The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Merry Christmas from The Ear and Johann Sebastian Bach, who gave us the gift of his “Christmas Oratorio.” What is your favorite Christmas music?

December 25, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Day 2015.

ChristmasTreeBranch.j

The Ear has only a few words, but a lot of music, to offer.

First, he wants to thank all his readers for the ongoing gift of their eyes, ears and attention as well as their comments.

In return, The Ear is offering his readers his favorite Christmas music.

He loves it more than more popular works such as “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel or the “Christmas” Concerto by Arcangelo Corelli, more than so much other holiday music.

It is Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, which is not really an oratorio but rather a series of six interconnected Christmas cantatas that do not get performed live very often.

It is performed superbly below in a YouTube video by Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists in a superb performance that comes from their worldwide Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.

Listen to it for the energetic and brassy opening movement.

Listen to it for various other wonderful moments, including the lovely Sinfonia.

Listen to it for the gorgeous solo and choral singing.

Listen to it in its entirety or in parts.

Stream it on or around Christmas Day.

But listen to it, now or later, especially if you don’t already know it.

And be sure to let us know in the COMMENT section what your favorite piece of Christmas music is.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!

 

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Classical music: It’s Christmas Eve — a good time to revisit how the Wisconsin Chamber Choir imaginatively and successfully used many versions of the “Magnificat” to combine the holiday seasonal and the musically substantial  

December 24, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger 

Here is a special posting that is perfect for Christmas Eve. It is 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

On last Saturday night, at the fully filled Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, director Robert Gehrenbeck led the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) through a program that managed blessedly to combine the seasonal with the musically substantial.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Magnificats 1

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Magnificat audience

The program was constructed with very great insight and imagination, around the Magnificat, the hymn in the Gospel of St. Luke that the Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth are supposed to have improvised during their Visitation.

Marys magnificat

The Latin version is probably, with the exception of passages from the Mass Ordinary,, the most frequently set of all liturgical texts, given its varied utilities — not only for Advent celebrations but as the culminating part of the Office of Vespers.

Of the absolutely innumerable settings made of this text and its counterparts through the ages, Gehrenbeck (below) – who directs the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — selected six versions, mingling them among related musical works. The program was organized in six segments, three given before intermission, three after.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

An initial German segment was dominated by the Deutsches Magnificat, which uses Martin Luther’s translation, a late and very great Baroque masterpiece for double choir by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).

That was supplemented with a five-voice motet by Johannes Eccard (1553-1611) that absorbs some of the Magnificat imagery, and a textually unrelated double-choir German motet by the post-Baroque Gottfried Homilius (1714-1785) — a piece that reminded me strikingly of the neo-polyphonic style that Johannes Brahms would develop a century later for his own motets.

Johann Sebastian Bach found his place with three of the four Advent texts that the composer inserted in the original E-flat version of his Latin Magnificat setting. One of those adapts the chorale Vom Himmel hoch (From Heaven High), so the three were prefaced by a chorale-prelude for organ by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) that elaborates on that hymn. (NOTE: Bach’s lovely full choral version of the Magnificat can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom. It features conductor John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and period instruments played in historically informed performances.)

Then we had settings of the Latin text.

First, one that alternates plainchant on the odd-numbered verses with organ elaborations by Johann Erasmus Kindermann (1616-1655) on the even ones.

Second, we had a full setting by the late-Baroque Czech composer, Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), with a skeletal “orchestra” reduced to oboe, violin and cello played beautifully by, respectively, Andy Olson, a graduate of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin,  who works at Epic and who has performed with the Middleton Community Orchestra; Laura Burns of the Madison Symphony Orchestra; and Eric Miller of the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble.

Andy Olson oboe

- Laura Burns CR Brynn Bruijn

Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble Eric Miller USE THIS by Katrin Talbot

A clever venture was made into Orthodox Christian treatments of the text in Church Slavonic. The full text in that form was given not in one of the more standard Russian Orthodox settings, but in a highly romanticized treatment by César Cui (1835-1918), a member of the “Mighty Five” group.

This was supplemented with beautiful settings of the Bogoróditse devo and the Dostóyno yest hymns of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, both of which paraphrase parts of Luke’s text: the former composed by the Estonian modernist Arvo Pärt (below, b.1935), the latter by the Russian Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998).

Arvo Part

English-language treatments finally came with one of the settings by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis pairing that is standard in the Anglican church. This was prefaced by a simple organ elaboration by John Ireland (1879-1962) of an unrelated English Christmas song.

The final group drew back from the Magnificat motif by presenting two works each of two contemporary American composers who, for their time, are able to write with lovely and idiomatic results for chorus: Peter Bloesch (below top, b. 1963) and Stephen Paulus (below bottom, 1949-2014).

Peter Bloesch

stephen paulus

Each was represented by an arrangement and an original piece. Paulus’ treatment of the traditional “We Three Kings” carol went with his setting of a charming poem by Christina Rosetti (slightly suggestive of what Gian-Carlo Menotti portrayed in his opera Amahl and the Night Visitors).

