The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to sing on Sunday night with Chanticleer. Here’s how he got there with the right teacher, hard work, good luck and a push from mom. Part 2 of 2 

October 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the new Hamel Music Center, the a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director.

For a biography of Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career.

So The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf (below).

Part 1 appeared yesterday. Here is a link: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/classical-music-uws-first-countertenor-gerrod-pagenkopf-returns-to-perform-on-sunday-night-as-a-member-of-the-acclaimed-choral-group-chanticleer-heres-how-he-got-from-here-to-there/

Here is Part 2:

Back when you were a student here, were you the only countertenor at the School of Music? How did you find out you were a countertenor and pursue that training?

As I recall, I was the only countertenor — certainly the only one studying in the voice department. I had been studying as a tenor with Ilona Kombrink (below, in photo by UW-Madison News Service) for a few semesters, and it just didn’t seem as easy as it was supposed to.

I didn’t sound like other tenors in my studio or on recordings. I remember that a famous countertenor had just come out with an album of Handel arias, and, upon hearing it, I thought to myself, “I can sing like that!”

I asked Professor Kombrink about it, and she told me to learn “Cara Sposa” from Handel’s “Rinaldo” over the summer. When I came back in the fall, if it sounded legitimate she agreed I could pursue countertenor singing.

I remember that first lesson of the fall. After I sang this Handel aria for her, she sat back and mused in her sage-like manner, “Yes, this must needs be.”

I never looked back. I think I was on the early edge of the re-emergence of countertenors. Certainly there were countertenors working professionally, but there weren’t that many. There weren’t any other countertenors in Houston when I went to grad school, and even when I moved to Boston, there were only a handful of working countertenors.

Since then, how has the treatment of countertenors changed in the academic and professional worlds?

By the time I left Boston a few years ago, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a countertenor. We now see young countertenors winning major competitions and earning places in young artist programs around the country. The competition is fierce now.

I was lucky enough to be one of just a few fish in the pond, but now countertenors are everywhere—and a lot of them are really good! I also remember that there was a stigma so that it would be difficult to find a voice teacher who would teach countertenors.

A lot of pedagogy books by reputable technicians said that countertenors weren’t real — they just sing in falsetto, which isn’t a real voice. I was lucky that Professor Kombrink was willing to explore that with me. I think now that there are so many successful countertenors singing everywhere, I hope this antiquated view of the voice type has changed.

What would you like the public to know about the program you will perform here? Are you featured in certain pieces?

Our “Trade Winds” program explores several different aspects of the wayfaring sailor. They include Monteverdi madrigals about water and nature; a wonderful mass setting by a largely unknown century Portuguese composer, Filipe de Magalhaes; several charming folksongs from around the Pacific Rim; and even a few sea shanties.

It’s a varied program that includes repertoire from as early as the 15th century up to just a few months ago. One of Chanticleer’s missions is to further the art of live music through new compositions, and we’ve commissioned a fantastic young Chinese-American composer, Zhou Tian (below), to write a new multi-movement piece for us, entitled “Trade Winds,” from which our program also gets its title.

Lots of listeners are scared of “new music,” but Zhou has given us a gem. It’s easy to listen to, and I think listeners will instantly understand what it’s all about.

What are your plans for the future?

Personally, I can’t say that I have anything coming up. As wonderful as Chanticleer is, the job pretty much limits any amount of outside freelance work. (At the bottom, you can hear Chanticleer singing “Shenandoah,” its most popular YouTube video – and a piece with a prominent countertenor part — with well over 1.6 million hits.)

One of the truly fantastic parts of singing in Chanticleer (below, performing on stage) is all the places we travel to. We started off this season with a three-week tour of Europe, which was actually the ensemble’s third trip to Europe in 2019.

We love traveling around the U.S., and as I’ve said, traveling back to Madison is certainly the highlight for me. The Midwest is always a special place for us to sing, as several of our members are from this region.

We’re very excited to travel to Australia in June 2020. I think it’s Chanticleer’s first visit “Down Under.” We will also be going back to the studio in January to record a new album for release sometime later in 2020. We have lots of exciting events coming down the pipeline.

Is there something else you would like to say?

Prior to singing with Chanticleer, I had been living in Boston for almost eight years, pursuing professional singing as a freelance artist.

To make ends meet, I had been working at Starbucks, which I actually started doing when I still lived in Madison, and my gigging was getting lucrative enough that I eventually decided to take a leave of absence from slinging lattes.

