The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
18 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma goes to NPR to perform and talk about spending 58 years learning and playing Bach

August 18, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma has just recorded the six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach for the third time.

Ma, now 62, started learning them when he was four years old.

Over so many years, his approach has changed. He says he finds new things in the music as he himself changes and matures, much the way you see different things in the same novel you read at 18 and then again at 55 after you have experienced more of life.

That’s why Ma calls his latest recording “Six Evolutions.” And truth be told, to The Ear his interpretations seem lighter, dancier and more up-tempo while his earlier readings seemed heavier, sometimes even gooey thick.

Anyway, the cellist (below), who has won 19 Grammy Awards and has often performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, recently stopped by the studios of National Public Radio (NPR) for a Tiny Desk Concert.

He played three movements, and he talked about his long experience with playing and learning and exploring Bach to students, who loved him.

It is well worth listening to.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/2018/08/16/639206471/yo-yo-ma-tiny-desk-concert

What do you think?

Do you have an opinion about Ma’s current readings of solo Bach versus his past ones?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here is what happened when the late American writer Philip Roth heard fugues by Bach and Beethoven. What do you think of his reactions?

May 31, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The late, great and award-winning American novelist Philip Roth (below) – who died of congestive heart failure in a Manhattan hospital on May 22 at age 85 – spent the last half-dozen years of his life retired and not writing.

Instead he liked to visit friends and attend concerts.

Roth was an avid fan of classical music.

So the following story about a chamber music concert by the Emerson String Quartet (below) – one of his favorite chamber music ensembles — of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Dmitri Shostakovich is especially amusing and perhaps telling to read.

What seems especially Rothian are his different reactions to fugues by Bach (below top is an unfinished manuscript page from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”) and by Beethoven (below bottom is a manuscript page from the “Grosse Fuge”).

Here is a link to the story as recounted on the blog by the famous New York City classical music radio station WQXR-FM — and be sure to read the comments by other readers:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/what-roth-thought-bach

You can hear the Emerson Quartet playing the opening fugal theme that Bach chose to permute for almost 90 minutes, followed by Fugue No. 9, in the YouTube videos at the bottom.

What do you think of Roth’s reactions and comments to fugues by Bach and Beethoven?

Do you agree or disagree with him?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This Saturday’s CAN’T MISS, MUST-HEAR Bach Around the Clock 5 is new and improved with something for everyone who loves the music of Johann Sebastian

March 9, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

How do you like your Bach?

No matter how you answer, it is just about certain that you will find it at this Saturday’s marathon Bach Around the Clock 5, which is even more impressive this year than last year, which was plenty successful.

BATC 5 is a community birthday celebration of the life and music of Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach (below) – for many, The Big Bang of classical music — who turns 333 this month.

BATC 5 will take place this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below) at 1833 Regent Street, on Madison’s near west side.

NOTE: If you can’t make it in person, the entire event will be streamed live, as it was last year, from the church via a link on the BATC web page.

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com/live-stream/

But also – new this year – you can listen via streaming from the web site of Early Music America, which also awarded the event one of only five $500 grants in the entire U.S.

https://www.earlymusicamerica.org

For all 12 hours, BATC 5 is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Those who attend are also encouraged to be informal in dress and behavior – to come in and listen, then leave and came back again – in short, to wander in and out as they want to or need to.

To The Ear, the event has been improved in just about every way you can think of.

Do you like to hear professional performers? Amateurs? Students? You will find lots of all of them. (Below are the Sonora Suzuki Strings of Madison.)

Do you like your Bach on period instruments, such as the harpsichord and the recorder, using historically informed performance practices? BATC 5 has that.

Do you like your Bach on modern instruments like the piano? BATC has that too. (Below is Tim Adrianson of Madison who will play the Partita No. 5 in G Major this year.)

