The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra impresses in a concert of “non-holiday” music for the holidays. Plus, what music is best to greet the Winter Solstice today?

December 21, 2018
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ALERT: Today we turn a  corner when the Winter Solstice arrives at 4:23 p.m. Days will start getting longer. What music would you celebrate it with? Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” section of “The Four Seasons”? Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey”? Let The Ear know in the COMMENT section with a YouTube link if possible. Here comes the sun!

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 once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) proudly presented an alternative Christmas program of music, none of which had any connection whatsoever with that otherwise inescapable holiday.

It was a program of great variety, full of novelties.

It began soberly with Gustav Mahler’s early song cycle, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). This venture into German orchestral song (with a folk song background) provided symphonic inspiration for his First Symphony, the so-called “Titan,” so it unites many strains in the composer’s work.

Baritone Paul Rowe (below), of the UW-Madison’s music faculty, sang these songs. Rowe has a strong feeling for German, and he used clear diction to capture the dramatic meanings of the four song texts.

A contrast then, and a particular novelty, was the appearance of Matthew Coley (below), of the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion, playing the cimbalom, the intensely Hungarian version of the hammered dulcimer. 

He was joined by the orchestra for a fancy arrangement of the Hungarian dance, the popular Czardas by Vittorio Monti. (You can hear Matthew Coley play the same piece on the cimbalom in the YouTube video at the bottom.) He followed this with an encore, a hand-me-down arrangement of a movement from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suites.

More contrast came with the mini-ballet score by Darius Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) of 1919. This was one of the French composer’s trailblazing introductions of American jazz styles into European music.

It really works best with a small orchestra, so Middleton’s was a bit overblown for the assignment. But the elaborate solo role for violin was taken by Naha Greenholtz — concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and wife of the evening’s guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. There are some fiendish passages in the solo work, and Greenholtz brought them off with unfailing flair.

The final part of the program was devoted to the orchestral suite that Zoltan Kodaly derived from his Singspiel of 1926, Hary Janos, in which a comic Hungarian soldier upstages even Napoleon.

This is a satiric and highly colorful assemblage that offers wonderful opportunities for all of the instruments and sections to show off. And Coley was back with his cimbalom for Hungarian spice. The players clearly were having a great frolic, and conductor Knox drew the best out of them in a bravura performance.

Ah yes! Christmas without “Christmas” music. A wonderful idea to refresh the ears in December!


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra performs a non-traditional “holiday” concert of Mahler and Kodaly this Wednesday night

December 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

During the holiday season, many — maybe even most — classical music groups program music that goes with the theme of the holidays from Christmas and Hanukkah to Kwanzaa and the New Year.

But some groups wisely give listeners a respite from holiday fare.

That happened one week ago when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Beverly Taylor, performed a memorable program that featured the brassy “Te Deum” by Zoltan Kodaly and especially the calming Requiem by Maurice Duruflé.

Something similar will happen again this Wednesday night, Dec. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable Middleton Performing Arts Center, attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol St.

That is when the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) will perform its “holiday” concert that is holiday-ish more as a matter of timing than of content or theme, since you won’t hear any carols or sing-alongs or the usual or traditional holiday fare. The Ear thinks it’s a smart approach and a welcome break.

The non-holiday “holiday” program includes “Songs of a Wayfarer” by Gustav Mahler, sung by UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe (below).

Also on the program is “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” (The Steer on the Roof) by Darius Milhaud with violinist soloist Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), who is the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Matthew Coley (below top), a member of the acclaimed Madison-based percussion group “Clocks in Motion,” will perform two pieces of Hungarian music that use the rarely heard cimbalom (below bottom): the “Czardas” by Vittorio Monti and the “Hary Janos Suite” by Kodaly. (You can hear Monti’s familiar “Czardas” in a version for violin and piano in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Kyle Knox (below), who is the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the new associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and who is also the husband of Naha Greenholtz, will once again be the guest conductor.

Admission is $15 for the general public with students and young people getting in for free. Tickets can be bought at the Willy Street Co-op West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and doors to the hall open at 7 p.m.

As usual, there will be a meet-and-greet reception (below) – complete with Christmas cookies, you can be sure – at the end of the concert.

For more information about future MCO concerts, reviews of past concerts and details about how to join the orchestra or support it, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org/home


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Classical music: Need a break from holiday shopping or final exams? A FREE “Just Bach” midday concert TODAY marks Christmas. On Friday at noon a free concert features violin music of Mozart and Ravel.

December 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Need a  break from holiday shopping or final exams this week? Today’s post brings announcements of two short and appealing midday concerts:

TODAY

Just Bach is a new monthly series of hour-long concerts in Madison celebrating the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The series continues with an end-of-semester performance at 1 p.m. TODAY, Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave.

