The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Starting this Friday, the Madison Early Music Festival will devote a week to exploring familiar and unfamiliar Iberian music during the age of Cervantes. Part 1 of 2

July 2, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday, when the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) starts its week-long exploration of Iberian music during the Renaissance Age of novelist Miguel de Cervantes (below) and his pioneering novel “Don Quixote,” much will be familiar but much will also be new.

To provide a look at what to expect, the longtime co-artistic directors of the festival – wife-and-husband singers soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe and baritone Paul Rowe (below) – provided the following overview through an email Q&A with The Ear.

All-festival passes are $90 and tickets to individual concerts cost $20, $10 for students.

Click here to buy online, call 608-265-ARTS (2787), or visit the Campus Arts Ticket Box Offices in Memorial Union or Vilas Hall (click here for hours).

(Note: All MEMF Concert Series concerts and lectures are free for participants in the MEMF Workshop. There is a $4 transaction fee per ticket when purchasing online or by phone.)

How successful is this year’s festival compared to others in terms of enrollment, budgets, performers, etc.? How does this program of MEMF’s reach nationally or even internationally compare to previous years?

We will have about 100 students at our workshop this summer, which has been a steady number for the past five years. Our budget increased to cover the big Don Quixote project by Piffaro, which you can read about below.

We continue to attract workshop participants and performers from all over the United States and Canada, and this year our concert series will present Xavier Diaz-Latorre from Spain. For more information, go to: www.xavierdiazlatorre.com

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

The following events are new to MEMF this summer:

The Historical Harp Society will be giving a conference before MEMF begins, from Thursday, July 6 through Saturday, July 8, with classes and lectures that will culminate in a concert of Harp Music from the Spanish Golden Age on Friday, July 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, which is FREE and open to the public. Go to www.historicalharpsociety.org

Master teacher and performer Xavier Diaz-Latorre  will be giving a master class in Morphy Recital Hall on Saturday, July 8, from 10 a.m. to noon. It is free and open to the public.

We have a new partnership with the Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS) Program at UW-Madison. LACIS has helped us translate materials and supported MEMF with two grants. www.lacis.wisc.edu

A new display in the Memorial Library foyer will celebrate the 2017 Madison Early Music Festival with a special exhibit of Don Quixote Through the Ages, featuring a selection of books, musical scores, and other materials from the UW-Madison Libraries. While viewing the exhibition, patrons can scan a QR code and listen to a Spotify playlist featuring music that will be heard at the MEMF 2017 Concert Series! This is a MEMF first, created by co-artistic director Paul Rowe.

We worked with several librarians to select the materials: Paloma Celis-Carbajal, Ibero-American Studies and Romance Languages Librarian; Jeanette Casey, head of Mills Music Library; and Lisa Wettleson from Special Collections at Memorial Library (below, in a photo by Brent Nicastro).

Dates: June 26 – August 10, 2017

Location: Memorial Library foyer | 728 State Street | Madison

Library Hours: 8 a.m.-9:45 p.m.

We have several new performers this year.

Xavier Diaz-Latorre, a vihuela player from Spain, and the ensemble Sonnambula from New York. Xavier is a world-renowned musician, and plays the vihuela, a Spanish Renaissance type of guitar, and the lute.

Xavier will perform a solo recital featuring music of the vihuela by composers Luis Narváez, Alonso Mudarra, Gaspar Sanz and Santiago de Murcia. The link below will give you more information about the predecessors to the guitar:

http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/~lsa/aboutLute/Vihuela.html

Daphna Mor and Kane Mathis will present a program featuring music from the geographic regions of Andalusia, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and the Sephardic Diaspora. Based on the monophonic music of modes referred to as the Makam, the audience will be drawn to distinct beauty and great similarities of music from the courts, liturgical forms, dance airs and folk music.

Daphna Mor (below top) sings and plays several historical wind instruments, and Kane Mathis (below bottom) plays the oud, a lute type of stringed instrument with 11 or 13 strings grouped in 5 or 6 courses, commonly used in Middle Eastern music.

