The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Summer Choir celebrates its 10th anniversary with one of the best concerts of the year

July 20, 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

The Madison Summer Choir (below) celebrated its 10th anniversary on Wednesday night at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Each year’s program has had a theme, and for this one it was “Old Wine in New Bottles”— though it might as well have been the other way ‘round.

The idea, though, was that the selections showed their composers looking back to the techniques and tastes of earlier generations while writing new music. Conductor Ben Luedcke (below) introduced each work to explain how such approaches worked out.

The first half of the program was devoted to four works, dating from three different centuries.

Two were by contemporary composers. A setting in English of the Psalm text “By the Waters of Babylon” by Sarah Riskind (below top) was followed by Amor de mi Ami, a tribute to his wife, in Spanish, by Randall Stroope (below bottom).

Each work had instrumental additions — in the first, piano with cello, in the second, just piano) which personally I found unnecessary. Riskind’s choral writing is attractively full and quite idiomatic, while Stroope achieves a natural lyricism. I would be interested to hear just the choral parts alone for each work. (Editor’s Note: You can hear the work by Randall Stroope in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These two items were framed by music of earlier epochs. The Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) by Johannes Brahms showed his ability to create his own version of both pre- and post-Baroque polyphony. And Mozart’s Psalm setting Laudate pueri, from one of his Vespers collections (K. 339), showed his assimilation of Baroque counterpoint.

Bruce Bengtson played the part Brahms included for organ (or piano), and he also played the organ reduction of the orchestral part for the Mozart.

It was partly the acoustics, but also a weakness in diction that made the words in those four pieces all but indistinguishable, in whatever language was being sung—my one serious criticism of the performances.

The second part of the program was devoted to the first of the numbered Mass settings by Anton Bruckner. In some ways, such large-scale sacred works were studies for his majestic symphonies yet to come.

In this Mass No. 1 in D minor, Bruckner saw himself in the line of earlier Austrian church music, but anyone expecting bald imitations of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven would be disappointed.

In his dense and highly chromatic writing — something like a step beyond Schubert — Bruckner created some very fascinating music. It reached really exciting power in the Credo, and the words “dona nobis pacem” at the conclusion had a deeply moving sense of serenity.

The choir, of 68 mixed voices, was joined for the Bruckner by four soloists — Chelsie Propst, Jessica Lee Timman, Peter Gruett, Christian Bester (below on the left) — who sang their parts handsomely, and by an orchestra of 30 players, who provided strong and sturdy support.

Luedcke deserves particular praise for giving a chance to hear the Bruckner Mass, which was thought to be its Madison premiere. It climaxed a really enterprising event, one that I think will stand as among the Best Concerts of the Year.


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Classical music: This week offers FREE concerts by the Pro Arte String Quartet on Wednesday night and the Trio Unprepared for piano and percussion on Thursday night

September 26, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Two FREE and appealing but very different concerts are on tap this week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music:

PRO ARTE QUARTET

On Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer) will perform a program that features standard works as well as new music.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

The quartet will play the String Quartet in B-flat Major (1790), Op. 64, No. 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn; and the String Quartet No, 10 (1809), Op. 74, called the “Harp” Quartet, by Ludwig van Beethoven.

You can hear the first movement of Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, performed by the Alban Berg Quartet, in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Less well is the contemporary work “Fantasies on the Name of Sacher” (2012) by French composer Philippe Hersant.

Here are program notes from Pro Arte cellist Parry Karp (below):

“The Haydn and Hersant are new pieces for the Pro Arte and it has been a great pleasure to learn them.

“The Haydn was written at the time that Haydn’s job as the court composer of the court of Esterhazy had come to an end. It is one of the “Tost” Quartets, named for the Hungarian violinist Johann Tost. Haydn dedicated the quartets to him to thank him for his performances and for helping Haydn get a publisher for the quartets.

Parry Karp

“The next piece on the program is the “Fantasies for String Quartet” by the French composer Philippe Versant (b. 1948, below). Here are the composer’s notes on this piece:

“This piece has been in the works for years. First performed in 2008, the first version for string trio included six fantasies. I added two the following year, then an additional instrument (second violin). This version for string quartet was commissioned for the Cully Classique Festival, where it was premiered in 2012. Finally, for the Grand Prix Lycéen for Composers, I imagined a version for string orchestra, commissioned by Musique Nouvelle en Liberté (2013).

“The initial challenge was to write a series of pieces that were as different as possible, from a basic material that was very narrow. That common material is a short motif of 6 notes, which correspond (in Germanic notation) to the letters of Sacher’s name (with a few twists): S (E-flat) A C H(B) E R(D).

