The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Despite some flawed comparisons, the Madison Bach Musicians turn in brilliant performances in a concept program of “imitations” by Bach and Vivaldi

September 26, 2017
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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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

An unusual program opened the 14th season of Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians (below) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Saturday night, and was repeated on Sunday afternoon at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

Instead of a string of compositions with few or no connections, there was a cumulative assemblage illustrating an overriding theme, as summed up in the title of “Imitation.”

To be sure, only two composers were involved: Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. The focus was on their uses of imitative textures, including canon and fugue. There were 11 pieces in all, mostly — although not entirely — grouped in pairs, Vivaldi leading each.

The organization was fugue-like, too, beginning with two-part textures and culminating in nine parts. Thus, the nine players (four violins, two violas, two cellos and a harpsichord) were gradually built into the full company by the end.

The pairings did not evoke any direct parallelisms between Vivaldi (below top) and Bach (below bottom), though the former’s experimental and extroverted Italian style stood in regular contrast with Bach’s Germanic seriousness, even as each explored similar contrapuntal possibilities.

The entire concept of the program was intriguing. I did, however, find that two specific selections, both by Bach, did not fit well. They were given in transcriptions rather than as the composer intended. Thus, a fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier was delivered not on the keyboard, but by five string players.

To be sure, that transformation allowed the three-voice counterpoint to be heard more distinctly, but the fact remains that it was written for keyboard and Bach’s part writing deserved to be heard as he intended.

A more serious instance was the tantalizing idea of hearing Bach’s own transcription of a work by Vivaldi. The original was the Concerto in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11, a true concerto grosso, matching a concertino of two violins and cello against a full four-part string ensemble.

Now, Bach made transcriptions of a number of Vivaldi concertos, but presenting any of them in this context posed practical concerns for these players. In this case, Bach’s adaptation was for solo organ. Instead, we heard it with Bach’s organ transcription transcribed, in turn, into a concerto for nine players by one of the group’s violists, Micah Behr.

(You can compare Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins to Bach’s reworking of the same concerto for four harpsichords in the YouTube video at bottom.)

Again, this third-hand edition allowed for contrapuntal clarity, but it totally distorted Bach’s intentions as a transcriber himself.

That said, the performances were all brilliant. Visiting Baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) was something of a star, but all musicians played wonderfully, sitting in a circle for closest interaction and without an intermission.

Still, reservations about this program aside, this concept or idea concert is worth trying again.


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform “imitative” works by Bach and Vivaldi this coming Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

September 19, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

In an original program that is organized much like the music it features, the early music group Madison Bach Musicians (below) will open their new season this weekend with a concert that offers a counterpoint of music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi — all done with period instrument and historically informed performance practices.

The two concerts are:

This coming Saturday night, Sept. 23, with a 6:45 p.m. pre-concert lecture by MBM founder, artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson (below), and a 7:30 p.m. concert at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive in Madison.

This coming Sunday afternoon, Sept. 24, with 2:45 p.m. pre-concert lecture and a 3:30 p.m. concert at Holy Wisdom Monastery, 4200 County Road M, in Middleton.

The guest soloist is Steuart Pincombe (below, in a photo by Ryan West), who plays the baroque cello. He will join the Madison Bach Musicians for this innovative concert – an dual exploration of fugues and imitation from the German Bach and the Italian Vivaldi — two masters of the Baroque.

The concert itself is structured much like a fugue. Starting from a single voice, selections alternate between pieces by Vivaldi (below top) and by Bach (below bottom) ―with each new section of the concert requiring an additional performer. (Sorry, no word on specific works except for the finale.)

The program culminates with the entire ensemble performing Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto Grosso alongside a string arrangement of Bach’s own transcription of the same piece. (You can hear the original by Vivaldi in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Advance-sale discount tickets cost $30 for general admission and at available at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Co-op, East and West.

Advance sale online tickets can be found at: www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are $33 for the general public, and $30 for seniors 65-plus with Student Rush tickets costing $10 and going on sale 30 minutes before the pre-concert lecture.


Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians announces its 14th season with music by Vivaldi, Bach and Purcell

July 7, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from founder, artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson about the upcoming season of the Madison Bach Musicians (below):

“This season we are thrilled to present three wonderfully diverse programs of baroque masterworks.

“We’ll start in September with Imitation, exploring the Baroque fugal art of Antonio Vivaldi (below top) and Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom) — with guest cellist Steuart Pincombe.