Do you like more familiar works? There will be the Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D minor, the Concerto for Two Violins and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. (Last year saw Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3 and 5, and BATC director Marika Fischer Hoyt says her plans call for the one-day festival to work its way through all six Brandenburgs before repeating any.) You can hear the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Do you like less familiar works to expand your horizon? There will be lots of those too.

Do you prefer Bach’s vocal and choral writing? BATC has lots of it, including the famous Cantata No. 140 (“Wachet auf”) performed by UW baritone Paul Rowe (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) and his students from the UW’s Mead Witter School of Music, plus two solo cantatas. The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will also sing.

Do you prefer Bach’s instrumental music? BATC has that in abundance, from solo pieces like a Cello Suite to chamber music such as an Organ Trio Sonata and larger ensembles.

Do you like the original versions? No problem. BATC has them.

Do you like novel or modern arrangements and transcriptions of Bach’s universal music? BATC has them too.

Concerned about how long the event is?

You might want to bring along a cushion to soften a long sit on hard pews.

Plus, there is more food and more refreshments this year, thanks to donations from Classen’s Bakery, HyVee, Trader Joe’s and the Willy Street Co-op.

There are more performers, up from 80 last year to about 200. And they include a pianist who is the official Guest Artist Lawrence Quinnett (below) and is coming all the way from North Carolina, where he teaches at a college, to perform two half-hour segments of Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II.

Here is a link to Quinnett’s own web site:

http://www.lawrencequinnett.com

But familiar faces and voices from the UW-Madison and other groups in the Madison area will also be returning to perform.

Also new this year is a back-up group for concertos and accompaniment.

Some features have been carried over, including mini-interviews with performers conducted by hosts, including Stephanie Elkins (below top) of Wisconsin Public Radio and Marika Fischer Hoyt herself (below bottom, with flutist Casey Oelkers, on the left, who works for the Madison Symphony Orchestra)


But The Ear is also impressed by how little repetition in repertoire there is from last year. So far, each year feels pretty much new and different, and the newly designated non-profit organization, with its newly formed board of directors, is working hard to keep it that way.

What more is there to say?

Only that you and all lovers of classical music should be there are some point – or even more than one.

Here is a link to the BATC general web site, with lots of information including how to support this community event — which, for the sake of full disclosure, The Ear does:

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com

And here is a link to the full schedule that you can print out and use as a guide. It also has last year’s schedule for performers and pieces that you can use for purposes of comparison:

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com/concert-schedule/

Let the music begin!

See you there!


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Classical music: More cold and snow are on the way today. Has any composer captured arctic austerity better than Debussy?

January 14, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Looks like more severe cold is on the way later tonight and tomorrow, this time accompanied by one to three inches of snow.

The Ear is sure a lot of readers know of and can suggest music that expresses such a wintry mood.

So far, the best and most haunting interpretation he has heard is “Footprints in the Snow” (Des pas dans la neige) by the French musical Impressionist Claude Debussy (below). It is the sixth of 12 in Debussy’s Preludes, Book 1.

A lot of versions by very famous pianists exist and can be found on YouTube.

But the moodiest ones that really attract the Ear are the slowest ones that imitate the motionlessness of severe cold and the austerity of snow – amounting to a kind of stasis or suspended animation. It can almost seem like Minimalism ahead of its time.

The best reading is done by the great Italian master Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (below), who follows the composer’s tempo instructions of “slow and sad” very literally. It reminds him of the title of the first novel by the American writer Ann Beattie: “Chilly Scenes of Winter.” You can feel the sense of absence and frozen mystery.

Take a listen and tell us what you think or if you have other suggestions.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing

November 7, 2017
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The 18th annual Madison Early Music Festival concludes its look at the Spanish Renaissance with another outstanding “concept concert” featuring all participants

July 19, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Nobody here does “concept concerts” better than the Madison Early Music Festival.

Proof came again last Saturday night in Mills Hall when the large forces of professional faculty members and workshop student participants (both below) joined to present a comprehensive overview of Renaissance music in Spain.

