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: Madison Bach Musicians hold their fourth annual Baroque Summer Chamber Music Workshop with a faculty concert and afternoon performances and classes this coming Tuesday through Friday. Many events are open to the public

July 21, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The fourth annual Madison Bach Musicians Summer Chamber Music Workshop offers an evening Faculty Concert and various afternoon classes exploring baroque dance, ornamentation, continuo playing, specific instrument master classes, and more. (Below is a photo by Mary Gordon from last year’s workshops.)

The workshops, classes and concerts will be held this coming Tuesday through Thursday, July 24-27, at the West Middleton Lutheran Church, 3763 Pioneer Road, in Verona, Wisconsin.

Tickets for the Madison Bach Musicians Faculty Concert on Wednesday night from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. are $15.

The Friday all-workshop concert from 2 to 3:30 p.m. is FREE and open to the public.

An Auditor’s Pass for afternoon programing for the entire festival — including the Faculty Concert — is $40.

MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson, MBM concertmaster Kangwon Kim and other outstanding faculty members will share their expertise over four afternoons.

Adds Stephenson: “We’re excited about a wonderful new venue for the event—at West Middleton Lutheran Church, which is located at the intersection of Mineral Point and Pioneer Roads, just 10 minutes west of West Towne Mall.

“Twenty-four participants ranging in age from high school to older adulthood will get personalized ensemble coaching from outstanding instructors in violin, cello, piano, harpsichord, recorder and flute.”

Kim (below) adds: “I am thrilled. Of our 24 participants this year, almost half are returning students, which we love.  Most of the our participants come from the Dane County area, but last year we had a participant from France and this year we have a couple from Oklahoma.

“Chamber music is the best way to get to know people as you are learning a new piece – you have a personal voice, but you also need to listen and blend with the other voices.  I am always amazed to see the transformation both musically and socially over the four days of the workshop. I am so excited to meet everyone and to see the magic that happens when these musicians work together.”

Harpsichordist Jason Moy (below) will be returning this year to discuss the art of continuo playing.

Lisette Kielson (below) who offers recorder workshops throughout the United States will lead a class “To Flourish and Grace: Ornamentation!”

Sarah Edgar (below), a specialist in 18th-century stage and dance performance, will focus on the interplay of music and dance rhythms in two afternoon baroque dance classes.

MBM cellist Martha Vallon (below) will explore how to play creative and enjoyable continuo lines for cellists and bassoonists.

The Wednesday night Faculty Concert from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. will feature works by J.S. Bach, Mozart, Telemann, Boismortier, Biber and a special Baroque dance performance-–all performed by the faculty members who specialize in early music with play period instruments.

For information about the specific schedule and enrolling in the workshops, go to take a look the schedule

You can also find more general information at: http://madisonbachmusicians.org/education-and-outreach/summer-workshop/


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Classical music: The inventive and unpredictable Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society wraps up its 26th season with an impressive display of virtuosic vocal and piano music as well as hip-hop dancing

June 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson, who also took the performance photos. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season is in the books.

This weekend’s Friday performance at the Overture Center’s Playhouse Theater was repeated in Spring Green on Sunday afternoon and was entitled “Cs the Day,” which continued the series’ Alphabet Soup theme. It was a full-bodied program that left the audience in full anticipation for what the BDDS will bring next summer.

Bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below) — whom the Madison Symphony Orchestra featured last month in its performance of Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem — has a wonderfully rich, dynamic voice.

In the collection of songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) and Roger Quilter (1877-1953) — all of which were aptly named “Carpe Diem” songs in the program booklet — Jones showcased the sensitivity of his higher notes and the power of his mid-low register, all the while showing a bit of charm and theatricality. I felt at times that the rich sonorities from the piano covered up Jones’ diction, so texts of the English poems came in handy.

A surprise performance came after the art songs. The night’s entire cast of musicians — Stephanie Jutt on flute, Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Hye-Jin Kim on violins, Ara Gregorian on viola, Madeleine Kabat on cello, and Jeffrey Sykes and Randall Hodgkinson on piano — began playing an arrangement of music from Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville.

They were quickly joined by Blake Washington (below, in a  file photo), a hip-hop dancer who studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He performed a rendition – in movement – while the ensemble played. Judging from the audience’s approval, it’s safe to assume that similar collaborations would be welcome in the future.

