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 for this review.
By John W. Barker
Despite nasty weather and icy conditions, a quite substantial audience turned out for the concert Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below).
There was an unusual element to the program.
The mostly amateur orchestra opened with an exuberant performance of Rossini’s overture to his opera Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy).
Then the normal procedures were interrupted by a local writer, Matt Geiger (below), reading two of his short essays from a recently published collection, which was sold in the lobby.
This appearance was based on his long and valiant boosting of the orchestra in his journalism, but it would have been more appropriate at some community festival than in the midst of an orchestra concert. His essays were not without wit, but had absolutely nothing to do with music.
Back to business with guest soloist Andrew Briggs (below), a young cellist who played two miniatures for his instrument, with orchestra, by Antonin Dvorak.
Silent Woods, Op. 68, No. 5, is sometimes heard as a foil or filler for the composer’s great cello concerto, especially in recordings. Still less familiar is a Rondo in G minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 94. It is a work of charm and imagination.
Briggs played both of these with affectionate sensitivity. Currently finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, he is an artist with an already expanding reputation and a great future.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, the “Reformation.” Composed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, it was offered here as a gesture to this year’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s launching of his Reformation movement with the posting of his 95 Theses. This is a score full of Lutheran symbolism, particularly with the prominent use of Luther’s chorale, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”).
NOTE: You can hear how Mendelssohn uses the Luther hymn in the symphony’s final movement by listening to the YouTube video at the bottom.
Commentators have sometimes shrugged off this work, and it has been overshadowed in audience favor by the composer’s popular third and fourth symphonies. But it is a well-wrought score, full of fine musical interest. Conductor Steve Kurr (below) led the orchestra through a sturdy and solidly played performance, ending the concert on a triumphant note.
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.
By John W. Barker
The program opened with a rarely performed symphony, No. 30 in D Major, K. 202, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart did not muster in this score anything like the ideas he delivered in his symphonies on either side of this one.
Still, it is an engaging piece, and maestro Sewell always shows great sympathy for the Austrian Classical-era composers of the late 18th century, so the performance was nicely molded.
The guest soloist this time was Croatian-born guitarist Ana Vidovic (below). She was originally scheduled to play the Second Guitar Concerto by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, but for some reason she switched late on to the more substantial Concierto de Aranjuez by the 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo.
Unfortunately, Vidovic followed other guitarists of today who feel they must fortify their performances with electronic amplification, so she brought her own rig with her. The result was a boomy, hollow sound, completely artificial, pitted in fake balance against the natural world of the orchestral writing that was rendered, by the way, with charm and delicacy.
The composer (below) was very careful about not allowing the orchestra to overwhelm the intimate guitar, and generations of guitar players have been able to perform this and parallel concertos without benefit of sonic hype.
Alas, the combination of technology with egotism! Vidovic is obviously a musician of genuine artistry, but she quite sabotaged her playing by use of this six-string howitzer. And the knobs were still on through an encore, a trivial Cavatina by one Stanley Meyer.
The evening was richly redeemed by the main work. Sewell has, in recent years, been working his way into the symphonies of the 19th century, late Romantic Austrian composer Anton Bruckner—a composer usually tackled by large orchestras. But he has brought off the first two numbered symphonies with aplomb, and now was the turn of the Third.
This is a work with a complex history of versions and revisions. Sewell bravely chose to use the 1874 revision of the original 1873 version, rather than the ill-fated revision of 1877 or the once-standard bowdlerization of 1889.
Sewell could command only 20 string players, but they proved quite sufficient, even with the occasional divisions of the violins. The reduced lushness resulting allowed inner parts to come through, and the rest of the orchestra played magnificently. Sewell understands Bruckner’s individual rhetoric, with its stop-and-start pacings and dramatic shifts between tremendous power and great delicacy.
Sewell (below) is indeed a born Bruckner conductor. The second movement in particular I have never heard played so eloquently. (You can hear the second movement of the 1874 edition in the YouTube video at the bottom.) I don’t know if Sewell plans to probe still further into Bruckner’s symphonies, but I am ready to follow him eagerly if he does.
Far from being put off by the often-maligned music of Bruckner, the very large audience gave the performance a justly deserved standing ovation. This was, I think, a genuine landmark in the WCO’s history.
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 89.9 FM. For many years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
Last Wednesday night, in the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave what was billed as its “Holiday 2016 Concert.” Fortunately, it had no seasonal connection whatsoever—just a lot of good music.