The program featured various combinations, including a quartet (below) as well as choral music and instrumental music. It offered sacred and secular fare, courtly music and folk music, Latin and vernacular Spanish.

Once again, the impressive program was assembled and conducted by Grant Herreid (below top) of the internationally acclaimed Renaissance band Piffaro (below bottom), a popular and regular guest at MEMF. (You can hear Piffaro perform music from the Spanish Renaissance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As in past years, history, biography, literature, religion and music get layered on top of each other and interwoven among each other. As a formula, from year to year the concept keeps getting refined and keeps succeeding.

In this case, the narration and story line centered on the surprisingly adventurous life of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (below), who wrote the first important novel, “Don Quixote.”

Last year, the festival celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare; this year, it was the 400th anniversary of the death of Cervantes.

The Ear really likes the format. The All-Festival concert ran 75 minutes and was done without intermission. Even if you are not a big fan of such early music, the concert was varied enough and short enough to hold your attention.

Unity was provided by excerpts from various texts of Cervantes, including “Don Quixote” as well as less well-known works. Some of his words were even substituted for other texts in songs and choruses.

The chorus and soloists sounded very well rehearsed, and the large instrumental section – with all those unusual-looking early instruments like sackbuts and shawms – was exceptional.

Herreid kept an outstanding sonic balance between the vocal and instrumental forces throughout the event.

There were quite a few narrators (below) who presented the short texts by Cervantes. And they proved the only weak point. Some people just don’t seem as up to the task as others do.

Perhaps in future years, the festival could pick, say, one man and one woman to alternate in the readings. The audience would have a better sense of their identities, and the effect would be better if the narrators were chosen for their ability to project dramatically and enunciate clearly but with expression – something that proved uneven with so many different narrators taking turns.

The Ear didn’t go to a lot of the festival events. He confesses that he is more a Baroque than a Renaissance person who looks forward to next year’s theme of “A Journey to Lübeck,” with German Renaissance and even Baroque music, especially music by Dietrich Buxtehude. (The 19th annual festival will be held July 7-14, 2018.)

But this final wrap-up concert is proof that even if very early music is not your thing, you shouldn’t miss the final event.

The All-Festival concert really is a MUST-HEAR.

You learn a lot.

And you enjoy even more.

Certainly the audience seemed to agree.

Were you there?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival will perform familiar and unfamiliar Spanish Renaissance music. What composers and works will be performed? And what makes them different? Part 2 of 2

July 3, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday, when the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) starts to explore Iberian music during the Renaissance Age of novelist Miguel de Cervantes (below) and his pioneering novel “Don Quixote,” much will be familiar but much will also be new.

To provide a look at what to expect, the longtime co-artistic directors of the festival – wife-and-husband singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe (below) – provided the following overview through an email Q&A with The Ear.

All-festival passes are $90 and tickets to individual concerts cost $20, $10 for students.

Click here to buy online, call 608-265-ARTS (2787), or visit the Campus Arts Ticket Box Offices in Memorial Union or Vilas Hall (click here for hours).

(Note: All MEMF Concert Series concerts and lectures are free for participants in the MEMF Workshop. There is a $4 transaction fee per ticket when purchasing online or by phone.)

How does early Spanish music differ from its counterparts in, say, Italy, France, Germany and England. What is the historical origin and importance of the music from that era in that part of the world?

The music from the Iberian Peninsula reflects the influences and changes that were happening all over Europe throughout the period that MEMF is examining this summer.

From the “romances” and “villancicos” of Juan del Encina during the time of Columbus to the Baroque era masses, secular songs and instrumental music of Antonio Soler (organ), Luis de Briceño and Gaspar Sanz (vihuela/guitar, below top) and Domenico Scarlatti (below bottom), Spanish music maintained its own unique traditions born of its complicated mixture of cultures and expanding global empire while still reflecting the overall developments that were occurring in Italy, France and Germany.

