The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What is your favorite Easter music? There is so much to choose from. Here are two samplers.

March 27, 2016
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Easter Sunday, 2016.

Easter Sunday

You don’t have to be a believer to know that the events of Easter have inspired great classical music, especially in the Baroque era but also in the Classical, Romantic and Modern eras.

Easter lily

Of course, there is the well-known and much-loved oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel, who wrote it for Easter, not Christmas as is so often assumed because of when it is usually performed. (NOTE: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform “Messiah,” with period instruments and historically informed performance practices, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ on Friday and Sunday, April 8 and 10.)

There is a lot of instrumental music, including the gloriously brilliant brass music by the Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli and the darker Rosary sonatas for violin by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and the “Lamentation” Symphony, with its sampling of familiar tunes and intended to be performed on Good Friday, by Franz Joseph Haydn.

Heinrich Biber

Easter music cuts across all kinds of nationalities, cultures and even religious traditions: Italian, German, English, Scottish, American, Russian, French and Austrian.

But the occasion — the most central event of Christianity — is really celebrated by the huge amount of choral music combined with orchestral music – perhaps because the total effect is so overwhelming and so emotional — that follows and celebrates Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and then ultimately to Easter and the Resurrection from death of Jesus Christ.

For The Ear, the pinnacle is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below), especially his cantatas, oratorios and passions.

Bach1

But today The Ear wants to give you a sampler of 16 pieces of great Easter music, complete with audiovisual clips.

Here is one listing that features music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Thomas Tallis, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Gustav Mahler, Francis Poulenc and James MacMillan:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/six-best-pieces-classical-music-easter

And here is another listing that features music by Antonio Vivaldi, Hector Berlioz, Gioachino Rossini, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Bach’s “Easter Oratorio” (rather than his “St. Matthew Passion” or “St. John Passion”) and “The Resurrection” oratorio (other than “Messiah”) by Handel.

http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2015/04/ten-classical-music-pieces-for-easter.html

Curiously, no list mentions the gorgeous and haunting “Miserere” (below) by Gregorio Allegri. It was traditionally performed in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel on the Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week, but was kept a closely guarded secret. Publishing it was forbidden. Then a 12-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard it and copied it down from memory.

Finally, The Ear offers his two favorite pieces of Easter music that never fail to move him. They are the passion chorale and final chorus from the “St. Matthew Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach:

What piece of music is your Easter favorite?

Do you have a different one to suggest that you can leave in the COMMENT section, perhaps with a link to a YouTube video?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Easter music abounds. The UW Concert Choir and UW Chamber Orchestra convey the strength of Bach’s “St. John Passion,” despite some serious problems. The Madison Bach Musicians perform Bach’s Mass in B Minor tonight and Saturday night. Plus, the UW Madrigal Singers give FREE concert of Orlando di Lasso on Saturday night.

April 18, 2014
1 Comment

TWO ALERTS

Some perfect music for Easter is on tap this weekend:

Tonight and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., the acclaimed early music and period-instrument group the Madison Bach Musicians, joined by the Madison Choral Project and guests vocal soloists and instrumentalists, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor, first at the First Congregational United Church of Christ and then at the First Unitarian Society of Madison in the new Atrium Auditorium. Both performances feature MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson giving a pre-concert talk at 6:45 p.m. Tickets are selling fast. Here is a link to an earlier post with more details about the performances and the music:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/classical-music-qa-the-mass-in-b-minor-is-perfect-music-for-easter-it-reconciles-catholicism-and-protestantism-and-is-a-distillation-of-bachs-cantatas-and-passions-says-trevor-stephe/ 

On Saturday night at 8 p.m in Mills Hall, the UW Madrigal Singers, under director Bruce Gladstone, will perform the “Lagrime di San Pietro” (Tears of St. Peter) by Orlando di Lasso (below), one of the greatest composers of the late Renaissance. Completed just weeks before di Lasso died, the “Lagrime” consists of 21 pieces for seven voices; 20 spiritual madrigals in Italian and a concluding motet in Latin. The poetry describes the remorse and anguish Peter suffered after he denied Christ, and though the subject matter is sacred, the emotional content – betrayal, disappointment, remorse and forgiveness – are universally human.

Orlando di Lasso

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 hosts 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 Passion According to St. John” occupied the composer Johann Sebastian Bach (below) for over three decades as a work-in-progress, one that he never really completed in definitive form. Yet editors are able to make a workable compromise version of it that allows us to appreciate its dramatic power—very different from the broader, more contemplative character of his “St. Matthew Passion.”

Bach1

Despite the frenzied musical schedule of the weekend of Palm Sunday, this work was an entirely appropriate choice for a performance on last Saturday night by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Concert Choir and the UW Chamber Orchestra (both below), all under the direction of Beverly Taylor.

Concert Choir

UW Chamber Orchestra entire

But there were problems, and they could not be overlooked.

First of all, there was the chorus, 32 singers strong, which made a mighty sound. Nevertheless, choral director and conductor Beverly Taylor (below) followed a doctrine subscribed to by many choral conductors, requiring the breaking up of voice sections and the mixing of the singers. That is supposed to make the singers more self-reliant, and produce a greater overall blend.

But one listener’s “blend” is another listener’s “blob.” For all the sonority, this chorus was an amorphous blob, seriously compromising the part writing over which the composer worked so hard, and undermining sectional definition.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

The orchestra started out a bit roughly, with the winds not precisely in pitch with each other at first, and some coarse string playing. These issues were worked out along the way, but difficulties in balances with the singers were recurrent.

The vocal soloists were mostly young.

