The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The new early music, a cappella vocal group Voces Aestatis (Voices of Summer) makes an impressive debut with many Renaissance composers and works. Plus, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival opens to acclaim.

August 26, 2014
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ALERT: Perhaps you didn’t make it to the opening of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival last Saturday night or Sunday afternoon (below is a photo of the renovated barn concert hall). The festival runs through this coming Sunday afternoon and is celebrating both its 25th anniversary and the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach. Here is a link to a review written for the Classically Speaking blog of Madison Magazine by Greg Hettmansberger, along with two preview stories from this blog:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/August-2014/The-25th-Token-Creek-Chamber-Music-Festival-Happy-Anniversary-From-Start-To-Finish/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/classical-music-the-token-creek-chamber-music-festival-starts-saturday-it-celebrates-25-years-with-observing-the-300th-anniversary-of-c-p-e-bach-and-by-offering-a-wide-rage-of-works-and-composers-t/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/08/21/classical-music-violinist-rose-mary-harbison-talks-about-the-25th-anniversary-of-the-upcoming-token-creek-chamber-music-festival-while-composer-john-harbison-discusses-c-p-e-bach-whose-300th-anniv/

TokenCreekbarn interior

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Friday was one of those nights, one of those increasingly frequent “train wrecks,” as The Wise Critic likes to call them, when two or more worthy classical musical events conflict and compete.

The Ear could not be in two places at once.

The two concerts were given by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO), which was reviewed yesterday by John W. Barker.

At another venue, at exactly the same time, the new early music vocal group Voces Aestatis made its Madison debut.

To give you an idea of that performance, The Ear welcomes another new reviewer -– Ann Boyer, a retired medical research librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a longtime member of the UW-Madison Choral Union.

Here is her review debut for The Well-Tempered Ear:

Ann Boyer

By Ann Boyer

The new Renaissance Choral group Voces Aestatis (Latin for Summer Voices) — all 13 of them, including director Ben Luedcke — delighted the 200 or so listeners who filled St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, on Regent Street, last Friday night. (Below is a photo of the choral group, minus Jerry Hui, the composer, singer and teacher who did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.)

Voces aestratis 1

They had rehearsed four times, we learned, but had been instructed to come prepared. They were professionals, and it showed.

Songs were arranged in thematic pairs or threes, the sacred songs reflecting such themes as the imperfection of humankind, the birth of Jesus (emphasizing Mary’s role), and the death of Jesus.

Composers included Michael Praetorius, De Victoria and Giovanni di Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons and Heinrich Schütz. A particularly beautiful song was one by Antonio Lotti (below)

Antonio Lotti

The second half of the program consisted of secular songs: the famous “Mille Regretz” (A Thousand Regrets) by Josquin des Prez (below and at bottom in a YouTube video performance by the famed Jordi Savall), sung sweetly and gently; the strange, expressionistic harmonies of Gesualdo and a work by Claudio Monteverdi with surprisingly erotic lyrics. A final pair of somber songs by Weelkes and Wilbye ended the program on a dark note, relieved by the encore: the chipper ”El Grillo” (The Grasshopper).

Josquin Des Prez

The group demonstrated fluidity of line, diction which varied from very clear to less so, good phrasing in particular songs, and good vocal blending. Towards the beginning the women’s voices seemed to dominate, but this corrected itself as the program continued.

The energy of director Ben Luedcke (below) – another UW-Madison graduate who was the music director of Lake Edge Lutheran Church and the founder-director of the Madison Summer Choir and who is completing a master’s degree at the University of Iowa — carried us all along.

Ben Luedcke conducts voces aestratis

We hope that the group will reassemble next summer.


Classical music: Early music is now mainstream here, thanks in large part to the Madison Bach Musicians, which opened its 10th anniversary season with a first-rate Baroque string program that drew a big and enthusiastic audience, and demonstrated the importance of live performance.

