The Well-Tempered Ear

Will using first names with Beethoven and Mozart help fight racism and sexism in the concert hall?

October 28, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Why do concert programs read simply Beethoven for Beethoven (below top), but Florence Price for Florence Price (below bottom)?

According to a recent controversial essay by Chris White (below), a professor of music theory at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, it reflects and reinforces sexism and racism.

White is calling for universal “fullnaming” to put women composers and composers of color on an equal footing with the traditional canon of dead white male composers. All people may be equal, but all composers and their music are not.

You can certainly make a case for his interesting argument against using “mononyns,” as he calls them. But it still seems less than convincing to many, including The Ear. It many ways it seems downright silly and arbitrary. Isn’t it obvious that not all composers are equal in quality of their work?

It is the latest dustup in the classical music world, coming right on the heels of, and logically linked to, the idea that Beethoven is responsible for sexism and racism in the concert hall and the so-called “cancel culture” that is allied with the social and political protest movements of the past year, including Black Lives Matter.

That was treated here in a previous post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/09/19/did-beethoven-and-his-music-especially-the-iconic-fifth-symphony-foster-racism-exclusion-and-elitism-in-the-concert-hall-the-ear-thinks-that-is-pc-nonsense-what-do-you-think/

Here is a link to the complete article by White about the inclusion and absence of first names as it appeared on Slate: https://slate.com/culture/2020/10/fullname-famous-composers-racism-sexism.html

Funny, The Ear thinks of using only last names as little more than a function of: quality, importance and time; of fame and familiarity; and sometimes of promoting clarity and preventing confusion — not of race or gender.

It is why we say Bach (below) when we mean Johann Sebastian, and why we say Wilhelm Friedemann or Carl Philipp Emmanuel or Johann Christian when we mean one of his sons.

It is why we say Richard Strauss to distinguish him from Johann Strauss.

But it also why Haydn means Franz Joseph (below), not his less important brother Michael Haydn.

And why the American composer Henry Cowell is listed with his full name and not just Cowell.

Perhaps one day – if we hear enough of the music by the recently rediscovered Black female composer Florence Price often enough and like it enough – she will be known simply as Price. After all, the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu is not usually listed as simply Takemitsu. 

Actually, the Ear prefers using full names for all composers — famous or not, male or female, white or black — especially when it is for the general public. But it seems more a matter of politeness, respect and education than of sociopolitical change and social justice.

That is not to say that those of us in classical music don’t see a need to correct the racism and sexism of the past, to foster diversity and inclusiveness. White has a point. Still, the whole idea of using both names in all cases seems more than a bit naïve, superficial and simplistic as a solution to racism and sexism.

It sounds a lot like the kind of theoretical speculation and contrarian thinking you might expect from an assistant professor trying to get noticed and make his mark on big contemporary issues so that he can get tenure and become an associate professor. A high public profile certainly helps that.

But whatever you think of White’s motives or purpose, his essay is causing a “meltdown” on Twitter: https://mybroadband.co.za/forum/threads/‘fullnaming’-mozart-and-beethoven-to-fight-sexism-and-racism-twitter-squabbles-over-slate-article.1108776/

Should you want to know more about Professor White or to leave a message of either support or disagreement, here is a link to his home website: http://www.chriswmwhite.com

What do you think about the idea of using first names for all composers as a way to combat racism and sexism in classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: What composer or piece of music would you like to hear once the coronavirus is contained and concert halls open again?

August 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The news can be confusing and even contradictory about some specifics, but the general direction of reports and statistics about the coronavirus pandemic and deaths from COVID-19 is clear.

It is going to be a long haul until we safely get to go hear live music in large crowds again, just as The Ear talked about earlier this week. (Below is a photo of conductor John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Overture Hall.)

Here is a link to that post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/08/11/classical-music-its-clear-to-the-ear-it-will-be-at-least-another-full-year-before-music-lovers-in-the-u-s-can-safely-attend-live-concerts-what-do-you-think/

When performers finally get to play, and the concert halls finally get to open, and audiences finally get to listen in person, here is what The Ear wants to know:

What composer would you like hear?

Maybe Beethoven (below) because so much of the Beethoven Year – marking the composer’s 250th birthday this coming December – has been canceled or postponed?

Maybe Johann Sebastian Bach (below) because he just seems so basic, varied and universal?

And what specific piece of music would you like to hear?

Perhaps Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” with its “Ode to Joy”? Or maybe the “Eroica” Symphony? Or one of the string quartets?

Perhaps the “St. Mathew Passion” or the Mass in B Minor? Maybe one or more of the cantatas?

