The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: John W. Barker finds the Wisconsin Chamber Choir “moving” and “overwhelming” in its performance of the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms.

April 21, 2015
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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 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

Having already established an enviable level of achievement with his Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below), conductor Robert Gehrenbeck led it to new heights with the concert on Saturday night at Luther Memorial Church.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir with conductor Brahms 2015 JWB

The program opened with two examples of Gehrenbeck’s interest in promoting new choral works through commissions.

The first, sung by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chamber Singers at his academic base, was by American composer Christian Ellenwood (below).

Entitled “Prairie Spring,” it set a poem by Willa Cather, celebrating the Nebraska landscape, scored for choir and string orchestra. This is a gentle piece, full of lyric grace, in a neo-Romantic style, and reflecting a confident command of choral texture. It made me think a little of the music of British composer Gerald Finzi. The words were somewhat obscured, but that may partly have been a function of the church’s spacious acoustics.

Christian Ellenwood copy

The second new work was by the older British composer Giles Swayne (below) that sets selected lines from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, under the title of “Our Orphan Souls.” Solo baritone Gregory Berg (below) delivered reflections of Captain Ahab, with chorus, alto saxophone, harp, double bass and percussion.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Ahab JWB (1)

The solo writing has strength, and might have been built into a more extended soliloquy—and baritone Gregory Berg delivered it with strength. But the choral writing — sung by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir itself — was unsettled and unidiomatic, running from word to word without much continuity of lines.

Giles Swayne

Ah, but the main event! Nothing less than the “German” Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), one of the greatest of choral works, by one of the greatest of choral composers, Johannes Brahms (below). Setting passages from Scripture in the Martin Luther translation, Brahms made this a big work, both in length and in performing demands.

brahms3

The chancel of Luther Memorial has only so much space, forcing a lot of crowding. The orchestra—37 players, familiar local performers—was arrayed through the center, while the two blended choirs were stationed on risers to either side: sopranos and tenors on the left, altos and basses on the right (below).

Wisconsin Chamber Choir, Brahms altos, basses JWB (1)

Such an arrangement could have strained ensemble coordination, but in fact it worked quite well. Indeed, it actually made it possible to follow the interaction of voice parts better than when the whole choir is in a single clump. German diction was a bit blurred, but, again, acoustics must take some blame. (I should note that I sat close and up front, so that what and how I heard may have been somewhat different from those in seating further back.)

The two soloists were both engaging. A last-minute replacement, soprano Catherine Henry (below left), was deeply expressive, a rich-voiced exemplar of the comforting mother we would all want to have.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Catherine Henry soprano JWB (1)

The baritone, Brian Leaper, was a deft guide to the mysteries of mortality.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Brian Leaper JWB (1)

The orchestra took on its large assignment with skill, and the choral singers were simply magnificent. But the highest praise must go to Gehrenbeck himself. His tempos were flexible, his balances neatly coordinated, and his sense of what each of the seven movements had to say was perfect. This is not only a superb choral conductor, but a musician of true artistry.

I write as someone for whom the Brahms Requiem has profound meaning. I have known and loved it since student days. I have sung in it several times, and listened to it in many recordings and performances. It is one of the musical threads of my life.

But I think I can honestly say that this was the most meaningful performance of the work that I have ever experienced. I often felt moved to tears by the beautiful, truthful messages that Robert Gehrenbeck (below) — who heads the choral program at UW-Whitewater — brought to realization out of it.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

There is a small lifetime list I keep of concerts and performances that I forever cherish, and this one is a rare addition—a presentation I will remember for the rest of my days.

One more reminder, then, of the riches Madison offers in choral music alone!


Classical music: After hearing pianist Shai Wosner play two Haydn concertos with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, The Ear asks: When will Wosner return for a solo recital?

February 25, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend brought a lot of conflicting classical music concerts to Madison.

But one of the best events proved to be the concert on Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

The program featured the supremely gifted but much under-publicized pianist Shai Wosner (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve). He performed two contrasting keyboard concertos by Joseph Haydn — No. 4 in G Major and the better known No. 11 in D Major.