October 7, 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. 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

Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) opened their 2013-14 season — which marks the 10th anniversary of the local early music group — with a splendid concert of Baroque string music at the First Unitarian Society’s Atrium Auditorium on Saturday night and then repeated it again on Sunday afternoon at the Madison Christian Community Church on Old Sauk Road.

MBM 10th

I went to the Saturday night performance. As always, the proceedings were prefaced by a talk from founder, director and keyboardist Stephenson (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) in his usual witty and informative style.

MBM 10th pre-concert talk

The rich program proved to be a study in string sounds.  Joining harpsichordist Stephenson, along with cellist Anton TenWolde, were five guest players.

Marilyn McDonald (below) is something of the matriarch of Baroque violin playing and teaching, and two of the other players here have been her students: violinist Kangwon Kim and violist Nathan Giglierano. Two others were Brandi Berry and Mary Perkinson, both skilled players known here.

Marilyn McDonald baroque violin

The program was, to a considerable extent a constant switching of these talented violinists.  A Concerto for Four Violins without Bass was one of those endlessly fascinating experiments by Georg Philipp Telemann, complete with a finale of fanfares.

Two chamber works by George Frideric Handel (below top) graced separate parts of the program.  A Sonata for Violin and Continuo featured the amazingly deft McDonald, with the continuo pair.  And a Trio Sonata, Op. 2, No. 9, joined her with the spirited Kim.  A Sonata for Two Violins by Jean-Marie Leclair (below, bottom) brought together Berry and Kim.

Handel etching

Jean-Marie Leclair

The first half concluded with a revitalized warhorse: the notorious Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel, reclaimed from all its stupid arrangements, and restored as a contrapuntal delight for three violins with continuo, as well as reunited with its brief concluding Gigue.  Perkinson joined McDonald and Berry for this.

johann pachelbel

Here, I must say, I found another example of how attending a live performance makes all the difference.  Watching the players in person, I could follow how leading lines were transferred in turn, canonically, from one violin to another, with a clarity that no recorded performance could allow.

MBM 10th 3 before Handel

In the second half, after Handel’s Trio Sonata, Stephenson himself played on the harpsichord the final Contrapunctus or fugue from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “The Art of Fugue.”  Along the way in this, Bach (below) introduced the motto of his own name, made up of the German musical notes of B, A, C, B-flat (“H” in German notation).  And then the piece trails off abruptly where, story has it, Bach dropped his pen forever.

Bach1

The grand finale was a truly exhilarating performance of the Concerto in A minor for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo, No. 8 by Antonio Vivaldi (below and in a popular YouTube video with over 3 million hits at the bottom) and included in his Op. 3 publication.  (Bach himself so admired this work that he made a keyboard concerto transcription of it.)

vivaldi

Here again, too, I had one of those moments of insight that live performances alone can give.

The players were arrayed, one to a part, with the cello by its harpsichord continuo partner on the far left, the strings then spread out towards the right. The violist Giglierano, in his only appearance, was furthest on the edge.

That isolation from the cello–which really belongs to the continuo, not to the string band–was telling, for it enabled me to appreciate how Vivaldi used the viola as the lowest voice in what is really three-part string writing.  This was notably obvious in the middle movement, which was written almost entirely senza basso (without bass).  Again, such awareness can come only from a live performance, rather than a recorded one.

It goes without saying that all the performers played with the highest level of skill and stylistic sense, joined with infectious enthusiasm.

MBM concerts used to be held in the lovely intimacy of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below top) on Regent Street.  Now, they can virtually fill the First Unitarian Society’s Atrium (below bottom), in a photo by Zane Williams) with an audience close to 200 –and a very enthusiastic bunch, at that.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Madison Front

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

Thirty years ago a concert like this would have been inconceivable.  The Madison public was just not as aware and as prepared and as receptive as it has come to be by now.  Stephenson and his colleagues in the Madison Bach Musicians are one of the major forces that have brought about that process.  How much we owe them!


