The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 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

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.

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Classical music: The acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs old and new music this Friday night and Sunday afternoon when its new director also makes his debut

August 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Since it was founded in 2002, the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) has been critically acclaimed for the concert it puts together each summer in just a couple of weeks or less. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This summer, the group will be under the baton of its new artistic director, Michael McGaghie (below), who will be making his performing debut with the group.

McGaghie directs choral activities at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and also conducts the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The program this weekend ranges from the 16th century and early Baroque to the contemporary.

It will begin with works from  established masters such as Thomas Tallis, Heinrich Schütz and the Soviet conductor-composer Nikolai Golovanov.

It will then explore works from contemporary composers such as Jocelyn Hagen, Morten Lauridsen and Dale Trumbore in a program called Horizons. (Sorry, The Ear has not received the titles of specific works on the program.)

Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for students. Tickets can be bought at the door or ordered at the links below.

Concert venues are:

This Friday, Aug. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Lutheran Church of the Living Christ, 110 North Gammon Road, on Madison’s west side. For tickets, go to:

https://isthmusvocalens.yapsody.com/event/index/282736/ive-2018-friday-concert

This Sunday, Aug. 5, at 3 p.m. in Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 East Gorham Street. For tickets, go to:

https://isthmusvocalens.yapsody.com/event/index/282791/ive-2018-sunday-concert

For more about the impressive background of the new director, go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/

For more about the past performances and the organization, including sound samples to listen to and how to join or support the group, go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org


Classical music: The Madison Choral Project adds a second performance in late May with famed guest conductor Dale Warland. Plus, you can hear J.S. Bach’s famous “Goldberg” Variations arranged for string trio in a FREE concert on Friday at noon.

April 30, 2015
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison Meeting House at 900 University Bay Drive, will offer a transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, originally composed for solo harpsichord, arranged for string trio by Russian violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky. Performers are Kangwon Kim, violin (below); Micah Behr, viola; and Mark Bridges, cello. (You can hear the opening of this transcription, with the arranger who was inspired by Glenn Gould, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Kangwon Kim

By Jacob Stockinger

Our friends at the Madison Choral Project (below) write:

Madison Choral Project color

Dear Friends of Great Choral Music,

Due to high interest, we are pleased to announce we have added a second concert with guest conductor Dale Warland (below).

Maestro Warland’s program is titled: “Music of Our Time,” and features a wonderful array of music including Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Part, Ola Gjeilo, Carol Barnett, and even a work by Warland himself.

Dale Warland

We will now offer two concerts on the last weekend of May, both at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave, Madison:

Friday May 29th, at 7:30pm (Tickets are still available)

OR

Sunday May 31st, at 2:30pm

You can get your tickets by clicking on the links above, or going through our website: www.themcp.org/tickets 

Join us for this memorable evening of music-making!

A reception at the church to follow each concert.

The distinguished career of choral composer and conductor, Dale Warland, spans more than six decades and has made a profound contribution to the music of our time.

As founder and music director of The Dale Warland Singers, he commissioned over 270 new choral works and fostered the careers of an entire generation of composers.

This program, “Music of our Time,” features compositions by 20th and 21st century composers such as Ola Gjeilo, Arvo Pärt, Dominick Argento and Morten Lauridsen, as well as several others. With just over an hour of music, the concert will be divided into six thematic sets: 1- American Voices; 2- From the Balkans; 3- From Belgium; 4- Traditional Texts: International Voices; 5- Classic American Folk and a Madrigal; and 6- From Minnesota.

All musical selections were chosen by Dale Warland, specifically for this collaboration with the Madison Choral Project.

If you would like to change your tickets from Friday to Sunday, please reply to this email and we can assist you.

 


Classical music education: An impressive and long overdue brass festival -– “Celebrate Brass!” — will be held at the UW-Madison School of Music. It opens next Wednesday, Oct. 8, and runs through next Monday, Oct. 13.