“This motif has already been used by a number of composers (Henri Dutilleux, Pierre Boulez and Benjamin Britten) in their homages to Paul Sacher, the great patron and conductor.

“Joined together by the omnipresence of these six notes, the eight fantasies offer strong contrasts in character and style:the first has a high-pitched, rarefied atmosphere a la Shostakovich; the second has a taunting and obsessional tone; there is a dramatic, tense ambience in the fourth …. Two others showcase the voices of the soloists: viola (lyrical) in the third and the cello (stormy) in the seventh.

“Some quotations pepper the discourse: In the third fantasy an altered version of a passage from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, and the sixth combines motifs borrowed from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and Dmitri Shostakovich. A falsely naive, short children’s song closes the set.

“-P. H.”

The last piece on the program, the String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74, by Beethoven, was named the “Harp” Quartet by the first publisher of the work. It was so named because of the the unique use of pizzicato in the first movement of the piece.

This string quartet is one of the great masterpieces of the quartet repertoire with a brilliant first movement, a profound slow movement which foreshadows Beethoven’s late period, a brilliant scherzo, and a classical style variation movement as the finale.

philippe-hersant

TRIO UNPREPARED

On Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Trio Unprepared will perform a FREE concert of improvised music.

Here is the blurb from the UW-Madison School of Music’s website:

Drawing from the vast resources of contemporary, jazz, classical and global music, the Trio Unprepared presents an evening of IMPROVISED music for piano and percussion. Ensemble members are Andre Gribou, piano, and Roger Braun and Anthony DiSanza on percussion. (DiSanza teaches at the UW-Madison and is a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

trio-unprepared-poster

Trio Unprepared has performed globally in extraordinarily diverse musical settings and worked together in various configurations for many years.

This concert — and the subsequent tour of Wisconsin — brings the trio back together for the first time since performing in Switzerland in July 2015.

A master class will follow this concert, from 9 to 10:30 p.m.


Classical music: The Ear offers some semester-end shout-outs to UW student musicians.

December 20, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is just about over. Winter Break starts next week and lasts until mid-January.

Performances are just about over as students focus on final papers, final exams and degree recitals.

But The Ear went to a couple of performances by several groups that he thinks deserve shout-outs.

UW CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

On Sunday night, Dec. 6, The Ear went to a sparsely attended performance by the UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra under the director of conductor Jim Smith (both are below).

Too bad the audience wasn’t larger. The program was such a welcome relief from the hectic nature of the holidays. It proved to be a parenthesis of calm amid so much loudness and busyness.

The program featured Igor Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical ballet suite “Apollo” (Apollon, Musagete or Master of the Muses) on the first half. The second half was the “String Suite” by Czech composer Josef Suk, who was the student and eventual son-in-law of Antonin Dvorak. Historically, it may be a second-tier work, but it certainly has its lovely moments. And the overall pastoral mood was perfect for the occasion.

These are both deceptive scores that sound easy and transparent but are difficult to play and are loaded with many subtleties. The UW Chamber Orchestra played extraordinarily well and thoroughly convincingly.

One last thing to praise: Each piece lasted about 30 minutes. Add in the intermission and the whole program clocked in at about 90 minutes. It started at 7:30 p.m. and The Ear was home by just after 9.

That shorter concert time was refreshing and welcome, and allowed me to do things after the performance. In some important ways, shorter does not mean less!

UW Chamber Orchestra Stravinsky

UW CHORAL UNION and UW SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA with TYANA O’CONNOR

A week ago Saturday night, on Dec. 11, The Ear went to the all-20th century program performed by the campus and community UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra with graduate student and guest soprano soloist Tyana O’Connor, all under the baton of Beverly Taylor.

The program featured the Overture to “The Wasps” by Ralph Vaughan Williams; the Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky; and the eminently listenable Gloria by Francis Poulenc, which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom.

It was an original and engaging program, one that possessed a certain joy that wasn’t ruined even by the ticketing fiasco and by the long wait to get into the hall.

That meant it worked well with the holidays, but not in the obvious way that certain oratorios like “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel or cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach do. And all parties performed very well.

Here is what choral director Beverly Taylor had to say about the program in an interview with The Ear:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/classical-music-the-uw-choral-union-and-uw-symphony-orchestra-will-perform-an-all-20th-century-program-of-works-by-vaughan-williams-stravinsky-and-poulenc-this-coming-saturday-night-plus-conductor/

Special notice goes to the winds and brass (below) of the UW Symphony Orchestra, which replace the upper string (violins and violas) in the Stravinsky’s score. They performed outstandingly, often with the mastery of professionals, in a score that is thorny with polyrhythms and dissonances.