It was simply a sublime use of a modern instrument to make older music that was originally composed for the harpsichord. Never was the witty music by Haydn overpedaled or overly percussive or distorted for virtuosity’s sake. In every way, Wosner served Haydn — not himself.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

The concert was also noteworthy because it featured the longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell. He led the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) to shine in an eclectic program that included the Samuel Barber-like neo-Romantic and neo-Baroque Prelude and Fugue by the 20th-century Italian-American composer Vittorio Giannini and especially the youthful Symphony No. 2 by Franz Schubert.

WCO lobby

Plus, Sewell (below) proved a perfect accompanist in the Haydn concertos. Clearly, chemistry exists between Sewell and Wosner, who have also performed together concertos by Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with the WCO.

andrewsewell

It was, in short, a program that was beautifully planned and beautifully played – even down to Wosner playing an encore by Schubert (the late Hungarian Melody, a lovely bittersweet miniature) that set up the second half with the Schubert, whose musical attractions Wosner explains so insightfully in a YouTube video at the bottom.

For his part, Sewell brought out balance and voicing, along with the expressive, but not excessive, lyricism that befits the ever-songful Schubert. As he has proven many times with his readings of Haydn and Mozart symphonies and concertos, Sewell is a master of the Classical style.

Wosner’s subtle and suitably quiet playing — he always puts virtuosity at the service of musicality — was also a model of clarity and restraint, perfectly suited to Haydn. But it left me with only one question:

When will we in Madison get to hear Shai Wosner in a solo recital?

(Below, you can hear Shai Wosner perform the second and third movements of the “Appassionata” Sonata by Beethoven at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in a YouTube video.)

Three of Wosner’s four acclaimed recordings are solo recitals of difficult works. They feature the music of Johannes Brahms, Arnold Schoenberg, the contemporary American composer Missy Mazzoli and especially Franz Schubert, with whom Wosner obviously feels, and shows, a special affinity. The fourth CD is a violin and piano duo done with the gifted young violinist Jennifer Koh.

I don’t know what presenter, besides the Wisconsin Union Theater, would bring Wosner back — and benefit from the WCO audiences that already have heard him. Or maybe the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra could sponsor a solo recital as a sideline. But we could use more solo piano recitals in Madison — especially if they offer playing of the scale of Wosner’s.

I don’t know how it would happen, but I sure hope it does happen.

Shai Wosner is a great pianist who deserves a wider hearing in a wider repertoire.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra will perform music by Barber, Mendelssohn and Mussorgsky this Wednesday night.

February 23, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following invitation from his good friends over at the Middleton Community Orchestra:

Dear friends,

We invite you to step out of the cold to enjoy the winter concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra (below top) under the baton of guest conductor Kyle Knox (below), who is a graduate student in conducting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

Kyle Knox 2

The program includes the short but hauntingly beautiful Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings by the 20th-century neo-Romantic American composer Samuel Barber (below top), with oboe soloist Andy Olson (below bottom), who was educated at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin and who now works at Epic Systems digital health care records near Madison.

barber 1

Andy Olson oboe

Also included on the program are the popular, playful and tuneful “Incidental Music to a Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Felix Mendelssohn (below top); and the darkly dramatic “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky (below bottom), a work famous for the familiar and regal “The Great Gate of Kiev” finale, which you can hear at the bottom in a YouTube video as performed by Sir George Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

mendelssohn_300

Modeste Mussorgsky color

The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. this coming Wednesday evening, Feb. 25, at the comfortable Middleton Performing Arts Center (below) that is attached to Middleton High School.

Middleton PAC2

Middleton PAC1

Tickets are $10, and are available at Willy St. Coop West and at the door on the night of the show. Students are admitted free of charge.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and doors open at 7 p.m.

There will be a meet-and-greet reception for the musicians and the audience following the performance.

Middleton Community Orchestra reception

For more information, please call 608-212-8690. You can also visit www.middletoncommunityorchestra.org for information about upcoming concerts and how to join or support the ensemble.

