The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
3 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians will give their eighth annual Baroque Holiday Concert this Saturday night

December 3, 2018
2 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians will give their eighth annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below in a 2014 photo by Kent Sweitzer) on this coming Saturday night, Dec. 8, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

The critically acclaimed and well attended annual concert will follow the usual format with a 7:15 p.m.  lecture by founder, artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson (below) followed by the concert at 8 p.m.

A critically acclaimed chamber ensemble of voices and period instruments will perform masterworks from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Performers include: Hannah De Priest, soprano; Margaret Fox, mezzo-soprano; Ryan Townsend Strand, tenor; Matthew Chastain, bass-baritone; Arash Noori, theorbo; Katherine Shuldiner, viola da gamba; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.

The Ear asked Stephenson: Why are vocal music and Baroque music both so popular during the holiday season?

He answered: “Many holiday traditions focus on soulfulness and reflection. So, as my great-grandmother used to say, “Pay attention to the singing, it is closest to the soul.””

“On top of this, Baroque music—as one of the great achievements of Western culture—is a natural when reflecting upon the past,” Stephenson adds. “Baroque music is also festive and uplifting, and there is, I believe, some message within its intricacies and design that suggests that there is “a beautiful crystalline structure within which we all live.” (These words come from my colleague Norman Sheppard.)

“This concert marks the Madison Bach Musicians’ eighth consecutive year in the magnificent setting of the First Congregational Church. I simply cannot imagine a better acoustic and spiritual ambiance for this music. (Below is a performance from the 2016 concert in the same church.)

“The program will progress in chronological order from the very early 16th century up to the middle 18th century, from Josquin des Prez to Johann Sebastian Bach.

“We’ll start with the Kyrie and Gloria movements from one of Josquin’s last completed masterworks, the Missa Pange Lingua (c. 1515). Martin Luther’s praise for Josquin’s compositional genius was boundless: “Joaquin (below)  is the master of the notes. The notes must do as he wills; as for other composers, they have to do as the notes will.”

“MBM is thrilled that virtuoso lutenist Arash Noori (below) from New York City will join us for this concert; second on the program, Noori will perform (on theorbo, which is a mega-lute) Niccolo Piccinni’s sparkling Toccata Chromatic and Gagliarda Prima published in the early 17th century.

“We’ll follow this with three musical gems for vocal quartet and continuo from the Kleine geistliche Konzerte (Short Spiritual Concerts, 1636−1639) that Heinrich Schütz (below) composed specifically for small ensembles, which were all that were available during the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War (1618−1648).

“The second half of the program is devoted to works by Bach. We’ll start with the exquisite Sonata in G major for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord; gambist extraordinaire Kate Shuldiner (below) from Chicago will be featured and I’ll accompany her at the harpsichord.

“We’ll follow this with two Christmas songs from the Schemelli Songbook—a collection published in 1736 of more than 60 spiritual songs for which Bach wrote most of the harmonizations and contributed several great original tunes to boot.

“Soprano Hannah De Priest (below top) and mezzo-soprano Margaret Fox (below bottom) will be featured in the bouncy and charming duet, Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten (from Cantata 78, “We hasten, with weak, yet eager steps, O Jesus, O Master, to You, for help!”), which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Bach not only worshipped God, but also felt comfortable enough in the relationship to occasionally party; this work is an ingenious fusion of high art and polka romp!

“The concert will conclude with Bach’s glorious motet, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, All Ye Nations). It was Mozart who — when he journeyed to Leipzig in 1789, or 39 years after Bach’s death, and heard the Thomaskirche choir perform a Bach motet, from memory, no less  — exclaimed, “Now here is something one can learn from!””

TICKET INFORMATION

Advance-sale discount  tickets are $30 general admission.

Tickets are also available at  Orange Tree Imports and the Willy Street Coop East and West.

You can also purchase advance tickets online: www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are  $33 for general admission, $30 for seniors 65 and over. Student Rush tickets are $10 and will be on sale 30 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. lecture.

For more information, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


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Classical music: The Mendota Consort’s outstanding concert of music by the early Baroque master Johann Schein left one wanting more of both the music and the singers

July 25, 2018
2 Comments

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.

By John W. Barker

The Mendota Consort is to some extent a spin-off of the Madison Early Music Festival, first in 2017 and now this year.

Its membership has been shifting, though the versatile Jerry Hui has been a cornerstone, and the drive for its continuity has been the work of Maya Webne-Behrman.

