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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PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

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: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise?

January 12, 2020
7 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Mendota Consort’s outstanding concert of music by the early Baroque master Johann Schein left one wanting more of both the music and the singers

July 25, 2018
2 Comments

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

The Mendota Consort is to some extent a spin-off of the Madison Early Music Festival, first in 2017 and now this year.

Its membership has been shifting, though the versatile Jerry Hui has been a cornerstone, and the drive for its continuity has been the work of Maya Webne-Behrman.

The group’s concert at Luther Memorial Church on last Saturday night was the last of three performances given around the state. There are plans for several concerts in the season ahead, around the country, despite the members’ diverse and far-flung individual residences.

The group performing this latest program are five singers. As shown in the photograph below, they are (from left): sopranos Webne-Behrman and Chelsie Propst; bass Matt Chastain, alto Hui, and tenor Drew Ivarson.

Their program for these current concerts was devoted to selections from the collection Fontana d’Israel, or Israel’s Brünnlein, published in 1623 by Johann Hermann Schein (below, 1586-1630), one of the important composers of the early German Baroque, and a distant predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach in his position in Leipzig.

The collection’s title is conventionally translated as the “Fountain of Israel” but might also be rendered as “Israel’s Wellspring.” It consists of 26 relatively short pieces setting texts that the composer selected from various books of the Old Testament, texts with messages both personal and communal between Jehovah and His Chosen People.

These five-voice pieces — with optional basso seguentefor organ — might readily be construed as choral works in the post-Renaissance polyphonic style. But that would be a mistake, for the publication’s long subtitle stipulates that these are “in a special, graceful Italian manner.”  In other words, they are madrigals, not motets. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They show a German composer learning particularly from Claudio Monteverdi, constantly using his early trick of turning the five-voice writing into exchanges between two “trios,” consisting of Soprano-Soprano-Alto against Alto-Tenor-Bass, with the alto voice singing in both.  (So Jerry Hui never got any rest!)

The clever part-writing deserves to be heard with absolute clarity. And that is what these five singers gave us, with admirably precise German diction as well. They performed only nine selections from the full 26, effectively only one hour’s worth of music, but demanding the most disciplined part-singing, which can be very tiring for the vocalists.

This seemingly short program left one craving more, but it was a beautiful treasure in itself. It makes one hope earnestly for the Mendota Consort to continue to flourish and mature — and to return to Madison as soon as possible.


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