Should the music pay homage to the suffering, loss and death – perhaps with Mozart’s “Requiem”? Or Brahms’ “A German Requiem”? Or Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony?

Or should the music be upbeat and joyous, like Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture” (below in the YouTube video)? Or some glittering and whirling waltzes by the Strauss family?

Is there an opera that seems especially relevant?

Would you prefer instrumental, choral or vocal music?

And what period, era or style would you prefer?

It will be great to be reacquainted with old and familiar friends. But it would also seem an ideal time to commission and perform new music.

Leave your suggestions in the Comment section with, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance to help us decide.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: What music is helping you get through the Coronavirus by staying home? Help create a Pandemic Playlist

March 25, 2020
10 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting today, Wisconsin joins other states and countries in proclaiming a stay-at-home emergency condition to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

That means non-essential businesses and schools are closed; restaurants can only deliver food and do pick-up; and residents must stay at home except for essential services and travel such as buying food, seeing a doctor and getting medicine.

For a couple of weeks, many of us have already been spending almost all our time hunkering down at home.

And the Internet and other mass media are full of helpful hints about how to handle the loneliness, fear and anxiety that can come with self-isolation and self-quarantining.

For many, music proves a reliable coping strategy.

Since there are no live concerts to preview or review, now seems like a good time for The Ear to ask readers: What music helps you deal with the isolation of staying at home?

Is listening to music a part of your daily schedule, structure or routine?

Maybe you are using the time to discover new music or neglected composers, works and performers.

Maybe you are using the time to revisit old favorites by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Maybe you prefer darker and deeper, more introverted works such as symphonies by Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich?

Maybe you prefer the stories and drama of operas by Verdi and Puccini, oratorios by Handel and songs by Schubert?

Maybe, like The Ear, you find the music of Baroque Italian composers, such as the violin concertos by Vivaldi and Corelli, to be a great, upbeat way to start the day with energy and a good mood.

One more modern but neo-classical work that The Ear likes to turn to — a work that is rarely heard or performed live – is the beautiful “Eclogue” for piano and strings by the 20th-century British composer Gerald Finzi (below).

Finzi wrote it as a slow movement to a piano concerto, but then never finished the concerto. The “Eclogue” — a short pastoral poem — was never performed in his lifetime. So it continues to stand alone.

But like so much English pastoral music, the poignant Eclogue feels like sonic balm, some restorative comfort that can transport you to a calmer and quieter place, put you in a mood that you find soothing rather than agitated.

Hear it for yourself and decide by listening to it in the YouTube video at the bottom, then let The Ear know what you think.

Perhaps you have many other pieces to suggest for the same purpose.

But the series of reader suggestions is meant to be ongoing.

The idea is to build a collective “Pandemic Playlist.”

So right now and for this time, please post just ONE suggestion – with a YouTube link, if possible — in the Comment section with perhaps what you like about it and why it works for you during this time of physical, psychological and emotional distress from COVID-19.

What do you think of the idea of creating a Pandemic Playlist?

The Ear hopes that you like his choice, and that he and other readers like yours.

Be well and stay well.

Let’s get through this together.

 


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Classical music: A reader urges others to donate ticket refunds to support the arts. What do you think?

March 18, 2020
8 Comments

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ALERT: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir has canceled its upcoming concert, “Music She Wrote,” on April 18.

By Jacob Stockinger

A reader — who prefers to remain anonymous but who has been deeply involved in the Madison arts scene for a long time — recently wrote:

“I’d like to suggest an angle for your column: Encourage subscribers to the various arts organizations and single ticket holders who can afford it NOT to ask for a refund on their upcoming cancelled concerts, if or when they are offered that option.

“I subscribe — on my own or as part of others’ subscriptions — to the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in photo by Peter Rodgers), the Madison Opera, the Broadway musicals at the Overture Center, Forward Theater, and the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert series. (I also buy a lot of single tickets to chamber music concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and to American Players Theatre in Spring Green.)

“As all those arts organizations cancel their concerts and plays, they still have costs. Forward Theater, for instance, is paying the full contract of all the people who were involved with the production of “The Amateurs.” And I’m glad they are.

“Personally, I will not be asking for a refund on any of the tickets I long ago purchased. I want the arts to stay healthy in Madison, and not asking for a refund is a small gesture in trying to make sure they are able to move forward.” (At bottom is the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which just announced its summer schedule from June 7 to June 28 and has not cancelled anything. Go to: https://bachdancing.org)

“You reach a lot of people and you could plant a lot of powerful seeds by making this the topic of a column.”

If you are a member of a performing arts group, what do you think?

