The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Today is both Good Friday and Passover. Here is music to mark both religious holidays

March 30, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Good Friday, 2018.

Today is Passover, 2018.

Today is both religious holidays.

So it is a good time to recall that the original Last Supper that led to Easter WAS a Seder where Jesus Christ and his Disciples celebrated Passover, as depicted in the famous Renaissance painting “The Last Supper” (below) by Leonard da Vinci.

So today The Ear offers Jewish music that is an homage to both Christianity and Judaism.

If you go to YouTube, you can find a lot of music celebrating each event from Johann Sebastian Bach, and before, to the notorious anti-Semite Richard Wagner.

But in the YouTube video at the bottom, The Ear is offering a moving performance of Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo: A Hebrew Rhapsody” as played by cellist Leonard Rose with the Cleveland Orchestra under conductor Lorin Maazel.

The mood of the music feels right for both Passover and Good Friday.

The Ear hopes you agree.


Classical music: The Ear catches up with the 15th annual Madison Early Music Festival, and takes in the second annual Handel Aria Competition and the All-Festival Concert. Both get big, hearty shout-outs and Hallelujahs. Plus, see how the WYSO tour to Argentina is going.

July 26, 2014
2 Comments

ALERT: If you want to find out the latest news about the tour to Argentina by the Youth Orchestra (below) of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, here is a link to the blog:

www.wysotour2014.blogspot.com

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

As you probably already know, The Ear is running a bit behind.

That’s how busy even the summer season has become, when it comes to classical music in the Madison area. And reviews take a second seat to previews and advance Q&A’s that benefit the performers and audiences.

So over the next few days, I want to provide some critiques and reviews, and even more shout-outs, to various events that took place over the past couple of weeks. I hope you will forgive my tardiness.

You should also know that I am not going in chronological order because some things seem more important or more timely, and therefore more overdue, than others.

So, first things first.

As you probably know, this summer marked the 15th anniversary of the annual Madison Early Music Festival that takes place each July at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Here is the official website of the competition with the results plus background and biographies of all the finalists and other information:

www.handelariacompetition.com

memf banner 2014

True, the second annual Handel competition is not strictly speaking a part of MEMF. But it is affiliated with MEMF. And since I have already covered the extraordinary MEMF opening concert “The Leonardo da Vinci  Codex” by the Toronto Consort, I wanted to bring you up to date with the results of the aria competition, which has begun to attract national and even international attention.

Here are the big point to note: What a difference a year makes!

This year there was no unsatisfactory split or disagreement between the four judges and the public, as there was last year. BRAVO!!!!

This year, both the judges and the public — which had some pretty discerning listeners in it — agreed on the winner: She was Chelsea Morris (below), who might be familiar from other appearances in Madison with the Madison Bach Musicians and Trevor Stephenson, who whom she has released a CD of songs by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn and  Franz Schubert.

Morris met all the criteria that Professor John W. Barker, an insightful critic and devoted Handelian, had outlined in his pre-concert lecture. He emphasized that it was not only about beautiful singing but also capturing the sense of drama in a role, of great diction, of ornamentation, of mastering the Handelian style.

Chelsea Morris did all of them, and the second time proved the charm. (You can hear her entry in last year’s aria competition in a YouTube video at the bottom.) And she is moving from Chicago to Madison as her base, where she will be a Studio Artist with the Madison Opera this coming season  So The Ear hopes to score a Q&A with her soon. She won $1,000 and free tuition (worth just under $500) to next summer’s Madison Early Music Festival.

Morris sang “Svelato il cor ti vedo” and “L’amor que per te sento” from “Alessandro” and “O Sleep, why dost thou leave me?” from “Semele.”

MEMF 2014 Chelsea Morris

Second Prize went to Daniel Moody (below), a countertenor who sang “Pomoe vane do morte! And “Dove aei, amato ben” from the opera “Rodelinda”:

MEMF 2014 Handel Daniel Moody

Third Prize ($500) went to soprano Yukie Sato, a Tokyo native who is now based in Basel, Switzerland where she won a similar competition. With much drama, she sang “A Ruggiero crudel” and “Ombre palle” from “Alcina” and “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” from the oratorio “Messiah.

