEMF website:

https://artsinstitute.wisc.edu/memf/

And here is a link the website of New York Polyphony if you want to hear more:

http://www.newyorkpolyphony.com


Classical music: Playing softly is the mark of great music-making

April 5, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Like so many young pianists, when The Ear was young he wanted to project strength. He wanted to play BIG virtuosic pieces and play them FAST and LOUD — even though they were usually way beyond his ability.

Pieces such as the “Appassionata” Sonata and “Emperor” Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, and Prelude in C-sharp minor (“Bells of Moscow”) by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Peter Tchaikovsky.

The “Great Gate at Kiev,” from “Pictures at an Exhibition,” by Modest Mussorgsky.

The ”Military” Polonaise and the “Revolutionary” Etude by Frederic Chopin.

You know, the kind of piece that can easily descend into pounding and banging, but that makes an impression on listeners and people who don’t play — and on the player too!

Back then, doing that kind of muscular music-making seemed the task of a real virtuoso.

But no longer.

Maturity brings an appreciation of subtlety and softness, which are much better hallmarks of musicality. Softness is definitely NOT weakness. In fact for The Ear, softness has become a kind of test of mature musicianship.

The past year or so has been a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that the mark of a really great and mature virtuoso artist is the ability to play softly.

The most recent example came this past Sunday afternoon when The Ear heard pianist Garrick Ohlsson (below) play the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, by Johannes Brahms with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of MSO’s longtime music director and conductor John DeMain.

Garrick Ohlsson

To be sure, the MSO performed absolutely superbly on its own in the 2011 Symphony by Steven Stucky and the tone poem “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss.

But the second half of the concert, devoted to the concerto, was both ear-opening and heart-rending.

The first concerto is a product of Brahms’ youth and is dramatic. Ohlsson, who possess both power and great technique, has no problem getting a huge sound out of the piano when he wants to or playing the most virtuosic passages with absolute fluidness and complete command.

But here is what really mattered: Ohlsson took away the bombast and bluster you so often hear in this early work. You felt as if you were hearing the concerto for the first time or at least hearing it anew.

What emerged was a uniquely convincing and beautifully poetic reading of this famous work – and not just in the slow movement but also in various interludes during the first and third movements. Plus, Ohlsson was joined by DeMain and the MSO whose accompaniment bought into his interpretation and also emphasized subtlety. It was complemented perfectly by the quietly songful encore, which was the lyrical Nocturne in D-flat major by Chopin.

There have been other occasions like that over the past year or so.

Here are just a few.

The duo-pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung (below) at Farley’s House of Pianos played an all-Schubert recital and proved how seductive quiet and restrained playing can be.

Lucille Chung and Alessio Bax 2015

UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) can compete with the best when it comes to forceful playing. But what lingers in The Ear’s mind is hearing Taylor’s seductive playing of the slow movement from the Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5, by Johannes Brahms as a great example in how playing softly draws in listeners but requires great virtuosity and control.

Christopher Taylor Recital

Christopher Taylor Recital

Pianist Emanuel Ax (below), who played the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Beethoven with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, also demonstrated an uncanny ability to play softly with deep tone.

Emanuel Ax portrait 2016

There were other examples in various kinds of music. The Ear recalls beautifully soft singing in some songs by Franz Schubert during the Schubertiade (below) at the UW-Madison in late January.

Schubertiade 2016 Shepherd on the Rock

He also remembers some fantastic quiet playing of Johann Sebastian Bach and Brahms in the debut recital by UW violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt).

Soh-Hyun Park Altino CR caroline bittencourt

There are many other examples from other individuals and groups, including the violinist Benjamin Beilman with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; the UW Choral Union in the Gloria by Francis Poulenc; the Madison Opera’s productions of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Mark Adamo’s “Little Women”; pianist Joyce Yang at the Wisconsin Union Theater; and the Pro Arte Quartet among others.

But you get the point.

It isn’t easy to play softly. In fact, it can be downright hard.

But it makes music so beautiful.

So moving.

So unforgettable.

As listener or player, try it and see for yourself.


Classical music: The Ear offers some semester-end shout-outs to UW student musicians.

December 20, 2015
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is just about over. Winter Break starts next week and lasts until mid-January.

Performances are just about over as students focus on final papers, final exams and degree recitals.

But The Ear went to a couple of performances by several groups that he thinks deserve shout-outs.

UW CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

On Sunday night, Dec. 6, The Ear went to a sparsely attended performance by the UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra under the director of conductor Jim Smith (both are below).

Too bad the audience wasn’t larger. The program was such a welcome relief from the hectic nature of the holidays. It proved to be a parenthesis of calm amid so much loudness and busyness.

The program featured Igor Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical ballet suite “Apollo” (Apollon, Musagete or Master of the Muses) on the first half. The second half was the “String Suite” by Czech composer Josef Suk, who was the student and eventual son-in-law of Antonin Dvorak. Historically, it may be a second-tier work, but it certainly has its lovely moments. And the overall pastoral mood was perfect for the occasion.

These are both deceptive scores that sound easy and transparent but are difficult to play and are loaded with many subtleties. The UW Chamber Orchestra played extraordinarily well and thoroughly convincingly.

One last thing to praise: Each piece lasted about 30 minutes. Add in the intermission and the whole program clocked in at about 90 minutes. It started at 7:30 p.m. and The Ear was home by just after 9.

That shorter concert time was refreshing and welcome, and allowed me to do things after the performance. In some important ways, shorter does not mean less!

UW Chamber Orchestra Stravinsky

UW CHORAL UNION and UW SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA with TYANA O’CONNOR

A week ago Saturday night, on Dec. 11, The Ear went to the all-20th century program performed by the campus and community UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra with graduate student and guest soprano soloist Tyana O’Connor, all under the baton of Beverly Taylor.

The program featured the Overture to “The Wasps” by Ralph Vaughan Williams; the Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky; and the eminently listenable Gloria by Francis Poulenc, which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom.

It was an original and engaging program, one that possessed a certain joy that wasn’t ruined even by the ticketing fiasco and by the long wait to get into the hall.

That meant it worked well with the holidays, but not in the obvious way that certain oratorios like “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel or cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach do. And all parties performed very well.

Here is what choral director Beverly Taylor had to say about the program in an interview with The Ear:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/classical-music-the-uw-choral-union-and-uw-symphony-orchestra-will-perform-an-all-20th-century-program-of-works-by-vaughan-williams-stravinsky-and-poulenc-this-coming-saturday-night-plus-conductor/

Special notice goes to the winds and brass (below) of the UW Symphony Orchestra, which replace the upper string (violins and violas) in the Stravinsky’s score. They performed outstandingly, often with the mastery of professionals, in a score that is thorny with polyrhythms and dissonances.

UW Symphony Orchestra winds and brass Stravinsky

And even though I had heard soprano soloist Tyana O’Connor in this semester’s Opera Scenes, I was unprepared for the power of her voice in the Poulenc. Perhaps she was sick earlier, or under-rehearsed; or maybe she didn’t want to overwhelm her duet partner; or maybe her strong and beautiful voice was simply swallowed up by the acoustics of Music Hall. Whatever the case, she was terrific in this performance and easily sang over the tight orchestra and the well prepared chorus without straining.

Tyana O'Connor soprano

So thanks you to all these musicians, and to so many other student performers, both singers and instrumentalists, who gave The Ear so many memorable and moving moments during the past semester and will do so again this coming semester.

Have a fine Winter Break, all of you!

You have earned it.


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