One annual program event is a chamber music arrangement of a complete piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

This year, Jeffrey Sykes was keen on presenting the Piano Concerto in D Major, K. 537 (1788), called ”Coronation.” Sykes (below) labeled the work a “miracle piece” in brief remarks before the musicians listed above, minus Hodgkinson, began.

As a pianist, I sympathize with anyone who takes on such a Mozart work, since the smallest of mistakes – uneven passage work, unclear ornamentation or misplayed notes – are magnified. Nonetheless, it’s a treat to hear such an expansive work in an up-close, intimate setting like the Playhouse Theater at the Overture Center.

Judging by the audience’s reaction alone, Carl Czerny’s Grand Sonata Brillante in C minor for piano four-hands, Op. 10 (1822), proved the highlight of the program.

Not only does the work live up to its “grand” and “brilliant” title, but Sykes’ and Hodgkinson’s dexterity and acrobatics throughout were displayed – literally – for all to see.

A camera was suspended over the keyboard, and that eagle’s-eye view (below) was projected onto the large, white backdrops at the rear of the stage. Czerny’s four-hand sonata was the perfect piece to utilize this multimedia aspect, as well as show off two virtuosic pianists. (You can see and hear the first movement of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Last on the program was Cool Fire (2001) by American composer Paul Moravec (b. 1957). All of the performers on stage — the same cast from the Rossini on the first half of the program minus Sykes — were completely committed to the demanding and energetic score.

There were moments of athleticism in everyone’s part, and several times, the hands of Hodgkinson (below) — and his body — had to jump the length of the keyboard in an instant. His playing, in general, has always been vigorous and brawny – similar to Madison’s own Christopher Taylor. Fittingly, the two pianists studied with the same teacher, Russell Sherman.

This season of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society was exceptionally consistent. Every concert featured interesting music, skilled musicians and engaging surprises.

In the first week, attendees were treated to sandwiches served by the Earl of Sandwich and the Queen of Sheba. In Week Two, Madison’s City-Wide Spelling Bee Champion proved his expertise in musical lingo. Lastly,  Week Three provided dance moves of fellow Wisconsinite Blake Washington.

It was nice to encounter many works I had never heard. In future years, I hope the BDDS’s repertoire list can be widened more to be inclusive of non-Western and female composers. Through continued diversity of programming, the BDDS should not only retain its most loyal of patrons, it might also broaden its audience base even further.


Classical music: The Ear catches up with the 15th annual Madison Early Music Festival, and takes in the second annual Handel Aria Competition and the All-Festival Concert. Both get big, hearty shout-outs and Hallelujahs. Plus, see how the WYSO tour to Argentina is going.

July 26, 2014
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ALERT: If you want to find out the latest news about the tour to Argentina by the Youth Orchestra (below) of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, here is a link to the blog:

www.wysotour2014.blogspot.com

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

As you probably already know, The Ear is running a bit behind.

That’s how busy even the summer season has become, when it comes to classical music in the Madison area. And reviews take a second seat to previews and advance Q&A’s that benefit the performers and audiences.

So over the next few days, I want to provide some critiques and reviews, and even more shout-outs, to various events that took place over the past couple of weeks. I hope you will forgive my tardiness.

You should also know that I am not going in chronological order because some things seem more important or more timely, and therefore more overdue, than others.

So, first things first.

As you probably know, this summer marked the 15th anniversary of the annual Madison Early Music Festival that takes place each July at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Here is the official website of the competition with the results plus background and biographies of all the finalists and other information:

www.handelariacompetition.com

memf banner 2014

True, the second annual Handel competition is not strictly speaking a part of MEMF. But it is affiliated with MEMF. And since I have already covered the extraordinary MEMF opening concert “The Leonardo da Vinci  Codex” by the Toronto Consort, I wanted to bring you up to date with the results of the aria competition, which has begun to attract national and even international attention.

Here are the big point to note: What a difference a year makes!

This year there was no unsatisfactory split or disagreement between the four judges and the public, as there was last year. BRAVO!!!!

This year, both the judges and the public — which had some pretty discerning listeners in it — agreed on the winner: She was Chelsea Morris (below), who might be familiar from other appearances in Madison with the Madison Bach Musicians and Trevor Stephenson, who whom she has released a CD of songs by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn and  Franz Schubert.

