The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival opens with Anonymous 4 and wows a record crowd.

July 9, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

The number 13 might just be the luckiest number of all for the Madison Early Music Festival.

That is because the annual festival opened its 13th annual season Saturday night with an outstanding and memorable success. It did so by presenting the award-winning and best-selling a cappella quartet of women singers, Anonymous 4.

The program featured early American music, an extension of the festival last year that featured early music from the Spanish colonies in the South and Latin America.

It helped, one suspects, to have an acclaimed headliner group like Anonymous 4 and also to co-sponsor the event with the well-known Milwaukee-based early music presenter Early Music Now, which drew quite a few Milwaukeeans to Madison.

The combination brought a record-setting audience to both the pre-concert lecture and the concert itself.

The lecture, given by Prof. Lawrence Bennett (below) of Wabash College, filled the audience in on the evolution and various periods and genres of early American music from church hymns and folk hymns to fuguing tunes. His talk was a model of clarity made even more appealing and enlightening by Bennett’s unabashed willingness to draw on his own professional experience  and sing solo when he offered examples of what he thought should be familiar tunes.

After the lecture came the concert, which filled Mills Hall more than I have ever seen for any MEMF event, including the popular All-Festival wrap-up concert, which is next Saturday night. The hall was almost sold-out (below).

Festival co-directors Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman-Rowe (below) were clearly elated with the packed and enthusiastic house, which seems to The Ear to mark a historic turning point for the festival.

Of course an argument can be made that the festival has stepped outside its usual boundaries. Much of the American music dates from after the deaths of Mozart and Haydn, and even of Beethoven and Schubert – and those are composers that the festival chooses to ignore in favor of emphasizing pre-Baroque music.

But then again, why be a purist? This was indeed early music, very early in fact for North America — even if not for Europe. In any case, the audience clearly loved it and the choice proved an outstanding one to build up attendance, which one expects will carry over to future years.

As for the music and the performance, it is hard to find anything to criticize negatively.

Dressed simply in black, Anonymous 4 (below, in Mills Hall) kept the audience’s attention and interest – there was remarkably little coughing or page-turning, sure signs of distraction — by grouping works and varying what they sang, which included two different versions of “Amazing Grace,” “The Lost Girl” and “Shall We Gather at the River.”

Each singer demonstrated time and again that she possessed a strong voice with a distinctive tone. They all sang strongly, without strain and also without amplification. Yet they also sang softly very often, with depth of tone, and with great balance and dynamics in the parts.

All four blended and harmonized beautifully and confidently. But they also sang as soloists and in duos, demonstrating that there was not a weak link in the chain.

I was especially impressed with the diction and articulation. There were only a very few words of the many texts that I did not catch. How refreshing it is to understand the text without staring at program notes while listening at the same time. This way, you could really concentrate on the music and the performance.


If such a thing as a Time Machine exists, it is surely this kind of music in this kind of performance. You only had to listen intently to be transported back to the age of Shape-Note Singing and of that plaintive Appalachian quasi-wail or yelp, done with little or no vibrato, to step backwards into a wholly different era.

Everything was minimal and focused your attention on the music and the musicians. The “Gloryland” program was an ideal 75 minutes long and was performed straight through without the distraction of an intermission.

The bare stage was set up with only four sitting chairs and four music stands to stand at plus a few bottles of water for the singers to keep their vocal chords lubed.

In every way, it proved an exceptionally musical and exceptionally enjoyable concert that the audience rewarded with a prolonged standing ovation (below) and loud cheers. And apparently that experience was shared by the performers since the beaming members of Anonymous 4 returned twice to sing an encore, including a greta version of “Thank You.”

Just maybe the MEMF has found a formula that works and will bring an even wider public to their significant achievements.

As a fan of MEMF, I will repeat what I have often said: Along with neglected or unknown pre-Baroque composers, why not also occasionally feature some of the more popular composers like Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert in authentic performances.

I still recall MEMF’s performances of Vivaldi, Handel and especially J.S Bach, which drew big houses and which – for me at least and, I suspect, for many others – also did not compromise the cause.

But I leave that to MEMF to decide – though your input in the COMMENTS section here might be appreciated and provide helpful guidance.

In the mean while, you should know that many more lectures, concerts and master classes – including a FREE class in Shape Note Singing on Wednesday night — await you before the festival ends next Saturday night.

For more information about programs, performers, tickets and history of the festival, visit:

You can also visit the two-part Q&A I did with MEMF co-director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe:

Classical music review: The Ear thanks the many University of Wisconsin-Madison students who warmed him with their music during last weekend’s “Carnival” marathon.

March 9, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You know how it is. Sometimes it just takes too long to get off a Thank You note.

There’s no good reason for the delay. It just happens and you feel bad.

And that is what this posting is.

