The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The legendary St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig will perform Reformation music at Luther Memorial Church this Sunday night

November 14, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Luther Memorial Church will host the historic and legendary St. Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor) of Leipzig, Germany.

The famed boychoir will perform this coming Sunday night at 7 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave.

The program will present music of Johann Sebastian Bach (the motets “Fürchte dich nicht,” “Komm, Jesu, komm” and “Der Geist hilft”) and unspecified choral music of Heinrich Schütz, Johann Schein and Felix Mendelssohn.

Tickets are available at www.luthermem.org/st-thomas at $20, $30 and $50. Student rush tickets will be available day of concert.

The St. Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor) of Leipzig, Germany, was founded in 1212. Johann Sebastian Bach (below) served as Thomaskantor, director of the choir, from 1723 to 1750. (For more background about the group, its pedigree and the music of Bach, see the YouTube video at the bottom.)


Classical music: Voces Aestatis — Summer Voices — will perform early and Baroque vocal music this Friday night

August 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post from Ben Luedcke, the artistic director of the choral group Voces Aestatis (Summer Voices, below).

Luedcke writes:

Voces Aestatis (Summer Voices) will present its third annual summer concert this Friday night, Aug. 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below top and below bottom), 1833 Regent Street in Madison.

Tickets are $20 and available at the door. (Cash and check only; sorry, no credit or debit card sales.)

Artistic Director Ben Luedcke (below) and Assistant Director Ena Foshay have carefully selected singers with a pure blend to perform in this intimate concert venue.

Voces Aestatis is Madison’s only professional choir that specializes in early music.

The group will maintain its tradition of favoring a cappella repertoire of the 16th century, but new this year will be a collaboration with Saint Andrew Episcopal’s music director, Ken Stancer (below).

Stancer will accompany the choir on organ in four 17th-century pieces, including works by Heinrich Schütz, Giovanni Gabrieli, Henry Purcell and Marc-Antione Charpentier.

While the Purcell is the familiar, powerful and climactic “Hear My Prayer,” Gabrieli’s “O Jesu mi dulcissime” and Charpentier’s “Te Deum,” H.147, are rarely performed and are not to be missed.

The Gabrieli setting is for double-choir. But rather than two equal choirs, there are separate low-voice and high-voice choirs that provide a unique and sonorous texture of men and women. Additionally, the Charpentier is full of variety, including solos and quartets within the larger 10-minute piece.

Other a cappella works round out the program, including music by Tomás Luis de Victoria and William Byrd (below).

Most noteworthy will be the group’s fresh look at the double-choir motet “Super flumina babylonis,” by Phillipe de Monte (below). Although the work is typically performed rather slowly and lamentingly, the group will bring a decisively different interpretation with a quicker tempo and active articulations. (You can hear a traditional performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Also of note on the first half are pieces by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (below top) and Orlando di Lasso (below bottom), with texts from the “Song of Solomon” — a collection of bible passages that allege to describe the love between Christ and the Church, though they are in fact favorites of choral composers as they are known for their rather erotic descriptive passages.

Finally, Jacob Obrecht’s “Salve Regina” for six voices is likely to stun listeners not only for its beauty, but also because it was written almost 100 years earlier than anything else on the program.

It features a noticeably different and almost austere harmonic palette with overlapping thick textures, as well as many complicated rhythms and chants in between major sections.

Please visit VocesAestatis.org for more information or to support the organization. The group relies on individual donations, so we thank you in advance for supporting the arts in Madison.


Classical music review: Madison Bach Musicians deliver splendid period performances of two cantatas and a motet by J.S. Bach

April 17, 2012
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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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Performers and audiences alike braved parking problems and high humidity for a concert of sacred music by the Madison Bach Musicians’ namesake composer.

J.S. Bach’s achievements as a religious composer are most readily identified with his four surviving major works–the two Passions, the Mass, and the Christmas Oratorio. Devout concert performances of these masterpieces are regularly given as sacral events.

