The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to sing on Sunday night with Chanticleer. Here’s how he got there with the right teacher, hard work, good luck and a push from mom. Part 2 of 2 

October 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the new Hamel Music Center, the a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director.

For a biography of Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career.

So The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf (below).

Part 1 appeared yesterday. Here is a link: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/classical-music-uws-first-countertenor-gerrod-pagenkopf-returns-to-perform-on-sunday-night-as-a-member-of-the-acclaimed-choral-group-chanticleer-heres-how-he-got-from-here-to-there/

Here is Part 2:

Back when you were a student here, were you the only countertenor at the School of Music? How did you find out you were a countertenor and pursue that training?

As I recall, I was the only countertenor — certainly the only one studying in the voice department. I had been studying as a tenor with Ilona Kombrink (below, in photo by UW-Madison News Service) for a few semesters, and it just didn’t seem as easy as it was supposed to.

I didn’t sound like other tenors in my studio or on recordings. I remember that a famous countertenor had just come out with an album of Handel arias, and, upon hearing it, I thought to myself, “I can sing like that!”

I asked Professor Kombrink about it, and she told me to learn “Cara Sposa” from Handel’s “Rinaldo” over the summer. When I came back in the fall, if it sounded legitimate she agreed I could pursue countertenor singing.

I remember that first lesson of the fall. After I sang this Handel aria for her, she sat back and mused in her sage-like manner, “Yes, this must needs be.”

I never looked back. I think I was on the early edge of the re-emergence of countertenors. Certainly there were countertenors working professionally, but there weren’t that many. There weren’t any other countertenors in Houston when I went to grad school, and even when I moved to Boston, there were only a handful of working countertenors.

Since then, how has the treatment of countertenors changed in the academic and professional worlds?

By the time I left Boston a few years ago, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a countertenor. We now see young countertenors winning major competitions and earning places in young artist programs around the country. The competition is fierce now.

I was lucky enough to be one of just a few fish in the pond, but now countertenors are everywhere—and a lot of them are really good! I also remember that there was a stigma so that it would be difficult to find a voice teacher who would teach countertenors.

A lot of pedagogy books by reputable technicians said that countertenors weren’t real — they just sing in falsetto, which isn’t a real voice. I was lucky that Professor Kombrink was willing to explore that with me. I think now that there are so many successful countertenors singing everywhere, I hope this antiquated view of the voice type has changed.

What would you like the public to know about the program you will perform here? Are you featured in certain pieces?

Our “Trade Winds” program explores several different aspects of the wayfaring sailor. They include Monteverdi madrigals about water and nature; a wonderful mass setting by a largely unknown century Portuguese composer, Filipe de Magalhaes; several charming folksongs from around the Pacific Rim; and even a few sea shanties.

It’s a varied program that includes repertoire from as early as the 15th century up to just a few months ago. One of Chanticleer’s missions is to further the art of live music through new compositions, and we’ve commissioned a fantastic young Chinese-American composer, Zhou Tian (below), to write a new multi-movement piece for us, entitled “Trade Winds,” from which our program also gets its title.

Lots of listeners are scared of “new music,” but Zhou has given us a gem. It’s easy to listen to, and I think listeners will instantly understand what it’s all about.

What are your plans for the future?

Personally, I can’t say that I have anything coming up. As wonderful as Chanticleer is, the job pretty much limits any amount of outside freelance work. (At the bottom, you can hear Chanticleer singing “Shenandoah,” its most popular YouTube video – and a piece with a prominent countertenor part — with well over 1.6 million hits.)

One of the truly fantastic parts of singing in Chanticleer (below, performing on stage) is all the places we travel to. We started off this season with a three-week tour of Europe, which was actually the ensemble’s third trip to Europe in 2019.

We love traveling around the U.S., and as I’ve said, traveling back to Madison is certainly the highlight for me. The Midwest is always a special place for us to sing, as several of our members are from this region.

We’re very excited to travel to Australia in June 2020. I think it’s Chanticleer’s first visit “Down Under.” We will also be going back to the studio in January to record a new album for release sometime later in 2020. We have lots of exciting events coming down the pipeline.

Is there something else you would like to say?

Prior to singing with Chanticleer, I had been living in Boston for almost eight years, pursuing professional singing as a freelance artist.

To make ends meet, I had been working at Starbucks, which I actually started doing when I still lived in Madison, and my gigging was getting lucrative enough that I eventually decided to take a leave of absence from slinging lattes.

While I was in Wisconsin on Christmas vacation, I received a message from Chanticleer’s music director, William Fred Scott, letting me know that there was an immediate vacancy in the ensemble, and would I be interested in singing for them.

I thought I was being spammed, so I didn’t respond, and continued to enjoy the bliss of spending the entirety of the holidays with my family.

When I eventually got back to Boston a few days later, another email arrived from Mr. Scott: “Did you get my email? We’d really like to hear from you.” Ok, how do I tell them I’m clearly NOT the countertenor they’re looking for?

Well, after much soul-searching, calling my mother (“Just do it!” she exclaimed), and figuring out the logistics of liquidating a one-bedroom apartment, I decided to run away and join the circus. It was a complete leap of faith, but I think I made the right decision.

Don’t give up on your dreams. Singing in Chanticleer was the first legitimate dream I remember having. Although my musical path took me in several other directions, that path eventually led me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.


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Classical music: Cellist Amit Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino open the Salon Piano Series this Friday and Saturday nights. TODAY the Edgewood College Chamber Orchestra opens its new season in a new hall

September 29, 2019
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ALERT: The Edgewood Chamber Orchestra opens its new season TODAY at 2:30 p.m. in the new McKinley Performing Arts Center at Edgewood High School, 2219 Monroe Street. Blake Walter will conduct the program that  features Beethoven’s “King Stephen” Overture, composed to celebrate the opening of a new theater ; Handel’s “Water Music”; and Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C Major “Linz,” K. 425. Admission is $5 for the general public, FREE with an ID for Edgewood College or Edgewood High School.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Salon Piano Series will open its new and expanded season with a recital by cellist Amit Peled (below top, in a photo by Lisa Mazzucco) and pianist Daniel del Pino (below bottom) on this coming Friday and Saturday nights, Oct. 4 and 5, at 7:30 p.m.

The concerts, which are being dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker,  will be held at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Each artist has performed individually at Farley’s before, but this will be their first joint recital in Madison.

The program is:

John Eccles – Sonata in G Minor (1720)

Ludwig van Beethoven – Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 5, No. 2 (1796)

Gaspar Cassadó – Sonata in Old Spanish Style, G Minor, (1925)

Richard Strauss – Sonata in F Major, Op. 6 (1883)

A reception will follow the performances.

Tickets are $45 in advance and $50 at the door. Student tickets are $10 and can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event.

You can buy tickets online, where service fees may apply, at: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809

You can also call Farley’s at (608) 271-2626 to purchase tickets.

After hearing the Israeli-American Peled, The New York Times reported that he has “a glowing tone, a seductive timbre and an emotionally pointed approach to phrasing that made you want to hear him again.”

Daniel del Pino is a leading Spanish concert pianist on the international scene. He has performed in prestigious venues on five continents.

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can watch a special concert preview and an enthusiastic message about specifically performing in Madison from Amit Peled.

You can also hear and see past performances from Peled and del Pino at the Salon Piano Series on YouTube:

From February 2016, Amit Peled performs on Pablo Casals’ cello: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Yb-SE80eDg

From November 2015, Daniel del Pino performs Chopin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tnvbk_v2Xk

For more information about this concert and the full season of six concerts, including subscription tickets, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org

This concert is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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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
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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 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
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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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