Opening the program was a sequence of three Slavonic Dances (Nos. 1,4 and 8) by Antonin Dvorak. (You can hear the zesty and energetic first Slavonic Dance, performed by Seiji Ozawa and the Vienna Philharmonic, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The conductor this time, UW-Madison graduate student Kyle Knox (below), was able to point up lots of instrumental details that could be easily lost, and the orchestra played with a lusty vigor appropriate to the folk flavor of this music.
After that, Knox’s wife, Naha Greenholtz (below) — who happens to be the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, among other things—joined the MCO in Felix Mendelssohn’s beautiful and very popular Violin Concerto in E minor.
Greenholtz played from the score, and some occasional technical blurrings suggested that she does not yet have the piece securely in her fingers.
Still, she clearly understands the work’s shape and contours, and I particularly appreciated her flowing tempo for the middle movement, not as slow as we too often hear it. Her overall effect with this concerto was handsome and colorful.
The main work was the Second Symphony by Brahms, which you can hear n the YouTube video at the bottom. This is a challenging work, especially when the important exposition repeat in the long first movement is honored, as Knox did.
Knox showed a thorough grasp of the score, and brought out its structures superbly. I found myself appreciating anew the wondrous way the composer is able to make his themes evolve to reveal unexpected beauties.
Well done, this is a richly satisfying work, and Knox drew out of his players (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) a truly satisfying performance.
The Middleton Community Orchestra continues to develop and progress. Just now, it is rather violin-heavy with 14 firsts and 18 seconds against only 9 violas and 13 cellos. These fiddlers need to blend better, and experience in working together will doubtless move them in that direction.
In general, the orchestra sounded quite healthy, fully supportive in the concerto and really accomplished in the symphony. All that is clearly the result of hard work, and Knox deserves a good deal of the credit for it.
Notable also was the large audience turnout. Middletonians can clearly be proud of their orchestra, and more and more of the Madison public is learning that a trip to the west side can be most rewarding.
The MCO is by now, in its seventh season, a valuable and appreciated component of our area’s musical life.
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
Eschewing any seasonal or holiday connections, the UW-Madison Choral Union (below) gave its December concert last Friday night with a program of three “B’s”.
Well, two of the B’s are familiar ones. But in place of Bach, we got Leonard Bernstein, taking first place in reverse chronological order — his Chichester Psalms, dating from 1965.
This three-movement work probably represents Bernstein’s most important choral score. It sets texts in the original Hebrew, the middle movement calling for a boy treble to represent the young David in the rendering of Psalm 131 — a function here filled bravely by young Simon Johnson (below, front left) of the Madison Youth Choirs.
The platoon of percussionists in the first two movements confirms the composer’s flashy “modernism.” To be sure, there are some characteristic melodic twists that proclaim the composer familiar to us, and the swaying melodic tune of the third movement is really lovely.
But Bernstein (below) did not know what to do with it besides repeating it obsessively. Bernstein simply was not a savvy master of choral writing, and I firmly believe that this work—a trivial cross between Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bernstein’s own Broadway musical West Side Story—would not merit much attention were it not for Bernstein’s name on it.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: You can decide on the work’s merits for yourself by listening to the live performance, conducted by the composer himself, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Just how inadequate Bernstein’s choral sense was emerged clearly with the next work, the short ode for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms, Nänie, Op. 82.
The title adapts a Greek word for a lament, and Friedrich Schiller’s German text evokes the death of beauty in the death of Achilles. Brahms was among the supreme choral masters, and this particular example is one of several of his “minor” choral works that we hear too rarely.
The second half of the program was devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Op. 86. No, not the monumental Missa solemnis of the composer’s last years when (as with the Ninth Symphony’s finale) he had transcended the realities of choral writing. This earlier Mass setting, dating from 1807, was in the direct line of Mass settings for the Esterházy family composed by the aged Haydn.
But to Haydn’s incorporation of symphonic structure into Mass composition, Beethoven (below) brought his own strongly progressive personality, and a remarkable quality of melodic and thematic invention. This is a lovely work, and choirs who fling themselves doggedly against the Missa solemnis ought sometimes to revel in this beautiful work instead.
The forces arrayed included a solo quartet (below, in the front from left) are bass John Loud, tenor Jiabao Zhang and sopranos Jessica Kasinski and Anna Polum.