While I was in Wisconsin on Christmas vacation, I received a message from Chanticleer’s music director, William Fred Scott, letting me know that there was an immediate vacancy in the ensemble, and would I be interested in singing for them.

I thought I was being spammed, so I didn’t respond, and continued to enjoy the bliss of spending the entirety of the holidays with my family.

When I eventually got back to Boston a few days later, another email arrived from Mr. Scott: “Did you get my email? We’d really like to hear from you.” Ok, how do I tell them I’m clearly NOT the countertenor they’re looking for?

Well, after much soul-searching, calling my mother (“Just do it!” she exclaimed), and figuring out the logistics of liquidating a one-bedroom apartment, I decided to run away and join the circus. It was a complete leap of faith, but I think I made the right decision.

Don’t give up on your dreams. Singing in Chanticleer was the first legitimate dream I remember having. Although my musical path took me in several other directions, that path eventually led me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.


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Classical music: UW-Madison’s first countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to perform on Sunday night as a member of the acclaimed choral group Chanticleer. Here’s how he got from here to there. Part 1 of 2 

September 30, 2019
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ALERT: Madison Symphony Orchestra organist Greg Zelek did not announce his encore after he received a standing ovation at the MSO concert Sunday afternoon. It was the final movement from the Organ Symphony No. 1 by Louis Vierne.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the inaugural  concert in the new Hamel Music Center’s main concert hall, the critically acclaimed a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of the San-Francisco-based Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director. (You can hear Pagenkopf singing music by Henry Purcell in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For a biography of Gerrod Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf (below) is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed here as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each other. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career. So today and tomorrow, The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf.

Here is Part 1:

When were you at the UW-Madison?

I was a student at the UW-Madison from the fall of 1997 until I graduated in May of 2002. Although I received a bachelor’s degree in music education, performing ended up being a huge part of my last few semesters.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin about 30 miles north of Green Bay, I always thought that if you liked music and were good at it, you were supposed to be a teacher. It wasn’t until I was a junior that my voice teacher, the late Ilona Kombrink, and I discovered that I had a viable solo voice. Although I received the music education degree, embarking on a solo career became more important to me.

What did you do and how well did your studies and performances here prepare you for the life of a professional musician?

I was very lucky to have ample opportunities for performing during my time at the UW. Singing in choirs was very important to me. For many years I sang in the Concert Choir under Beverly Taylor (below top) as well as in the Madrigal Singers under Bruce Gladstone (below bottom,, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). I think there was one semester where I sang in just about every auditioned choir.

Beverly Taylor also gave me a lot of solo opportunities in the large-scale works that the Choral Union performed: Bach’s “St. John” and “St. Matthew” Passions, and Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” For a 23-year-old to have those masterworks, along with the B Minor Mass and “Messiah,” on his resume was very impressive.

I was also lucky enough to perform with University Opera, singing in the chorus at first, but then singing a solo role in Handel’s “Xerxes” my final semester, and then returning as an alumni artist to sing Public Opinion in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” and several years later Polinesso in Handel’s “Ariodante.” Director Bill Farlow took a lot of chances on my young, “raw” countertenor voice and gave me several opportunities to succeed.

I should also note the importance of the guidance and mentorship of Professor Mimmi Fulmer (below, performing at Frank Loyd Wright’s Hillside Theater at Taliesin in Spring Green) after I graduated from UW. She afforded me the opportunity to sing in recital with her numerous times — usually Brahms and Mendelssohn duets. But she also was a catalyst in bringing me back to Madison several years later to sing with the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. Our continued relationship is actually the primary reason Chanticleer is singing in Madison this fall.

How do you feel about returning to perform at your alma mater with Chanticleer?

I’m over the moon about it. It still feels like a dream that I’m singing in Chanticleer. To be able to bring a group that I’m so proud to be a part of back to Madison feels like a great personal triumph. And to be the opening performance in the new Hamel Center (below) is such an honor!

Throughout my studies at UW-Madison, I was torn between the solo performance track and the choral career. I managed to straddle both, but my dream was always to make ensemble singing my career. Way back in the early 2000s, I heard Chanticleer sing at Luther Memorial Church, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do!”

I went down several other paths since that concert — mostly in the realm of solo, operatic singing — but it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to say I achieved my dream, and I’m coming back to place where the seed of that dream was planted almost 20 years ago.

Tomorrow: How countertenors re-emerged and were treated, the “Trade Winds” program and Pagenkopf’s future plans


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra triumphs with all-American Copland and sexy Wagner, while Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” is a long-winded “Bolero.” Plus, the memorial concert for Ilona Kombrink memorial is set Oct. 20.

