The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union delivers an eclectic non-seasonal program of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein with power and lyricism

December 12, 2016
3 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 photos.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Eschewing any seasonal or holiday connections, the UW-Madison Choral Union (below) gave its December concert last Friday night with a program of three “B’s”.

uw-choral-union-with-chamber-orchestra-and-soloists-dec-2016-jwb

Well, two of the B’s are familiar ones. But in place of Bach, we got Leonard Bernstein, taking first place in reverse chronological order — his Chichester Psalms, dating from 1965.

This three-movement work probably represents Bernstein’s most important choral score. It sets texts in the original Hebrew, the middle movement calling for a boy treble to represent the young David in the rendering of Psalm 131 — a function here filled bravely by young Simon Johnson (below, front left) of the Madison Youth Choirs.

uw-choral-union-dec-2016-jwb-simon-johnson-of-myc

The platoon of percussionists in the first two movements confirms the composer’s flashy “modernism.” To be sure, there are some characteristic melodic twists that proclaim the composer familiar to us, and the swaying melodic tune of the third movement is really lovely.

But Bernstein (below) did not know what to do with it besides repeating it obsessively. Bernstein simply was not a savvy master of choral writing, and I firmly believe that this work—a trivial cross between Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bernstein’s own Broadway musical West Side Story—would not merit much attention were it not for Bernstein’s name on it.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: You can decide on the work’s merits for yourself by listening to the live performance, conducted by the composer himself, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

Just how inadequate Bernstein’s choral sense was emerged clearly with the next work, the short ode for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms, Nänie, Op. 82.

The title adapts a Greek word for a lament, and Friedrich Schiller’s German text evokes the death of beauty in the death of Achilles. Brahms was among the supreme choral masters, and this particular example is one of several of his “minor” choral works that we hear too rarely.

brahmsBW

The second half of the program was devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Op. 86. No, not the monumental Missa solemnis of the composer’s last years when (as with the Ninth Symphony’s finale) he had transcended the realities of choral writing. This earlier Mass setting, dating from 1807, was in the direct line of Mass settings for the Esterházy family composed by the aged Haydn.

But to Haydn’s incorporation of symphonic structure into Mass composition, Beethoven (below) brought his own strongly progressive personality, and a remarkable quality of melodic and thematic invention. This is a lovely work, and choirs who fling themselves doggedly against the Missa solemnis ought sometimes to revel in this beautiful work instead.

Beethoven big

The forces arrayed included a solo quartet (below, in the front from left) are bass John Loud, tenor Jiabao Zhang and sopranos Jessica Kasinski and Anna Polum.

uw-choral-union-dec-2016-soloists

The UW Chamber Orchestra proved able. But the star was, of course, the Choral Union chorus itself. Its diction worked from indistinguishable Hebrew through respectable German to really lucid Latin. Above all, it made mighty, full-blooded sound that bolstered Beethoven’s lyricism with powerful projection.

Once again, conductor Beverly Taylor (below) has gone beyond stale conventions to bring us valued exposure to music outside the conventional boundaries.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE


Classical music: Concerts of Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein by the UW Choral Union on this Friday night and of Beethoven, Copland and Nielsen by the UW Symphony Orchestra on this Saturday night help finish off the first semester

December 8, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The end of the first semester is at hand. And this weekend two very appealing concerts will help finish off the first half of the new concert season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. on this Friday night in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union and the UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra (below) will perform, for one performance only, three rarely heard works.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

The orchestra and the campus-community chorus will be conducted by Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

The program of works that are relatively rare on programs includes the Mass in C Major by Ludwig van Beethoven, “Nänie: Song of Lamentation”  by Johannes Brahms (heard conducted by Claudio Abbado in the YouTube video below) and the “Chichester Psalms” by Leonard Bernstein.

Admission is $15 for adults; $8 for students.

Here are some notes about the works written by conductor Beverly Taylor:

“The Choral Union will present a 3 B’s concert, which includes masterpieces of three different types.