Bloetsch’s elaboration of an old French Christmas song was balanced with his lovely setting of a 15th-century poem that does vaguely hint at some verbiage of the Magnificat after all. Both works by Bloetsch, who was in the audience, received their world premieres.

The 53-voice choir sounded superb: beautifully balanced, precise, sonorous and often simply thrilling. Along the way, four women from the ranks delivered solo parts handsomely. Mark Brampton Smith (below) was organist and pianist as needed.

Mark Brampton Smith

It proved a superlative seasonal offering, in all, organized with a rationale that was both ingenious and illuminating.

For more information about the Wisconsin Chamber Choir and its future concerts, go to:

http://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org

 


Classical music: Christopher Hogwood is dead at 73. But the early music pioneer was no purist.

September 27, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Christopher Hogwood (below, in a photo by the Associated Press), who, along with Trevor Pinnock, Gustav Leonhardt, John Eliot Gardiner  and Frans Bruggen, became synonymous for many us with the movement to promote early music with authentic instruments and historically informed performance practices, has died.

He died Wednesday and was 73, and he had been ill for a brief time. He died at his home in Cambridge, England.

Chrisotpher Hogwood conducting AP

There are many things that The Ear loved about Hogwood, but nothing more than his recordings of string concertos by Antonio Vivaldi for their verve and of symphonies and concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for their sweetness and transparency, energy and clarity. (You can hear Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music in  2009 in Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Japan. They are playing the spectacular and virtuosically contrapuntal last movement of Mozart’s last symphony — Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”– at the bottom in a YouTube video. Just listen to the cheers!)

Hogwood’s version of the popular oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel is still my preferred one. Hogwood always seemed to serve the music first and foremost, and not fall into the kind of goofy or quirky readings that, say, Nikolaus Harnoncourt often did. Everything he did seemed balanced and just plain right, but nonetheless ear-opening in its originality. He made you say: THAT’S the way it should sound. 

But curiously, Hogwood (below, in a photo by Marcus Borggreve) seems to have understood other people and performers who prefer early music played in more modern approaches or idiosyncratic or individualistic manners. The Ear likes that kind of non-purist and tolerant approach to early music, to all music really. He is what Hogwood said in one interview:

‘THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH PLAYING THINGS HISTORICALLY COMPLETELY INCORRECTLY: MUSIC IS NOT A MORAL BUSINESS, SO YOU CAN PLAY ABSOLUTELY IN A STYLE THAT SUITS YOU AND PLEASES YOUR PUBLIC. IT MAY BE COMPLETELY UNRECOGNISABLE TO THE COMPOSER BUT SO WHAT, HE’S DEAD.’

christopher christopher hogwood CR Marcuys Borggreve

Here are some links for you to learn more about the achievements of Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, which he founded and is now directed by Richard Egarr.

Here is a fine story from NPR (National Public Radio):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/09/24/351193303/remembering-christopher-hogwood-an-evangelist-for-early-music

Here is a comprehensive obituary from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/26/arts/christopher-hogwood-early-music-devotee-dies-at-73.html

Here is a story from The Washington Post:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/christopher-hogwood-conductor-who-gave-new-drive-to-classical-warhorses-dies-at-73/2014/09/25/a148ff2a-44cb-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html

And here is a small story that appeared in Hogwood’s native Great Britain, even though Hogwood also directed American groups in Boston, St. Paul and elsewhere:

http://www.classicalmusicmagazine.org/2014/09/christopher-hogwood-10-september-1941-24-september-2014/

Here is a link to a 70-minute podcast that the magazine Gramophone did to mark Hogwood’s 70th birthday:

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/remembering-christopher-hogwood

 

 

 

 


Classical music: Easter music abounds. The UW Concert Choir and UW Chamber Orchestra convey the strength of Bach’s “St. John Passion,” despite some serious problems. The Madison Bach Musicians perform Bach’s Mass in B Minor tonight and Saturday night. Plus, the UW Madrigal Singers give FREE concert of Orlando di Lasso on Saturday night.

April 18, 2014
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TWO ALERTS

Some perfect music for Easter is on tap this weekend:

Tonight and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., the acclaimed early music and period-instrument group the Madison Bach Musicians, joined by the Madison Choral Project and guests vocal soloists and instrumentalists, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor, first at the First Congregational United Church of Christ and then at the First Unitarian Society of Madison in the new Atrium Auditorium. Both performances feature MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson giving a pre-concert talk at 6:45 p.m. Tickets are selling fast. Here is a link to an earlier post with more details about the performances and the music:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/classical-music-qa-the-mass-in-b-minor-is-perfect-music-for-easter-it-reconciles-catholicism-and-protestantism-and-is-a-distillation-of-bachs-cantatas-and-passions-says-trevor-stephe/ 

On Saturday night at 8 p.m in Mills Hall, the UW Madrigal Singers, under director Bruce Gladstone, will perform the “Lagrime di San Pietro” (Tears of St. Peter) by Orlando di Lasso (below), one of the greatest composers of the late Renaissance. Completed just weeks before di Lasso died, the “Lagrime” consists of 21 pieces for seven voices; 20 spiritual madrigals in Italian and a concluding motet in Latin. The poetry describes the remorse and anguish Peter suffered after he denied Christ, and though the subject matter is sacred, the emotional content – betrayal, disappointment, remorse and forgiveness – are universally human.