MEMF 2014 Yukie Sato

You read me right: Tokyo and Switzerland. This past year, some money had been raised to help pay travel expenses, and that paid off in the quality of singing, which was higher overall.

The applicants this time numbered 60, and they came from around the nation and world. That was whittled down to 30, and then 15 and then, in the end, to seven finalists (below) because the judges couldn’t agree on just six.

Each contestant had to sing one aria in Italian and another in English. The Ear likes that. It helped us in judging diction, and helped you to appreciate the range of Handel’s music. But The Ear wishes that in future competitions they would ban arias from “Messiah” since you hear that music enough already.

MEMF 2014 7 Handel contestants

One downside: Held in Music Hall, the Handel aria smack-down drew an audience about half as big as last year, maybe 250 instead of the 500 in Mills Hall. No doubt that fact that admission this year was $10, while last year it was free, figured in that lower attendance. I would sure like to see it return to free admission, if possible. It is a great way to introduce people to the world of Handel, and draw a general audience –- not just specialists.

But another plus this year was that the singers were accompanied by a small five-person pickup orchestra or consort (below) made up mostly of faculty members and professional instrumentalists from the Madison Early Music Festival. The sound sure added authenticity and helped both the singers and the listeners get into the mood of Handel operas, which have been rediscovered big time. Plus, it was just more fun to listen to with great variety of sound, timbre and tone.

MEMF 2014 Handel consort

This year’s Handel Aria Competition was nothing short of a triumph. The competition is well on its way to becoming an impressive and fun Madison summertime institution. All thanks go, then, to founders and sponsors Dean and Orange Schroeder (below, holding a bust of George Frideric Handel), the business owners of Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street, who are such reliable and generous supporters of Madison’s classical music scene.

MEMF Handel 2014 Handel Orange and Dean Schroeder

THE ALL-FESTIVAL CONCLUDING CONCERT

A week ago tonight, the Madison Early music held its All-Festival Concert in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue. (MEMF had to use Music Hall and Luther Memorial as alternative venues this summer because Mills Hall at the UW-Madison School of Music was undergoing repairs.)

And speaking of triumphs, the thematic program was based on the sonnet cycle of “Triumph” by Petrarch (below), who examined the importance of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity. It is a work that both anticipates and sums up the emerging humanism of the Italian Renaissance.

francesco petrarca or petrarch

There are not a lot of specific remarks I can make except that:

The program was well constructed by Grant Herreid (below), who also conducted it.

MEMF 2014 All-Festival Grant Herreid

The orchestra played beautifully and produced big full sound enhanced by the church’s acoustics. Yet a balance was maintained, and vocal and instrumental parts blended.

The various soloists -– and there were many –- were impressive.

Lasting just over an hour, it was a perfect wrap up to a great festival.

MEMF 2014 All-Festival

Co-founders and co-artistic directors UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman Rowe, who both sang in the chorus parts, also announced that next year’s theme will be Early Music in Central and Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, Poland and Bohemia.

Sounds great.

Can’t wait.


Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival turns 15 with a perfect opening concert by the Toronto Consort that explored the Italian Renaissance and the musical legacy of Leonardo da Vinci.

July 15, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Early Music Festival started as an idea.

So, what better way to mark its 15th anniversary than by exploring perhaps history’s greatest Man of Ideas -– Leonardo da Vinci?

Leonardo da Vinci

And that is exactly what happened during the opening concert last Saturday  night by MEMF, which this year is exploring Italian music from 1300 to 1600.

memf banner 2014

The festival — complete with workshops, lectures and concerts -– is held each summer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

It started as a way to help fill the summertime void of classical music. But now summer is its own season when it comes to classical music in Madison, and much of that success is due to MEMF’s success.

Co-founders and co-artistic directors UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe and his soprano wife Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below) had every reason to be proud and moved -– and they were, visibly and audibly.

