The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Chamber music group Con Vivo lives up to its lively name as guest conductor John DeMain opens the season with an ambitious and gloriously performed program of Wagner and Mozart.

November 11, 2013
3 Comments

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 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Con Vivo!, the plucky band of chamber musicians (below) based at the First Congregational Church, launched its season with perhaps its most ambitious offerings yet.

Con Vivo core musicians

Augmenting its ranks appropriately, it set a program titled “Baker’s Dozen,” the point being that each of the two major works offered called for 13 musicians (if not always the same ones).

Each work is too large to fit into the usual “chamber” boundaries, and yet is too small to belong in the orchestral realm. Accordingly, they are rarities, and the Con Vivo! opportunity to hear them was particularly welcome.

It was the more welcome because, indeed, there were two performances of the program. After only two full rehearsals, as a kind of “dress rehearsal”, the ensembles presented the program on Thursday evening, November 8, at the auditorium of Capital Lakes Retirement Center, followed by the official performance the next evening at First Congregational (below).  (That the Capital Lakes performance was something of a dress rehearsal was testified to by one stop for a corrected replay.)  I took advantage of the circumstance to attend both performances, a fascinating experience.

Con Vivo Octet

The two major works are quite contrasted.

Richard Wagner’s so-called “Siegfried Idyll was a chamber piece written as a birthday present for his wife Cosima after the birth of their son, Siegfried.  Wagner (below) was at work on his opera Siegfried at the time, and quotations or references in the piece were filled with personal meanings for the composer and his family.  Often this score is played by orchestra, with the five string parts spread out for a full string section, but the intimacy of the original is much more appropriate.

Richard Wagner

The other major work was Mozart’s Gran Partita, K. 361. (You can hear it in its entirety at bottom in a popular YouTube video with the late conductor and acclaimed Mozart interpreter Sir Charles Mackerras.) Despite its length of about 45 minutes, it is never too much, but rather a feast of Mozart’s astounding facility and imagination in his varied combinations of the reed instruments against solid chordal foundations by the four horns.

No other composer has been able to match Mozart (below) in his wonderful writing for wind ensemble, and this is his crowning achievement by far in this medium.  This score is pure bliss.  For me, the chance to hear it two evenings in succession was as if I had been able to visit heaven not once but twice!

mozart big

That double exposure proved particularly fascinating to me, and I had my own reactions to the differences between the two performances.  I was able, too, to discuss with a number of the players, and compare notes on how they responded to both the performances and the two venues, and both pro and con.

First off, it must be mentioned that Con Vivo! made the wise decision to invite a conductor to preside, and in this case no less than John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad), the lignite music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.  I had the feeling that the Wagner went a bit too slowly the first evening, but achieved more coherent ensemble and a more flowing, even caressing quality the second evening.  In the Mozart, I found one tempo choice questionable, but this was resolved handsomely the second time around.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Obviously, the difference between the drier acoustics of the Capital Lakes hall (below) and the richer ones at First Congregational had some effects on these judgments, as did also the fact that the players felt more confidence in the final performance.  And, without question, DeMain’s subtle and supple leadership contributed greatly to the sum total.

Capitol Lakes Hall

Here I confess to a secret hankering. The Mozart work has long been identified as a “Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments.”  That was taken to mean that the bass line should be played by a contrabassoon.

On the other hand, in recent years notice has been made of the fact that the part has directions to play pizzicato in three passages in the work: in the second Trio of the second Minuet, in the sixth variation in the penultimate movement, and in one episode in the rondo finale.

Now, it is rather difficult for reed instruments, of any size, to play pizzicati, so a string bass has been the working solution nowadays.  But the string bass has a light and somehow incompatible sound against the winds. The contrabassoon would provide greater strength, as well as better congruity with the other reeds.

Well, maybe the solution is to divide the part between contrabassoon and string bass as appropriate.

It should not be forgotten that the program had its bonus features.  Between the two major works, violinist Olga Pomolova (below left) of the Madison Symphony Orchestra joined with DeMain, now acting as pianist, in an arrangement for violin and piano of a highly romantic early (and quite un-Wagnerian) piano piece by Wagner, an “Albumblatt” (Album Page).  And, at the Friday performance, Pomolova also played a brief and beloved tidbit by Fritz Kreisler that represented deeply personal inspiration to her.

Con Vivo Olga Pomolova and Kathryn Taylor

The final results of all this constituted a magnificent treat of truly rare and absolutely glorious chamber music. And really done con vivo, “with life”!


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