By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.
On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.
(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)
At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”
This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:
Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org
Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:
Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.
As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.
From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)
I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.
The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.
Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.
For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion ― on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).
The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:
These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.
Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.
The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.
MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.
Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today is Easter Sunday, 2016.
You don’t have to be a believer to know that the events of Easter have inspired great classical music, especially in the Baroque era but also in the Classical, Romantic and Modern eras.
Of course, there is the well-known and much-loved oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel, who wrote it for Easter, not Christmas as is so often assumed because of when it is usually performed. (NOTE: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform “Messiah,” with period instruments and historically informed performance practices, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ on Friday and Sunday, April 8 and 10.)
There is a lot of instrumental music, including the gloriously brilliant brass music by the Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli and the darker Rosary sonatas for violin by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and the “Lamentation” Symphony, with its sampling of familiar tunes and intended to be performed on Good Friday, by Franz Joseph Haydn.
Easter music cuts across all kinds of nationalities, cultures and even religious traditions: Italian, German, English, Scottish, American, Russian, French and Austrian.
But the occasion — the most central event of Christianity — is really celebrated by the huge amount of choral music combined with orchestral music – perhaps because the total effect is so overwhelming and so emotional — that follows and celebrates Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and then ultimately to Easter and the Resurrection from death of Jesus Christ.
For The Ear, the pinnacle is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below), especially his cantatas, oratorios and passions.
But today The Ear wants to give you a sampler of 16 pieces of great Easter music, complete with audiovisual clips.
Here is one listing that features music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Thomas Tallis, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Gustav Mahler, Francis Poulenc and James MacMillan:
And here is another listing that features music by Antonio Vivaldi, Hector Berlioz, Gioachino Rossini, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Bach’s “Easter Oratorio” (rather than his “St. Matthew Passion” or “St. John Passion”) and “The Resurrection” oratorio (other than “Messiah”) by Handel.
Curiously, no list mentions the gorgeous and haunting “Miserere” (below) by Gregorio Allegri. It was traditionally performed in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel on the Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week, but was kept a closely guarded secret. Publishing it was forbidden. Then a 12-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard it and copied it down from memory.
Finally, The Ear offers his two favorite pieces of Easter music that never fail to move him. They are the passion chorale and final chorus from the “St. Matthew Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach:
What piece of music is your Easter favorite?
Do you have a different one to suggest that you can leave in the COMMENT section, perhaps with a link to a YouTube video?
The Ear wants to hear.
ALERT: UW-Madison professor and baritone Paul Rowe has sent in the following note: “There is a great, free “concert” or performance on this Friday at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, from noon to 3 p.m. Singers Chelsie Propst and Christina Kay with organist Bruce Bengtson will be performing François Couperin’s “Leçons de ténèbres” or “Lessons in Darkness.” This work is rarely heard in performance at all, much less in this complete form. It is a fabulous piece and a great way to spend a Good Friday afternoon before Easter with its contemplative mood and its beautiful solos and duets. There will also be appropriate readings and some other music as part of the service. It is definitely worth hearing.”
By Jacob Stockinger
Here is some good news for amateurs and semi-professionals who participate in community music-making and community theater.
“It is an exciting next step for the organization, and will help us attract the best possible talent,” says newly installed Savoyards board president Shane Magargal. “For over 50 years, the Savoyards has kept these comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan alive in Madison. This move will help us continue to remain a vibrant part of the local theatrical community for years to come.” (Below, are photos of W.S. Gilbert on the left and Arthur Sullivan on the right.)
Auditions for the Savoyards’ summer production, The Gondoliers, will be held at Edgewood College on Monday, April 4 from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (Room Regina R5), and on Saturday, April 9 from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Mazzuchelli Hall, Room 208).
To schedule a time, send your request via email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Information about what to prepare can be found at www.madisonsavoyards.org on the “Auditions” page.
There will be pre-performance dinners both Fridays at the University Club.
The Madison Savoyards, Ltd. has been presenting Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas to Madison audiences since 1963, and is pleased to offer The Gondoliers for the fourth time in its production history. (At bottom is YouTube video with a brief excerpt from “The Gondoliers.”)
By Jacob Stockinger
Voces Aestatis (pronounced VO-ches Eh-STA-tees) – or Summer Voices — is a professional choir of 16 voices that specializes in choral literature from the Renaissance and earlier.
Director Ben Luedcke (above, far left in front row, and below) has prepared a concert that will feature both sacred and secular works from the 16th century.
Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below) is an intimate and acoustically ideal performance space for this ensemble — which is a highly select group of Madison singers, hand-picked for their vibrant voices, blended tone and experience with early music, particularly the a cappella repertoire of the 16th century.
One of the few professional choirs in Madison, this group of paid singers only rehearses a handful of times, performing once per year.
The first half of the concert will begin and end with double-choir pieces by Jean Mouton, and the master of the polychoral sub-genre, Giovanni Gabrieli. Music by William Byrd (below) and Jean l’Heritier celebrate the glory of God.
Also included are works by Giuseppe Pierluigi da Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso (below), with texts taken from the Song of Songs. Though sanctioned in the Old Testament as an allegory of the love between Christ and the Church, these biblical passages are infamous for their explicit erotic qualities and have been favorites of choral composers for centuries.
Music of Carlo Gesualdo and Antonio Lotti, with dramatic texts taken from the Tenebrae service of Good Friday round out the first half of the concert.
The second half features both English and Italian madrigals by Orlando Gibbons, John Bennet, Jacques Arcadelt, and Claudio Monteverdi (below). These highly sensual texts deal with lust as well as death, even questioning the meaning of our short lives.
Video and audio recordings from last year’s concert are available on YouTube at:
ALERTS: Tomorrow, on Monday, April 1,at 8:30 p.m. and also on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. in short concerts in Morphy Hall, the works of student composers at the UW-Madison will be performed. The concert is free and open to the public. Also, on Monday night at 7 p.m., the student orchestra (below) from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., will perform at St. Luke’s (NOT Mark’s as I mistakenly wrote at first) Lutheran Church in Middleton. The group, which has toured four continents and played on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” will perform the Overture to Mozart‘s opera “Cosi Fan Tutte,” the first movement of Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante” for violin and viola; and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Admission is a free-will offering.
By Jacob Stockinger
As always, it is a great time to acknowledge and listen to the great music that has been written with the highest Christian holiday as inspiration.
Appropriate music for Easter can also mean other composers from other periods from Mozart and Haydn in the Classical era to Liszt and Dvorak, Wagner and Mahler (below in a YouTube video is the final movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”), in the Romantic era to an early modernist like Francis Poulenc. And of course there is much more in all eras, especially the pre-Baroque.
Or course most, if not all, the religiously themed works were done by composers who were Christian or who converted to Christianity.
But when it comes to more contemporary works, especially by non-Christian composers, one can get stuck or baffled.
So some recent postings on National Public Radio (NPR) about the Jewish Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov (below) and his “Passion According to St. Mark” (at bottom) is all the more timely and informative.
Here is an interview NPR did with the celebrated and popular contemporary composer:
And here is a link to 5 excerpts from other memorable Passion music that NPR’s blog “Deceptive Cadence” featured on Good Friday:
And finally here is a link a short interview with Golijov about the work plus a complete performance of Golijov’s work that was performed in Carnegie Hall and can be heard by streaming through the famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City:
I wish a Happy and Joyous Easter to all of you who celebrate it.
What is your preferred classical music to listen to on this important religious holiday?