So I just want to apologize and say I am sorry and send an overdue Thank You to the several dozen UW students – most of them in music and most of them pianists, but not all – who staged the four-hour “Carnival” marathon concert last Saturday afternoon from noon to 4 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. (Below, UW piano professor Martha Fischer kicks off the event with a welcome).

Space won’t allow me to mention all of them, or even most of them, or even just all the highlights, of which there were many, so many.

But it was an enjoyable and informative event I will remember for a very long time, one that impressed me the same way that the Mozart Piano Sonata marathon and the Chopin Mazurka Marathon did. It is great to see students, teachers and the public pulling together and cooperating to make an unusual event successful. We need more of them. (All the Chopin waltzes and nocturnes, or Bach preludes and fugues, anyone?)

Last Saturday was a very cold day and I found my way through ice and wind and slush on the streets. But once inside the concert hall, what greeted me was the warm music from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Catalonia and Portugal) and Latin America.

I heard wonderful music by some well-known names including Granados, Albeniz, Piazzolla, Lecuona, Ponce, Golijov, Ginastera, DeFalla, Villa Lobos, Mompou and even Debussy, the French composer who was influenced by Spanish music.

But I also heard some composers and music new to me, including works by Aute, Guerra-Peixa, Terzian, Montsalvatge, Novarro, Toro, Leon, Infante and Alarcon as well as British composer Mike Mower. And I heard a two-piano, eight-hand fantasy on themes from Bizet‘s “Carmen.” What a finale! And then was UW salsa band (below top) playing during Latin food and refreshments at the free reception where you could meet and congratulate the performers.

The crowd was enthusiastic, if small. People came and went, but no more than perhaps three dozen listeners filled the hall at any one time. Too bad! The event deserved better exposure and attendance.

But the small audience didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm or energy of the performers, who gave it their all and played with joy and soul, without hesitation or memory lapses.

So let me give some shout-outs to a few stand-outs:

Modern Argentinean literature graduate student Vicente Lopez Abad (below) played his guitar and sang soulful solo songs three different times during the concert. They were beautiful, and as you watched his closed and clenched eyes, you felt the intense intimacy and emotion he brought to his performances and took from the songs.

Jenny Jones (below) played a slow sonata by the Baroque composer Antonio Soler. Slow music sounds easy to play, but it is really very hard. And this performance was a marvel of control and quiet intensity.

Another standout was pianist Sung Ho Yang (below), who mastered the fiercely difficult, knuckle-busting and finger-twisting virtuosity of “Triana” by Albeniz and took listeners beyond technique to the music.

I am also a sucker for the music of Astor Piazzolla, whose “new tangos” invariably tear at my heart with their lyrical bittersweetness and make me weep. So I have to thank Wiiliam Mueller (below) who played his “Ausencias.”

I also have to thank duo-pianists Melody Ng and Hazim Suhadi (below) who played a great and stirring two-piano arrangement of “Adios Nonino,” Piazzolla’s farewell to his father. (Another two-piano version is at the bottom.)

Other duo-pianists, Melody Ng and Evan Engelstad played a piano, four-hand version of Piazzolla’s “Libertango” during which they slapped the piano case and twice changed places while playing.

I also have to thank the trio of violinist Maria Schultz, cellist Mark Bridges and pianist Monica Schultz (all below) in their playing of two of Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires.” (Through them, I found I like the chamber version more than the orchestral version.)

Close behind Piazzolla to my taste is Granados, who wrote great lyrical tunes and who died too young during the sinking of the Lusitania. Ciaoyin Cal (below) played his music with beautiful clarity and subtlety.

I also loved the singing of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Sams, accompanied by pianist Kirstin Ihde (below) in five songs by Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge. So much of this piano and string music in general seemed very vocal and dance-like in nature.

And there was more, believe me, much more.

Was there any to criticize, any missteps?

A few minor ones.

The formal talk about Salsa and then the actual Salsa dancing (below) by members of Madtown Rueda Salsa just didn’t seem to fit with the tone of the concert, as enjoyable as the well–intended events were.

I would have preferred to hear someone talk about why so much Spanish and Latin Americana music seems to have an undercurrent of sadness that you don’t usually find in the music of other Romance cultures, including France and Italy. (Is it the dark power of the church and Inquisition? The long suppression of democracy? The paradoxically austere sensuality? The “tragic sense of life” as defined by a famous Spanish philosopher?)

There also seemed to be an assumption that the audience read and understood Spanish. So there were no translations on the programs. Too bad! Titles can tell you a lot.

And there was no Scarlatti! No Domenico Scarlatti, who was a great keyboard master and composer, and whose shot and colorful sonatas are so famous for imitating castanets, dancing steps and guitar strumming. And also no Ravel, who also Spanish color and used it in his piano and chamber music.

But those are minor points, given how much there was to praise.

So though it is late, I say to all of you, named and unnamed, pictured and invisible, a hearty and sincere THANK YOU.

Or, should I say, GRACIAS. 

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