October 3, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

A good friend in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, who also happens to be an avid brass fan, recently wrote to The Ear:

“A young violinist I know heard a brass quintet perform last spring at the UW-Madison School of Music, and afterwards she said to me: ‘I had no idea this music is so beautiful.’

brass photo UW Celebrate Brass festival 2014

“She’s not alone. Most people don’t know. They associate brass with marching bands, or with obnoxious loud horns. And occasionally they notice a high trumpet solo in an orchestra concert (and don’t actually see the trumpeter as she or he is seated so far in back).

“But there’s much, much more. Think of the beauty of strings, with its complex interweavings of melodies and lushness of sound, but applied to trumpets, trombones, “French” horns and the tuba.

And then there are the works that are dramatic and insistent, such as “Quidditch,” written by John Williams (below) for the Harry Potter movie.

john williams 1

That is what the UW is offering during its weeklong Brass Festival — “Celebrate Brass”  — the first in 32 years at the School of Music and organized by John Aley (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), professor and principal trumpet with the Madison Symphony Orchestra as well as a member of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet.

This event will even bookend John’s tenure here at the School of Music, as he helped organize the first brass festival 32 years ago.

John Aley Talbot

The main concert, called “Brass Alchemy,” on next Saturday, Oct. 11, will present a varied program of lyrical music that is just as much a part of the classical repertory as anything else.

“And the visiting performers are tops in their fields.

One is Oystein Baadsvik (below) an iconoclastic virtuoso tubist from Norway. Two are UW-Madison women alumna horn players. Another is a top composer and trumpeter.

oystein baadsvik behind tuba

“The two brass quintets – including the Western Brass Quintet (below top) from Michigan and Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below bottom in a photo by Megan Aley) at the UW-Madison School of Music — are frequent commissioners of new works, essential if one is to continue the growth and development of classical music. (The Western Brass Quintet will feature a new work by American composer Pierre Jalbert whose “Howl” Clarinet Quintet scored such a success in its world premiere by the Pro Arte Quartet last Friday night. Below is a link to The Ear’s rave review of the Jalbert work.)

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/classical-music-the-ear-gets-to-hear-a-masterpiece-in-the-making-pierre-jalbert-howl-clarinet-quintet-it-sure-sounds-like-it-will-become-a-chamber-music-staple-of-new-mu/

Western Brass Quintet

Wisconsin Brass Quintet 2014 CR Megan Aley

“The School of Music is ticketing this main concert only — a departure from the recent past but long overdue, one that will be followed during the year for selected other concerts. Money raised will be put toward the many needs of the UW-Madison School of Music, which is another topic in itself.

“All the rest of the week’s events — master classes, colloquia and several other concerts — are FREE and open to the public.

“Tickets for the general public are $25 for the one concert listed below, but all students get in FREE. For information, visit http://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

“One hopes that these performances and educational festivals this year can be continued into the future, as they offer so much more than a stand-alone guest artist.

“One can also hope that listeners will discover an angle that is particularly interesting to them –whether it’s a solo tuba work called “Fnugg” (seriously) or the grace of a choral work performed by soaring brass.

“Here are a few links that illustrate the program for that night’s concert:”

“Quidditch” by John Williams:

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

“Of Kingdoms and Glory” by Anthony Di Lorenzo:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4eeOPPon28

“O Magnum Mysterium” (choral music arranged for brass) by Morten Lauridsen:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8y5GYboGdc

“Elegy” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oliao3JixtY

http://www.amazon.com/Sound-Bells-Works-Brass-Ensemble/dp/B004DKDNYS

The Ear is also providing some other links that seem relevant and informative.

Here is one to the official UW-Madison School of Music press release with the full schedule and list of programs and performers:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/brass-festival/

And here is one to Wisconsin Public Radio’s recent session of “The Midday” with host Norman Gilliland and guest UW-Madison trumpeter John Aley. It has lots of good commentary and great samples of brass music:

http://www.wpr.org/shows/john-aley

And here is a link to a Tiny Desk Concert, given by the Canadian Brass, playing Johann Sebastian Bach in a studio for NPR or National Public Radio:

 


Classical music Q&A: Founder Kevan Feyzi talks about the new Madison Area Trombone Ensemble (MATE), which will perform its FREE inaugural concert this Sunday in Madison. It features University of Wisconsin-Madison trombone professor Mark Hetzler as guest soloist.