Orlando di Lasso

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 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Passion According to St. John” occupied the composer Johann Sebastian Bach (below) for over three decades as a work-in-progress, one that he never really completed in definitive form. Yet editors are able to make a workable compromise version of it that allows us to appreciate its dramatic power—very different from the broader, more contemplative character of his “St. Matthew Passion.”

Bach1

Despite the frenzied musical schedule of the weekend of Palm Sunday, this work was an entirely appropriate choice for a performance on last Saturday night by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Concert Choir and the UW Chamber Orchestra (both below), all under the direction of Beverly Taylor.

Concert Choir

UW Chamber Orchestra entire

But there were problems, and they could not be overlooked.

First of all, there was the chorus, 32 singers strong, which made a mighty sound. Nevertheless, choral director and conductor Beverly Taylor (below) followed a doctrine subscribed to by many choral conductors, requiring the breaking up of voice sections and the mixing of the singers. That is supposed to make the singers more self-reliant, and produce a greater overall blend.

But one listener’s “blend” is another listener’s “blob.” For all the sonority, this chorus was an amorphous blob, seriously compromising the part writing over which the composer worked so hard, and undermining sectional definition.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

The orchestra started out a bit roughly, with the winds not precisely in pitch with each other at first, and some coarse string playing. These issues were worked out along the way, but difficulties in balances with the singers were recurrent.

The vocal soloists were mostly young.

Solo soprano Emily Weaver (below top) is only a freshman voice major, but her instrument, still in the making, is bright and full of promise. Joshua Sanders (below middle), who sang a small role and two of the three tenor solos, used his strong voice to bellow a bit. Benjamin Schultz (below bottom), both as Pilate and in one of the three bass solos, was hobbled by pallid tone and not always precise pitch.

Emily Weaver

Joshua Sanders

Benjamin Schultz

Two of the soloists, however, were experienced elders. UW baritone Paul Rowe (below top, in a photo by Michael Anderson), on the UW-Madison School of Music voice faculty, made a dignified and authoritative Jesus, but assigning him two of the bass arias disrupted the portrait he made of Jesus. His wife, soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below bottom), was really stretching her lower range to sing the alto solos: in the first one, her weak sound was almost obliterated by the obligatto oboes, though she did recover somewhat for the potent “Es ist vollbracht,” the gamba accompaniment to which was eloquently brought off by Anna Steinoff. (You can hear the aria at the bottom in a YouTube video with Bernarda Fink and conductor John Eliot Gardiner.) 

The Music of Franz Schubert

Cheryl Rowe color 1

Anna Steinhoff

Perhaps the star of the proceedings, though, was tenor Daniel O’Dea, a doctoral student who is already a seasoned professional singer. He has the high, clear voice ideal for the central role of the Evangelist, only briefly succumbing to temptations to shout excitedly towards the end. I am told that this was the first time O’Dea had sung the part of the Evangelist in any Baroque Passion work, but this kind of role could easily become an important specialty for him. As with Rowe, though, it was a wrenching in this performance to have him shift suddenly from narrator to aria soloist at one point.

Daniel O'Dea

It has not been easy for me to rack up all these criticisms. But I take this venture seriously enough to hold it to the generally high level of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music’s performing standards. And I should not want it to be excused as “just a student performance.” The truth is that Taylor understood the dramatic character of the piece and brought it together in a propulsive totality that did ultimately put across the work’s beauty and power.

Above all, it was a kind of performing experience that the student participants deserved to have.

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Classical Music Q&A: Bach’s Mass in B Minor is perfect music for Easter. It reconciles Catholicism and Protestantism, and is a distillation of Bach’s own Cantatas and Passions, says Trevor Stephenson, the director of the Madison Bach Musicians who, with the Madison Choral Project, will perform the Mass in B Minor on Friday and Saturday nights.

April 14, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear still remembers fondly the beautiful and moving performance he heard five years ago of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” by the Madison Bach Musicians. 

Since then the MBM has turned in many memorable performances of cantatas and concertos by Bach and other early music on period instruments, including works by Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli and George Frideric Handel.

But this Easter weekend will bring a special treat.

The Madison Bach Musicians, will partner with the Madison Choral Project, under Albert Pinsonneault, to perform Bach’s magnificent and monumental Mass in Minor.

Performances are at on this Friday night at 8 pm. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ. And on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive, near UW Hospital.

