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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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS: Three piano pieces by the forgotten American composer William Mason that are worth rediscovering

July 12, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

As often happens, The Ear was listening to Wisconsin Public Radio and yesterday afternoon he made a discovery during The Midday program with Norman Gilliland.

It was piano piece called “Amourette” by the American 19th-century composer William Mason (below). Unfortunately, you won’t find that piece on YouTube. But here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, are three other fine works, probably from the same Naxos CD, that are also noteworthy discoveries of a forgotten, if minor, composer who had a knack for pleasing and melodic salon music.

Here are a brief biography and an introduction from YouTube and Wikipedia:

William Mason (below, 1829-1908) was an American pianist, composer and teacher. He was from a musical family, son of the famous and prolific hymn composer Lowell Mason, and brother of Henry Mason, co-founder of Mason and Hamlin pianos.

William studied in Europe and was the first American student of Franz Liszt. In his music, you can hear reflected some of the major piano composers of the 19th century.

Here is a link to his entry in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Mason_(composer)

Although these William Mason pieces are largely forgotten now, his work is wonderfully melodic and certainly deserves to be heard more often.

These three pieces are from the Naxos CD “William Mason” (No. 8.559142) The CD contains 14 other Mason compositions – including his best known “Silver Spring.” (The CD is part of the American Classics Collection.)

For those tired of hearing the same classical music on the radio or the concert hall – the Naxos collection provides a wide spectrum of superb but rarely heard music.

The pianist on this album is Kenneth Boulton. On the third piece, “Badinage,” which is for piano four-hands, Kenneth Boulton is joined by his wife and pianist JoAnne Barry.

Track Listings: 0:00 “Improvisation”; 4:30 “Lullaby”; 7:35 “Badinage”

Do you like Mason’s music?

Let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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