“December marks MBM’s seventh annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer). This year we’ll feature Johann Sebastian Bach’s elegant Cantata 32 plus Vivaldi’s dramatic Winter from the Four Seasons.

“To cap it all off in April, we’ll test the limits of comic-tragic juxtaposition with a double-billing: Bach’s highly-caffeinated Coffee Cantata paired with the heart-rending operatic masterpiece Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell (below).

“Please join us as we explore this wonderful repertoire on period instruments in acoustically magnificent settings reminiscent of Baroque performance spaces.

“We invite you to become a Madison Bach Musicians season subscriber. As a subscriber, you will receive the largest savings on ticket prices, preferred seating, and easy online ordering. And this year we’re offering some exciting new subscription options, including a 2-concert package ($62, $55 for seniors 65 and over, $32 for students with ID) or 3-concert package ($90, $80 for seniors 65 plus, $45 for students with ID), and a very economical student subscription rate.

“Ticket sales make up our most reliable and vital funding source. Your support through season subscriptions gives us the financial security to produce these creative and artistically ambitious programs. I hope you will consider subscribing to this series of outstanding musical events.

“Thanks for supporting baroque music in Madison.

See you at the concerts!
Trevor Stephenson, Artist Director (below)”

September 23 and 24 

Bach and Vivaldi: Imitation; with soloist Steuart Pincombe, baroque cello

Saturday, September 23, 2017; 6:45 p.m. lecture, 7:30 p.m. concert;
First Unitarian Society of Madison–Atrium Auditorium

Sunday, September 24, 2017; 2:45 p.m. lecture, 3:30 p.m. concert; Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton

Join us in this exploration of fugues and imitation from Bach and Vivaldi–two masters of the Baroque! Fugues are created when a musical line is introduced by one voice and then repeated with slight variations by any number of other voices. It’s always an amazing experience for audiences to hear and see how the different voices interact. Vivaldi has simplicity and Bach the complexity, but both play the fugue game with equal vigor.

Madison Bach Musicians is thrilled to have cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) returning for this season’s opening concert. Steuart can be heard in concert venues across Europe and quite possibly around the corner in your local brewery or cafe. Wherever he performs, Steuart aims to engage with his audience through creative presentations of the classical repertoire. Don’t miss this spectacular season opener.

December 9 

Baroque Holiday Concert; Saturday, December 9, 2017; 7:15 p.m. lecture, 8 p.m. concert; First Congregational United Church of Christ

Our seventh annual Baroque Holiday Concert will once again be held in the beautiful and sonorous sanctuary of the First Congregational Church.

Soprano soloist Alisa Jordheim (below top) will be joined by oboist Aaron Hill and a baroque string ensemble in Bach’s lyrical masterpiece Cantata BWV 32 Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen. And MBM concertmaster Kangwon Kim (below bottom) will be the featured violin soloist in Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

April 7 & 8 

Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas and Bach’s Coffee Cantata, BWV 211

Saturday, April 7, 2018; 6:45 p.m. lecture, 7:30 p.m. concert

Sunday, April 8, 2018; 2:45 p.m. lecture, 3:30 p.m. concert

First Unitarian Society Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams)

MBM will conclude the season with period performances of the tragic operatic masterpiece, Dido & Aeneas, by Henry Purcell (below) paired in a double-billing with one of J. S. Bach’s rare comic outings, the mischievous Coffee Cantata―where substance-preoccupation (coffee, no less) and family dynamics collide.

We are pleased to offer the production of Dido and Aeneas as a semi-staged baroque opera featuring outstanding soloists, a full baroque orchestra, and beautiful dancing sequences ―thanks to the collaboration of director David Ronis (below top, in a photo by like Delalio) artistic director of the University Opera), Karen McShane–Hellenbrand (UW-Madison Dance Department), and baroque-performance specialist conductor and UW-Madison bassoon professor Marc Vallon (below bottom, in a photo by James Gill).

Come hear spectacular vocal soloists, a sumptuous chorus, gut-strung violins, violas and cellos, viola da gamba, lute, harpsichord, baroque flute―and an amazing wind machine. (You can hear “Dido’s Lament” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information and to see the season brochure, go to:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1nPBhC1sb3WWDZ5RG9CQ3VpSlNkVFM2d3AxQ3JiZmthQlNZ/view


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