Advance tickets are $20 for adults; $15 for students and seniors over 65; at the door, $25 and $20, respectively. For more information about how to buy advance tickets, visit:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org/tickets/

For more information about the music and the performers, visit:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org

Stephenson (seen below, in a pre-concert lecture in a photo by Kent Sweitzer), who is a knowledgeable, articulate and entertaining speaker about Baroque music, agreed to an email Q&A about the Mass in B Minor.

Trevor Stephenson lecture at FUS October 2012 by Kent Sweitzer

Where do you place the B Minor Mass with Bach’s enormous body of work and choral music? How does it stand or rank in terms of quality and power to, say, the Passions and Cantatas?

Musicians often talk about their “desert island piece”— the work they would most want to have at hand if they were forced to live on a desert island. For me, the B minor Mass has always been my desert island piece. (But if I could sneak in the Well-Tempered Clavier too, that would be great.)

The Passions are incomparable investigations into the relationship between the human embodiment of divine spirit and the dark machinations of this world. The Passions are also Bach’s great statements on the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good of love. (Jesus gave up his life for love of us, and we should in turn give of ourselves to that which we love.)

The Cantatas are the laboratory where Bach worked out–on a nearly weekly basis–the fusion of musical and textual material toward a spiritual end.

The Mass in B minor focuses more on the relationship between—and really the joining of–the metaphysical and the everyday. Just as an example, as Bach expert John Eliot Gardiner (below) points out in his wonderful new book, “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” look how the opening of the Credo fuses the gravitas, dignity, and mysticism of plainchant (in the voices) with the elegant, bubbling stride of the baroque bass line. And together these elements create a third thing, beyond themselves, a new joy. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the uplifting and joyous “Gloria” movement, performed by Karl Richter leading the Munich Bach Orchestra.)

John Eliot Gardiner

Why did a devout Lutheran like Bach turn to a Roman Catholic musical form? Is it appropriate to the Easter season, like the Passions and certain cantatas? What kind of liberties does Bach take with it? How does he reinvent it, if he does?

In Bach’s family, the work was often referred to as “The great catholic mass”–precisely because it was not usual Lutheran practice to set the entire Latin mass. The first appearance of the Mass in B minor comes in 1733 when Bach and his family copied out a beautiful set of presentation parts for the Dresden court–which had not only one of the greatest orchestras and vocal ensembles in Europe, but was also a Catholic court.

I’ve always felt that Bach’s Mass in B minor is something of a reconciliation with the Catholic church after the spiritual and political upheaval of the 17th century and the devastation of the 30-years War.

The Mass in B minor, though it is certainly Christian, also points toward a more inclusive picture of humanity’s universal — the original meaning of catholic — spiritual quest. It is hard to quantify, but I feel there is something in this music that speaks to—and really helps and inspires–us all.

Bach1

Why will Marc Vallon conduct it rather than you?

Marc and I have been working together for several years now. He has played several bassoon concertos with MBM; also with MBM he has conducted symphonies and concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus, Franz Joseph Haydn and Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.

Marc, who now teaches and performs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, was principal baroque bassoon—for 20 years—with the internationally acclaimed Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Ton Koopman. And during that time Marc performed and recorded many of Bach’s Cantatas, Passions and the B minor Mass.

Marc’s tremendous performance background with the Mass, and his infectious enthusiasm for this timeless masterpiece make him perfectly suited to lead the rehearsals and the concerts. I really can’t wait to hear what happens on Friday and Saturday when these amazing musicians and Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) and a great audience gather for the Mass in B minor.

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

What are the special aspects (one-on-one versus larger chorus, for example, or the Madison Choral Project or the period instruments and practices) that you would like to point out about this performance?

The Madison Choral Project is providing a 17-voice choir for the Mass in B minor concerts. In this work, since Bach usually uses a five-part choral texture (soprano I, soprano II, alto, tenor, bass), this comes to about three voices per part, depending on how things are distributed in a particular moment.

In two movements of the Mass (first Credo and Confiteor), we’ll have the soloists sing one-voice-per-part.

The orchestra will consist of 25 players, all on period instruments: 12 strings, 2 baroque oboes, 2 baroque flutes, 2 baroque bassoons, natural horn, 3 baroque trumpets, timpani, and continuo organ, which I what I will play. The balance between choir, soloists and orchestra should work out beautifully. (Below is the Madison Bach Musicians performing the “St. Matthew Passion” in a photo by Karen Holland.)

MBM in 2009 St. Matthew Passion CR Karen Holland

What should the public listen for in the mass both musically and performance-wise?

I would say notice how Bach contrasts grandeur with intimacy, metaphysical inquiry and prayer with rollicking celebration, and yet makes an exquisitely coherent whole. I think the Mass in B minor is a miracle of form.

Also, these concerts will feature an entirely period-instrument orchestra of outstanding baroque performance specialists hailing from throughout the United States — Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

The wonderful thing about playing this incomparable baroque masterwork on instruments that Bach was familiar with, is that the sound becomes fresh and energized in a way that is readily apparent. It really is a way of going Back to the Present!

