The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How did Baroque composer Telemann get overshadowed and why is he being rediscovered? Trevor Stephenson talks about his all-Telemann concerts this weekend

October 2, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Bach Musicians (MBM) will give two performances of a concert devoted exclusively to the music of Baroque composer Georg Philip Telemann (below).

The performances are: Saturday night, Oct. 5, at 8 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, where MBM will be artists-in-residence this season; the second performance is on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 6, at 3:30 p.m. at the Holy Wisdom Monastery, 4200 County Road M, in Middleton.

Tickets are $35 in advance and are available at the Willy Street Coop East and West, and at Orange Tree Imports. Tickets at the door are $38 for the general public; $35 for seniors; and $10 for student rush tickets that go on sale 30 minutes before each lecture. The lectures take place 45 minutes before the performance, at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m, respectively.

Why focus on the music of Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)?

Trevor Stephenson, the founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians, talks about it in an email Q&A with The Ear:

Why does Telemann, who was so respected in his day, seem to get far less play, fewer performances and less mentioning today than his contemporaries Bach, Vivaldi and Handel?

Telemann was born in 1681 — three years after Vivaldi and four years before Bach and Handel. He was astonishingly prolific and it is estimated that he wrote more than Bach and Handel combined.

On top of this, he was very highly respected and was widely published and performed during his life. Remember, it was Telemann — not Bach — whom the Leipzig council wanted to hire for the music director position in 1723. But Telemann was enjoying his wonderful new post in Hamburg—a thriving port city — and was not about to go back to landlocked Leipzig where he had spent his student days.

At any rate, after the 18th century had passed and its music became somewhat marginalized, in the early 19th century it was Bach’s music, not Telemann’s, that suddenly re-emerged.

Bach’s tremendous emotional depth, contrapuntal mastery and ability to control large-scale forms in an almost heroic way spoke with greater urgency to the Romantic sensibility than did Telemann’s elegant craftsmanship. Indeed, 19th-century Bach scholars often mean-spiritedly used Telemann as a foil for Bach.

Telemann’s music nevertheless received a modicum of performances in the early 20th century, but in the 1980s and 1990s, as the Early Music movement really got rolling—and the level of period-instrument performance increased—it became apparent that Telemann’s music really was hot stuff!

Now his music is enjoying a wonderful and well-deserved revival.

What are the appealing and admirable qualities you see in Telemann’s music? Are there any drawbacks to his compositions?

Telemann had a wonderful sense of melodic invention — probably music’s analog to an artist’s ability to draw — and his tunes seem to flow out effortlessly. And although his output was opulent, he had an uncanny sense of form and how much weight – duration — any given musical scene could bear.

He also was a masterful musical polyglot, able to jump back and forth easily between Italian, French and German musical idioms; and like Bach, he was also adept at integrating them into a unified style—this integration of national styles was a frequently acknowledged goal of 18th-century composers.

Telemann’s limitations are apparent when he is juxtaposed with Handel, who could dramatically really take the roof off and who could also find the inner essence of the human voice, and Bach who, like Shakespeare, through a near alchemy of sound and meaning could consistently define and further what it means to be human.

How and why did you put this program together? What unifies it and what would you like the public to know about it?

Madison Bach Musicians’ concertmaster and assistant artistic director Kangwon Kim (below left with Emily Dupere) did the heavy lifting in putting together this wonderful program of Telemann’s chamber music. MBM will present three of Telemann’s programmatic or story works, one church cantata and three purely instrumental selections.

With narration and graphics, we’ll walk you through how he cleverly depicts scenes from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726, below), which had been in print only two years when Telemann wrote his topical Gulliver Suite in 1728. Telemann loved ludicrous irony, like the tiny Lilliputians dancing a heavy chaconne—which Telemann notates in a hilarious, confounding mass of 64th and 128th notes. And then there’s the Brobdingnagian giants doing their rendition of a light-footed gigue, rendered in loopy, cumbersome whole notes!

We’ll also present the marvelous Suite Burlesque based upon Cervantes’ Don Quixote (below): Quixote’s love for Dulcinea, his jousting with windmills, and how a crowd mocks Quixote’s faithful, world-weary servant Sancho Panza.

To top it off, guest artist mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski (below) will sing the droll and sweetly amusing cantata about the demise — brought about by the cat! — of a favorite and very artistic canary. Osowski will also sing the church cantata Weicht, ihr Sünden, bleibt dahinten (Yield, You Sins, and Stay Behind Me). Telemann wrote more than 1,000 church cantatas.

The concert includes non-programmatic works for string band: the dramatic and Corelli-esque Sonata à 6 in F minor for two violins, two violas, cello and continuo; and the sparkling Sinfonia Spirituosa (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom). I will also perform some fascinating Fantasy miniatures for solo harpsichord, and will give a pre-concert lecture at both events.

For more information about the program, the performers and tickets, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


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