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: Is Prokofiev more Romantic than modernist? Hear for yourself at the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and violinist Giora Schmidt. Plus, the UW Symphony Orchestra performs a FREE concert Thursday night

February 21, 2018
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ALERTS: This Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform a FREE concert under the baton of alumnus and guest conductor Mikko Rankin Utevsky, the founder and director of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO).  The program features the Symphony No. 5 by Franz Schubert; “Entr’acte” by Caroline Shaw; and the “Holberg Suite” by Edvard Grieg.

The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features guitarist Steve Waugh and flutist Sridhar Bagavathula playing music by Frederic Chopin, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, Francisco Tarrega, Francois Morel and Jerome Kern. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes the frame helps to define the picture, to reveal or at least reinforce the picture’s meaning.

Such is the case with this Friday night’s appealing and stand-out concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with conductor Andrew Sewell and Israeli violin soloist Giora Schmidt (below, in a photo by David Getzschman).

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in The Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Tickets are $15-$80 with student tickets available for $10. For more information about the performers and the program, as well as how to obtain tickets, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-ii-3/

The program features the “Petite Symphonie” (Small Symphony) for winds by the Romantic French composer Charles Gounod (below), who is much better known for and more often performed for his operas “Faust” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Then there is the melodic, popular and often performed Serenade for Strings by the Russian arch-Romantic Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below). Like so much Tchaikovsky – both his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Violin Concerto, now staples of the repertoire, were deemed unplayable when first composed – the Serenade can  sound less challenging than it really is.

In between comes a modern masterpiece that The Ear is especially fond of: The Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor by the Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below).

And that is where it gets especially interesting.

Prokofiev is often lumped together with his Russian contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich (below). Both were virtuoso pianists. Both faced hardships from the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. And while it is true that some of Prokofiev’s music shares a certain spikiness as well as harmonic darkness and dissonance with that of his contemporary, the pairing can be misleading.

To The Ear, much more — maybe even most — of Prokofiev’s music shares a lot more with the late Russian Romantics, including Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Roughly and with some exceptions, he sees Prokofiev as modern Russia’s Mozart for his melodic clarity, and Shostakovich as modern Russia’s Beethoven for his harmonic thickness.

The Ear doesn’t know if that same point is intended and was in mind when maestro Andrew Sewell (below) set up the concert, but he suspects it was because Sewell is a canny and intelligent programmer.

But intentional or not, no matter: the point stands.

If a single moment offers proof, The Ear would single out the opening of the slow movement of the Prokofiev concerto.

It has a beautiful melodic line, moving harmonies and a hypnotic clock-like rhythm to a theme-and-variation development that sounds unmistakably modern but accessibly modern in the same way that the never-fail Violin Concerto by the American composer Samuel Barber does.

You can hear the second movement in a YouTube video at the bottom and make up your own mind. It is performed by the way by the great David Oistrakh for whom Prokofiev composed the concerto.

Suffice it to say that The Ear has never heard that movement without the little hairs on the back of his neck standing up, much like happens with the famous 18th Variation in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” or the opening of the first and second movements of the Barber Violin Concerto.

If you know that music by Prokofiev, you will be happy you hear it again. And if you don’t already know it, you will be forever grateful to have made its acquaintance.

Anyway, The Ear will assume that the programming was deliberate and establishes for the audience a context for the Prokofiev, which is the most important and substantial work on the program.

And Giora Schmidt (below),k who is making his Madison debut, certainly sounds like the kind of virtuoso who will do justice to the work. Just read the critics’ raves on his website:

https://www.gioraschmidt.com


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Classical music: Music Makers for young children gives its FREE debut concert as a WYSO group this Sunday afternoon. Plus, you can hear violin sonatas by Mozart and Brahms FREE on Friday at noon

November 16, 2017
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features violinist Tyrone Greive, retired UW-Madison Professor and former Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster, with pianist Michael Keller in the Sonata in E Minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Sonata in G Major by Johannes Brahms. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Want to see where music and social justice meet?