The 18th-century instruments typically speak faster than their modern descendants — that is, the pitch actually forms more quickly, often by just a fraction of a second. But in music-making—especially very intricate baroque music-making—that fraction of a second can be the critical difference.

Bach’s absolutely amazing counterpoint in the Mass in B minor, which he often weaves effortlessly in 4 and even 5 independent parts is much more transparent when played on period instruments. You can peer more deeply into the infinite world of Bach’s fugues.

Period instruments are also set up to articulate quite deftly, that is, baroque instruments help the players define the shorter musical groupings of connected and non-connected notes. This in turn assists the audience in assimilating the elegant rhetorical shapes of Bach’s lines.

I will also preface both the concerts starting at 6:45 p.m. with a 30-minute lecture on period instruments (below is Stephenson discussing the keyboard action of an 18th-century fortepiano), approaches to singing baroque music, and the structure and history of the Mass in B minor.

HousemusicStephensonfortepianoaction

Is there anything else you would like to say or add?

I’d like to say a bit about the two venues where we’ll perform the Mass in B minor. “Where is it?” is one of the first questions most people ask when they hear of an exciting upcoming musical event. Because–particularly for classical music–the acoustics really matter. And the feel of the place, the vibe, needs to be right too.

The sound will be rich and the mood will be spiritually focused on Friday and Saturday as the Madison Bach Musicians and the Madison Choral Project collaborate in two performances of J. S. Bach’s monumental masterpiece the Mass in B minor, BWV 232.

The Friday concert will be given in the magnificent setting of the sanctuary at First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 1609 University Avenue, a landmark building in Madison’s cultural life.

MBM Bach canata 2013 Dec

The Saturday concert will be in the acoustically brilliant Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. The performances will feature a 24-piece period-instrument baroque orchestra, 5 outstanding vocal soloists, and a 17-voice professional choir from the Madison Choral Project.

Bach composed the Mass in B minor during the final 18 years of his life; adding, editing, and re-working it into his final year, 1750. The result is about 100 minutes of music that is instantly engaging, highly varied in its variety of ensemble and style, unified to the Nth degree, and structurally perfect. And somehow the Mass in B minor it is at once both magnificent and intimate.

The First Congregational United Church of Christ, with its neo-Georgian design (begun in 1928), captures the 18th-century ideals of dignified ambiance and sonic balance that Bach understood. The sound has tremendous detail, yet everything contributes to the warm cumulative tonal glow.

The much more recent Atrium Auditorium (below), built in 2008, at First Unitarian Society brings out the immediacy of the music-making. The sight lines are direct, and the acoustics brilliant; the audience feels very connected with the performers.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

Both venues are absolutely perfect for period-instrument performance, which emphasizes the detail and vitality of the music rather than sheer decibels.

Seating is limited at both venues, so purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended.

 

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Classical music: Another weekend means more holiday shopping is in store. So to help you, here is the list of gifts by critics for The New York Times.

December 6, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Here’s comes another weekend, and you know what that means at this time of the year.

MORE SHOPPING!

Last week, on Black Friday, the classical music critics for The New York Times offered their gift suggestions for this holiday season.

They added a nice twist.

Instead of keeping up with brand new recordings, the critics went to “the vault” and focused on the things historical – recordings and videos.

Some newer things did sneak in – like John Eliot Gardiner’s new book about Johann Sebastian Bach (below) called “Music in the Castle of Heaven” — it would go well with a set of the cantatas recorded by Gardiner — which also received a separate rave review from Times critic and editor James Oestreich:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/04/books/bach-music-in-the-castle-of-heaven-by-john-eliot-gardiner.html?hpw&rref=books

Bach1

Bach Music in the Castle of Heaven

Anthony Tommasini chose lots of opera – especially Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera as well as Richard Tucker — was covered, but so was a lot of other music, including the complete music by Benjamin Britten (below), whose birthday centennial was Nov. 22.

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten Complete CD set

Leonard Bernstein (below), as musician and educator, was also well represented.

Leonard Bernstein conducting

And to be fair, the prices of the suggested gifts ranged from under $20 to several hundred dollars of massive boxed sets.

Here is a link to the story

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/29/arts/music/classical-gems-from-the-vault.html

Happy hunting and happy listening.

And rest assured: I will be posting more gift guides as they appear.

But don’t forget to leave your own gift suggestions in the COMMENTS section of this blog.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Choral music is key to Johann Sebastian Bach as both man and musician, says expert conductor John Eliot Gardiner in his new book. You can hear the St. Thomas Church Boys Choir of Leipzig sing Bach this Sunday night at 7 in Luther Memorial Church.

November 2, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

To say that Johann Sebastian Bach loved choral music is something of an understatement.

