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: Great choral singing by the Madison Chamber Choir and the Madison Choral Project should serve great choral music – and fewer second-rate novelties

May 25, 2016
6 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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also provided the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Two of the city’s important choral groups joined forces for a program presented at the First Congregational United Church of Christ last Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

Albert Pinsonneault (below), who used to teach at Edgewood College and now teaches at Northwestern University, and who is the director of both groups, conducted.

Albert Pinsonneault 2

Each group had its own showcase in the program’s first half.

The Madison Chamber Choir (below) led off with the “Serenade to Music,” a setting of lines from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which Ralph Vaughan Williams  composed in 1938 for 16 of his favorite singers, with orchestra. He adapted this for full chorus, but that transition did not quite produce a work truly choral in character.

The choir sang the beautiful work very handsomely, but the substitution for the orchestra of a piano accompaniment was uncomfortable and, indeed, a disruption of diction. (You can hear the original version for chorus and orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Madison Chamber Choir JWB

The Madison Choral Project (below top) came next with a performance of “Images, Shadows, Dreams: Five Vignettes” by the late David Baker (1931-2016, below middle).

Baker was a noted scholar and promoter of jazz, and his goal was a “fusion” of jazz with classical forms. To the five composed poems, Pinsonneault added readings of poems written by five young participants (below bottom) in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Odyssey Project activities in cultural and educational support.

Madison Choral Project JWB

David Baker

Madison Choral Project jazz Odyssey student JWB

All this represents noble and praiseworthy efforts on behalf of disadvantaged African-Americans. But high ideals do not necessarily guarantee artistic achievement. Baker uses a combo of five instrumentalists, which bangs away behind the choir, hardly “fusing” anything in styles—neither honest jazz nor multicultural synthesis.

Madison Choral Project jazz drum and bass JWB

The choir, in its turn, sings mightily at music of generally simplistic technique — mostly unisons and chordal declamations. There is little to remember or admire, once the “messages” have worn off.

Fortunately, the intermission yielded to the one work of substance on the program, the Mass for Double Choir, by the Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974, below), a combination of neo-classical and modernist styles that is better appreciated in Europe than here.

Frank Martin

For this, the two choirs (below) merged, then divided into the requisite two components.

Martin’s writing is subtle, and his juxtaposition of the two choirs is not just antiphonal but artfully varied in their interaction—to which is added a great deal of harmonic experimentation. This is one of the choral masterpieces of the 20th century.

Pinsonneault and his 57 choristers gave it a glorious performance, showing what this conductor can do to make great choral sound out of great choral music.

Madison Chamber Choir and Madison Choral Project combined JWB

The final programmed piece was a somewhat pretentious setting by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan (below) of a ballad by poet Robert Burns. As an encore, the singers perpetrated a glitzy, but uncredited, arrangement of “Loch Lomond”—the only piece that brought the audience to its feet.

James MacMillan headshot

This concert was an undeniable testimony to the splendid choral groups we have here, and to what Pinsonneault is accomplishing with these groups. But I kept returning to the dichotomy at which I hinted earlier.

Choral singing is a wonderful activity both to listen to and to participate in, and I share some of the enthusiasm for that. But I wonder how many in the audience were there seeking great CHORAL singing. I was there seeking great choral MUSIC.

Our choirs can give us the former, no question, and audiences can justly admire it. But has all this musical talent been applied responsibly to the latter? How much do our choral programs deal with trivia and little sweetmeats, rather than digging into the vast literature of magnificent choral art?


Classical music: The critically acclaimed vocal group Cantus sings about four kinds of love at the Stoughton Opera House this Saturday night. The Stoughton High School Concert Choir is a special guest performer.

March 30, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received word about an intriguing and appealing performance this weekend:

On this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., Cantus (below top, in a photo by Curtis Johnson), the critically acclaimed, nine-voice men’s vocal ensemble based in the Twin Cities, will perform at the Stoughton Opera House (below middle and bottom), known for its historical restoration and its fine acoustics.

Cantus Railing Clustered

Stoughton Opera House ext

StoughtonOperaHouse,JPG

Love has been the inspiration for artistic expression since the dawn of time. It is such a complex idea that the ancient Greeks broke it down into four different kinds: romantic, familial, friendly and unconditional or spiritual love.

Weaving together repertoire and interstitial remarks, Cantus regards this unquantifiable emotion from all sides.

The program spans multiple historical eras and cultural traditions.

It features music by Francis Poulenc, Edvard Grieg, Ludwig van Beethoven and Bobby McFerrin.

Each of those works is paired with newly commissioned works exploring each of the four loves (romantic, familial, friendly and spiritual) by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang (below top, in a photo by Peter Serling) as well as Roger Treece (second below), Joseph Gregorio (third below) and Ysaye Barnwell (below bottom).

david lang CR peter serling

Roger Treece

Joseph Gregorio

Ysaye Barnwell

The program brims with Cantus’s trademark programming juxtaposition, including pairing the Beach Boys’ “Their Hearts were Full of Spring” with  “Wedding Qawwali” by the Grammy Award- and Academy Award-winning Indian composer A. R. Rahman (below) and Michael McGlynn’s setting of the traditional Gaelic “Ceann Dubh Dilis (Her Sweet Dark Head)” in a set about romantic love.

A. R, Rahman

While seemingly disjointed on its face, the variety of repertoire throughout blends seamlessly and highlights the universality of Love – our greatest and most fragile gift.

For more information about Cantus, including biographies, photos, videos and audio samples, visit this link:

http://www.allianceartistmanagement.com/artist.php?id=cantus&aview=dpk

Here is a YouTube video about the program, with musical samples, to be performed in Stoughton:


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