October 2, 2013
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ALERT: In Memoriam: A University of Wisconsin-Madison Emeritus Professor of voice, soprano Ilona Kombrink (below) died on Friday, August 9, 2013 in Stoughton, Wisconsin, at the age of 80. A Memorial Concert and celebration of her life will be held on Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 3 p.m. in the Grand Hall at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, Madison. A reception will follow. No word on the program yet, but you can be sure that it will be memorable since it is being organized by Edgewood College voice teacher mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson, who was a student of Kombrink.

Ilona Kombrink color

By Jacob Stockinger

So, someone seated nearby asked, what did The Ear’s think of the season-opening concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below in a photo by Greg Anderson)?

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Here we it is.

By and large, I completely agree with the local critics (links are below) who raved about the MSO’s concert to mark the 20th anniversary season of MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad).

John W. Barker in Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=41041&sid=7853c5de52499cbd8d735576acaa10e0

Greg Hettmansberger in Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/September-2013/Demonstrating-What-All-the-Fuss-Is-About/

John DeMain full face by Prasad

But here are some other impressions I took away from the Sunday afternoon performance, which seemed well attended by an enthusiastic audience.

There can be no disagreement with the critical assessment of how professional the entire orchestra sounded and how masterly the conducting and interpreting by John DeMain proved.

Especially noteworthy was the enthralling and rapturous violin playing by concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson) as well as the new principal clarinet Joseph Morris (below bottom) and such veterans as trumpeter John Aley and oboist Marc Fink.

Naha Greenholtz playing CR Greg Anderson

Joseph Morris principal clarinet MSO

Still, I found the special all-orchestral program a bit clunky in practice if not design.

So here are the three main points I took away:

FIRST

I am convinced that Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring, which opened the concert, is The Great American Symphony, just as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is The Great American Novel.  So fret no longer, American composers. The summit has been scaled. Just do what you want.

In its harmonies, rhythms, themes and use of folk elements and indigenous music like the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” (at bottom in a popular YouTube video that features photographs by another great American artist,  Ansel Adams), the dance score by Copland can’t be anything but American.

It is a gorgeous work and received a beautiful, even inspired reading from the America-born and America-trained DeMain and his players.

aaron copland

SECOND

I came away confirmed in my opinion that Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod” or “Love Death” from “Tristan und Isolde” is the sexist music ever written. It reminds me of the legend that the ancient Greek prophet Tiresias was allowed by the gods to make love as both a man and a woman. Then, when asked who had the better deal and received more pleasure, he was unequivocal: Women.

Indeed, this music by Wagner (below) music shows the composer’s rich imagination and makes him seem like the soul and libido of a woman dressed as a man.

It also supported my long-held contention – which other are free to disagree with — that Wagner’s orchestral writing is superior, in most cases, to his vocal writing. I, at least, generally find his instrumental music more singing and songful than his singers.

Richard Wagner

THIRD

Finally came Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” It is, all agree, a war-horse that every youngster has heard, one of the great “starter” pieces in the classical Romantic repertoire. It is a showcase that we all supposedly love by a master orchestrator and master colorist (below) who taught Igor Stravinsky. And it did bring the audience to a prolonged standing ovation.

But quasi-dissenter that I am, I have to file a minority report.

I found “Scherherazade” a bloated, repetitious and ultimately unsatisfying work. It is the Tolstoy novel of tone poems- the long-winded Russian equivalent of Ravel’s “Bolero” in its etude-like construction designed to showcase various sections of the orchestra.

The players and conductor did indeed shine and did so brilliantly. It certainly seemed a work that is more fun to conduct and perform than it is to listen to. True, the work did have memorable moments of drama and lyricism. But too often the 40 minutes of music — well, it is based on the 1,001 Nights — grew downright tedious. At least in live performance, I find the Ravel more exciting, catchy and fun, and also more easily instructive for sonic comparisons of different instruments and what they add to the score.

Oh, I found myself daydreaming, if only the first half of the MSO concert had been followed by a really great symphony by especially Brahms, or perhaps Beethoven, Dvorak or Tchaikovsky – something with substance as well as style. “Scheherazade” was sonically splashy, but compared to the Copland and Wagner it is superficial.

Rimsky-Korsakov

So there it is: What The Ear Heard at the MSO Opener.

What did you hear?

And what do you think of what The Ear heard? And how he heard it?

The Ears wants to hear.


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