WYSO Music Makers (below) will give its inaugural concert as a part of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras on this Sunday, Nov. 19, at UW-Madison Music Hall, 925 Bascom Mall on Bascom Hill, at 4 p.m.

The program includes pieces by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Harold Arlen and more. (No specific titles were provided.)

Admission is FREE.

Free parking is available on Sundays in the nearby Grainger Hall garage.

The Madison Music Makers program was acquired by WYSO in July of 2017. Currently directed by accomplished violinist Paran Amirinazari (below), WYSO Music Makers aims to enrich and develop the music skills of children from all backgrounds in an inclusive, non-competitive environment. (You can hear more background about Music Makers in the YouTube videos below and at the bottom)

“We are proud of each of our students’ progress, their positive attitudes, the kindness they bring to class and show each other, and their openness to the changes this year,” said Amirinazari (below), a UW-Madison graduate who plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Willy Street Chamber Players and is the concertmaster of the Middleton Community Orchestra. “We are so proud they have chosen music as part of their voice.”

For more information about the program, call the WYSO office at (608) 263-3320, or e-mail Paran Amirinazari at paran@wysomusic.org.

WYSO Music Makers is supported by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation


Classical music: Madison Summer Choir addresses current events with outstanding performances of great choral music

June 28, 2016
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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 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

For eight years, the Madison Summer Choir (below) has been giving an annual concert. This year’s, on Saturday night, under founder and conductor Ben Luedcke, was built around the theme “This is My Song! – Music in the Struggle for Peace and Justice.”

Madison Summer Choir 2016 with piano JWB

And, indeed, Luedcke (below) introduced most of the selections with pointed remarks, addressing issues faced today, and the need for making ours a better world.

Ben Luedcke.1jpg

The first part of the program began with the “big tune” from Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia, set to English words. This was sung a cappella, while the four short items that followed had piano accompaniment.

Two of those pieces—by composers Stephen Chatman and Sven Lekberg—carried poems by Walt Whitman, while another, by Joan Szymko, set a text by Wendell Berry. But the gem of the set was a short partsong, An die Heimat (To my Homeland), by that truly great choral master, Johannes Brahms. 

After the intermission, the chorus of 66 voices was joined by an orchestra (below) of 32, for the musical plateau.

Madison Summer Choir 2016 with orchestra JWB

Felix Mendelssohn is one of the handful of supreme choral composers (think of his oratorio Elijah!). As a warmer-upper, we were given his brief setting of Martin Luther’s translation of the Latin Dona nobis pacem as Verleih uns Frieden (Grant us Peace). (You can hear Mendelssohn’s beautiful “Verleih uns Frieden” in a YouTube video at the bottom)

But the true main event was a rousing performance of Mendelssohn’s unfairly neglected cantata, Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night). This sets a ballad by Goethe portraying a band of Druids arranging to celebrate a holy solstice rite in the face of newly triumphant Christian intolerance. By making an unholy racket, they drive away their persecutors and launch the myth of St. Walburga’s Night (Walpurgisnacht, on April 30) as an occasion of Satanic rumpus (think Goethe’s and Gounod’s Faust).

The work calls for three solo singers (below), this time contralto Jessica Timman Schwefel, tenor Dan O’Dea, and baritone Ben Li (of whom the tenor was the most impressive). This score is one of striking dramatic effect and musical force, but it is too brief to find a place in most concert repertoire.

Madison Summer Choir 2016 3 soloists No. 2 JWB

Singers and players threw themselves into it with wonderful gusto under propulsive direction. We must thank Luedcke for giving us a rare chance to enjoy it.

The final piece was a movement from a choral symphony by Srul Irving Glick: making a truly splendid choral sound that, however, quite obliterated the uplifting words.

Overall, the program showed that Luedcke had nurtured, in a short time, a choir of nicely balanced and blended voices. With the best of their material, they made a wonderfully glowing sound.