The UW Chamber Orchestra proved able. But the star was, of course, the Choral Union chorus itself. Its diction worked from indistinguishable Hebrew through respectable German to really lucid Latin. Above all, it made mighty, full-blooded sound that bolstered Beethoven’s lyricism with powerful projection.
Once again, conductor Beverly Taylor (below) has gone beyond stale conventions to bring us valued exposure to music outside the conventional boundaries.
ALERT: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and its acclaimed music director Andrew Sewell are pretty busy these days playing the accompanying music for the Madison Ballet‘s multiple performances of Peter Tchaikovsky‘s holiday ballet “The Nutcracker.”
Then on this coming Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton, the WCO, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir of Madison and guest soloists, all under the baton of Sewell, also give their annual and usually sold-out performance of George Frideric Handel‘s oratorio “Messiah.” The Ear has been told that this year’s performance is also close to selling out to. For more information and tickets, go to:
By Jacob Stockinger
At 8 p.m. this Saturday night, Dec. 10, the Madison Bach Musicians (below top) will give their sixth annual Baroque Holiday Concert.
The event will once again be held in the beautiful and sonorous sanctuary (below) of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue.
There is a free pre-concert lecture by the always witty, informative and entertaining MBM founder, artistic director and harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson (below) at 7:15 p.m. NOTE: Trevor Stephenson will also discuss the upcoming holiday concert and play excerpts from past ones TODAY AT NOON on The Midday program aired by Wisconsin Public Radio.
The program will feature: a cappella (solo vocal) masterworks by Orlando di Lassus and Josquin des Prez performed by a vocal quartet; a Christmas Cantata for soprano and strings by Alessandro Scarlatti—featuring soprano soloist Chelsea Morris (below top); a trio sonata by Johann Joseph Fux; an intriguing Partita for two scordatura violins (scordatura means the open strings are re-tuned into a new interval configuration!) by Heinrich Biber; the Sonatina in A minor for baroque bassoon and continuo by Georg Philipp Telemann ― with soloist and UW-Madison professor Marc Vallon (below bottom, in a photo by James Gill); one of the Christmas Cantatas, BWV 122, Das neugeborne Kindelein (The Newborn Baby) by Johann Sebastian Bach (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); and a bonus feature ― a preview of MBM’s upcoming April performance of Bach’s oratorio St. John Passion, the tenor aria Ach, mein Sinn.
Advance-sale discount tickets: $28 for general admission, $23 for students and seniors 65 and over. They are available at Orange Tree Imports, Farley’s House of Pianos, Room of One’s Own, and Willy Street Co-op (East and West) . You can also find online advance-sale tickets at madisonbachmusicians.org
Tickets at the door are: $30 for general admission; $25 for students and seniors 65 and over. Student Rush tickets are $10 at the door and go on sale 30 minutes before lecture (student ID is required)
Musicians will include: Chelsea Morris, soprano; Joseph Schlesinger, counter-tenor; Scott Brunscheen, tenor; Matthew Tintes, bass; Kangwon Kim and Brandi Berry, baroque violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt, baroque viola; Martha Vallon, baroque cello; Marc Vallon, baroque bassoon; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord
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. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble offered its latest specimen of intimate Baroque chamber music at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street last Sunday afternoon.
As always, each of the performers—six in this case—had one or two opportunities as soloist.
Mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo (below), for instance, was featured in two solo cantatas.
One, by Giovanni Bononcini was on conventional emotional themes.
But the other was a real curiosity. By the French composer Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, it was written for the Nativity season, and has been given a French title as “Hymn of the Angels.” But its text was no more or less than the Latin words of the Gloria section of the Mass Ordinary.
A new member in the group, recorder player Sigrun Paust (below), delivered the Sonata No. 1 from a 1716 collection of works written by Francesco Veracini alternatively for violin or flute.
For flutist Monica Steger (below) the vehicle was a Sonata Op. 91, No. 2, for Flute and Harpsichord duo, by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier.
The spotlight was on viola da gambist Eric Miller (below) in another duo with harpsichord, no less than the Sonata in D Major, BWV 1028, by Johann Sebastian Bach, but Miller also participated in continuo functions elsewhere. (You can hear the Bach sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Likewise active in continuo work was viola da gambist Anton TenWolde (below), but he had one solo, a Capriccio for cello, by Joseph Ferdinand Dall’Abaco.