This Sunday night, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m., tomorrow night, you can hear some of that sublime music performed by the same boys choir that Bach himself (below) directed from 1723 to his death in 1750 at the Saint Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. (The choir was founded in 1212. For more information, visit www.thomaskirche.org)

Bach1

Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave., will host the St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig during the first U.S. concert tour of its 800-year history. The choir will sing from the church’s rear balcony, just as it performs at St. Thomas.

St. Thomas Boys Choir

The program includes music of Bach (Cantata Nos. 196 and 150; and the Motet “Singet dem Herrn”); and Antonio Vivaldi (“Magnificat” and “Gloria”). All are masterpieces that have survived the test of time.

For tickets and further information go to: www.luthermem.org

Tickets are available for purchase online on the Luther Memorial website at www.luthermem.org via Brown Paper Tickets. You can select your seats from a seating chart of the church’s nave at $20, $30 or $60. (Below is the Luther Memorial Church interior.)

luther memorial church madison

But the music is about more than beauty, if you listen to John Eliot Gardiner (below), the distinguished British conductor of the Monteverdi Choir who has recorded all the surviving cantatas (about 100 of 300 were lost) after performing them around the world.

John Eliot Gardiner

This week, Gardiner published a book about Bach: “Bach: Music In the Castle of Heaven” (Alfred A. Knopf). It promises to be as important to Bach scholarship and studies as works by Harvard scholar Christoph Wolff, Albert Schweitzer and Philipp Spitta.

Bach Music in the Castle of Heaven

Gardiner also did a long, insightful and informative Q&A with Tom Huizenga, the director of NPR’s terrific classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence.”

The surprising interview includes sound snippets as examples, drawn from Gardiner’s extensive discography. And Gardiner even suggests which single cantata if the best one to listen to if you can only listen to one. (Can you guess which one? It is at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

It would be perfect to read or listen either before the St. Thomas Boys Choir concert or after.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/10/25/240780499/bach-unwigged-the-man-behind-the-music


Classical music: German cellist Alban Gerhardt talks about the rarely played Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante that he will perform this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra as well as his hectic life on the road and in the recording studio. Part 1 of 2.

February 5, 2013
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UPDATES and ALERTS: The Madison Symphony Orchestra is offering a two-for-the price of one ticket sale to this concert if you mention the promotional code word CELLO either in person or on the phone at the Overture Center box office or use it on-line. The sale started today and ends at midnight Wednesday. Also, on this Thursday at noon, on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “The Midday” with host Norman Gilliland (88.7 FM in the Madison area), cellist Alban Gerhardt will be the guest.

By Jacob Stockinger

There are many things that appeal to The Ear about this weekend’s concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with its music director and conductor John DeMain.

In deep winter, it will be so welcome to feel the scented warm air of Spain as evoked in Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole.”

And then there is the chance to hear a rarely heard Beethoven symphony – the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, which was recently named an ideal piece of classical music for exercising and workout. This symphony usually falls in the shadows of its predecessor (No. 3 “Eroica”) and successor (No. 5). But it is great music nonetheless.

Yet perhaps the biggest draw remains something of a curiosity –- Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante (or Cello Symphony), which is not often heard in performance or recordings.

Also appealing is the cello soloist: the German cellist Alban Gerhardt (below), who has played in Madison several times. Born in 1969, he started piano and cello lessons at 8.

Alban Gerhardt playing 2

Gerhardt is outstanding and is known not only for his exceptional tone and musicianship, but also for his intense and emotional but outgoing playing that connects with audiences.

He is, in short, an unabashed and unapologetic extrovert, as he demonstrated in the email Q&A he recently gave to The Ear and which was written on the road between concert stops in Saarbrucken and Brussels.

The concerts are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16.50-$78.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, visit:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/gerhardt

For very informative and accessible program notes by MSO trombonist and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen, visit:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1213/6.Feb13.html

And here is a link to Gerhart’s own well-organized and illuminating website with his biography, concert dates, repertoire, photos, music in schools and other activities (it is also available in German):

http://www.albangerhardt.com/english/index.html

Here is my email Q&A with cellist Alban Gerhardt in two parts. Today, he discusses his huge repertoire and his hectic life as a professional cellist on the road and in the recording studio as well as his view of the Prokofiev work. Tomorrow, he will discuss how he came to the cello, what he thinks of Madison and his views about the best ways to educate young people about music and to involve new audiences of adults.

alban gerhardt playing.pg

What are your current and future plans in terms of concertizing, recordings and other projects?

As always, the repertoire at hands is quite diverse — last month it was the Friedrich Gulda Concerto in Brussels, and now in Brussels, but with an orchestra from Germany, I am playing Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations.

After my Prokofiev performance in Madison, I was supposed to perform the Elgar Concerto in Minneapolis, but the orchestra is unfortunately locked out by management, so these concerts got cancelled. That is good for me, as it gives me a few extra days at home in Berlin before playing the Dvorak Concerto in Dublin and the Schumann Concerto in Zürich.