Percussionist Shane Shanahan (below) will join them. Shane is an original member of the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma and a Grammy award winner. https://www.stepsnyc.com/faculty/bio/Shane-Shanahan/

And watch Shane play frame drum in the Cave Temples of Dunhuang at the Getty Museum:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQjC3y6CXQ8

Hear and read about Daphna Mor: http://www.daphnamor.com/

You can watch Kane Mathis play the oud at this link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tHrxEohai8

Sonnambula (below), an ensemble of violins and viol da gambas, has performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and have a regular series at the Hispanic Society of America in New York. It played a sold-out program of Spanish Golden Age works drawn from the over 450 pieces in the Cancionero Musical de Palacio, a manuscript at the Royal Palace of Madrid. This same program will be presented at MEMF on Friday, July 14. (You can hear them perform Spanish music in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

www.sonnambula.org

Why was the theme of the Spain’s Golden Age and The Age of Cervantes and Don Quixote chosen for the festival? What composers and works will be highlighted?

We liked the connection with last year’s theme, Shakespeare 400, because, although they never knew one another, Cervantes and Shakespeare (below) were contemporaries and share a “deathaversary,” as they both died on April 23, 1616. They led quite different lives, as Shakespeare was very successful throughout his lifetime and Cervantes wasn’t well known until the end of his life, when Don Quixote was published in 1605.

http://www.dw.com/en/shakespeare-and-cervantes-two-geniuses-and-one-death-date/a-19203237

Also, the Renaissance band Piffaro (below, in a photo by Church Street Studios) — an ensemble from Philadelphia that is well loved by MEMF audiences — suggested we explore this connection to Don Quixote and present their program The Musical World of Don Quixote, a huge project that they have been researching for several years.

They created a musical soundtrack to the novel in chronological order, and their program will open our 2017 concert series. This link from the Early Music America article “Piffaro Tilts At Musical Windmills” will tell you about their project in depth:

https://www.earlymusicamerica.org/web-articles/emag-piffaro-tilts-at-musical-windmills/

www.piffaro.org

The other concerts in the series draw from the music that is mentioned in Don Quixote and from the Spanish Renaissance, known as Siglo de Oro, or the Century of Gold. Many composers from this time period will be represented: Tomás Luis de VictoriaCristóbal de MoralesFrancisco GuerreroLuis de Milán and Alonso Lobo

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Golden_Age

https://artsinstitute.wisc.edu/memf/concerts.htm

Check out our website for the most up-to-date information and how to get tickets:

www.madisonearlymusic.org

Tomorrow: What makes Renaissance music in Spain different? What composers and music will be featured in concerts?

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Classical music: UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra resurrect Paul Hindemith’s long-neglected 20th-century secular Requiem with fine singing and committed playing

May 2, 2017
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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 photographs below.

By John W. Barker

It is unusual that, within the space of a few days, we have parallel performances of two very untraditional Requiems, ones setting vernacular texts rather than liturgical Latin ones.

The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony(below) performed Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem For those we love” last weekend. And the Madison Symphony Chorus and Orchestra will give us Johannes BrahmsEin deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) this coming weekend, May 5-7.

(NOTE: Here is a link with more information about the three MSO performances this coming weekend:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/classical-music-madison-symphony-orchestra-closes-its-season-with-the-german-requiem-by-brahms-and-the-american-premiere-of-charles-villiers-stanfords-1921-concert-piece-fo/)

It is hard to resist the temptation to compare them.

They were, of course, composed about a century apart, in the contexts of very different stylistic eras. They reflect very different aesthetics: High Romantic warmth for Brahms, conservative modernism for Hindemith.

The different texts chosen also determine crucial differences. Brahms selected Luther’s German translations of passages from Scripture, as a broad collage of human consolation and solace, whereas the German-born Hindemith, a naturalized American citizen who fled from Hitler’s Nazism, in a patriotic commemoration of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, chose the long poem of grieving that Walt Whitman (below) wrote over the death of President Abraham Lincoln.