And the harpsichordist Max Yount (below), also involved in continuo roles, presented two contrasting keyboard pieces, a Toccata by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and a Fantasie by Johann Jakob Froberger.
For a colorful finale, Paust and Miller joined TenWolde and Steger (on harpsichord) in a Trio Sonata in F by Georg Philipp Telemann.
The artistry of these performers (below) was fully up to their own high standards, and their delight in trading off assignments to play together is palpable.
St. Andrew’s Church (below) on Regent Street may have been a bit bigger than a Baroque salon or parlor, but still served well as a setting for this kind of amiable gentility in musical substance.
The group’s next Madison concert is at St. Andrew’s on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. No program has been announced.
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 provided the performance photos.
By John W. Barker
The Salon Piano Series offered by Farley’s House of Pianos on Madison’s far west side continues to be a project of imagination and inspiration, with concerts offering a range of visiting performers and unusual repertoire.
It was quality and quantity in the program offered on Friday night, which was then repeated the following evening. A team of four—count ‘em, four— highly accomplished pianists, who are used to performing together as a team, gave a remarkable concert of multi-piano splendor.
The four (below, from left) are: Spaniard Daniel del Pino, Canadian Lucille Chung, Israeli Alon Goldstein and Italian Roberto Plano. Their collaborative facility is linked to utter enthusiasm in their work.
For this program, Farley’s assembled four superlative instruments. Three are vintage Mason & Hamlin pianos, one made in 1907, the other two dating from 1914; plus a Steinway grand made in 1940. The array of these instruments—all four in the center of the salon, with circles of chairs all around for the audience—was itself an inspiration, and a fine success.
The opening piece was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 381, for piano four hands, a kind of “miniature” introduction, and beautifully played by Chung and Goldstein at the Steinway.
“All hands,” as it were, then turned out for the remainder of the program.
A four-piano arrangement of the Dance Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns was knowingly made in 1874 by Ernest Giraud, a contemporary and colleague of the composer.
This was followed by a more recent effort, a Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s “Carmen” (1994) contrived by the distinguished Mormon musician Mack Wilbert. Both of those works built up spectacular effects of sound and color, in music certainly familiar in their original forms.
Also familiar, of course, is Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, played in this program in a four-piano arrangement by Jacques Drillon (1992). Here, I felt that such an arrangement was a bit forced. All those hands made the repeated rhythmic foundation that much more pounding and more relentless than in the orchestral original, while the colors available from the pianos could not quite match the wonderful varieties that Ravel could draw from his wider range of orchestral instruments.
Particularly disappointing, I found, was a four-piano expansion (1886) by Richard Kleinmichel of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. While the single-piano original is dense, its division among four players was mainly a matter of doubling up the players on the same parts: more analytic than the original, this treatment does not really improve anything.
As an encore, the four delivered a Horowitzian transcription of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. (You can hear Vladimir Horowitz perform it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Responding to endless audience enthusiasm, the four then sat down together at the Steinway to play a Galopp by one Albert Lavignac, written for one piano, eight hands. The four players had a ball climbing all over each other to do this novelty piece as intended.
One interesting feature of the program was the opportunity to hear and compare these four fine pianos against each other. And the four performers added to the experience by constantly rotating who played which instrument.
To my ears, the Mason & Hamlin instruments could deliver a marvelous richness and power. But the Steinway could combine those qualities with an added brilliance and coloristic range.
But, then, that was to my ears.
Whatever, a dazzling keyboard evening was had by all.
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. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
There was a warm welcome back given to the fabled pianist Leon Fleisher (below) on Thursday noon at Mills Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
At age 88, Fleisher is still a formidable performer, despite vicissitudes that would have wrecked many a career. Having risen to world-wide acclaim, in 1965 he was stricken with a condition that denied him the use of his right hand.
For decades, he continued performing in left-hand literature, and in conducting and teaching. But by 2003 he had managed to recover his right-hand capacity, and could resume activities as a “two-hander.”
It was in November of 2003, at the beginning of his recovery, that he appeared in Mills Hall with the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), playing the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, one of the pinnacles of the chamber music literature.
Fleisher recently offered to play here again, and in that very same Brahms work. His offer came when performance scheduling had already tied down regular evening slots, so the choice fell on a one-shot noonday date.
That was no deterrent to the jam-packed audience (below) that attended the free concert.
Fleisher is still a remarkable pianist for his age. He clearly knows this work well, and brings his long experience to it.
