The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival’s 20th anniversary Grand Tour includes a silent movie and rare books as well as lots of varied music to mark its success after 20 years. Part 2 of 2

July 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

A big anniversary deserves a big celebration – and that is exactly what the organizers of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival, which is marking its 20th year, have come up with.

All concerts include a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. The concerts begin at 7:30 p.m.

Here’s the link for all the information about MEMF: https://memf.wisc.edu/

Tickets are $90 for an all-event pass. Individual concerts are $22, $12 for students. Tickets are available for purchase online and by phone at 608-265-ARTS (2787) with a $4 service fee; or in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing Box Office @ Memorial Union.

Co-artistic director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe recently wrote about the festival in a Q&A for this blog. Yesterday she spoke about the overall concept and the first weekend’s concerts. Here is a link to Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/07/05/classical-music-the-madison-early-music-festival-will-present-a-grand-tour-of-musical-styles-a-movie-and-rare-books-to-mark-its-success-after-20-years-the-tour-starts-this-saturda/

Here is Part 2 of 2:

What events take place next week?

The concert on Tuesday, July 9, is going to be a unique experience for MEMF audiences. HESPERUS creates the soundtrack for the 1923 silent film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with music (below) from 14th- and 15th-century France. (The cathedral was started in 1163 and finished in 1345.)

Compositions include French and Burgundian music from 1300 to 1500, featuring Guillaume de Machaut, Jehan l’Escurel, Guillaume Dufay, as well as lesser-known composers such as Vaillant, Morton and Borlet.

On Friday, July 12, the vocal ensemble Calmus (below) performs “Faith and Madness,” a program of a dialogue between sacred music masterpieces followed by madrigals that portray madness, love, war and loneliness.

Composers include Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Heinrich Schütz, Claudio Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo, Clement Janequin and others.

All of the singers are graduates of Leipzig’s renowned St. Thomas Church Choir School. Calmus was founded in 1999. This a cappella quintet embodies the rich choral tradition of its hometown, the city associated with Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn.

To hear a preview of their arrangement of Bach’s “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” BWV 659, visit: https://youtu.be/WNzzUU0GcF4

Can you tell us about the program and performers for the All-Festival concert on Saturday, July 13?

The All-Festival Concert includes all of our workshop participants and faculty. We work together to prepare the concert all week and it is truly a MEMF community project. Grant Herreid (below) has created the All-Festival program this year. Grant is a genius at designing a program that tells a musical story featuring MEMF’s faculty and participants.

“Musical Postcards from The Grand Tour” features a narrator, loosely based on Thomas Coryat (below, at sea and in the Alps), the English 17th-century century travel writer, who, as a young man, travels throughout Europe in search of music. Beginning in London, 1641, the musical itinerary continues to Venice, Rome, Naples, Dresden, Paris, and back to London.

The program features so many wonderful composers, and the large ensemble pieces are: the Gloria from Monteverdi’s Selva morale et spirituale; the beautiful Miserere of Gregorio Allegri; Nun danket alle Gott by Heinrich Schütz; Domine salvum fac regem setting by Jean-Baptiste Lully; and, as an ending, This point in time ends all your grief from Ye tuneful muses by Henry Purcell.

Are there other sessions — guest lectures, certain performers, particular works — that you especially recommend for the general public?

All the planning that goes into each festival leads me to encourage the general public to attend everything! The concert series, lectures and workshops have so much to offer.

The special moments that I’m looking forward to are singing in the All-Festival concert and performing Allegri’s  Miserere,a stunning piece that I have never heard performed in Madison. (You can hear it in there YouTube video at the bottom.)

I also look forward to hearing the fantastic musical soundtrack created by HESPERUS for the silent movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the Calmus singing connection back to Bach through their musical education in Leipzig, plus experiencing all the different travelogues of the past as they come to life through narrations and music.

Special events include a dance with a live band drawn from the MEMF Faculty with dance instruction by Peggy Murray, Grand Tour Dance Excursions, at the Memorial Union in the Great Hall on Thursday, July 11, at 7:30 pm. https://memf.wisc.edu/event/07-11-2019-2/

The lecture series features some well-known Madisonians like J. Michael Allsen (below top), who writes program notes and lectures for the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Maria Saffiotti Dale (below bottom), curator at the Chazen Museum of Art.

There will be a special exhibit created for MEMF in the lobby of Memorial Library by Jeanette Casey, the head of the Mills Music Library and Lisa Wettleson of Special Collections at Memorial Library. This curated display includes materials about the Grand Tour, including one of the oldest travelogues from 1611 written by Thomas Coryat.

The exhibit will be in the lobby of Memorial Library (below) and open to the public from Saturday, July 6, through Thursday, July 18, with a special talk about the exhibit during the festival on Monday, July 8, at 11:30 a.m.

This partnership allows the library to display rarely seen original and facsimile publications, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries within the context of the MEMF theme.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

In 1611 Thomas Coryat, the author of the travelogue Crudities foretold what you will hear at MEMF in 2019:

“…I heard the best musicke that ever I did in all my life…so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to heare the like…the Musicke which was both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like”.