Classical music: Critic John W. Barker says The Ancora String Quartet opens its new season with a joyous and revelatory exploration of string trios with winds.

September 15, 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, who also took the concert photos. 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 88.9 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 Ancora String Quartet (below) opened its 2013-14 season with a concert Friday night at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street.

Not only was the venue unusual for the group, but so too was its configuration. First violinist Leanne League has chosen to take a leave of absence from the group this season, reducing the ensemble to a trio — Robin Ryan, violin, Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola, and Benjamin Whitcomb, cello.

Ancora CR Barry Lewis

And so, a necessity became an opportunity, Whitcomb recruited some of his fellow faculty colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to help the Ancora players design of program of what we might call the string trio-plus-one.

As demonstrated in the concert, the trio-plus-one could represent a lot of literature. The most common plus-one has been the piano — in a genre developed in the late 18th-century and continuing virtually to the present, yielding a magnificent literature of “piano quartets” in their own terms.

But the plus-one with the string trio (below) could be other instruments, notably winds, and a considerable literature for such combinations was developed at the same time, though its popularity diminished through the 19th-century.

Thus, this program offered three “quartets” in which the added instrument was, successively a clarinet, a flute and a bassoon.

string trio  violin, viola and cello

Given the comparatively stronger projection of each of these instruments, the texture tended to become that of a kind of concerto, with the three string instruments turning into a kind of mini-orchestra in support of the prominent “soloistic” writing for the plus-one.

Works of this kind were not concert pieces, in our terms, but were written and published in considerable quantities, for use in cultivated household parlors or elite salons. They were played by musicians who ranged from skilled amateurs to accomplished professionals. The works were not idle fluff, either, but ones carefully crafted and often posing considerable technical challenges.

That was clear in the opening work, one of particular substance, a Quartet in C major for Clarinet and Strings by Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847). Baermann  (below) was perhaps the most admired and influential clarinet virtuoso between Mozart’s buddy, Anton Stadler, and the admired friend of Brahms, Richard Mühlfeld. Baermann was a friend of Carl Maria von Weber, who wrote concertos and chamber music for him, much influenced by the player’s style and skills.

Heinrich Baermann

The writing for the clarinet here is full equally of virtuosic and lyric demands, which were met beautifully by clarinetist Christian Ellenwood.

Ancora Quartet with clarinetist Christian Ellenwood CR John W, Barker - Version 2

Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831, below top) was a student of Franz Joseph Haydn, and for a while his rival. His name is forever linked with the makers of fine pianos, which members of his family became, while he was also active as a music publisher.

Ignaz Joseph Pleyel

Pleyel wrote large amounts of chamber music, and his Quartet in A major for Flute and Strings is a piece of charm and vivacity. Flutist Robin Fellows (below bottom) was the deft soloist in this.

Ancora Quartet with flutist Robin Fellows CR John W. Barker

Franz Danzi (1763-1826, below), an almost exact contemporary of Beethoven, was a prolific composer in just about every form and idiom, though he is particularly remembered as one of the pioneering composers of wind quintets.

Franz Danzi

But Danzi enjoyed selective advancing of individual wind instruments, as exemplified in the final item on the program, his Quartet in B-flat major for Bassoon and Strings. (The first movement is in a YouTube video at the bottom.) This was the only four-movement work on the menu, one full of good tunes and amiable spirit. Its bubbling humor was brought out by Carol Rosing (below), but the writing for the violin also gave Robin Ryan chances to show off as a friendly partner/competitor.

Ancora Quartet with bassoonist Carol Rosing CR John W. Barker

This entire program, attended by over 100 people, was an absolute joy to hear, and surely a revelation to many about how much unjustly neglected music there is for this “quartet” of string trio-plus-one.

The season ahead offers a wonderful chance for the Ancora players to explore such literature further.


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