To be sure, Fleisher is no longer in the mold of the muscular performer that Brahms’ music requires. His playing in this work was no longer heroic or strongly pointed. There were some slips, and his less aggressive playing now made him go more for nuance than for power.
He was at his best in the slow movement, which emerged as beautifully thoughtful and nostalgic music. Still, the generosity of his presence and his long-standing ties with the quartet players made his appearance more than just an echo of past glories. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Pro Arte gave a powerful and idiomatic delivery of its role, ready and able to match Fleisher as far as he would go. It was clear that playing with him here once again meant a lot to them. (Fleisher’s teacher, the famous Artur Schnabel, also played and recorded in the 1930s with earlier versions of the Pro Arte Quartet.)
The audience (below) responded with great enthusiasm to a memorable experience with one of the great musical personalities of our time.
ALERT: The strike by the players in the Philadelphia Orchestra has been settled. For details, go to this website:
For more background about that strike and others, which The Ear writes about yesterday, go to:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Bach Musicians will open its 2016-17 season this coming weekend with two performances of a program that features English music from the Baroque and Renaissance eras.
The first performance is this Friday, Oct. 7, at 7:30 p.m., preceded by 6:45 lecture, in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.
The second is this coming Sunday, Oct. 9, at 3:30 p.m., preceded by a 2:45 lecture, at the Holy Wisdom Monastery (below), 4200 County Highway M in Middleton.
If bought in advance, tickets are $28 for the general public and $23 for students and seniors over 65; at the door tickets will be $30 and $25, respectively. Student rush tickets are $10, require a student ID and are available 30 minutes before the lectures. For more information, visit www.madisonbachmusicians.org
The program features: Sonata in Four Parts in F major “Golden Sonata” by Henry Purcell (1659−1695); Suite No. 2 in D major from “Consort of Four Parts” by Matthew Locke (c. 1621−1677); Songs to texts by William Shakespeare by Robert Johnson (1583−1633); “Diverse bizzarie Spra La Vecchia” by Nicola Matteis (c. 1650−c. 1709); Division No. 7 for two bass viols by Christopher Simpson (c. 1606−1669); “Solus cum sola” for solo lute solo by John Dowland (1563−1626); “The Broken Consort” Part 1, Suite no. 2 in G major by Matthew Locke; “The Carman’s Whistle” by William Byrd (c. 1540−1623); “Light of Love” by Anonymous as arranged by David Douglass; “John Come Kiss Me Now” by John Playford (1623−c. 1686) as arranged by David Douglass; “Long Cold Night” and “Queen’s Jig.”
Performers include: Dann Coakwell, tenor; David Walker, lute and theorbo; Kangwon Kim violin and concertmaster; Brandi Berry, violin; Anna Steinhoff and Martha Vallon, viola de gamba; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.
Here are some edited notes by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson (below):
Madison Bach Musicians is delighted to start off its 13th season with a foray into new repertoire for the group: English music from the Renaissance and Baroque.
A special feature of the program will be the recognition in song of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Both the smaller lute and the larger theorbo were considered ideal for accompanying the voice in songs, and the theorbo could project a bit better in larger ensembles.
Like the lute, the viola da gamba is also fretted, but it is bowed and not plucked. Moreover, the gamba is held between the legs, the “gams,” and its name literally means “viol of the legs.”
The baroque violins we’ll use in this program will be strung in the usual fashion of the 16th and 17th centuries, that is, with gut strings (from dried sheep intestine); and the bows will be of the Elizabethan “short” variety (shorter length, and with the stick arching away from the hair), which make them ideally suited for the intricate articulations and lively dance rhythms of this repertoire.
All of these instruments enjoyed great popularity in England during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Henry Purcell (below) flourished during the arts boom of the Restoration period under King Charles II and is widely known for his theater music and operas. However, he also wrote quite a bit of instrumental music.
The four parts of this sonata refers here not to numbers of movements, but to the number of simultaneous instrumental lines—in this case, four, which is notably different from the typical three-part (or trio sonata) Italianate texture of the 17th century.
The Purcell sonata is followed by an instrumental Suite in D major by Matthew Locke (c. 1621-1677). Locke was a close friend of the Purcell family and in particular of Purcell’s father, Henry Purcell Sr. The younger Henry Purcell wrote a musical elegy on Locke’s death in 1677.