Get your tickets for the concert series. Attend the lectures. Take some classes. See a movie. Come and dance with us. Join us to experience the ultimate musical gap year at our 20th anniversary celebration!


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Classical music: With actors and multimedia, the Madison Symphony Orchestra explores Felix Mendelssohn in Italy this coming Sunday afternoon

January 14, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, Jan. 20, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and its music director John DeMain will present the story behind Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “Italian” with Beyond the Score®: Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4: Why Italy? (Ticket information is further down.)

The concert is a multimedia examination of German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s travels through Italy.

Starring American Players Theatre actors Sarah Day (below top), Jonathan Smoots (below middle) and Nate Burger (below bottom), the concert experience features visual projections, photos, musical excerpts and a full performance of the Symphony No. 4 by the MSO, with John DeMain conducting, in the second half.

In 1830, a young 21-year-old Mendelssohn (below) visited the Italian countryside and the historic cities of Venice, Naples and Rome.

Three years later, he set his journey to music and composed his fourth Symphony — later to be known as his “Italian” Symphony. Though it eventually became one of the composer’s most popular works, the piece was performed only twice during his lifetime and published four years after his death in 1851. (You can hear the rousing final movement of the “Italian Symphony” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Designed for classical music lovers and newcomers looking for a deeper look into the world of classic music and the motivations of significant compositions, “Beyond the Score®: Why Italy?” joins Mendelssohn on his travels in Italy and discovers his inspiration for this symphonic work.

Incorporating the composer’s own letters and writings, the program presents the historical context behind the classical piece turned masterpiece.

Program notes by J. Michael Allsen are available at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1819/4AJan19.html

Single Tickets are $16 to $70 each, available at https://madisonsymphony.org/event/beyond-the-score-mendelssohn/, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the box office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/group-discounts/.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $10 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/offers-discounts/. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Exclusive funding for this concert is provided by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. Beyond the Score® is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney is the Creative Director for Beyond the Score®


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians opens its new season with an impressive performance of unusual Baroque concertos in a new venue. Plus, UW students give a FREE concert of opera arias Saturday night.

October 6, 2015
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ALERT: This Saturday night at 7 p.m., voice students from the UW-Madison School of Music will give a FREE and PUBLIC concert of opera arias at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, off the Capitol Square.

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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Madison Bach Musicians gave the first of their three concerts of this season on Saturday night. And this time they did so in a novel venue, Immanuel Lutheran Church (below is the exterior). This handsome space on the near East Side has emerged in recent months as a concert site of growing popularity.

immanuel lutheran church ext

The program was devoted to “Baroque Concertos,” and it was introduced by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson (below) with his usual wit and insight. (Performance photos are by John W. Barker.)

MBM Trevor Stephenson at Immanuel concertos

The chronological span of the music presented ran from the High Baroque of the late 17th century through the Late Baroque, and even Post-Baroque of the first half of the 18th century.

Of the four works presented, the first one was not a concerto at all, but an extraordinary ensemble piece by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704, below). Many Renaissance and early Baroque composers had created sound paintings — both vocal and instrumental evocations of battle. But Biber’s Battaglia, with its polytonalities, went far beyond anything before, and perhaps since, all the way down to Charles Ives.

Heinrich Biber

The second of its eight short movements evokes a military encampment of an army of very mixed personnel, each celebrating its individuality in a quodlibet or medley piece of eight separate song tunes played simultaneously, in willful chaos. And the penultimate seventh represents the battle itself with surging textures and wild string plucking to suggest gunshots.

The 11 string players, plus Stephenson on the harpsichord, made a whale of a show out of it, all on their elegant “early instruments.”

MBM Biber Battaglia

Throughout the program, the concertmaster, violinist Kangwon Kim (below), played a notable role as the true leader of the ensemble. But she was also given her place as a brilliant soloist — first in the Violin Concerto in A Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, the most familiar selection in the concert. This she played with her usual sensitivity and stylistic confidence.

Kangwon Kim

The most novel work was a Cello Concerto in A Major by Leonardo Leo (1694-1744, below top), the leader of the important Neapolitan School of instrumental and vocal music in the early 18th century. The least familiar music on the program, this four-movement work gave soloist Steuart Pincombe (below bottom, seated in center) a chance to display a blazing virtuosity.

leonardo leo

MBM Steuart Pincombe in Leo concerto

Finally came a rarely heard work by a well-known composer, Antonio Vivaldi. His Concerto for Violin, Cello, Strings and Continuo, in B-flat (RV 547) gave the vivacious Kim and the fiery Pincombe a perfect duet vehicle for display of their talents. The final movement was dazzling, and if they had repeated it as an encore — which I wish they had done — they would have raised the roof. (You can hear the double concerto by Vivaldi in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

MBM Kim and pIncombe in Vivaldi double concerto

Clearly, Immanuel Lutheran has a growing future as a concert site. And the Madison Bach Musicians are off to a brilliant season. Watch for the annual Christmas concert on Dec. 12, and the correctly scheduled Easter (NOT Christmas) performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah on April 8 and 10; all of these will be at the First Congregational Church.


Classical music: Trevor Stephenson talks about the Baroque concertos that the Madison Bach Musicians will perform this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

September 30, 2015
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ALERT: The Ear apologizes for mistakenly listing this item last week: The weekly FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the historic  First Unitarian Society of Madison, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and located at 900 University Bay Drive, begin the new season this week. This coming Friday, Oct. 2, at 12:15-1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium, mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sanuda and pianist-composer Jeff Gibbens will perform songs by Gustav Mahler, Gabriel Faure, Manuel de Falla and Jeff Gibbens.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend Trevor Stephenson, the founder and artistic director as well as the keyboard player of the Madison Bach Musicians, writes:

The Madison Bach Musicians (below) is thrilled to start its 12th season this weekend with an entire program of baroque concertos for strings. I will be discussing the program today on Wisconsin Public Radio’s The Midday program with host Norman Gilliland from noon to 12:30 p.m.

Kangwon KIm with Madison Bach Musicians

There will be two performances: this coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. at  Immanuel Lutheran Church (below), 1021 Spaight Street, on the near east side; and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. at Holy Wisdom Monastery on the far west side at 4200 County M in Middleton. I’ll give pre-concert lectures at both events at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., respectively.

Immanuel Lutheran interior

Tickets are $28, $23 for students and seniors over 65, in advance; $30 and $25 respectively at the door. Student rush tickets are $10 and are available 30 minutes before the concert. For information about single tickets and subscriptions, go to:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org/buy-tickets-online/

Our soloists will be MBM concertmaster Kangwon Kim (below top) and internationally renowned baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below bottom).

Kangwon Kim

Steuart Pincombe

Right out of the gate, we’ll dive into a programmatic 17th-century masterpiece, Battalia (Battle, heard played by the renowned Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations in a YouTube video at the bottom) , by Heinrich Biber (below).

Composed around 1673, Battalia’s sequence of epigrams outlines a timeless narrative: from the drunken good humor and singing of disparate songs in several keys at once (long, long before Charles Ives) in the soldiers’ camp, to the sabre rattling of Mars, to the love song (aria) before the battle, to the battle itself, to the lament of the wounded musketeers (the slow descending chromaticism must be the oozing of wounds).

Biber’s sense of just how far to take each scene is what makes the work memorable. His instinct here is unerring in knowing how many repetitions to give a motive before finally closing it with a cadence — Scarlatti and Stravinsky are later masters of this technique.

Heinrich Biber

After Biber, we’ll move on to the elegant and rightly famous Violin Concerto in A minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). Bach learned an immense amount about ritornello form from his careful study of Antonio Vivaldi, whose music we’ll hear from at the end of the program.

In ritornello structure, the band and the soloist trade off sections; the band’s sections are full and fleshed out, more like a crowd or a Greek chorus, the soloist’s material is usually more intricate and virtuosic.

But the soloist and the band are only minimally contrasted in baroque style, since usually the band backs up the soloist and in many performance approaches the soloist will also play along during the band’s louder sections; the feeling is very convivial.

MBM chamber ensemble, April 2015

I’m always amazed by how much Bach’s music is at once thoroughly inspired by Italian music — with its leaps, drive and energy — and yet is never overrun with Italianisms.

Take the opening ritornello of this violin concerto. The first four measures could come from almost any Italian master, and then Bach brilliantly extends and twists and cantilevers the cadence for another 20 measures to set the stage for the soloist’s refined entrance in the upbeats to measure 25.

The Andante middle movement has a compelling, heartbeat-like rhythmic underpinning (regularly punctuated by a swaying figure) in the opening ritornello, which then gives way to the solo violin’s utmost tenderness and rhetorical conviction. The finale is a propulsive gigue in the somewhat unusual meter of 9/8.

Bach1

The piece on our program that very few in the audience will have heard before is the Cello Concerto in A major by Leonardo Leo (below). Leo was born near the end of the 17th century in Naples, where he worked for much of his career, writing primarily both comic and serious operas.

His cello concertos date from around the mid-1730s and are characterized by transparency of texture and form that in some ways make them precursors to the coming neo-classical style of the later 18th-century. It is not certain that he played the cello, but the writing in the concertos is idiomatic, colorful and virtuosic. MBM is delighted that guest cellist Steuart Pincombe has brought this work forward for these concerts.


leonardo leo

The final work is Vivaldi’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in B-flat major, RV 547. Vivaldi (below), nicknamed the “Red Priest” because of his magnificent mane of red hair, was of course a spectacularly gifted violinist who wrote hundreds of compositions for that instrument. But he also teamed the violin with the cello on several occasions.

I’m always awed by Vivaldi’s consistently successful use of irregular phrase lengths. The music just seems to roll on out there and be perfectly balanced, but the measure groupings are often in fives or sevens, and not so much in the four-measure groupings that typically connote stability. A few other composers have mastered this technique of hiding wonderfully asymmetrical structures, and J. S. Bach is most notable.

vivaldi

The entire concert will be played on period instruments: gut strings and baroque bows. We’re also delighted to welcome to this concert the specialist on the violone (baroque double bass) Marilyn Fung(below) from Michigan.

Marilyn Fung

 


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