By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a record 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.
By John W. Barker
For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.
A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.
Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.
Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).
It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”
It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.
Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)
Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.
The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.
Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.
Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.
I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.
They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.
While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.
One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.
This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.
By Jacob Stockinger
Three recent stories tell you just about everything you could want to know about superstar soprano Renée Fleming (below), now 58, as she prepares to retire — at least partly retire — from the opera stage but still devote herself to music on and off the concert stage.
The first story came in The New York Times in a preview profile before her upcoming appearance as the aging Marschallin in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.” (You can hear some of her singing in that role in the YouTube link at the bottom.)
Here is a link to that story:
But just to eliminate any doubt about her leaving music altogether when she retires from singing and acting opera, Fleming also gave a long interview to Vanity Fair magazine in which she discusses her plans to still pursue music full-time as a recitalist, recording artist and someone working offstage to benefit opera and music, much as the famed Beverly Sills once did.
Here is a link to that story:
And then Fleming also clarified some confusion in the Times story about her future plans in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR):
By Jacob Stockinger
Madison has produced its share of important classical musicians who have gone on to achieve international reputations.
Among them was the composer Lee Hoiby (1926-2011).
More recently, there are the Naughton Twins, sister-duo pianists Christina and Michelle, who perform around the world.
And there is violist Vicki Powell (below), who was born in Chicago but started music lessons in Madison where she studied with the husband-and-wife team of violinist Eugene Purdue and Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm, both of whom have taught at the UW-Madison.
Powell, who recently finished a tour of Asia and whose playing has garnered rave reviews internationally, returns to Madison this Friday night to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.
WCO music director Andrew Sewell will conduct. Unlike Sewell’s typical eclectic programming that mixes music from different eras, this concert feature music from a single period – the mid-20th century.
It offers “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” by British composer Benjamin Britten, who studied with Bridge. Also included are two other British works: the Suite for Viola and Chamber Orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with Vicki Powell, and “Benedictus” by Sir Alexander Mackenzie. All three works are rarely performed.
The concluding work, on the other hand, is the popular and well-loved “Appalachian Spring” – a timely work for the coming of spring yesterday morning — by the American composer Aaron Copland.
For more information about the program, about how to get tickets ($10-$80) and about Vicki Powell, go to:
And here is a link to Vicki Powell’s website with a biography, concert bookings, recordings, reviews and her community outreach projects:
By Jacob Stockinger
This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) offers one of the best must-hear programs of the season – or so thinks The Ear.
Pianist Stephen Hough (below, in a photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke) returns for his fourth appearance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO), led by music director and conductor John DeMain.
The concert will open with Samuel Barber’s Second Essay, a dramatic piece written in the midst of World War II, followed by a performance of the exotic Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) featuring soloist Stephen Hough, who won major awards for his recordings of the complete works for piano and orchestra by Saint-Saëns. The concert will close with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s emotional Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”).
The concerts are Friday, Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 19, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street. (Ticket information is below.)
Samuel Barber (below) was one of the new generation of mid-20th century American composers with contemporaries Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, David Diamond and, later, Leonard Bernstein.
His Second Essay was written in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War. Barber once wrote: “Although it has no program, one perhaps hears that it was written in a war-time.” This will be the first time this piece is performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
The Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) by Camille Saint-Saëns (below) was composed while he was on a winter vacation in the Egyptian temple city of Luxor, in 1895-96. The location of this piece is important because it helped give the piece its nickname, and also influenced the sound of the score. This will be the first time this piece is performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below) wrote his final piece between February and August 1893. The Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) was then performed in Oct. 1893 and was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself. Nine days later he was dead.
Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies are autobiographical, and the sixth being “the best, and certainly the most open-hearted,” according to Tchaikovsky himself. Seeing that he was a troubled man, dealing with a dark depression, Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) is filled with poignancy and deep sorrow, as you can hear in the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.
One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Artistic Director and the newly appointed Interim Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.
For more background on the music, read the program notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/5.Feb17.html
Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, and are available at madisonsymphony.org/hough and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, madisonsymphony.org/groups
Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.
Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.
Find more information at madisonsymphony.org
Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc., Stephen Morton, and BMO Wealth Management. Additional funding is provided by: Boardman & Clark LLP, Forte Research Systems & Nimblify, James and Joan Johnston, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.
By Jacob Stockinger
The “Grace Presents” series of FREE monthly Saturday noon concerts has been suspended indefinitely.
The series presented folk music, jazz, ethnic, country and other genres in addition to classical music.
Over several years, he has heard memorable performances of sonatas and suites, cantatas and preludes, of vocal, string and piano music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms and other composers. Included here are some photos of past events.
The concerts – held in the wonderful interior (below) of Grace Episcopal Church on the downtown Capitol Square — always attracted a large, friendly and appreciative crowd, and the series became a showcase to spotlight some performers who have a lower profile, including graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.
No specific reason for the action was given, and The Ear wonders if it had to do with finding financial sponsors or perhaps with the difficulty of booking performers in a city with such competitive programming of music.
It was not an easy job to set it up and keep it running. So The Ear offers congratulations and thanks to the many people who made the series successful for many years. (Below are violinist Laura Burns, who plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Rhapsodie Quartet, and pianist Jess Salek, who teaches and performs with the Mosaic Chamber Players and the Madison Youth Choirs.)