But the true heart of the work by Bach (below) in this sphere is what survives of his vast output of cantatas, mostly composed to fulfill his weekly obligations in Leipzig. In them Bach explored varieties of spiritual expression with wide-ranging inspiration. They were, however, designed for church ritual use that is no longer alive, leaving this great body of his creation (almost 200 items preserved out of some 300) without a ready and conventional performing venue.

Presenting these cantatas has been one of the MBM’s long-term commitments, and it has logically given them not in secular concert settings but in current church facilities. This latest program was thus presented in the welcoming setting of Grace Episcopal Church (below) on the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. (I attended the latter.)

Artistic director Trevor Stephenson rightly addressed his selections with the kind of intimate forces Bach so often used, with only one singer and player per part.

Thus, the vocal quartet of soprano Emily Birsan, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, tenor Daniel O’Dea, and bass David Govertsen were partnered by oboist Luke Conklin, violinists Kangwon Kim and Alicia Yang, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt, and cellist Anton TenWolde, with Stephenson on harpsichord, all using period performing techniques.

Two full cantatas were presented: BWV 32, “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (a dialogue between the devout soul and Jesus), and BWV 22, “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe”  (Jesus Takes On The Twelve Disciples) intended for the Sunday before Lent and composed as Bach’s “demo” in his job application for Leipzig. Both scores include lovely obbligato work for oboe, played with stylish sensitivity by Conklin (below).

Each of the four singers (below) was satisfying and able, though Birson’s clear and powerful voice rang out with special glory, while Govertsen delivered truly commanding bass sonority. (Below, from left, are soprano Emily Birsan, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, tenor Daniel O’De, and bass David Govertsen.)

It was not the cantata form, but a less-familiar category of Bach’s sacred writing that was represented in closing, via one of his six surviving “motets.” These were composed often for funerals or civic occasions, and feature no explicit solo sections but call rather for vocal ensemble throughout.

Such works are too easily reckoned today as “choral” pieces, but performance by simple vocal consort is at least equally plausible. Stephenson offered the best case I have encountered for the one-per-part approach, at least in “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden.” This is not only the shortest of the lot, but the only one for which a full continuo part is written out. The vocal writing, too, is highly soloistic within the ensemble structure, so that this “chamber” approach was brilliantly convincing.

As a kind of pre-encore, Kim and Yang (right and left, respectively, below) opened the second half by playing a brief, three-movement duo-sonata by French composer Jean-Marie Leclair.

This is “cutting edge” Baroque performance work by any standards anywhere, and Madison is among few cities blessed in having a group like Stephenson’s MBM to represent it.

 


Classical music Q&A: What makes J.S. Bach’s cantatas so great? Bach used all his many skills and re-invented himself weekly, says Trevor Stephenson of the Madison Bach Musicians, who will perform two cantatas and a motet this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Grace Episcopal Church.

April 12, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the delights of each concert season for the past few years has been to hear J.S. Bach’s cantatas performed by the early music group the Madison Bach Musicians (below), founded and led by Trevor Stephenson, a keyboardist and conductor who trained at Cornell University under the renowned keyboardist Malcolm Bilson.

Stephenson opts for the much smaller ensembles (below) that scholars now say was closer to Bach’s original groups than for larger choruses. As a result the music has a transparency that moves the mind and stirs the heart.

This weekend features two performances at Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square at 116 West Washington Avenue: At 8 p.m. on Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.  Both performances are preceded at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., respectively, by a lecture given by Stephenson, who is a thoroughly engaging, accessible and witty explainer.

The all-Bach program features Cantata BWV 22 – “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe”; Cantata BWV 32 – “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen”; and the Motet BWV 230 – “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden.”

Soloists are UW-Madison trained soprano Emily Birsan and bass David Govertsen, both of whom currently sing at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. The countertenor, Joseph Schlesinger (who now lives in Chicago) has toured Europe for many years as an early music specialist; the tenor, Daniel O’Dea is outstanding and is working on his DMA at UW under Jim Doing.