Some crucial differences include the presence of the Muslim and Jewish poetic and musical influence in the predominantly Catholic region reflected in preferred instrumentation where the vihuela was used more often than the lute, the exotic stories from Middle Eastern sources and the harmonies and melodies that are unique to the Spanish repertoire.

The fact that the political makeup of the area was constantly changing and being buffeted by global changes can make it difficult to understand what really constitutes “Spanish” just as Italy and Germany were not unified in the way we think of them today but were made of individual and distinct regions.

There was much blurring of borders between countries. For example, Naples, which we would think of as Italian, was a Spanish city for most of this time period, with a flourishing court, which supported the flourishing of the musical culture. Artistic changes and developments reflect this rather flexible organization of regions which did not take its current shape until well into the 19th century. (below is an old map of the Iberian Peninsula)

What music and composers of that era have been most neglected and least neglected by historians and performers?

The music from the Iberian Peninsula has been receiving increasing attention in the last 50 years or so. MEMF has focused on this area several times as new editions and discoveries are coming to light.

There are many reasons for this, including the German bias created by musicologists from that area starting in the 19th century. The lack of understanding of a complicated history and a condescension directed towards all things from the “hotter” regions of Europe except for Greece also prevented research, recording and appreciation of this varied repertoire.

The composers that will be most familiar to audiences will be Cristobal de Morales (below top), Francisco Guerrero (below middle) and Tomas Luis de Victoria (below bottom), who are known for their choral music including motets and settings of the Catholic Mass and Mateo Flecha (father and son), who composed secular choral pieces featuring popular tunes of the day put together in a kind of musical pastiche called an “ensalada.”

There are many less known composers from the various regions of Spain.

Juan del Encina is probably responsible for the collection titled ” Cancionero de Palacio” and is credited with 60 pieces from this volume of nearly 500 first published in the 1490s. Juan Hidalgo (below top and in the YouTube video at the bottom) is credited with the creation of the zarzuela, a theatrical form similar to the Neapolitan opera of the time. There is Diego Ortiz, who flourished in Naples, and Antonio de Cabezón (below bottom), who composed primarily keyboard music and Gaspar Sanz, who is familiar to modern guitarists and composed many pieces for the vihuela.

Can you tell us about the program and performers for the All-Festival concert on July 15?

The All-Festival Concert is unique to MEMF. All week long, workshop participants and faculty will work side by side to create Iberian Tapestry: Music and Conquest from the Spanish Golden Age, which includes sacred and secular compositions by Victoria, Guerrero, Flecha, Vasquez, music from the Moors of the Reconquista, Sephardic music for the heritage of the Jews, and from the New World.

This concert will include narrations selected from Don Quixote.

This year, the program was created and will be directed by Grant Herreid (below), who also curated the Piffaro program that opens the MEMF 2017 Concert Series.

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

The week is so full of wonderful adventures that I really encourage people to experience it all.

Besides the concert series and workshop classes there are pre-concert lectures and a dance event, ¡Bailemos!, on Thursday, July 13, 2017 at 7:30 p.m., in the Frederic March Play Circle on the second floor of the Memorial Union.

Several free events, besides the Harp concert and master class are the Participant Concert on Friday, July 14, at 1 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall; the Early Opera Workshop; and the Loud Band free concert on Saturday, July 15, at 2 p.m. at Music Hall featuring participants from the Advanced Loud Bound Intensive and the Early Opera & Continuo Workshop performing works by Tomás Luis de Victoria, Francisco Guerrero and several cancioneros plus scenes from La púrpura de la rosa by Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco.

MEMF provides a wonderful opportunity to go back in time and be immersed in the Spanish Renaissance through music, art, dance, concerts and lectures, plus workshop classes. People can play an active role participating as a student, or join us in the audience to listen to the glorious sounds of the historical instruments and voices as we recreate the music from the Golden Age of Spain.

Check out our website for the most up-to-date information and how to get tickets: www.madisonearlymusic.org


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