Paul Rowe, Cheryl Bensman Rowe MEMF 2014

This summer, because Mills Hall is under construction, MEMF has had to turn to other venues, chiefly the nearby Luther Memorial Church at 1021 University Avenue and Music Hall on Bascom Hill.

The opening concert “The Da Vinci Codex” was held at Luther Memorial, and the church seemed close to full, meaning almost 400 listeners attended. This alternative venue actually seemed an improvement in that it offered a warm and acoustically superior environment with sets and a building that complemented the religious beliefs and art of that era’s music and culture.

MEMF 2014 Luther Memorial

MEMF 2014 Luther Memorial audience

The program was set up by a fine and well-attended lecture and slide show given by UW-Madison art professor Gail Geiger (below). She examined the heretofore underestimated role of music in Leonardo’s life and career as a painter, drawing master, poet, engineer, inventor and all-round genius.

MEMF 2014 Gail Geiger

MEMF Gail Geiger slide show Leonardo

What the audience then heard was a two-hour concert in which no false note was sounded, no false step was taken.

The performer was the Toronto Consort, making its Madison debut. It proved an outstanding and thoroughly professional group of eight persons (below) who are multi-talented in their ability to sing, to play instruments and to recite narration dramatically, expressively and convincingly. They were not afraid to entertain and as well as to inform. (You can hear a sample of similar music performed by the Toronto Consort in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Toronto Consort MEMF 2014

The Ear was especially impressed by the tightness of the scissors-and-paste presentation and the uncanny way the Toronto Consort spoke to and engaged with the audience, who laughed and applauded thunderously.

MEMF 2014 Luther Memorial audience Toronto Consort

The program’s effectiveness came from the terrifically seamless and smooth narrative thread, the story that centered on the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci. It was unifying and used primary sources (Leonardo’s notebooks and letters) and secondary sources like the proto-art historian Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives” and other historians or critics. (Below is David Fallis, the artistic director, tenor and narrator.)

MEMF 2014 Luther Memorial Toronto Consort David Fallis, artistic director, tenor, narrator

The performers moved easily from historical accounts of Leonardo in Florence, Milan and France to contextual music that illustrated Leonardo –- the ultimate Renaissance Man — from birth to death. And it proved thoroughly enjoyable and often deeply moving. You did not have to be a fan of early music to be taken in by the contagious melodies and harmonies, the catchy inflections and rhythms, the facts of an amazing life and career.

Just watching these complete professionals perform took us into their world because they are full-body performers who used hands, feet and facial expressions to convey the emotional meaning of the music and get the audience to connect with the music and with them. It felt like Renaissance jazz, so free and yet also so disciplined and practiced was the performance. It is what The Ear likes to call “the well-rehearsed surprise” and is a hallmark of all great performances that are virtuosic and make what is hard seem easy or effortless. (Below is Katherine Hall, viola da gamba player and soprano, singing.)

MEMF 2014 Toronto Consort Katherine Hill soprano and viola da gamba

There is much more left of the 15th Madison Early Music Festival to hear, including “Songs of Love” by the instrumentalists and vocal ensemble Ex Umbris in Music Hall tonight at 7:30 p.m. tonight; plus other concerts including the second annual Handel Aria Competition in Music Hall on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOT 7 p.m., as the MEMF home website mistakenly said at first, and the always impressive All-Festival Concert, which focuses this year on the Trionfi of the poet Petrarch, on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church. FREE pre-concert lectures by experts in art, music and history take place at 6:30 p.m.

Here is a link to a schedule and descriptions of events, with times, places and participants:

http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/conferences/madison-early-music-festival/index.html?source=madisonearlymusic.org

Unlike many of Leonardo’s ideas, which were adventurous and even prophetic if uncompleted, MEMF has moved from idea to reality.

The Ear has no doubt, and every hope, that it is here to stay, and that it will continue to evolve and grow.


Classical music: The weeklong Madison Early Music Festival gets more national attention as it marks 15 years. The festival kicks off on Saturday and focuses on Italian early music and art from 1300 to 1600. Part 1 of 2.