One more example, then, of the quite stunning riches of Madison’s summer musical life!


Classical music: Madison Summer Choir auditions are on Monday and Tuesday nights, May 16 and 17, when rehearsals also start. Performance is on Saturday, June 25. Plus, a FREE concert of flute music is this Friday at noon

May 4, 2016
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the historic Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features the Madison Flute Club Chamber Ensemble. It will perform music by Phyllis Louke, George Gershwin, Daniel Harrison, Julius Fucik and Ken Kreuser.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Summer Choir (below) has announced this summer’s auditions, rehearsals, program and concert.

Madison Summer Choir ovation

The Madison Summer Choir, which was founded by and is directed by UW-Madison alumnus Ben Luedcke and which usually has about 80 voices, meets for six weeks in May and June to prepare major choral and choral-orchestral works.

Ben Luedcke conducts voces aestratis

This year, the featured works on the “This Is My Song: Music in the Struggle for Peace and Justice” program, will be “Die erste Walpurgisnacht” (The First Walpurgis Night) and “Verleih uns Frieden” (Grant Us Peace, a beautiful work you can hear in the YouTube video at bottom) by Felix Mendelssohn; “Finlandia,” by Jean Sibelius, and other works by Johannes Brahms ad Sven Lekberg.

Complete information about dates, music, and concert tickets can be found on the website: www.madisonsummerchoir.org

Auditions will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, May 16 and 17, when the first rehearsals begin. Auditions will take place in UW-Madison Humanities Building, Room 1351, 455 N Park St, Madison WI 53706. 

Weekly rehearsals – WHICH START ON  THE MAY 16 TIME — will be held weekly on the same days and times.

Returning summer choir members and members of auditioned ensembles in the area do NOT need to audition. Those who need to audition should contact the conductor. The contact email is: madisonsummerchoir@gmail.com

The concert will be in Mills Hall on Saturday, June 25, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.


Classical music: Oh say, Can You See Common Sense? On Independence Day -– the Fourth of July -– let us recall how the national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” has evolved. Standards of social justice and definitions of independence should also do so.

July 4, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today –- July 4, 2014 — is Independence Day in the United States.

TETRRF-00024113-001

We will celebrate with food, drink and fireworks as well as parades and social events.

But make no mistake: Our celebrations have changed, necessarily, with history.

Despite what some misdirected U.S. Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia (below top), Clarence Thomas and others think with their so-called “originalism,” we all live in history.

antonin scalia rants

Supreme Court 2010

The assumptions and interpretations of Originalism have been debunked by many scholarly professors who specialize in 18th-century American discourse and law, and whose research disproves those same assumptions and interpretations to be mistaken.

To The Ear, it is kind of like hearing the radically conservative activists of the Right Wing accuse leftists and liberals of being activist: Name-calling hypocrisy dressed up in new clothes.

Here is a link to an overview critique of Originalism, both the new and old kinds:

http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/new-originalism-a-constitutional-scam

It amounts to this: Whether as individuals or a society, we all change through time.

And so justice and so does music.

The Ear recalls the movements, once fringe and now mainstream, that brought us period instrument and historically informed performances.

That is why we now hear such Baroque masters as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi so differently.

It is also why we hear many other Baroque composers and early music masters that were ignored before.

That is why we now say, “The United States is,” while before the Civil War we said “The United States are.”

Usage evolves. It has to.

That is also why we hear and sing the country’s national anthem -– “The Star-Spangled Banner” -– differently today than we once did. (below is a first edition of the national anthem from the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.)

Star-Spangled Banner first edition Clements Library University fo Michigan

Here is a line to an extended story with more details about the historical evolution of our national anthem in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/arts/music/the-star-spangled-banner-has-changed-a-lot-in-200-years.html?_r=0

Have a Happy and Safe Fourth of July.

And here is the most popular version — with more than 7 million hits and many outrageous listener comments to read — of the national anthem that The Ear could find on YouTube:

 


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