After a couple of recitals I will play Britten’s gorgeous Cello Symphony in Madrid, Walton’s Cello Concerto in Spokane, Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto in Nurenberg, the sixth Bach solo suite at Sir John Eliot Gardiner‘s Bach Marathon at the Royal Albert Hall (below) in London (quite an honor for me as the only cellist to be asked by the one of the world’s foremost Bach specialists to play the greatest of all Bach) — and this is only until April.

Royal Albert Hall exterior

After that I am not counting as I try to live more in the moment. Recording projects there are plenty as my label Hyperion wants me to record quite different things for them. In their series Romantic Cello Concertos, I am going to record two concerti by Henri Vieuxtemps and two pieces for cello and orchestra by Eugene Ysaye at the beginning of April in Antwerp.

In late August I will record all the Hindemith concertos with the DSO Berlin, and later this year another encore disc plus a Russian recital disc with Cecile Licad with Rachmaninov and Prokofiev Sonatas.

But my biggest undertaking will be to convince my unborn son to come into this world when I am in Berlin middle of June with this kind of schedule: June 1, Dvorak in Leipzig; June 2, chamber music (with my violinist wife) in Braunlage; June 4 and 5 rehearsals in Munich; June 8, Brahms Double Concerto in Berlin with the RSB; June 10 and 11, the Chin Concerto in Munich with Kent Nagano and the State Opera Orchestra; June 14, another Dvorak near Leipzig; June 16, a recital in Bad Kissingen; and June 28, a Brahms Double Concerto in Hamm (with my wife).

The due date is June 18, but both of us were two and three weeks early. So probably he’ll come beginning of the month. I am praying for June 3, which is also easy to remember: 6-3-13.

alban gerhardt casual

What would you like to say about Prokofiev’s “Sinfonia Concertante”? Why do you think it isn’t it programmed and performed more often? Are there certain things you would like listeners especially to listen for? Are there other works by Prokofiev or other composers you would compare it to? How do you think it fit a into the program with Ravel (“Rapsodie Espagnole”) and Beethoven (Symphony No. 4)?

Prokofiev’s Cello Symphony is one of the 20th century’s great concertos, created by the collaboration of a genius composer with a genius musician, Mstislav Rostropovich (below), who even wrote certain passages himself (the virtuosic moments in the first movement, for example).

Mstislav Rostropovich

It is based on Prokofiev’s first cello concerto, which is so dark and difficult that none of them were convinced it would work. So both of them sat together and by re-writing it, more or less created a totally different piece, much more accessible and impressive, even though much easier to play than the concerto.

I have recorded both pieces for Hyperion and it is interesting to see the thematic similarities, while the atmosphere and the mood are totally different.

Why is it is not performed more often? Not my fault. I play it as often as I am asked to do it — but especially in the cello repertoire, audiences seem to be more hesitant to listen to “not so common” pieces than with the piano or the violin, which is the reason why orchestras don’t dare to schedule a bigger variety of cello concertos. There are so many great concertos for the cello that are hardly ever played — when have you heard (live) the Barber Concerto, for example? And it is such an amazing work!

I heard Rostropovich play the Prokofiev (a YouTube video of him in the opening part of the “Sinfonia Concertante” is at bottom) when I was a child growing up in Berlin, and I was deeply impressed and knew that one day I would need to perform this piece. As hellishly difficult as it might sound, it is s-o-o-o much fun to play.

After a short first movement comes a monster movement, pyrotechnics at first, a drop-dead-gorgeous second theme (perfect love-theme for any movie score!), a thrilling solo cadenza in which the cellist goes completely nuts, finishing off with octave scales, and the last movement follows promptly as a theme with variations, very witty, sometimes funny, sometimes dark, sometimes drunken. (Kurt Masur, when I did it with him in Leipzig, told me to play one of the variations like a drunken sailor, and I still remember this image very vividly.) The end must be the quickest and have the highest notes in the entire cello repertoire. Shortly before the end, though, you will hear a passage by the horns and the strings which sounds just like “Peter and the Wolf” — each time I perform this I can’t help feeling like a child again. It makes me so happy.

Any other piece to compare it to? No, it’s quite unique, but typically Prokofiev (below)! It fits beautifully into this program, all great music, very different colors and expressions, but all pieces that are very colorful and expressive. I love it, and can’t wait to play it!

Serge Prokofiev

Tomorrow: Cellist Alban Gerhardt will discuss how he came to the cello and his career as a professional musician; what he thinks of Madison; the best ways to educate young people about music and to involve new audiences of adults.


Classical music: Looking for a great holiday music gift? Look to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a new book and recording that show how revolutionary and radical the work is.

November 24, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, it started with Gray Thursday and yesterday proceeded to Black Friday. Today is Small Business/Shop Local Saturday and then we move on to Cyber-Monday.

Yes, the holiday gift-giving season– and especially gift-BUYING season — is upon us. And how!!!

The Ear has long proposed combining a book, a CD and a ticket to a live performance.