Locke’s years of greatest musical activity in London began as the period of Puritanical Commonwealth rule, under Oliver Cromwell, was waning in the late 1650’s. The Commonwealth had severely restricted the theater and the arts in general. Fun fact: Locke (below) was the first composer to indicate a musical crescendo and decrescendo in a score.
The texts for the songs are from various Elizabethan poets—John Fletcher, John Webster and Shakespeare himself—and all of the music was composed by lutenist Robert Johnson (below, 1583-1633).
Johnson worked closely with Shakespeare in theatrical productions at the court of James I during the first few years of the 17th century. Johnson even provided music for Shakespeare’s original production of “The Tempest.”
The first part of the MBM program will conclude with two works that explore a favorite 17th-century technique of ornamentation over a repeated bass line, sometimes called a ground bass or chaconne.
The first is by the Italian virtuoso violinist Nicola Matteis (below, in a painting by Gottfried Kneller, c. 1650-1709), who enjoyed a successful career in London during an era when the English were importing Italian music masters by the dozens.
The second work, by Christopher Simpson (below, c. 1606-1669), explores “divisions” or variations tossed back and forth between two bass viols (gambas) while they simultaneously repeat a ground bass.
The second half of the program will feature songs for tenor and voice by John Dowland (below). We’ll also play Locke’s Broken Consort, “broken” meaning “mixed”–in that violins and gambas, which were considered in Elizabethan times to be artistically quite different instruments—were being asked by the composer to play nicely together.
Following that, I’ll play a rousing set of variations for harpsichord, “The Carman’s Whistle,” by William Byrd (below).
And to conclude the program, the consort will play a set of sprightly dances originally published in 1651 in the collection “The English Dancing Master” by John Playford (below).
ALERT: In case you haven’t yet heard, the winners (below) of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition, held on Friday night in Mills Hall and accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, have been announced.
Eric Jurenas (center), countertenor, won First Prize; Christina Kay (right), soprano, won Second Prize; and Nola Richardson (left), soprano, won Third Prize and Audience Favorite.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear left the concert hall thinking: Well, this will be an easy review to write.
Just give it an A-plus.
An easy A-plus.
This year, the MEMF is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of poet and playwright William Shakespeare (below top) and the 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I (below bottom), who oversaw the English Renaissance.
And the program – performed before a large house of perhaps 450 or 500 enthusiastic listeners — was perfectly in keeping with the festival’s theme. It used sacred music rather than stage music or secular music, which will be featured later in this week of concerts, workshops and pre-concert lectures.
In fact, the program of New York Polyphony was based on two of the group’s best-selling CDs for BIS Records and AVIE Records: “Tudor City” and “Times Goes by Turns.” It was roughly divided into two masses, one on each half. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Adding to the variety was that each Anglican or Roman Catholic-based mass was a composite, with various sections made up like movements written by different composers. Thrown in for good measure were two separate short pieces, the “Ave Maria Mater Dei” by William Cornysh and the “Ave verum corpus” of William Byrd.
The Mass on the first half featured music by Byrd, John Dunstable, Walter Lambe and Thomas Tallis. The second half featured works music by Tallis, John Pyamour, John Plummer and excerpts from the Worcester Fragments. The section were typical: the Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.
There was nothing fancy about this concert, which marked the Wisconsin debut of New York Polyphony and which spotlighted superbly quiet virtuosity. The four dark-suited men, who occasionally split up, just stood on stage and opened their mouths and sang flawlessly with unerring pitch and superb diction.
A cappella or unaccompanied singing is hard work, but the four men made it seem easy. The countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass each showed confidence and talent plus the ability to project clarity while not overshadowing each other. This was first-class singing.
The beautiful polyphony of the lines was wondrous to behold even, if like The Ear, sacred music from this era – with its chant-like rather than melodic qualities – is not your favorite fare.
New York Polyphony provided a good harbinger of the treats that will come this week at the MEMF from groups like the Newberry Consort of Chicago with soprano Ellen Hargis (below top) and the Baltimore Consort (below bottom) as well as from the faculty and workshop participants. On Friday night is an appealing program that focuses on Shakespeare’s sonnets and music.
And on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m., will be the All-Festival concert. That is always a must-hear great sampler of what you perhaps couldn’t get to earlier in the week. This year, it will feature the music as used in a typical Elizabethan day.
Here is a link to the MEMF website:
And here is a link the website of New York Polyphony if you want to hear more: