The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra turn in convincing and moving performances of a neglected masterpiece by Felix Mendelssohn and a great anti-war cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

November 25, 2013
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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 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

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union, conducted by Beverly Taylor, with the UW Symphony Orchestra, gave two performances on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon of a program that deserved even more of an audience than actually turned out.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Only two works were involved, and quite contrasting ones.  The first was Felix Mendelssohn’s “Die erste Walpurgisnacht “ (“The First Witches’ Sabbath”), using a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The second was the cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Dona nobis pacem,” using a deliberately ironic mix of texts.

UW student violist and conductor Mikko Utevsky, who sang in the tenor section, has already described these two works in his preview article recently posted on this blog, so there is no need for me to repeat what he has set out.

Here is a link to his preview:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/classical-music-the-uw-choral-union-and-uw-symphony-orchestra-will-perform-works-by-mendelssohn-and-vaughan-williams-this-saturday-night-and-sunday-afternoon/

The work by Felix Mendelssohn (below) is a sadly neglected masterpiece, one on which he worked intermittently down to his last years. It pictures Druid devotees, standing up to fierce persecution by intolerant Christians. The Druids’ weapon is traditional pagan rites, and the making of a ghostly hullabaloo in order to frighten off their enemies.  (A precedent not for Halloween but rather for the spooky folk celebrations of St. John’s Eve (celebrated by Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain and the Brocken scene in Gounod’s opera “Faust.”)

Mendelssohn

One may debate if the text was worth the effort that Mendelssohn put into it, and whether its brief requirement of a large performing force makes it not an economic concert favorite.

Still, its extended overture is, quite simply, one of the composer’s finest piece of orchestral writing, and the vibrant choral segments are the work, after all, of one of the handful of composers who could compose truly idiomatic choral music.

There were a few rocky orchestral moments at the very beginning of the piece, especially in the strings, and occasional touches of weak co-ordination.  But the orchestra pulled together some fine sound, worthy of the standards that James Smith’s training has set for it.

Of the three vocal soloists (below, with conductor Beverly Taylor of the far left) tenor Klaus Georg (middle) had a strong voice, but a not very smooth one.  Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Ruby Miller (far right) had such smoothness for her one solo, but not much projecting power.  Baritone Erik E. Larsen (second from left) brought a bit more character to his solos.

The real star, though, was the chorus: it can always be counted on for robust sound, and its singers really had a ball working up the Druids’ pagan, anti-Christian frenzies.

UW Choral Union 11-2013 Mendelssohn soloists

The cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams (below) was composed in 1937, reflecting the composer’s disillusioning experience in World War I, and his just apprehensions about what would become World War II.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

An admirer of the poetry of Walt Whitman (below) long before American composers began to pay attention to it, Vaughan Williams took three of Whitman’s poems of American Civil War vintage, adding a few other (mostly Scriptural) passages, which he juxtaposed against the Latin text from the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary, the “Agnus Dei” — especially its repeated words “Dona nobis pacem” or “Give us peace.”

Walt Whitman 2

Such a juxtaposition of compassionate poetry against Latin liturgy was made famous by Benjamin Britten, of course, in his acclaimed “War Requiem.” But, in his more compact venture, Vaughan Williams set a bar of expressiveness so high that not even Britten, with all his cleverness and monumentality, could really match.

Indeed, I would place Vaughan Williams’s cantata as one of the supreme examples of anti-war art–matched not by Britten (if by Wilfred Owen’s poetry) but certainly by the crushing Ancient Greek play by Euripides, “The Trojan Women” and perhaps also Pablo Picasso’s painting of mass horror, “Guernica.”

Each of the movements of the cantata carries potent messages of poignancy and protest, while there is even some final (if uncertain) optimism. The score’s centerpiece is the long setting of Whitman’s “Dirge for Two Veterans,” a movement of absolutely shattering anguish amid discredited military posturing.  There are few other things like it in the choral literature.

There are two soloists required for this work.  Visiting faculty soprano Elizabeth Hagedorn (below right with Beverly Taylor in the center) was beautifully chilling in the reiterations of the “Dona nobis pacem” motto, while baritone Jordan Wilson (below right) captured the poignancy of Whitman’s “Reconciliation” (at bottom in a YouTube video) a more concise and heart-grabbing predecessor to the culminating Wilfred Owen poem that Britten used in his grander work.

UW Choral Union 11-2013 Vaughan Williams soloists

But, again, with stout backing from the orchestra, the chorus was a tower of choral strength, equally forceful in parodistic militarism, in piercing anguish, or in hopeful joy.

Say what you will about the acoustics of Mills Hall in the UW’s Humanities Building, but it is the proper home for a powerful chorus confronting an enthusiastic audience with clarity and presence.

UW Choral Union 11-2013 applause

Praise, by the way, for the program booklet, which included all the vocal texts, as well as some excellent program notes.  It proved an ideal topping for a rich, but nourishing cake of a concert!


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra will perform works by Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 21, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know the name Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has an out-of-date website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest preview of a concert this coming weekend by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra. I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the preview by Mikko Utevsky (below):

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Utevsky

This weekend, UW-Madison Choral Director Beverly Taylor (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) brings a wonderful and varied program to the stage of Mills Hall, consisting of a pair of choral and orchestral works performed by the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra (both below bottom, the latter fresh off of a critically acclaimed performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and the Brahms Violin Concerto with soloist Rachel Barton Pine).

Beverly Taylor Katrin Talbot

Missa Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra

The choral concert, which can be heard Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. — and in which, for full disclosure, this writer will be singing — features an unusual pair of secular and half-sacred cantatas: “Die Erste Walpurgisnacht” (The First Walpurgis Night) by Felix Mendelssohn (bellow top) and “Dona Nobis Pacem” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Mendelssohn

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

Mendelssohn’s work, by far the stranger of the two, is on a text by the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (below), and is set for soloists (UW student Caitlin Miller, German tenor Klaus Georg, and UW student bass-baritone Erik Larson), chorus and symphony orchestra.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1828

It tells the story of a group of Druids who, by virtue of their guile and some clever trickery, scare away the Christian soldiers who occupy their land so they can celebrate May Day in peace. While the plot is set in May, some of the music today feels more appropriate for Halloween, particularly as the Druids masquerade as devil-worshippers and demons to frighten the Christians. Left to their own devices at last, the druids end the cantata in a blaze of light.

The poet had intended this text for musical treatment, but had expected his friend Carl Friedrich Zelter (below) to set it. Zelter tried twice, but only Mendelssohn eventually completed a setting in 1831 (which he revised extensively in 1843), probably attracted to the nocturnal mischief that at times recalls both atmosphere and Mendelssohn’s music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The work runs about 35 minutes.

carl friedrich zelter

The second half of the program consists of a better-known 20th-century masterwork — of similar length and vastly greater weight — that treads the line between the sacred and the secular: “Dona Nobis Pacem” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

This cantata, which will feature soprano and visiting UW professor of voice Elizabeth Hagedorn (below top) and student baritone Jordan Wilson as soloists along with the chorus and orchestra, is compiled from a variety of texts, primarily Biblical selections and poems of Walt Whitman (below bottom).

Elizabeth Hagedorn 1

Walt Whitman 2

Composed in 1936, it is both a spiritual and human prayer for peace, mourning the dead of the First World War (below) and praying that there will not be a Second.

The Latin “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant us peace”) appears throughout the work as a refrain, interjected by the soprano soloist, who also features prominently in the first movement (“Agnus Dei”).

World War I trenches

The second movement, “Beat, beat drums!” portrays the chaos of war, and the third and fourth (“Reconciliation,” featuring the baritone, and a choral “Dirge for Two Veterans”) mourn the senseless loss of life that it brings. The fifth movement begins with a John Bright speech, “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land,” and proceeds into a selection from the book of Jeremiah.

An optimistic English setting of the Gloria follows, and the work concludes quietly with the “Dona Nobis Pacem” sung by chorus a cappella and the soprano soloist. (See the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It is a profoundly moving work, with beautiful music and poetry, and can serve to remind us in times of strife that the truest service to the memory of the fallen is to strive for the end of conflict and the coming of peace.

I hope you will join us Saturday or Sunday for a program that is not to be missed.

Performances are in Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park Street, on Saturday night, Nov. 23, at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 24, at 2 p.m. 

Tickets are $15 for general admission, $8 for students and seniors. They are available by calling (608) 265-2787 and at the door.

Please note: There are sports games Friday night and parking will be difficult, so leave early and allow extra time for delays.


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