And this year offers a perfect chance.

Take no doubt the most famous four notes –- made up of just two tones, a minor third – in all of classical music.

They are: DUH-DUH-DUH-DAHHHH.

Say it out loud and you will recognize at once the “fate knocking on the door” motif opening of the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), a work of unparalleled forcefulness for its time – of any time really. It was the “Rite of Spring” of its day.

Half a century ago, Leonard Bernstein (below) discussed Beethoven’s Fifth in a wonderfully lucid talk. He particularly emphasized the inevitability of all the repetitions at the end. I can still see Lenny on TV standing on a floor that was covered with the score that he was discussing.
Well, lo these many years later come two other Great Explainers. 

The first is Boston Globe writer and critic come Matthew Guerrieri (below top) in his book “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination” (below bottom), which is available as both a regular book and an e-book/Kindle.

The second is the award-winning Sir John Eliot Gardiner (below), who conducts and records with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, (the ORR, or Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra) and who gives his take on the opening of the famous symphony, which he has just released a new recording from live performances of the Fifth and the Seventh Symphonies at Carnegie Hall.

Gardiner and Guerrieri also talked to NPR host Robert Siegel on “All Things Considered” about how period-instrument playing has evolved from historical accuracy to more expressive and visceral playing and the role the Romanticism, the French Revolution and the role that the newly invented metronome played in helping Beethoven decide how fast the symphony should be played.

You can find the story on NPR’s always outstanding classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence.”

Here is a link. Take a listen and tell me it isn’t like hearing this iconic work with new ears – and makes you want to share the news and beauty by giving them as a gift.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/11/19/165495617/beethovens-famous-4-notes-truly-revolutionary-music

Do you have a favorite recording of Beethoven’s Fifth that you recommend? (I personally like Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon).

Leave a COMMENT with your pick.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Madison’s early music duo Ensemble SDG explores the rarely heard music of Johann Georg Pisendel and his Baroque contemporaries with outstanding results.

October 1, 2012
1 Comment

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 MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The motto “Soli Deo gloria” (Glory [be] to God Alone) was once a familiar one to musicians, and was used very frequently by J.S. Bach as the sign-off to manuscripts of his sacred works. John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir have created a recording label using this SDG motto.

The Ensemble SDG (below) in Madison consists of violinist Edith Hines and harpsichordist John Chappell (“Chappy”) Stowe. Hines, trained in both period and modern playing at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, among other places, has been serving with the two local orchestras, plus the Madison Bach Musicians and other groups for some years. Stowe is the well-established professor of organ and harpsichord, who is expert in early keyboard music.

They formed this duo in 2009 and have been giving regular concerts here and elsewhere, including at the Boston Early Music Festival. They seem to relish exploring together Baroque music both familiar and unjustly neglected. Their concert on the UW campus on Saturday evening exemplified their collegial enterprise.

The program was an unusually well-focused one. Under the title of “Music of Dresden in the Time of Johann Georg Pisendel,” they sampled the connections and assimilative efforts of a major music center at a pivotal time in late Baroque musical development.

Pisendel (1687-1755) was an almost exact contemporary of J.S. Bach, who was a personal friend and colleague. Pisendel travelled extensively, especially in Italy, where he met many masters and absorbed much.

The program opened with a four-movement Sonata in G minor, and closed with a three-movement Sonata in D, adapted from a violin concerto of his own. These two, among his many compositions, show his style as a kind of fusion of Bach and Vivaldi, bringing to his Dresden center a remarkable degree of Italianate passion and exuberance.

Other works were linked to Pisendel and his Dresden world. A four-movement Sonata in B-flat by Tomaso Albinoni (below) was a gift to him from the composer, and possibly composed explicitly for him. A four-movement Sonata in F, Op. 1, No. 7, reveals a French virtuoso striving to sound Italian, with much success. Pisendel copied out this work personally, as part of his exploration of different styles of the moment and their possible interaction.

Most curious was a six-movement Suite in A by the lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss (below, 1686-1750), a Pisendel colleague at Dresden and also a friend of Bach. The latter took this suite, transcribed the lute writing for keyboard, superimposed a violin part on top, and added an opening movement entirely of his own. (For this, Stowe shifted to a “Lautenwerk” harpsichord that parallels lute sound.) In this one could hear the more stiff German style of Baroque Saxony, though perhaps unfairly represented in a work that did not quite crystallize coherently.

The duo brought off this unusual and rarely heard literature with flair. Hines was breathtaking in her command of the wild virtuosity for which Pisendel was famous as a player and which he build into his compositions. In general, her pure, vibrato-less playing took on also, it seemed to me, a new strength and projecting power. And “Chappy,” as always, was the understanding and expert partner.

The usual printed program, be it noted, was augmented by a sheet of extensive and excellent notes on Pisendel and the music.

Once again, the concert proved a reminder of Madison’s vibrant musical life in general, and of its early music scene in particular.


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