March 27, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday, the Madison Area Trombone Ensemble will makes its official local debut when it performs its inaugural concert, with UW trombone professor and member of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet Mark Hetzler as a special guest soloist.

MATE 6

The FREE concert is 3 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church, 203 Wisconsin Ave., Madison, WI.

A new all-volunteer ensemble, MATE features many of the areas top trombonists, students, as well as members of the community, all of whom share a passion for music-making and trombone.  Members play in a wide variety of groups, such as the Madison Symphony, the WYSO Youth Orchestra, the Madison Jazz Orchestra, the Madison Mellophonium Jazz Orchestra, the Madison Brass Band and Phat Phunktion. (Performance photos below come from MATE when it performed at Barnes and Noble booksellers as part of the Wisconsin School Music Association’s “Music in Our Schools” Month Bookfair on March 13).

Mark Hetzler will be the guest soloist in David P. Jones’ “Bone Moan,” a work for solo trombone and six-part trombone choir. The piece draws on rhythms and harmonies found in not only jazz, but also reggae and Latin popular music. In both the solo and ensemble parts, the piece uses a full range of the trombone’s capabilities through the use of glissandi, mutes, flutter tonguing and other techniques.

MATE will also perform a piece by Madison-area bass trombonist and prolific composer-arranger Rich Woolworth, plus arrangements for trombone choir that span a variety of eras and styles, including works by Luca Marenzio, Franz Joseph Haydn, Randall Thompson and Duke Ellington.

The Ear asked MATE founder and player Kevan Feyzi (below) to talk about MATC and he kindly responded with an email Q&A:

Kevan Feyzi

When, why and how did the Madison Area Trombone Ensemble come into being?

Last summer, I was playing a bit with the Madison Mellophonium Jazz Orchestra (a large jazz band which performs charts from the Stan Kenton library). I looked to my left and right, and noticed that all four other trombonists are some of the finest players in the area and were doing this pro-bono. They each truly love to play, and do so as much as they have the time. In other groups I work with many other fine trombonists who have the same philosophy. All of us seem to get along quite well. So the light bulb then popped into my head: What if we all got together to make some music?

In the fall, I floated the idea around to trombonists around town and received very positive feedback, so I decided to go ahead with it. With some help from Steve Ash, who directs the Glenwood Moravian Trombone Choir, and the generosity of the staff of First United Methodist Church, the group finally got off the ground in January. We’re now 15 strong!

What do you and other members like about the trombone so much as to have created an all-trombone ensemble?

We’re all certainly biased, but consider this: Are any of the other members of the brass family as dynamic and versatile as the trombone? The amount of tone colors we can generate is so vast. I can hardly think of a genre of music where a trombone wouldn’t fit in. So we can play any sort of music, even in a group setting. And when you have a dozen-plus trombones playing together, you get something really remarkable. To me, it’s a collective sound that’s unsurpassed by any other collection of instruments.

I also have a lot of fun arranging for trombone choir — we can cover about the same range as a human, SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) choir. Choral music lends itself quite well to a group of trombones: in fact, on the March 30 concert we’ll be playing my choral arrangement of Randall Thompson’s well-known “Alleluia.” (You can hear a tribune choir perform Morten Lauridsen‘s “O Magnum Mysterium” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Trombone

What kind of repertoire will you favor? Original compositions? New music? Older established repertoire? Transcriptions? Classical music? Jazz and crossover music?

I make a point NOT to favor any one style (jazz versus classical) over another. Trombones sound great in all music, so let’s show off our versatility! For example, we’ll start off with some Renaissance music, some Haydn, and move chronologically forward — more or less — into the 20th century and jazz. There are all kinds of great arrangements and transcriptions for trombone choir—some great ones being done by members of the group in fact — but original repertoire is harder to come by.

So I’m particularly excited about a piece contributed by Monticello-based trombonist and composer Rich Woolworth (below top)  called “Octagon,” as well as the piece we’ll feature Mark Hetzler (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) in, David P. Jones’ “Bone Moan.”