Solo soprano Emily Weaver (below top) is only a freshman voice major, but her instrument, still in the making, is bright and full of promise. Joshua Sanders (below middle), who sang a small role and two of the three tenor solos, used his strong voice to bellow a bit. Benjamin Schultz (below bottom), both as Pilate and in one of the three bass solos, was hobbled by pallid tone and not always precise pitch.

Emily Weaver

Joshua Sanders

Benjamin Schultz

Two of the soloists, however, were experienced elders. UW baritone Paul Rowe (below top, in a photo by Michael Anderson), on the UW-Madison School of Music voice faculty, made a dignified and authoritative Jesus, but assigning him two of the bass arias disrupted the portrait he made of Jesus. His wife, soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below bottom), was really stretching her lower range to sing the alto solos: in the first one, her weak sound was almost obliterated by the obligatto oboes, though she did recover somewhat for the potent “Es ist vollbracht,” the gamba accompaniment to which was eloquently brought off by Anna Steinoff. (You can hear the aria at the bottom in a YouTube video with Bernarda Fink and conductor John Eliot Gardiner.) 

The Music of Franz Schubert

Cheryl Rowe color 1

Anna Steinhoff

Perhaps the star of the proceedings, though, was tenor Daniel O’Dea, a doctoral student who is already a seasoned professional singer. He has the high, clear voice ideal for the central role of the Evangelist, only briefly succumbing to temptations to shout excitedly towards the end. I am told that this was the first time O’Dea had sung the part of the Evangelist in any Baroque Passion work, but this kind of role could easily become an important specialty for him. As with Rowe, though, it was a wrenching in this performance to have him shift suddenly from narrator to aria soloist at one point.

Daniel O'Dea

It has not been easy for me to rack up all these criticisms. But I take this venture seriously enough to hold it to the generally high level of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music’s performing standards. And I should not want it to be excused as “just a student performance.” The truth is that Taylor understood the dramatic character of the piece and brought it together in a propulsive totality that did ultimately put across the work’s beauty and power.

Above all, it was a kind of performing experience that the student participants deserved to have.

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Classical music Q&A: Gabriel Faure’s music is hard to perform and very underrated, says First Unitarian Society of Madison music director Dan Broner who will conduct two FREE performances of Faure’s sublime Requiem this coming Palm Sunday.

April 8, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday, April 13, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. the First Unitarian Society of Madison will offer one of its All-Music Sundays.

This time, the event – open to the public and not just FUS members — features two FREE performances on the lovely and consoling Requiem by Gabriel Faure at the historic meeting-house, (below)  designed like a plow tilling the soil by Frank Lloyd Wright, at 900 University Bay Drive.

FUS exterior BIG COLOR USE

To The Ear, it seems a perfect choice for the upcoming Easter season – Sunday is, after all, Palm Sunday.

To be sure, a lot of sublime choral music has been or will be performed here in a short time, including Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” and Mass in B Minor, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s storied Requiem and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s a cappella Vespers.

I gave a rundown in this earlier post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/classical-music-april-will-bring-lots-of-choral-music-by-bach-mozart-beethoven-faure-and-rachmaninoff-among/

But there is something special in the quietude of the Faure Requiem that seems to marry the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions in away that also allows secularists to enter into the music.

I asked FUS music director Dan Broner (below), who programmed and will conduct the Requiem, to talk about it and he agreed to do an email Q&A:

Dan Broner

Why did you choose to do the Requiem by Gabriel Faure?

Two years ago we did the Requiem by John Rutter. A singer at the time asked if we could do the Faure Requiem next and since I hadn’t conducted the entire work for some time, I thought it would be fun to do it again.

John Rutter (below) worked on a new edition of the Faure Requiem in the early 1980s, which inspired him to compose his own requiem. So I thought it would be fun for the Society Choir to sing it while the Rutter was still relatively fresh in their ears.

John Rutter 10

What do you think of Faure’s music in general and what do you especially like about it and what makes it appropriate for the Unitarians?

I think Faure’s music is underrated. He was comparatively prolific, having written over 100 songs, many piano solo works, and lots of wonderful chamber music. Yet he is best known for his Requiem and a few instrumental numbers (“Sicilienne,” “Pavane” and “Elegie”).

I think it may be because he didn’t write many large-scale works, and his piano solo repertoire is quite difficult technically. (Liszt pronounced it too difficult.)

Faure (below) was a terrific melodist on par with Schubert and Chopin and his life (1845-1924) spanned a period that began with the music of Chopin and Schumann and into the jazz era and the second Viennese school. An important educator, he taught many well-known composers including Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger.

Faure worked for the Roman Catholic Church, and properly wrote his Requiem in Latin. But he eschewed the usual “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) movement with its emphasis on judgment and damnation for a gentler spirit that focused instead on eternal rest. I think this plays well with Unitarian humanist leanings.

faure

How does it differ from other well-known Requiems?

In addition to the “Dies Irae,” Faure also doesn’t include the “Benedictus” portion of the “Sanctus.” And his “Agnus Dei” (heard at the bottom in a popular YouTube video) is in F major and is more lyrical than the typical big, minor key “Agnus Dei” movements of other Requiems.

Interesting is the similarities with the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms, written some 20 years earlier. Both are in seven movements and both use soprano and baritone soloists. I think it was Aaron Copland (below) who declared Faure “the Brahms of France.”

aaron copland

What else would you like to say or add about the work and the performances?

We will be using John Rutter’s chamber orchestration which lends itself for performing in a relatively small space: organ, harp, solo violin, divided violas and cellos, bass, two horns and timpani. The chorus will number a little over 60 singers. Soprano Heather Thorpe and baritone Bart Terrell are the soloists. And it will take place in the older Landmark Auditorium (below) because that’s where the organ is.

Dan Broner FUS

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