Admission is free with goodwill offerings accepted. Audience members are permitted to eat and drink during the performance.

Next semester’s dates are Jan. 23, Feb. 20, March 13, April 24 and May 29.

The orchestra of baroque period-instrument specialists will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim.

The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large. The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach (below) would have conceived.

The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

Here is the complete program for today’s concert:

BWV 729: In dulci jubilo (Mark Brampton Smith, organ)

Chorale: Wie soll ich dich empfangen (How shall I embrace You?) from Part I of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

BWV 61: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Savior of the Heathen)

Chorale: Ich will dich mit Fleiss bewahren (I will cherish you assiduously) from Part III of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

Aria from BWV 213: Schlafe, mein Liebster (Sleep, my beloved)

Chorale: Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall (Look there, there He lies in a dark stall) from Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

Duet from BWV 110: Ehre sei Gott (Glory be to God)

SELECTIONS FROM PART IV OF BACH’S “CHRISTMAS ORATORIO”:

Recit and Chorale: Immanuel, o suesses Wort! (Emmanuel, oh sweet word!)

Aria: Floesst, mein Heiland, floesst dein Namen (My Saviour, Your name instills)

Recit and Chorale: Wohlan, dein Name soll allein (Well then, Your name alone)

Aria: Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben (I will live only to honor You)

Chorale: Brich an, o schoenes Morgenlicht  (Break forth, oh beautiful morning light) from Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing). You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom, performed by the critically acclaimed Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, sung to pictures of Bach’s own manuscript.

Singers are Sarah Brailey and Elisheva Pront, sopranos; Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, mezzo-soprano; Wesley Dunnagan, tenor; and UW-Madison Professor Paul Rowe, bass.

The orchestra includes: Kangwon Lee Kim (below) and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt and Micah Behr, violas; James Waldo, cello; and Mark Brampton Smith, organ.

FRIDAY

This Friday, Dec. 14, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. the FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will features violinist Wendy Adams and pianist Ann Aschbacher.

The  duo will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 35, K. 526 – which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom — and Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2

Here is some background:

The First Unitarian Society of Madison presents “Friday Noon Musicales,” a distinguished artist recital series now in its 31st season.

Talented area musicians play most every Friday, from October through May. Mostly classical music, but Broadway, jazz, folk and other styles are presented at times as well. Enjoy complimentary coffee, tea and live music.

Concerts are free and open to the public. No ticket is required. All performances 12:15–1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

Visit https://fusmadison.org/music for upcoming featured artists.


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Classical music: The FREE midday Just Bach concert series will continue through the second semester. November’s concert is TODAY at 1 p.m.

November 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The new Just Bach series of hour-long, midday concerts (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) has reason to celebrate this holiday season.

It has been a success and has just announced that it will continue through the second semester. Next semester’s dates – all Wednesdays–are Jan. 23, Feb. 20, March 13, April 24 and May 29.

As usual, they will run from 1 to about 2 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue. Admission is FREE with good-will donations accepted. And audiences are permitted to eat and drink during the concert.

Two more concerts are left in this semester.

November’s concert takes place TODAY. The next concert is Dec. 12.

The program includes opening with organist Mark Brampton Smith (below playing the Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572. (You can hear the piece, with a scrolling score, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Soprano Sarah Brailey (below top) will be featured in the famous Cantata 82a “Ich habe genug” (I Have Enough). Brailey will then be joined by UW-Madison bass-baritone Paul Rowe (below bottom, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) in Cantata 173a, “Durchlauchster Leopold” (Most Serene Leopold), a secular work written in 1722 for the birthday of Bach’s employer, Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Koethen.

The orchestra of baroque period-instrument specialists will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim (below), and will include traverso flutists Linda Pereksta and Elizabeth Marshall, who play modern piccolo and flute, respectively, in the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large. The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach (below) would have conceived.

Members of the artistic team will prepare local singers to perform alongside seasoned professionals and develop a familiarity and love of the repertoire.

The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

Adds founder and director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below), who plays baroque viola with Just Bach, Sonata a Quattro and the Madison Bach Musicians plus modern viola with the Madison Symphony Orchestra: “We are deeply grateful to Pastor Brad Pohlman and the congregation of Luther Memorial Church for hosting the series this Fall. We invite the Madison community to come spend a lunch hour with the sublime music of J.S. Bach – feed your body and soul!”

For more information, here is a link to the website: https://justbach.org

And if people want to follow Just Bach on Facebook, they can like our page at https://www.facebook.com/JustBachSeries


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Classical music: Soprano and past winner Sarah Brailey is the new artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition

October 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post about a well-established and international annual event that takes place in Madison:

“We are delighted to announce that soprano Sarah Brailey is the new artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition.

