The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union, UW Symphony Orchestra and guest soloists took the audience on a memorable musical voyage in Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”

January 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It took a postponement of almost two months before the UW Choral Union (below) finally got to perform last Saturday night in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

But the wait was worth it.

The combined forces – conducted by the retiring choral director Beverly Taylor – proved convincing and accomplished in the challenging score of “A Sea Symphony” by the early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The performers did justice to the score’s vivid sound painting. You could hear the sea wind whistling through the rigging; you could feel the ship plowing through the swells and waves.

The American poet Walt Whitman (below) – whose epic-like poetry provided the text for this ambitious nautical and musical journey – would have been proud of the performance.

After all, like Whitman’s poetry, Vaughn Williams’ music — his first symphony — can be forceful and spacious at many moments, tender and reflective or even intimate at other times. The music matches the text, and the performers matched both.

The forces were precise under Taylor’s baton, with sharp attacks and no ragged stopping. True, there were a few moments when the balance seemed a bit off, when the UW Symphony Orchestra overpowered the large campus and community chorus, especially in the very brassy and thickly scored first movement. You just wanted to hear the words better and felt frustrated not to.

But for the most part, though, the student orchestra proved impressive. They were tight and crisp, accurate and transparent, allowing listeners to hear the inner part playing and even certain modernist harmonies of the generally conservative Vaughan Williams (below).

Moreover, the symphony, the chorus and the soloists blended especially well and movingly in the symphony’s quieter moments.

Those moments included the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; and the quiet, understated ending where the idea of voyage and exploration becomes personal and metaphorical or spiritual as well as literal: “Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me … O my brave soul! O farther, farther sail!”

(You can hear a sample in the hymn-like opening of the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition, the outstanding acoustics of the new hall – where the chorus sits above and behind the orchestra – brought the performance to life even more convincingly.

There were two soloists (below): soprano Chelsie Propst and baritone James Harrington.

Harrington possessed a pleasing tone, but he seemed to be holding back for some reason. He could have projected more confidence and been more energetic or assertive in his delivery. After all, neither Whitman nor Vaughan Williams is shy in this large-scale work.

Curiously, it was the woman soloist, Propst, who roared like the sea, whose big voice easily soared over the orchestra and chorus. Her singing was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Unfortunately, the very successful concert was not sold out, but the audience proved attentive and very enthusiastic.

This debut performance in the new hall made one look forward all the more to another big piece and big performance by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, one that will wrap up the season and end Taylor’s long tenure at the UW-Madison: the dramatic and operatic Requiem by Verdi on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26.


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