The group’s concert at Luther Memorial Church on last Saturday night was the last of three performances given around the state. There are plans for several concerts in the season ahead, around the country, despite the members’ diverse and far-flung individual residences.

The group performing this latest program are five singers. As shown in the photograph below, they are (from left): sopranos Webne-Behrman and Chelsie Propst; bass Matt Chastain, alto Hui, and tenor Drew Ivarson.

Their program for these current concerts was devoted to selections from the collection Fontana d’Israel, or Israel’s Brünnlein, published in 1623 by Johann Hermann Schein (below, 1586-1630), one of the important composers of the early German Baroque, and a distant predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach in his position in Leipzig.

The collection’s title is conventionally translated as the “Fountain of Israel” but might also be rendered as “Israel’s Wellspring.” It consists of 26 relatively short pieces setting texts that the composer selected from various books of the Old Testament, texts with messages both personal and communal between Jehovah and His Chosen People.

These five-voice pieces — with optional basso seguentefor organ — might readily be construed as choral works in the post-Renaissance polyphonic style. But that would be a mistake, for the publication’s long subtitle stipulates that these are “in a special, graceful Italian manner.”  In other words, they are madrigals, not motets. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They show a German composer learning particularly from Claudio Monteverdi, constantly using his early trick of turning the five-voice writing into exchanges between two “trios,” consisting of Soprano-Soprano-Alto against Alto-Tenor-Bass, with the alto voice singing in both.  (So Jerry Hui never got any rest!)

The clever part-writing deserves to be heard with absolute clarity. And that is what these five singers gave us, with admirably precise German diction as well. They performed only nine selections from the full 26, effectively only one hour’s worth of music, but demanding the most disciplined part-singing, which can be very tiring for the vocalists.

This seemingly short program left one craving more, but it was a beautiful treasure in itself. It makes one hope earnestly for the Mendota Consort to continue to flourish and mature — and to return to Madison as soon as possible.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will sing a varied holiday program about peace on Earth this coming Saturday night

December 13, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will sing its holiday concert featuring works about peace on Earth.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium, (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The holiday message of peace and good will to all people resonates across the centuries. Tragically, the proclamation, “Peace on earth” is every bit as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.

WCC director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who directs the choral program at the UW-Whitewater and who is celebrating his 10th season with the group, writes in his program notes to the concert:

“According to New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges, “Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” “This evening’s program by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir explores humanity’s yearning for peace through the centuries. 

The centerpiece of the WCC’s 2017 holiday concert is British composer Gerald Finzi’s exquisite retelling of the Christmas story, In terra pax, for choir, soloists and chamber orchestra. Baritone Brian Leeper (below top) and soprano Ann Baltes (below bottom) are among the featured soloists, performing with members of Sinfonia Sacra, the WCC’s professional orchestra.

In his own program notes, Finzi explained that the Nativity “becomes a vision seen by a wanderer on a dark and frosty Chrismas Eve, in our own familiar landscape.”

Finzi scholar Andrew Burn elaborates: “On New Year’s Eve, 1926, the 25-year old Gerald Finzi (below) joined the bell-ringers of the tiny church of St. Bartholomew perched on the crest of Chosen Hill, near Gloucester, as they rang in the New Year. For Finzi, the experience was unforgettable—the frosty starlit night with bells ringing out from churches far and near across the Severn valley—and from it sprang the orchestral New Year Music and [25 years later] In terra pax, his last major composition.

In terra pax is a masterpiece in miniature. Finzi’s pacifism is at its heart, and his belief that men and women of goodwill should live harmoniously together. Weaving through the music are three ideas: the pealing of the bells with their joyous message, a phrase from the carol The First Nowell, and the alleluia refrain from the hymn Lasst uns erfreuen (‘Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones”).”  (You can hear the opening of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Complementing Finzi’s music are two other works with instrumental accompaniment: Felix Mendelssohn’s moving prayer for peace, Verleih uns Frieden, and an energetic Gloria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in A major.

Several more recent works bring the concert’s message up to date, including Cry Peace by Libby Larsen (below top) and the haunting Winter Solstice Carol by Giles Swayne (below bottom).

A varied selection of carol arrangements rounds out the program, including a resplendent setting of Silent Night by one of the WCC’s favorite composers, Peter Bloesch (below).

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres.

Advance tickets for the Dec. 16 performance are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (all three locations).

Tickets will also be available at the door for $25 ($10 for students).


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