The relatively concise Scriptural texts allowed Brahms to develop rich melodic and contrapuntal elaborations. Hindemith’s determination to set Whitman’s complete poem, of 208 verses in altogether irregular free verse, committed him to keep things in constantly moving continuity, with little chance for pausing and elaborating.

To be sure, Hindemith (below) was never a distinguished lyricist, for all his skills, so his writing is endless declamation by the soloists, backed by strongly cast choral statements. (You can hear famed baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the chorus sing the opening of the Hindemith requiem in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There are many lovely and powerful moments, but they pass by quickly and leave little of memorable expressiveness. There is much clever music here, but in sum total it is more dutiful than beautiful.

The performance in Mills Hall — I heard the one Sunday night — showed a stage packed with musicians. There were two soloists, a chorus of exactly 100 singers, and an orchestra (the UW Symphony) of 67 players, 46 of them on strings. UW choral director and conductor Beverly Taylor (below) drew from all of them deeply committed musical results.

Of the two soloists, soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below left) sang with beauty and expression, but it was baritone James Held (below right) who stole the show, with a ringing voice, superb diction, and a genuine eloquence.

The huge chorus was quite magnificent, well unified, fully serious in its enunciation, and capable of some truly musical sound — and Hindemith, though nowhere near Brahms as a choral composer, gave them some serious challenges. The orchestra sounded a bit rough at the very beginning, but settled into participating strongly in the performance.

Whatever reservations one may have about Hindemith’s score, this Whitman Requiem, one of his last important works and premiered in 1946, is a significant piece. It is far less frequently heard than that by Brahms, and so it is very good that UW choral director Beverly Taylor has brought it to our attention.


Classical music: A new recording of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” captures the Russian qualities the composer prized in this sacred music

April 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a record 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

For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.

A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.

Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.

Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).

It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”

It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.

Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)

Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.

The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.

Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.

Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.

I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.

They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.

While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.

One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.

This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.


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
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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: American composer Stephen Paulus dies at 65. The Festival Choir of Madison performed many world premieres by him and will perform the All-Night Vigil by Tchaikovsky this coming Saturday night.

October 27, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last week brought sad news.

The prolific American composer Stephen Paulus, who lived and worked in St. Paul, Minnesota, died last week at 65. He died of complications from a stroke he suffered last year, according to his son.

Stephen Paulus 1

Paulus was probably best known to Madison-area residents for the many works and several compositions that the Festival Choir of Madison commissioned and performed.

And talk about timing.

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) will open its new season by performing the All-Night Vigil of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky –- NOT the more famous work with the same name by Sergei Rachmaninoff –- on this coming Saturday night, November 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Day Drive, on Madison’s near west side.

Festival Choir of Madison 2013

One wonders if the group will dedicate the performance to the memory of Paulus, whose music proved both modern and accessible, and often seemed Midwestern in that Aaron Copland kind of way.

Written nearly 35 years before the more famous Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninoff, the All-Night Vigil by Tchaikovsky (below) was written in an attempt to ensure that church music in Russia retained a uniquely Russian flavor. (You can hear a sample of the Tchaikovsky work in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

young tchaikovsky

The work, containing settings from three “overnight” canonical hours (Vespers, Matins and First Hour), is a beautiful representation of the Russian liturgical repertoire.

A pre-concert lecture begins at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for the general public; $12 for seniors; and $9 for students.

Here is a link with information and reservations:

http://festivalchoirmadison.org/Season1415/tickets.htm

And here is more about Stephen Paulus (below), whom The Ear interviewed many years ago when he was working for The Capital Times. He was the model of a cordial and gracious artist who cared deeply about the public’s ability to appreciate his work.

Stephen Paulus 2

Here is an obituary that appeared in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/22/arts/music/stephen-paulus-classical-composer-rich-in-lyricism-dies-at-65.html?_r=0

And here is a story that appeared on Minneapolis Public Radio, which, like Wisconsin Public Radio, emphasizes classical music when many affiliates of NPR (National Public Radio) are increasingly turning to talk radio.

http://www.mprnews.org/story/2014/10/20/stephen-paulus-a-musical-life

 

 


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