The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” this Friday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater

December 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about performances this coming weekend by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) and the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra of what is, unfortunately and undeservedly, often considered, when compared to Handel’s “Messiah,”  “The Other Oratorio” for the holiday season:

There will be two performances of four parts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (1734). On Friday night, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave., in Madison; and on Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater, 930 Main Street, in Whitewater.

Advance tickets for the Friday night performance at Luther Memorial Church in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports (Madison) and Willy Street Coop (all three locations in Madison and Middleton).

Advance tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets

Of the six cantatas that make up the “Christmas Oratorio,” Part, 1, 2, 3 and 5 will be performed. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the brisk and energetic opening, performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.)

Parts 1 to 3 tell the Christmas story: Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and the angels. Part 5 introduces the magi from the East, traditionally known as the Three Kings.

The music offers a sampling of every style of music in the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) as a composer.

Massive, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares, booming timpani and virtuosic fugues highlight the full chorus.

Solo arias, duets and trios and even one instrumental movement provide a contemplative contrast with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes and the pastoral sounds of oboes and bassoons.

Featured vocal soloists include mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below top) and tenor J. Adam Shelton (below middle), both on the faculty of UW-Whitewater. Highly accomplished members of the choir, including baritone Bill Rosholt (below bottom, and a Madison Savoyards regular), will share the solo parts with these professionals.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra, under concertmaster Leanne League (below), are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Trumpet virtuoso John Aley (below top) and oboist Marc Fink (below bottom) will also perform.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios, a cappella choral works from various centuries, and world premieres.

Bach’s music has always occupied a special place in the choir’s repertory, with performances of the Christmas Oratorio (2002 and 2003), the Mass in B minor (2005), the St. John Passion (2010) and the Magnificat (2017).

Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below) has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.


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Classical music: The never-fail Willy Street Chamber Players and guest artists will perform works by Elvis Costello, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dmitri Shostakovich this Friday night

July 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 6 p.m., the acclaimed and adventurous Willy Street Chamber Players (below) return to their home base at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below middle and bottom), 1021 Spaight Street, on Madison’s near east side.

The 90-minute program, the second of three subscription concerts this summer — the last one is next Friday — is a typically eclectic one that mixes new music with established repertoire.

It features “The Juliet Letters” by rock star Elvis Costello (below top, in a photo by James Omaha) with local tenor Adam Shelton (below middle), who will also sing the song cycleOn Wenlock Edge” by Ralph Vaughan Williams; and pianist Jason Kutz (below bottom) in the Piano Quintet by Dmitri Shostakovich. (You can hear Elvis Costello sing one of the Juliet Letters with the Brodsky String Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There will also be a post-concert reception with east-side snacks from Monty’s Blue Plate Diner and Madison Sourdough.

Admission is $15.

In addition, The Willys have inaugurated a Community Connect series to reach new audiences and perform around the city.

The Ear recently went to one of those concerts and came away grateful not only for the superb performances of great old and new music, but also very appreciative of alternative venues in the city.

But more about that tomorrow.


Classical music: Performances of vocal and orchestral music by Handel and Rutter, plus handbell selections, will mark spring and Earth Day this coming Saturday afternoon and night. Plus, there is a FREE concert of piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms on Friday at noon.

May 4, 2017
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ALERT: The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features piano trios by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Paul Schoenfield featuring pianist Jeannie Yu, UW-Madison violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino and cellist Leonardo Altino. The concert, the penultimate FUS musicale of this season, runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday, the third annual Madison Area Community Earth Day Celebration Concerts will be presented at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, in two performances at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The performances feature the Madison Area Community Chorus and Orchestra, and the Ringing Badgers Handbell Ensemble, under the direction of artistic director Mark Bloedow (below).

The concert will highlight music celebrating spring and Earth Day.

The Madison Area Community Chorus and Orchestra (below), under the direction of Bloedow, will present George Frideric Handel‘s “Chandos Anthem 9.” (You can hear the Handel anthem in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

 

The Handel features guest soloists alto Becky Buechel (below top) and tenor Adam Shelton (below bottom).


The choir and orchestra will also perform John Rutter’s beloved “Look at the World,” “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “A Gaelic Blessing;” and selections by other composers.

The Ringing Badgers Handbell Ensemble (below) will present a varied program including Mozart’s “Song of the Bells” from his opera “The Magic Flute,” Cynthia Dobrinski’s “Let There Be Peace on Earth” — sung with the audience — LeRoy Anderson’s “Jazz Pizzicato” as arranged by Martha Lynn Thompson, and others.

A reception will follow the concerts in Immanuel’s Lakeview Room.

Tickets for the event are $15 for adults; $12 for seniors; and $8 for children and students. They are available from Willy Street Co-op Stores (East, West and North locations), at the door and online at http://maestroproductions.brownpapertickets.com.

More information is available at Maestro’s website: www.maestroproductions.org.


Classical music: The acclaimed Kronos Quartet performs an eclectic program of classical, rock, jazz and blues music on Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Plus, a free art song recital takes place on Friday at noon. But pianist Marco Greco’s recital at Farley’s House of Pianos on Friday night has been CANCELLED due to visa problems.

March 12, 2015
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ALERTS:

This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale – which takes places from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive – features tenor J. Adam Shelton (below) and pianist Rayna Slavova in music by George Bizet, Benjamin Britten, Joaquin Turina and Richard Strauss.

Plus, the Friday night recital by pianist Marco Grieco at Farley’s House of Pianos has been CANCELLED due to visa problems.

J. Adam Shelton 2

By Jacob Stockinger

This is another “train wreck” weekend for classical music, as the Wise Critic likes to say.

Saturday night especially has a lot of competing events. They include:

At 7:30 p.m. in Old Music Hall, a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” by University Opera.

And a FREE cello recital in Mills Hall at 8 p.m. by UW-Madison professor Parry Karp – with pianist mother Frances and pianist brother Christopher — that features music by Benjamin Britten, George Crumb and Ludwig van Beethoven (two violin sonatas as transcribed for cello by Parry Karp.)

But one non-local event stands out.

The San Francisco-based, Grammy-winning Kronos Quartet (below top) — which since 1973 has pioneered crossover genres and in so doing popularized chamber music — performs on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall (below bottom) at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Kronos Quartet 2015

Shannon Hall UW-Madison

The program features the typical eclectic mix of the Kronos Quartet, which plays string quartet versions of jazz, rock and blues music as well as contemporary classical music. (At bottom,  in a historic YouTube video, is the classic Kronos performance of “Purple Haze” by rocker Jimi Hendrix.)

Included is music by Laurie Anderson, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus as well as works by Maru Kouyoumdjian, Vladimir Martynov, Komitas, Michael Daugherty and Dan Becker.

Kronos Quartet playing

Here is a link with the program, ticket prices, biographies of the players, critical reviews and videos.

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/season14-15/kronos-quartet.html

MASTER CLASS: Violist Hank Dutt of the Kronos Quartet will be giving a master class in Mills Hall, on Friday, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. It is open to the public. The menu includes J.S. Bach’s  Suite No. 6 and Chaconne for four violas, Elliott Carter’s “Figment IV” and the String Quartet by Maurice Ravel.

 

 

 


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