“The Bernstein “Chichester Psalms,” written in the 1960’s for a cathedral in Britain, is a setting of three psalms in Hebrew. The piece is for strings, brass and percussion, and lasts about 20 minutes. It features a flamboyant, joyful and somewhat dissonant opening full of exciting percussion writing.

“The second movement features a wonderful boy soloist, Simon Johnson, from the Madison Youth Choirs, with harp and strings. He is like the shepherd King David, who is peacefully in the fields with his sheep; contrasting that are the warring peoples, sung by the tenors and basses. The boy and women’s voices return singing peacefully above the warring mobs.

“The third movement starts in dissonant pain, but it dissolves into a beautiful, quiet psalm of praise and trust.

“The Brahms Nänie is a 15-minute setting of a poem by Friedrich Schiller on the topic of beauty and its inability to last; even beauty must die, and the gods weep too, but the beauty itself is worth all! The style is Romantic with the long arching melodic lines for which Brahms is well-known.

“The Beethoven Mass in C is one of just two masses that Beethoven wrote; in contrast to the long, loud, high, grand and overpowering “Missa Solemnis,” the Mass in C is more charming, Mozartean and approachable. It still has some Beethovenian touches of sudden dynamic changes, sforzandi (which are emphases or accents), and slow, elegiac quartets. Our solo quartet will be Anna Polum, Jessica Krasinki, Jiabao Zhang and John Loud.”

For more background and information about how to get tickets, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union-and-chamber-orchestra/

SATURDAY

On this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), under the baton of James Smith (below bottom, in a photo by Jack Burns), will give a FREE concert.

UW Symphony violins 2015

james smith Jack Burns

The program features three works: the late “King Stephan” Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven (heard below in a YouTube video as conducted by Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic)  the “Billy the Kid” Suite by Aaron Copland; and the Symphony No. 4 “Inextinguishable” by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.

The Ear has heard both groups often and highly recommends both concerts.

He was quite amazed at how good the last UW Symphony Orchestra program he heard was. It offered two Fifth Symphonies — by Sergei Prokofiev and Jean Sibelius – only about three weeks into the semester.

It was nothing short of amazing how well the orchestra had come together in such a short time. It was a tight and impassioned performance. The Ear expects the same for this concert, which has had a lot more rehearsal time.


Classical music: Here’s bad news — There will be NO string orchestra this season to replace the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chamber Orchestra this year – or maybe next or maybe ever.

September 3, 2014
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Some bad news reached The Ear yesterday, on the first day of classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The following is an official announcement from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

It comes from the administration via Professor James Smith (below), who heads the program in orchestral conducting.

Smith_Jim_conduct07_3130

Writes Barbara Mahling: “I have some disappointing and sad news from Jim Smith. There are not enough string players for this new string orchestra, not enough violas or basses to make it work.”

“It is currently listed on the timetable, so that will need to be changed. It will not exist either term. We can hope for next year.

“Thanks,
“Barb Mahling
UW-Madison School of Music”

You may recall that a string orchestra seemed to be a temporary solution to the unexpected dissolution of the UW Chamber Orchestra (below, in 2012, and at bottom on YouTube in the opening of the Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.)

UW Symphony Orchestra 9-2012

The UW Symphony Orchestra (below top, with student conductor Kyle Knox on the podium) will continue to exist and will give its first performance on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 28, at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall The program features UW visiting voice professor, soprano Elizabeth Hagedorn, from Vienna, (below bottom) in Gustav Mahler’s Rückert Songs. The orchestra will also perform the Symphony No. 1 “Spring” by Robert Schumann.

Kyle Knox and UW Symphony Orchestra

Elizabeth Hagedorn 1

Here is a link to the UW School of Music (SOM) Calendar of Events:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/

And here are two links to background stories about the UW Chamber Orchestra and the string orchestra that was supposed to replace  it and do some impressive repertoire, including Mahler’s orchestra version of the famous “Death and the Maiden” string quartet by Franz Schubert as well as intriguing works by Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/classical-music-the-uw-chamber-orchestra-will-play-this-sunday-night-but-then-will-be-axed-and-fall-silent-next-season-is-this-au-revoir-or-adieu/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/classical-music-the-university-of-wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-gets-a-reprieve-thanks-to-compromise-and-repertoire-adjustments-or-so-it-seems-right-now-that-makes-the-ear-happy-and-should-do-the/

The Ear finds that the announcement leaves him with some important and disturbing questions.