“Sarah was one of our first finalists, in the second year of the event, and she won first prize the following year. Her wonderful performances of “M’adora l’idol mio” from Teseo (in the YouTube video at the bottom) and “Ferma l’ali” from La resurrezione from the 2015 Handel Aria Competition can be seen on our YouTube channel.

“Sarah recently returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study for her DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) with voice professor and bass-baritone Paul Rowe.

“She continues to maintain a busy international touring schedule, and in addition has already co-founded a monthly Madison midday concert series entitled Just Bach. Please take a moment to read her fascinating and impressive bio.

“As we welcome Sarah to her new position, we want to express our boundless gratitude to Cheryl Bensman-Rowe. Cheryl, the co-director of the Madison Early Music Festival,  was the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition from the very start, and we would never have been able to launch this event without her enthusiasm, musical knowledge and organizational skills.

“The seventh annual Handel Aria Competition will take place on Friday, June 7, 2019 in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.”


Classical music: The FREE one-hour, monthly midday concert series “Just Bach” debuts with excellent playing and outstanding singing as well as practical problems such as downtown parking and timing

October 1, 2018
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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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

Marika Fischer Hoyt is becoming ever more ubiquitous, not only as a performing violist in orchestral, string quartet and period-instrument ensembles, but also as organizer of musical activities, especially as devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below).

Hoyt (below) has already revived the annual “Bach around the Clock” spectacular each spring to mark Bach’s birthday, but now she has established a monthly series of FREE midday concerts at Luther Memorial Church called “Just Bach.”

The first of this series was held last Thursday afternoon, Sept. 27, at 1 p.m. in the church sanctuary at 1021 University Avenue. Ten musicians participated.

The singers were UW-Madison alumna Sarah Brailey, soprano (below); mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe; tenor Wesley Dunnagan; UW-Madison bass-baritone Paul Rowe.

The players were Kangwon Lee Kim and Leanne League, violins; Fischer Hoyt, viola; James Waldo, cello; and Luke Conklin, oboe. All played on period instruments, with Mark Brampton Smith playing the organ.

The hour-long program offered Bach’s “Little” Organ Fugue in G minor, and two full cantatas: BWV 165, “O heiliges Geist- und Wasserbad” (O Bath of Holy Spirit and Water) for Trinity, and BWV 32, “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (Dearest Jesus, My Desire), a dialogue cantata. (You can hear the opening aria of Cantata BWV 32 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Both set the type of Pietistic Lutheran German texts standard for such church compositions of the day, and each built around pairs of arias and recitatives for different solo singers.

BWV 32, which adds an oboist (below, second from right) to the string players in some of the movements, is particularly interesting in representing a series of exchanges between the Soul (Seele) and Jesus Himself, culminating in direct duos between them.

Each cantata ends with a harmonization of a traditional Lutheran chorale. In the spirit of the program’s venue, the audience was asked to sing them, in German, from prepared sheets. In these, and in an English hymn from this church’s hymnal, the audience was prepped by Brailey, who served as general hostess.

In purely musical terms, the performances were really excellent, with both vocalists and instrumental players of established talents. And certainly the very atmosphere of a church setting evoked the composer’s original purposes. (The church’s ample acoustics enriched the musical performances, though they badly undermined spoken material on the microphone.)

Previously, the Madison Bach Musicians has been a rare group giving us specimens of the generally neglected cantatas, but now this “Just Bach” series will augment the works’ availability.

Subsequent concerts in this series will be switched to 1 p.m. on WEDNESDAY afternoons on Oct. 31, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12.

For more background, including the addresses of Facebook and Instagram sites of “Just Bach,” go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/09/25/classical-music-just-bach-a-monthly-mid-day-free-concert-series-starts-this-thursday-at-1-p-m-in-luther-memorial-church/

But prospective attendees should be warned of practical problems. The early afternoon time is difficult for most people, there is no parking facility, and access to the venue will likely be limited to those already in the vicinity.

For all that, I reckoned some 40 or so people in the audience – with no one eating lunch, even thought that is permitted. So artistic merits might still surmount obstacles.


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Classical music: “Just Bach” — a monthly mid-day FREE concert series — starts this Thursday at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church. Plus, the FREE fifth annual UW Brass Fest takes place Friday and Saturday

September 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday and Saturday, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music will host  Brass Fest V. It features guest artists and the faculty group The Wisconsin Brass Quintet. Events are FREE and OPEN to the public. For a schedule and more information about events and performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/brass-fest-v-alumni/

By Jacob Stockinger

A new and noteworthy monthly event starts this Thursday. Here is an announcement:

“Just Bach” is a new monthly mid-day concert series in Madison. It celebrates the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below).