Sincerely,

Mindy Taranto and Larry Bevic, Co-founders, Middleton Community Orchestra

Editor’s note: If you are not familiar with the Middleton Community Orchestra, you might want to read the post from this past December in which The Ear named the four-year-old Middleton group and other amateur musicians the Musician of the Year for 2014

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/classical-music-here-is-a-follow-up-story-from-the-middleton-times-tribune-newspaper-about-the-ears-musician-of-the-year-for-2014-the-middleton-community-orchest/


Classical music: Pianist Shai Wosner explains why we don’t hear more Haydn and like his music more. This Friday night at 8, Wosner performs two piano concertos by Haydn with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

February 19, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater on the Overture Center, pianist Shai Wosner returns for a third time to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

The program is largely from the Classical era. Wosner will perform two piano concertos by Haydn – No. 4 in G Major and No. 11 in D major – and the orchestra will perform the Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major by Franz Schubert. In addition, a 1955 Prelude and Fugue by the accessible, 20th-century neo-Romantic composer Vittorio Giannini (below) will be performed.

Vittorio Giannini

Tickets are $15-$75. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

The critically acclaimed Wosner, an Israeli native who studied at the Juilliard School with Emanuel Ax and who is now based in New York City, has previously performed Classical-era concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven with the WCO.

Wosner recently agreed to a Q&A about this new program.

Shai Wosner color

The prize-winning American composer John Harbison has said that Haydn is the most underappreciated and most under-performed of the great composers. If you agree with that, why do you think that is and how do you feel about Haydn?

It is probably true. I can only guess what the reasons might be. Perhaps, over the centuries, his name has been eclipsed by that of Mozart (below), as the two are often lumped together in spite of the profound differences in their biographies and their music.

Where Mozart has irresistible melodies all over to disarm you at first hearing, with Haydn sometimes you have to get into the “groove” of the music first — perhaps a remnant from earlier music — and then once you do, you can find both great melodies as well as all kinds of twists and turns that can be just as gripping.

Mozart c 1780 detail of portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Humor, of course, is central to Haydn’s world and one can sometimes mistake that for lightheartedness. But the fact is that it is often just one layer of meaning and by all means not the only one.

If you open up to it, you quickly realize the depth and sincerity with which Haydn (below) speaks — just like spending time with a really great person who likes to tell jokes a lot, but whose immense life experience and understanding of the world soon comes through as well.

Haydn

What are your plans for performances and recordings? Do your plans include performing or recording more Haydn, maybe concertos, sonatas and chamber music works?

Yes, I hope to record concertos along with a few other pieces as well in the near future.

What would you like the public to know about the two piano concertos by Haydn — who always composed at the keyboard — that you will perform here and their individual character? How do they compare to each other?

The G Major concerto is somehow the more “earthy” one — perhaps it’s the association of the key itself, which tends to relate to all things “rustic.” (For example, Mozart’s peasants and servants tend to sing in G Major). It seems to have a rough edge to it, a certain naughtiness.

The popular D Major concerto, on the other hand, is more patrician — even with the Hungarian finale. It shimmers with golden light like the interior of some idyllic palazzo in midday. (In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the D Major concerto performed by famed pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, who was an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music in the 1960s, and conductor Frans Bruggen.)

Haydn_3

How does Schubert go with Haydn? On your program, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will also perform Schubert’s early Symphony No. 2 and you have recorded two CDs for the Onyx label that feature the music of Schubert. Clearly you feel a strong affinity with Schubert and have a point of view about him.

Schubert and Haydn are an interesting combination because early Schubert was very much influenced by Viennese Classicism, before Beethoven’s influence became much more dominant in his music.

At the same time, while Schubert (below) was using the same forms as Mozart and Haydn, they tend to come out very different under his hands, as if he couldn’t help it.

Most noticeable, I think, is the difference in energy.

In Haydn, to go back to the “groove,” there is a lot of raw rhythmic energy in fast movements and it helps to give shape to those movements as well.

In Schubert, on the other hand, even in fast movements, the overall shape tends to be much more contemplative, no matter quickly the notes go by.

Franz Schubert writing

This is your third appearance with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with whom you have performed concerts by Mozart and Beethoven. What would you like to say about Madison audiences and the WCO?

I have been fortunate to meet very interesting people in Madison, and clearly the audiences are very dedicated and comprised of real music-lovers.

It is a wonderful thing that the city supports not only a symphony orchestra but also a chamber orchestra (below is a photo of the WCO) as well, which is, of course, a very different animal and unfortunately not a very common one any more.

WCO lobby

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I look forward to visiting Madison, of course!


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