If you are a ticket holder, what do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: This Sunday afternoon at Farley’s, pianist Shai Wosner performs sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert, Scarlatti and Rzewski. On Saturday afternoon, he gives a FREE public master class

February 18, 2020
1 Comment

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ALERT and CORRECTION: Earlier this week, The Ear mistakenly said the concert by UW Concert Band is Wednesday night. He apologizes for the error.

It is TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave. In addition, the School of Music website has updated information about the program to be played under director and conductor Corey Pompey. Go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-3/

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, one of the today’s most interesting and creative concert pianists will return to Madison to make his solo recital debut.

His name is Shai Wosner (below, in a  photo by Marco Borggreve) and he is an Israeli-American who is acclaimed for his technique, his tone and his subtle interpretations.

But what also makes Wosner especially noteworthy and one of the most interesting musical artists performing today is his eclectic, thoughtful and inventive approach to programming.

For more information about Wosner, go to his home website: http://www.shaiwosner.com

Wosner returns to Madison to perform his first solo recital here at 4 p.m. this coming Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Born in Israel and now teaching in Boston while touring, Wosner will play sonatas by Beethoven, Scarlatti, Rzewski and Schubert.

He has performed with orchestras throughout the U.S. and Europe, and records for Onyx Classics. “His feel for keyboard color and voicing is wonderful,” said The Washington Post.

The Madison program is: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D Major (“Pastoral”), Op. 28; Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 141, Allegro, with Rzewskis’ Nanosonata No. 36 (“To A Young Man”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 9, Allegro, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 38 (“To A Great Guy”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in C minor, K. 23, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 12; and Schubert’s last Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance (students $10) or $50 at the door. Service fees may apply. Tickets are also for sale at Farley’s House of Pianos. Call (608) 271-2626.

Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809

For more information about Wosner’s FREE public master class at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, including the names of local students and their teachers plus the titles of works by Mozart, Debussy and Ravel to be played, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Wosner (below) recently did an email Q&A with The Ear:

In concerts and recordings, you like to mix and intersperse or alternate composers: Brahms and Schoenberg; Haydn and Ligeti; Schubert and Missy Mazzoli; and Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, Ives and Gershwin. Why do you pair sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and the American composer Frederic Rzewski (1938-) in this program?

I like to pair together composers from very different periods in ways that, hopefully, bring out certain things they have in common in spite of the differences.

Perhaps it is a way of looking for the underlying principles that make music work, for the ideas that go beyond styles and time periods and that stimulate composers across centuries.

In the case of Scarlatti (below top) and Rzewski (below bottom), it is the extreme conciseness of their sonatas and also their almost impulsive kind of writing with ideas and twists and turns kept unpredictably spontaneous, almost in the style of stream-of-consciousness.

Their sonatas are closer to the literal meaning of the word – “a piece that is played” as opposed to sung (which was more common in Scarlatti’s time perhaps). They are also very much about treatment of the keyboard and gestural writing rather than the more essay-type sonatas that were the dominant idiom for Beethoven and Schubert.

Why did you pick these particular sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert to bookend the program?

The sonata by Beethoven (below top) is quite unusual for him, without many contrasts and very lyrical, which perhaps is a certain parallel with the Schubert sonata. (You can hear Wosner playing an excerpt from another Beethoven sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But they are also very different. Beethoven’s sonata looks around it and is about idyllic nature — the title “Pastoral” isn’t by Beethoven but it is written in that kind of style — and the sonata by Schubert (below bottom) is more introspective, perhaps about human nature.

What would you like the public to know about specific works and composers on your Madison program?

I think it’s always stimulating to challenge preconceptions we have about composers.

Beethoven is often associated with a certain “heroic” style and bold, dramatic gestures while this piece is quite understated in many ways.

Schubert’s last sonata is often seen as a farewell to the world. But at the same time Schubert himself may not have been aware of his impending death as much as we think – he made some plans right near the end that may suggest otherwise.

I prefer to let everyone find in this music what they will, of course. But I think these works reveal other aspects of these composers that we don’t always think of. Is Schubert’s piece really about his own tragedy? It is probably much broader than that.

Now that your acclaimed Schubert project is completed, what are your current or upcoming projects?

I am currently working with five other composers on a project that is a collection of five short pieces written as “variations” for which the theme is a quote from a 1938 speech by FDR: “remember, remember always, that all of us… are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

Each composer chose a figure of an immigrant — some famous, some not — to write about. The composers are Vijay Iyer, Derek Bermel (below top), Anthony Cheung, Wang Lu and John Harbison (below bottom).

These “variations” will be paired with Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations.

What else would you like to say about your career and, after several concerto appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, about your solo recital debut in Madison?

Madison has a lovely audience that I was fortunate to meet in the past, and I certainly look forward to being back there!

 


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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