UW Symphony Orchestra winds and brass Stravinsky

And even though I had heard soprano soloist Tyana O’Connor in this semester’s Opera Scenes, I was unprepared for the power of her voice in the Poulenc. Perhaps she was sick earlier, or under-rehearsed; or maybe she didn’t want to overwhelm her duet partner; or maybe her strong and beautiful voice was simply swallowed up by the acoustics of Music Hall. Whatever the case, she was terrific in this performance and easily sang over the tight orchestra and the well prepared chorus without straining.

Tyana O'Connor soprano

So thanks you to all these musicians, and to so many other student performers, both singers and instrumentalists, who gave The Ear so many memorable and moving moments during the past semester and will do so again this coming semester.

Have a fine Winter Break, all of you!

You have earned it.


Classical music: The UW-Madison Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra plus soloists turn in a “glorious” performance of the rarely performed choral symphony “Hymn of Praise” by Felix Mendelssohn.

May 6, 2015
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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 for 12 years hosted 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

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will bring us that giant among symphonies, Beethoven’s Ninth. We now take that work so for granted as a musical summit by itself that we lose sight of its enormous impact on composers of the rest of the 19th century.

The introduction of solo and choral voices into an orchestral symphony score was radical, and inspired many responses. One was the efforts of Hector Berlioz to infuse the elements of opera into a symphonically structured work, resulting in that masterpiece, his “dramatic symphony” Romeo et Juliette. Richard Wagner, by contrast, built an entire career of casting operas in symphonic terms. The culmination of the “choral symphony” came with three of the symphonies by Gustav Mahler (Nos. 2, 3 and 8).

But an earlier response was brought to us last Saturday night by the UW-Madison Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra (below). This was Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, known as the Lobgesang or “Hymn of Praise.” It was composed in 1840, a mere 16 years after Beethoven’s Ninth was premiered.

Choral Union and UW Symphony Lobgesang

Mendelssohn (below) did not simplistically imitate the prototype, but adapted its idea to his own purposes. In place of three elaborate and individual movements, the work’s No. 1, called “sinfonia,” is a set of three successive orchestral sections that flow with limited breaks one after the other, for a total of 15-20 minutes. Then follows a series of nine numbers constituting a cantata for soloists and chorus, running close to 60 minutes.

mendelssohn_300

It sets either Scriptural or devotional texts pertaining to faith in and celebration of the Almighty, with thematic references made to material in the preliminary “sinfonia.” This “choral finale” alone is in the line of sacred choral works, many on Psalm texts, that the composer wrote recurrently.

This cantata may lack the etherial daring of Beethoven’s choral finale, but it is far more idiomatically vocal and choral than what late Beethoven had come to. With its inclusion of Lutheran chorale elements and fugal counterpoint, it is in a class with Mendelssohn’s glorious oratorio Elijah. (Below is a photo of the performance by Margaret Barker.)

Lobgesang Margaret Barker

Because of the extra-orchestral resources the work calls for, it is not often performed, so that it has not become as familiar, and therefore as well-loved, as the composer’s popular Symphonies 3, 4, and 5, the so-called “Scottish,” “Italian” and “Reformation” symphonies. Some might find No. 2 less than top-drawer Mendelssohn, but it is certainly high-quality Mendelssohn, and readily rewards the hearing. (You can hear an excerpt featuring Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

This was the sole work on this Choral Union program. With the absence of regular conductor Beverly Taylor, who is on sabbatical this semester, the podium was assumed by the splendid James Smith (below), who seemed altogether comfortable drawing magnificent sounds from the large chorus, while working his usual wonders with his student orchestra.

Version 3

There are parts for three soloists. The main soprano was Elizabeth Hagedorn (below top, left), whose wide vibrato and squally high range represented for me the one disappointment of this performance. The reliable Mimmi Fulmer (below top, center) was drawn in only for a two-soprano duet: I wish she had been given the top assignment. Thomas Leighton (below bottom) is not the most lyrical of tenors, but he conveyed honestly the spiritual searching of his solos.

Mimmi Fulmer Lobgesang

Thomas Leighton Lobgesang

Here, then, was the Choral Union at its best. It offered stirring choral singing, while giving us an opportunity to experience an unfairly neglected but wonderful score.

 

 


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