Rich Woolworth trombone

Mark Hetzler 2011 BIG COLOR Katrin Talbot

Mark Hetzler and David P. Jones (below) are long-time friends, and the two have collaborated on many compositions for trombone. I like to feature a few original trombone choir compositions on any performance, but these two stand out because of the local connections. The more we can play from the output of area composers, arrangers or members of the group, the better.

David P. Jones full face

Bone Moan CD cover

Do you worry about establishing another music group in a city with so many music groups already?

I suppose if money were a concern then I might, but this is a community group. MATE’s mission is one of music-making and camaraderie, while sharing the unique sound of a trombone choir with music lovers. I think that we can achieve that regardless of the amount of other groups in town. For a mid-sized city, we have a notably large music scene in Madison, which means that some very fine players can’t always commit to a series of weekly rehearsals and a performance or two.

About the only thing I’m concerned about is having enough players to make the group viable. But I’m quite satisfied about how the group has grown — 15 is a great number for a trombone choir, and it should only grow from there.

MATE 7 close up

What are your plans for future concerts and events? Is membership open and how does one audition?

I have a summer performance in the works much like what we’re doing this month, but I’d like to introduce the group into other performance settings as well. A group of trombones works just as well at a jazz festival as it does in a concert hall — we just have to play the appropriate repertoire. Membership is open to anyone in the community who plays the trombone solidly, and has a decent amount of experience. Anyone interested in joining is welcome to sit in for a rehearsal to see if they enjoy it.

What kind of support is the group seeking to keep it going?

A good-sized audience at our performances, and lots of positive vibes! I don’t keep a budget for the group: the players are all volunteering their musical talents, and I volunteer my own time outside of rehearsal to promote the group and keep things running smoothly. That being said, donations will be accepted at performances in order to purchase new music.

Is there anything else you would like to say or add?

Creating and directing this group has been a real bright spot for me in what’s been one of the worst winters in history. I’m very thankful for all the trombonists who have donated their time and efforts toward getting us off the ground, and I’m excited to keep it going!

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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players explores “The Americas” – with music by Dvorak, Morten Lauridsen, Amy Beach, Ignacio Cervantes and Paquito D’Rivera — this coming Saturday and Sunday.

January 29, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Say the phrase “American” music, and it sounds confining or restricting, at least stylistically

But that is certainly not the case, as the deeply talented and always reliable Oakwood Chamber Players (below) – many of whom play with other well-known concert groups in the area – will demonstrate in two performances of an eclectic concert of chamber music.

Oakwood Chamber Players 2012 1

The Oakwood Chamber Players of Madison, Wisconsin will present two concerts with works from North, Central and South America this coming weekend.

The concerts are at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, at the Oakwood Village University Woods Auditorium (below top), 6209 Mineral Point Road; and at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 3, at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum Visitors Center.

Tickets are available at the door: $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and $5 for students.

Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Oakwood wheelchair

UW Arboretum Visitor Center

The Americas concerts will showcase composers, eras and combinations of instrumentation ranging from jazz to string quartets to Latin American dances.

Six works by six different composers will be featured during the concerts including:

• “Tropical Airs” for Woodwind Quintet by Paquito D’Rivera (below), a Grammy award winner with works ranging from jazz to bebop to large-scale symphonic works.

Paquito D'Rivera 1

• “Contre Qui, Rose” for string quartet by Morten Lauridsen (below), a contemporary composer known for his evocative and close harmonies in choral works.

morton lauridsen

• “Pastorale” for woodwind quintet by Amy Beach (below), the US’s first successful female composer who was influenced by the Romantic era.

Amy Beach BW 1

• The famous “American” String Quartet by Antonin Dvorak (below), which was created shortly after a trip to the Midwest, where the composer had a summer home in Spillville, Iowa, and was likely influenced by American folk music.

dvorak

• “Six Cuban Dances” for wind quartet by Ignacio Cervantes.

Ignacio Cervantes

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for 30 years.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation, in collaboration with Friends of the Arboretum, Inc.


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