The Well-Tempered Ear

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: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform the “German” Requiem by Brahms plus two world premieres this coming Saturday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater. Also, here are the winners and sonatas you can hear in the FREE Beethoven piano sonata recital this Sunday afternoon at the UW-Madison.

April 15, 2015
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ALERT: The Ear has been informed of the winners of the annual UW-Madison Beethoven Sonata Competition. The FREE winners’ recital is this Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. Three major late sonatas will be featured on the program: the Sonata in A Major Op. 101, played by Kangwoo Jin (below right in a photo by Katherine Esposito); the last Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, played by  SeungWha Baek (middle); and the titanic “Hammerklavier” Sonata, Op. 106, played by Luis Alberto Peña (left).

For more information about the student performers and their teachers, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/beethoven-competition-recital/

Beethoven 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Our friends at the Wisconsin Chamber Choir write:

This coming weekend, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) performs the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms plus world premieres by Giles Swayne and Christian Ellenwood.

wisconsin-chamber choir 2012

The two performances are:

This Saturday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue, Madison. Tickets are $25 in advance ($30 at the door); students pay $10 ($15). Visit: www.WisconsinChamberChoir.org

luther memorial church madison

This Sunday, April 19 at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium, 930 West Main Street, Whitewater. Tickets are $20.50, $18.50, $15.50; UW-Whitewater students pay $10.50. Visit http://www.uww.edu/youngauditorium

One of the most beloved and popular of all choral works, the German Requiem by Johannes Brahms (below), is a masterpiece of musical Romanticism. (You can hear the opening movement on a YouTube video at the bottom.)

brahms-1

Brahms began the work as a memorial to his mentor, Robert Schumann (below), but the death of Brahms’ own mother spurred him to complete it several years later.

Schumann photo1850

The score embraces a wide variety of emotions, from the lush sounds of the choir and orchestra that envelope the audience in a message of consolation, to lively fugues, worthy of Bach or Handel, that promise the hope of salvation. This music will thrill audiences as well as comfort all who have ever lost a loved one.

Sharing billing with the Brahms are two world premieres, one commissioned by each choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will present Our Orphan Souls by British composer Giles Swayne (below top) on a transcendental text from Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.

The UW-Whitewater Chamber Singers will present Prairie Spring by UW-Whitewater professor of music, Christian Ellenwood (below bottom), a setting of the poem by American author Willa Cather.

Giles Swayne

Christian Ellenwood copy

Joining the WCC in this performance are soprano soloist Tanya Kruse Ruck, baritone Brian Leeper, and bass Gregory Berg; the UW-Whitewater Chamber Singers; and Sinfonia Sacra, the WCC’s own fully professional orchestra made up of members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble.

Founded in 1998, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart and Haydn; a cappella masterworks from various centuries; and world-premieres. Robert Gehrenbeck (below) who directs the Choral Program at the UW-Whitewater, is the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s Artistic Director.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

 


Classical music: Does The Great American Symphony” exist – or even its equivalent in a different form or genre? American conductor JoAnn Falletta takes up the challenging question on NPR with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel. Also, the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival opens tonight with a concert by Piffaro and a lecture on “The Germanies of 1616.”

July 6, 2013
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A REMINDER: The 14th Madison Early Music Festival, with the theme “Renaissance Germany,”  opens tonight with a performance by the Renaissance band Piffaro (below) at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. It will be preceded at 6:30 p.m. by a FREE lecture by frequent guest blog contributor John W. Barker on “The Germanies of 1616 and How They Got to Be That Way” in Room L-160 of the Elvehjem Building of the nearby Chazen Museum of Art. For more information, visit: http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/lsa/memf/index.html

piffaro

By Jacob Stockinger

Back when The Ear was an undergraduate, he had a philosophy professor who claimed in an aesthetics course that no one in the class that was full of ambitious artists and especially would-be writers should worry about writing The Great American Novel.

It had already been written.

The Great American Novel, he said, was “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (below):

f. scott fitzgerald writing

It’s a great choice, though others might disagree and name Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

Still, overall, I think the decades have proven him right – which is why Gatsby has been made into several movie versions, including an older one with the actor Robert Redford and a recent one by director Baz Luhrman, and John Harbison’s full-length opera (below, with Dawn Upshaw as Daisy and Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby). And maybe a TV drama based on the novel is yet to come.

John Harbison Great Gatsby

But even though that quite of question somehow seems impertinent or irrelevant, it can lead to some memorable discussions and exposure to new music.

So last week, when everyone was looking up American music to play on Independence Day or the fourth of July, the question of The Great American Symphony arose.

And it was discussed on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog by Tom Huizenga and also on “All Things Considered” by veteran host, the cultured, cultivated and witty Robert Siegel (below top) and American conductor JoAnn Falletta (below bottom), in a photo by Cheryl Gorski), who now leads three different orchestras as music director. (The three are the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland.) Falletta comes up with some interesting choices of American composers and works — some you have heard of and some you haven’t. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the beautiful slow movement from Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, which I had never heard either live or in a recorded performance.)

robert siegel in npr studio

conducting_joann_falletta

It would be interesting to hear what some other American-born and American-trained maestros and champions of old and new American music – from Leonard Bernstein and Alan Gilbert of the New York Philharmonic to Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas (below) of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra said or have to say when they took on the same question.

gam_callout

Anyway, here are links to the NPR discussions. I recommend listening to the program and not just reading the transcript.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/02/197590007/IN-SEARCH-OF-THE-GREAT-AMERICAN-SYMPHONY

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/03/198018168/the-innovative-mosaic-of-american-symphonies

What do you think?

Do you have an orchestral work to nominate as The Great American Symphony or its equivalent?

The Ear wants to hear.


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