July 7, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Can it really be 15 years already?

The Madison Early Music Festival began as a dream and an experiment. But it has endured, survived and prospered. This summer it marks its 15th anniversary with a focus on Italian music from 1300 to 1600. The theme is called “Italia Mia.”

memf banner 2014

This year’s installment starts on this coming Saturday, July 12, and runs through the following Saturday, July 19. It features many of the traditional things such as workshops, lectures and public concerts. But it also features new out-of-town groups and only the second annual Handel Aria Competition, which has been enhanced.

Venues are perhaps the biggest challenge this year, given the upgrading of Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Here is a link to the festival’s home website for information about tickets, events, programs and performers:

http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/conferences/madison-early-music-festival/index.html?source=madisonearlymusic.org

To get things straight, and to provide both some history and a larger context, The Ear asked baritone Paul Rowe and his soprano wife Cheryl Bensman Rowe -– who are the co-artistic directors of the Madison Early Music Festival -– to do an email Q&A for this blog.

They graciously agreed, and the results will be posted in two parts, today and tomorrow.

Handel arias Paul and Cheryl Rowe

How successful is this year’s festival compared to others in terms of enrollment, budgets, guest performers, ticket sales, media interest, etc.? This is the 15th anniversary of MEMF. After 15 years, is MEMF clearly established now nationally or even internationally?

Cheryl: We have been getting more attention in the national press, and we continue to feature ensembles and artists from Europe and Canada. This year the Toronto Consort — seen below and heard at the bottom in a YouTube video of Italian music and art from the period that MEMF will cover — will open the festival with their program “The Da Vinci Codex,” which features Italian Music from the musical world of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Toronto Consort

Leonardo da Vinci

In May, the blog Deceptive Cadence from NPR Classical mentioned MEMF 2014 as a “Can’t Miss Classical Music Festivals” in the Midwest region.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/05/01/307968750/10-cant-miss-classical-music-festivals.

MEMF was again the only Wisconsin music festival listed on May 14, 2014 in the The New York Times story “Birds Aren’t The Only Music Amid Nature.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/arts/music/birds-arent-the-only-music-amid-nature.html

Besides the attention in the press, we are well-known in early music circles. Our performers and faculty are also hired by many well-established festivals, including the Berkeley Early Music Festival, Boston Early Music Festival (below), Amherst Early Music Festival, Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute and others.

Boston Early Music Festival boston early music festival overview hall

What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and guest performers?

Paul: This year we are adding two new intensive workshops that will run concurrently with MEMF. One is focused on wind instruments that will form a loud band and be led by Robert Wiemken (below top) of Pifarro.

There are eight people in the loud band intensive class who play sackbut, shawm, dulcien and other instruments (below bottom). The other is a Baroque opera workshop that will be led by Drew Minter, Christa Patton and me.

Bob Wiemken

MEMF 14 2013 Piffaro instruments

We will use music from the operas “Orfeo” and “The Coronation of Poppea” by Claudio Monteverdi (below) as source material to explore Baroque gesture and dance as well as ornamentation and stylistic singing. We have 15 singers who will be taking this workshop. The two intensive classes will present an informal performance on Saturday afternoon, July 19, at 2 p.m.

monteverdi

Why was the topic of the Italian music 1300-1600 chosen for the early music festival? What composers and works will be highlighted?

Paul: We wanted to have a broader historical focus this year in order to include very early instruments and music as well as the larger format pieces that are a feature of the later Renaissance and early Baroque.

The most famous composer of this period is Claudio Monteverdi, but there are many others. Italy was really the hub of poetry and music for all of Western culture during the time period we are considering. The poetry of Petrarch (below) will provide the focus for the All-Festival Concert this year. This is the era of Boccaccio and Dante as well as Petrarch.

francesco petrarca or petrarch

Tomorrow: What makes early music in Italy different?  What will the All-Festival Concert next Saturday night be like? What is new about the second annual Handel Aria Competition and the new FREE noontime lectures?

 

 


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