Morris met all the criteria that Professor John W. Barker, an insightful critic and devoted Handelian, had outlined in his pre-concert lecture. He emphasized that it was not only about beautiful singing but also capturing the sense of drama in a role, of great diction, of ornamentation, of mastering the Handelian style.

Chelsea Morris did all of them, and the second time proved the charm. (You can hear her entry in last year’s aria competition in a YouTube video at the bottom.) And she is moving from Chicago to Madison as her base, where she will be a Studio Artist with the Madison Opera this coming season  So The Ear hopes to score a Q&A with her soon. She won $1,000 and free tuition (worth just under $500) to next summer’s Madison Early Music Festival.

Morris sang “Svelato il cor ti vedo” and “L’amor que per te sento” from “Alessandro” and “O Sleep, why dost thou leave me?” from “Semele.”

MEMF 2014 Chelsea Morris

Second Prize went to Daniel Moody (below), a countertenor who sang “Pomoe vane do morte! And “Dove aei, amato ben” from the opera “Rodelinda”:

MEMF 2014 Handel Daniel Moody

Third Prize ($500) went to soprano Yukie Sato, a Tokyo native who is now based in Basel, Switzerland where she won a similar competition. With much drama, she sang “A Ruggiero crudel” and “Ombre palle” from “Alcina” and “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” from the oratorio “Messiah.

MEMF 2014 Yukie Sato

You read me right: Tokyo and Switzerland. This past year, some money had been raised to help pay travel expenses, and that paid off in the quality of singing, which was higher overall.

The applicants this time numbered 60, and they came from around the nation and world. That was whittled down to 30, and then 15 and then, in the end, to seven finalists (below) because the judges couldn’t agree on just six.

Each contestant had to sing one aria in Italian and another in English. The Ear likes that. It helped us in judging diction, and helped you to appreciate the range of Handel’s music. But The Ear wishes that in future competitions they would ban arias from “Messiah” since you hear that music enough already.

MEMF 2014 7 Handel contestants

One downside: Held in Music Hall, the Handel aria smack-down drew an audience about half as big as last year, maybe 250 instead of the 500 in Mills Hall. No doubt that fact that admission this year was $10, while last year it was free, figured in that lower attendance. I would sure like to see it return to free admission, if possible. It is a great way to introduce people to the world of Handel, and draw a general audience –- not just specialists.

But another plus this year was that the singers were accompanied by a small five-person pickup orchestra or consort (below) made up mostly of faculty members and professional instrumentalists from the Madison Early Music Festival. The sound sure added authenticity and helped both the singers and the listeners get into the mood of Handel operas, which have been rediscovered big time. Plus, it was just more fun to listen to with great variety of sound, timbre and tone.

MEMF 2014 Handel consort

This year’s Handel Aria Competition was nothing short of a triumph. The competition is well on its way to becoming an impressive and fun Madison summertime institution. All thanks go, then, to founders and sponsors Dean and Orange Schroeder (below, holding a bust of George Frideric Handel), the business owners of Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street, who are such reliable and generous supporters of Madison’s classical music scene.

MEMF Handel 2014 Handel Orange and Dean Schroeder

THE ALL-FESTIVAL CONCLUDING CONCERT

A week ago tonight, the Madison Early music held its All-Festival Concert in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue. (MEMF had to use Music Hall and Luther Memorial as alternative venues this summer because Mills Hall at the UW-Madison School of Music was undergoing repairs.)

And speaking of triumphs, the thematic program was based on the sonnet cycle of “Triumph” by Petrarch (below), who examined the importance of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity. It is a work that both anticipates and sums up the emerging humanism of the Italian Renaissance.

francesco petrarca or petrarch

There are not a lot of specific remarks I can make except that:

The program was well constructed by Grant Herreid (below), who also conducted it.

MEMF 2014 All-Festival Grant Herreid

The orchestra played beautifully and produced big full sound enhanced by the church’s acoustics. Yet a balance was maintained, and vocal and instrumental parts blended.

The various soloists -– and there were many –- were impressive.

Lasting just over an hour, it was a perfect wrap up to a great festival.

MEMF 2014 All-Festival

Co-founders and co-artistic directors UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman Rowe, who both sang in the chorus parts, also announced that next year’s theme will be Early Music in Central and Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, Poland and Bohemia.

Sounds great.

Can’t wait.


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