For more information, visit madisonbachmusicians.org or phone 608 238-6092

Advance ticket prices are: $20 General, $15 Students/Seniors (over 65).
Tickets at the door: $25 General, $20 Students/Seniors.
Cash or checks only. Make checks payable to Madison Bach Musicians. (Only cash or check are accepted; no credit cards.)

Advance tickets can be purchased at 

Orange Tree Imports; Farley’s House of Pianos; A Room of One’s Own; Ward Brodt Music Mall; and  Willy Street Co-op, East and West locations.

Trevor Stephenson (below) recently talked to The Ear about the Bach cantata project and the upcoming performances:

Why do you focus on the Bach cantatas and what are MBM’s plans for the cycle?

I like the Bach Cantatas because in them he brings everything to the table—they are the ultimate fusion of his spirit and intellect: a tenacious, enduring faith joined with an astonishingly original musical craft.

More than 200 of Bach’s Cantatas have survived (though he wrote probably more than 300) and somehow every one of them is unique—cut from a fresh block of marble.

Since many were written during a period when he was composing one per week, you could say with a good degree of sureness that Bach (below) really did re-invent himself every week!

Can you walk us a bit through each piece and tell us what to listen for?

On this concert we’ll perform “Jesu, nahm zu sich die Zwoelfe” a Cantata Bach composed specifically for his audition at Leipzig in early 1723. As we all know, he did get the job, and upon moving to Leipzig that year, plunged into his most intense period of Cantata creation during the next four years.

This Cantata begins with Jesus calling together the 12 disciples to tell them that they will all travel to Jerusalem “so that what has been written of the Son of Man will be fulfilled.” The disciples do not comprehend what Jesus is saying (primarily, that he will be crucified).

At that point the narrative really ceases and the soul takes over (in the guises of an alto solo, an extensive bass recitative (by David Govertsen, below), and a tenor aria) all developing the idea that one should now truly try to understand what the disciples at that time could not—that Jesus’ love for humanity was boundless, and that through his example we should strive to live properly and fully.

The melodic writing and texture of this Cantata foreshadows the St. Matthew Passion which Bach would complete just four years later and which he may have been working on already; indeed the narrative part of the St. Matthew Passion also opens with the scene in which Jesus unexpectedly announces the departure for Jerusalem.

And the other cantata?

Also on this program, we’ll perform BWV 32 “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (Dear Jesus, my longing). Composed for the first Sunday after Epiphany in January of 1726, it opens with one of Bach’s most elegant arias in which the soprano and obbligato oboe lines weave about each other in what seems like a miraculous improvisation—though of course Bach writes everything out in careful detail.

This is certainly one of my, what we call, “desert island” pieces–if you were sent to a desert island and could only take a few pieces, what would they be?

We’re delighted that baroque oboist extraordinaire Luke Conklin (below) —a graduate of the Juilliard baroque program, and now working on his doctorate at Indiana—will be joining us on this program. Bach lavishes some of the most expressive writing in the Cantatas on the baroque oboe, with its very warm and textured timbre. Luke will play several solos in the Cantatas we’ve selected for this concert.

We are also thrilled to be playing these Cantatas at Grace Episcopal Church (below, with exterior and interior photos, on the Capitol Square), which is a wonderful setting for this music both spiritually and acoustically. The sound there is reverberant and clear. The music carries, mixes, and reflects all around and yet you can still understand the words. Many spaces have one quality or the other, but Grace has both!

Where are you in the Cantata cycle and what are future plans?

With the concerts coming this weekend, Madison Bach Musicians will have performed 15 of Bach’s Cantatas (plus the B minor Mass in 2008 and the St. Matthew Passion in 2009).

Right now that puts us on a pace of about two each year (this is our eighth season).

But public interest in, and support for the project is growing quickly. In addition, the number of wonderful instrumentalists trained on baroque instruments and singers trained in the baroque style has risen dramatically even in the past decade.

So, we anticipate being able to increase the number of Cantatas we perform each year. We hope to present many, many more!


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