What is the solution to the problem? More scholarships to attract more talented students, as one source has said.

How will the lack of some smaller ensemble – either a chamber orchestra or a string orchestra – means for the prestige and national ranking of the UW School of Music?

How will the move affect recruiting of new players in strings and other areas?

Will the UW Symphony Orchestra end up doing double duty for the campus and community UW Choral Union (below), which usually alternates between the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Chamber Orchestra, depending on the work they are singing? (Below is a photo of the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra performing the “Missa Solemnis” by Ludwig van Beethoven in 2010.)

Missa Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra

What small orchestral group will perform smaller-scale orchestral works, either by itself or in collaboration with others?

And does the concluding phrase “We can hope for next year” mean that the chamber orchestra is dissolved forever? That the best we can hope for is another chance at an all-string orchestra?

No doubt details will emerge in the coming days and months.

But it is all too bad.

What do you think of the decision?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Is there more to say about Beethoven and his music? Acclaimed musicologist Jan Swafford thinks so, and says so in his new biography of The Ludwig.

August 9, 2014
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

By most polls and surveys, the most popular composer of classical music remains Ludwig van Beethoven (below). The surly, willful and influential musician bridged the Classical and Romantic eras, and his music retains much of its power and universal appeal even today.

All you have to do is mention the names of works in virtually all the various musical genres and forms — solo sonatas, chamber music, symphonic music, concertos, vocal music — that Beethoven mastered and pushed into new realms of expression:

The “Eroica” Symphony.

The Fifth Symphony.

The “Pastoral” Symphony.

The Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.”

The “Emperor” Concerto for piano.

The “Razumovsky” and “Late” String Quartets.

The “Ghost” and  “Archduke” piano trios, and the “Triple” Concerto.

The “Moonlight,” “Pathetique,” “Tempest,” “Appassionata,” “Waldstein” and “Hammerklavier” piano sonatas.

The “Spring” and “Kreutzer” violin sonatas.

The “Missa Solemnis.”

“Fidelio.”

And on and on.

Such nicknames and so many! Talk about iconic works!

Beethoven big

What more is there to be said about Beethoven?

Well, quite a lot, apparently, according to the acclaimed music historian Jan Swafford (below), who did his undergraduate work at Harvard University and his graduate work at Yale University and who now teaches composition and music history at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Jan Swafford color

Swafford, who has also written biographies of Johannes Brahms and Charles Ives, has just published his 1,000-page biography of Beethoven with the subtitle “Anguish and Triumph.”

It is getting some mixed or qualified reviews. But before you look into that, better check into the pieces that NPR (National Public Radio) did on Swafford and his takes on Beethoven, some of which defy received wisdom and common sense.

Here is a summary of some common perceptions about Beethoven that may -– or may NOT –- be true, according to Swafford. It i s an easy and informative read.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/08/05/337857557/ask-us-anything-about-beethoven

And here is another piece on NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog that deals with how the powerful Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” reveals Beethoven’s personality. (You can hear the opening, played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

http://www.npr.org/2014/08/03/336656578/beethovens-eroica-a-bizarre-revelation-of-personality

Some critics have questioned whether the book (below) is too long, whether it repeats things that are already well known and whether the writing style is accessible to the general public.

But nobody is ignoring it.

Jan Swafford Beethoven cover

Here are two reviews by reputable media outlets.

From The Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/book-review-beethoven-anguish-and-triumph-by-jan-swafford-1406927297

From The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/books/review/beethoven-by-jan-swafford.html?_r=0

Have you read Jan Swafford’s other work?

What do you think of his music histories and biographies?

Or of his new Beethoven book, if you have read it?

And what is your favorite  work by Beethoven?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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