Here is the official statement:
Dear Grace Presents Community:
After six seasons of offering free community concert programming monthly at the historic Grace Episcopal Church, the Grace Presents Concert Series has been suspended indefinitely.
From performers such as Yid Vicious, Kenn Lonquist, The Dang-It’s, the Madison Bach Musicians (below) and so many others we have enjoyed presenting these concerts free of charge to the Madison community and the thousands of downtown Madison visitors.
It is our hope that this concert series may find a champion in the near future, but until then, the red doors will no longer be open on Saturdays for free concerts to the public.
Thank you for your support of this series and local musicians. (Below is pianist Yana Groves who played music by Bach and Rachmaninoff at Grace Presents).
Grace Presents Board Members
PS: Thank you to the following:
– Bruce Kasprzyk for recording dozens of our concerts and providing his services free of charge
– Oakwood University Woods for printing our programs each month
– Bruce Croushore for initiating the Grace Presents Concert Series seven years ago
– folks who have served on the Grace Presents board
– over 100 musicians who performed for a Grace Presents concert
– all of you who have attended and supported live music at Grace Church
We especially thank our many donors and supporters over the years, and in particular Dane Arts, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, the Madison Arts Commission, and the Wisconsin Arts Board
By Jacob Stockinger
You may recall that several days ago, The Ear named the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) as Musicians of the Year for 2016.
He also mentioned that although there were not yet any YouTube videos of the group, which will have its third season this summer, the alternative radio station WORT-FM 89.9 has broadcast recordings of live performances.
Here is a link to that posting:
If you haven’t yet heard the Willy Street Chamber Players live, you can hear them this Thursday morning on WORT FM 89.9.
Here is what Rich Samuels, radio host and friend of the Willys, writes:
“Thursday morning, Jan. 5, at 7:28 a.m. on my WORT “Anything Goes” broadcast, I’ll be airing the Willy Street Chamber Players performing the Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which I recorded last July 29 at Madison’s Immanuel Lutheran Church.
(In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the opening movement of Mozart’s beautiful Clarinet Quintet performed by the Emerson String Quartet with clarinetist David Shifrin of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Players in New York City.)
“Michael Maccaferri is the clarinet soloist (below). He’s a member of the eighth blackbird ensemble of Chicago. He’s participated in four eighth blackbird Grammy-winning releases on the Cedille label, the local nonprofit recording label that is also in Chicago and that recently turned 25.
“Violinist Eleanor Bartsch (below), who presently freelances in Chicago, recruited Maccaferri for this event. In addition to Eleanor, this performance features Willy Street violinist Beth Larson, violist Rachel Hauser and cellist Lindsay Crabb.
“It was my privilege to record most of the first two seasons of the Willy Street Chamber Players for broadcast on WORT.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to continue that tradition in 2017.”
Here is a link about upcoming strong quartet concert on Jan. 21 and 22 and about the Willy Street Chamber Players in general:
By Jacob Stockinger
Got a Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa gift card to spend?
Want to take advantage of post-holiday and year-end and New Year sales?
It emphasizes unknown performers – like soprano Barbara Hannigan (below in a photo by Elmer Haas) and contemporary or new music. But it features piano music, orchestra music, chamber music and opera. And it has generous sound samples from the chosen recordings:
Here is a link:
Over the past month, The Ear has featured several other Best of 2016 lists. So here they are for purposes of comparison and crosschecking.
For example, on several lists you will find conductor Daniel Barenboim‘s recording of the Symphony No. 1 by Edward Elgar and pianist Daniil Trifonov‘s two-CD recording of the complete piano etudes by Franz Liszt — and justifiably so. (You can hear the trailer for Trifonov’s Liszt etudes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Here is the post-Thanksgiving guide from The New York Times:
Here is a list of nominations for the 2017 Grammy Awards:
And here is a link to a list by the critics of The New York Times:
By Jacob Stockinger
This past week, on Tuesday night, the critically acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, performed its third concert of the semester.
This time it was a terrific program of music by Hugo Wolf, Dmitri Shostakovich and Antonin Dvorak. (You can hear the Pro Arte perform Ernest Bloch‘s Prelude in the YouTube video at the bottom. Plus, YouTube has many more samples of the Pro Arte Quartet.)
The string quartet, which celebrated its centennial five years ago, is the longest lived string quartet in history. It has been at the UW-Madison ever since it was exiled here 75 years ago while on tour during World War II. That is when Hitler and the Nazis invaded the quartet’s homeland of Belgium. (Below is the Pro Arte Quartet in 1940.)
Yet despite such a distinguished history, the existence of the Pro Arte Quartet has had some close calls before and has even been on the endangered species list, only to get a reprieve.
Now, given the current state of steep budget cuts and tenure reforms at the UW by Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican-dominated Legislature and the Board of Regents, there are concerns about what will happen in the near future, especially if one or more of the quartet members leaves or retires.
One ambitious solution is now under way.
A fund at the UW Foundation has been started to endow a chair at the School of Music for each member of the quartet in the strings department. Rebekah Sherman is the Foundation’s liaison to the project.
The proposal needs to raise $4 million with an additional $1 million for other activities such as touring, new commissions, research, outreach, student activities and recordings. (Below is the Pro Arte Quartet, which has always pioneered new music) in 1928.)
If you want to know more about the project, contact Robert Graebner at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Ear will provide more information in the near future about how to join the project and receive updates as well as how to donate.
But at least now you know and can figure out how you can help if you want to help.