The series of hour-long concerts kicks off at 1 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 27,at Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue.

Admission is free, but goodwill offerings will be accepted.

The Madison series, inspired by a model and successful program established by conductor Julian Wachner at the Trinity Wall Street Church in New York City, will offer monthly concerts at Luther Memorial Church, presenting programs curated from Bach’s sacred vocal repertoire.

As in New York City, the concerts will open with all present singing a hymn, followed by an organ solo, with the rest of the program devoted to cantatas, motets, and possibly oratorios or passions. An important component of the initiative will be the training and inclusion of local singers for the chorus. The period-instrument orchestra will include local and regional players.

Audience members may take in food and beverage for their lunch, which can be consumed during the program.

This Thursday afternoon, organist Mark Brampton Smith (below) will play the “Little” Fugue in G Minor, BWV 578 (heard, with a graphic depiction, in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the choir and orchestra will perform two beautiful cantatas: O heileges Geist- und Wasserbad (O Bath of Holy Spirit and Water), BWV 165; and Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (Dearest Jesus, My Desire), BWV 32.

Adds the organizer Marika Fischer Hoyt (below), who also directs the annual Bach Around the Clock event in March: “The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large.

“The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach would have conceived. Members of the artistic team will prepare local singers to perform alongside seasoned professionals and develop a familiarity and love of the repertoire.

“The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

“The dream team bringing this venture to Madison consists of four individuals who have each dedicated a significant portion of their careers to the music of J.S. Bach: soprano Sarah Brailey, who did her master’s at the UW-Madison and won the Handel Aria Competition; mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe; UW-Madison professor and bass-baritone Paul Rowe; and modern and baroque violist Marika Fischer Hoyt who also performs with the Madison Bach Musicians, Sonata à Quattro and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The vocal soloists for the concert on this Thursday will be Sarah Brailey (below), Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, tenor Wesley Dunnagan, and Paul Rowe. The period orchestra of local and regional baroque players will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim.

After the debut, Just Bach dates go to Wednesdays and will take place at 1 p.m. on Oct. 31, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12.

Our Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/SingetdemHerrn

Our Instagram account is at https://www.instagram.com/_just_bach_/

A website is in the process of being constructed.

We are extremely grateful to Pastor Brad Pohlman and the congregation of Luther Memorial Church for hosting the series this Fall.

We invite the Madison community to come spend a lunch hour with the sublime music of J.S. Bach – feed your body and soul!”


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Classical music: This Saturday night, the Leonard Bernstein centennial will be marked at the UW-Madison with a faculty vocal concert and a sing-along

September 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about this weekend’s celebration of the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth:

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990, below in a photo by Jack Mitchell) — the legendary composer, conductor and pianist — will be celebrated in a concert of his music on this coming Saturday night, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Tickets are $17 for adults; $7 for students and children; and free to music majors, music faculty and music staff. To avoid long lines  you are asked to purchase tickets early. If you do purchase tickets at the door, you are asked to arrive 30 minutes before the concert begins. For details about tickets, see below.

This Faculty Concert Series event is one of the many world-wide observances of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. They will include a special program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under its music director and conductor John DeMain, who worked with Bernstein and who discussed Bernstein on Wisconsin Public Radio, which you can hear here:

https://www.wpr.org/madison-symphonys-john-demain-remembers-bernstein-during-centennial-birth-year

From Broadway to the concert stage, Bernstein embodied the eclectic nature of America’s music. As a composer, conductor and teacher he embraced all kinds of music, and in his own work created enduring masterpieces in both popular and classical styles.

Saturday’s concert will feature a number of lesser-known works that come from all periods of Bernstein’s career, as well as favorite selections from his classic Broadway scores On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide and West Side Story, and songs from his exquisite incidental music for Peter Pan.

Cellist Alison Rowe (below top) will join her parents, baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) in selections from Mass, Songfest and the beautiful song Dream With Me (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom).

Pianists Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes (below) will join the Rowes in a performance of one of Bernstein’s last major works for two singers and two pianists, Arias and Barcarolles. It is a song cycle in which “Lenny” fully explored the range of styles and subject matter that represent his unique achievement in American music.

There will be a short SING-ALONG at the end of the concert featuring some favorite and familiar Bernstein hits.

For more information, including how to obtain tickets, a video and a link to a Bernstein tribute in The New York Times, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/music-of-leonard-bernstein-a-100th-birthday-tribute/


Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday

April 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

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 once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.


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