The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Easter is a perfect time to ask: How religious was Johann Sebastian Bach?

March 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday is Easter 2018.

It seems a perfect time ask: How religious was the great Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (below)?

It also seems a perfect time to listen to Bach.

After all, has any composer written more Easter music or greater Easter music than Bach did in his passions, oratorios and cantatas?

According to the new book “Bach and God” by Michael Marissen, Bach — who was composing prolifically in the early days of the Protestant Reformation and Lutheranism — was far more religious than many Bach specialists, especially modern ones, have believed.

Here is a long and highly informative book review from The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/arts/music/bach-religion-music.html

And while you are reading the book review, you can listen to Bach’s “Easter Oratorio,” BWV 249. Here it is in a YouTube video that features the Bach specialist and scholar John Eliot Gardiner conducting singers and instrumentals — for soloists plus the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists — in a wonderful period-instrument performance, with historically informed performance practices.

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Classical music: Today is both Good Friday and Passover. Here is music to mark both religious holidays

March 30, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Good Friday, 2018.

Today is Passover, 2018.

Today is both religious holidays.

So it is a good time to recall that the original Last Supper that led to Easter WAS a Seder where Jesus Christ and his Disciples celebrated Passover, as depicted in the famous Renaissance painting “The Last Supper” (below) by Leonard da Vinci.

So today The Ear offers Jewish music that is an homage to both Christianity and Judaism.

If you go to YouTube, you can find a lot of music celebrating each event from Johann Sebastian Bach, and before, to the notorious anti-Semite Richard Wagner.

But in the YouTube video at the bottom, The Ear is offering a moving performance of Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo: A Hebrew Rhapsody” as played by cellist Leonard Rose with the Cleveland Orchestra under conductor Lorin Maazel.

The mood of the music feels right for both Passover and Good Friday.

The Ear hopes you agree.


Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2018. Let us now praise musical couples and say what music we would play to celebrate romantic love

February 14, 2018
3 Comments

ALERT: If you are a fan of new music, you might not want to miss a FREE concert this Thursday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall by the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

The program of “Ideas and Landscapes,” assembled and directed by UW’s award-winning composer Laura Schwendinger, includes works by UW students and alumni as well as a world premiere of a work for solo oboe by Schwendinger herself.

For more details about the composers, the performers and the complete program, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/contemporary-chamber-ensemble/

By Jacob Stockinger

It is Valentine’s Day 2018, and music plays a big role in celebrating the holiday — as the portrait of Cupid (below) expresses.

This week, musician and teacher Miles Hoffman was featured by National Public Radio (NPR) on the program “Morning Edition” with a most appropriate story about famous musical couples who were also linked romantically.

The Ear was particularly pleased that a same-sex couple  – British composer Benjamin Britten (below left) and British tenor Peter Pears (below right) — was recognized during this time when the homophobic administration of President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence keeps attacking the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people under the guise of protecting and promoting religious tolerance. The leaders use the concept of religious freedom as camouflage for bigotry, zealotry and prejudice. 

But more conventional and traditional couples were also recognized, and deservedly so.

Here is a link to the story that also contains some wonderful musical samples:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/02/13/585121135/classical-musics-greatest-love-stories-on-and-offstage

And here is what The Ear wants to know:

First: Can you think of other musical couples – especially local ones — to single out for recognition on Valentine’s Day? The Karp family as well as pianists-singers Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer plus singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe, conductor Kyle Knox and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino and cellist Leonardo Altino all come immediately to mind. But surely there are others The Ear has overlooked.

Second: What piece of classical music would you listen to or play in order to express love for your Valentine?

Leave the names and information, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

Happy Valentine’s Day!!


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, WCO Chorus and the Festival Choir perform Handel’s “Messiah” this Friday night

December 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It was originally intended to be performed at Easter. But is there any piece of holiday music more reliable or more central to the Christmas repertoire than “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel (below bottom)?

It seems neither the performers nor the public ever tires of it. (You can hear the iconic “Hallelujah Chorus” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So this Friday night at 7:00 p.m. “Messiah” returns for its eighth year at Blackhawk Church (below) past Madison’s far west side and located in Middleton.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top), choirs and soloists will all perform under WCO maestro Andrew Sewell (below).

Returning will be last year’s vocal quartet with the combined WCO Chorus and Festival Choir of Madison (below) under directors Scott Foss and Edgewood College professor Sergei Pavlov.

Tickets are $27. The event usually sells out.

For more information about how to obtain tickets as well as photos and extensive background about the soloists, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah/


Classical music: Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble to bring ‘Music of the Reformation’ to four Wisconsin cities, including Madison, Oct. 27–29

October 24, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble (below) will perform a late-October series of FREE public concerts in four Wisconsin cities featuring music by composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and others in a centuries-spanning program titled “Music of the Reformation.”

Performances will take place Friday, Oct. 27, in Appleton; Saturday, Oct. 28, in Delafield and Watertown; and Sunday, Oct. 29, in Madison.

“The hour-long concert program commemorates the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation in Germany in 1517,” said Rodney Holmes, founder and artistic director of the Gargoyle ensemble. “Audiences will hear works embracing the most famous melodies written by Reformation leader Martin Luther (below), who was a composer as well as a religious figure.”

The program includes James Curnow’s contemporary “Rejouissance: Fantasia on ‘Ein feste Burg’ (A Mighty Fortress)” for organ; Heinrich Schütz’s “Three Becker Psalms,” Op. 5, a Baroque work for brass quartet; Bach’s Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” (“From Heaven above to Earth I come”), BWV 769, for organ; and Otto Nicolai’s early Romantic “Ecclesiastical Festival Overture on the chorale ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,’” Op. 31, arranged for brass and organ by Craig Garner.

Also on the program are: Max Reger’s late Romantic “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott,” Op. 27, for organ; Randall E. Faust’s contemporary “Fantasy” on the hymn “Von Himmel hoch,” for horn and organ; and Garner’s brass and organ arrangement, “Introduction and Finale,” from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, “Reformation,” Op. 107.

Performers will include Madison-based organist Jared Stellmacher (below), an award-winning musician heard on the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble’s critically acclaimed 2015 debut CD “Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies.” He holds a master’s degree in music from Yale University.

Gargoyle brass players will include trumpeters Lev Garbar and Andrew Hunter, horn player Kathryn Swope, trombonist Karen Mari, and artistic director Holmes on tuba.

CONCERT SCHEDULE

Here are the dates, times, and locations of the Gargoyle ensemble’s “Music of the Reformation” concerts, with local contact information. No tickets or reservations are required for these FREE events:

*Friday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m. at Zion Lutheran Church, 912 North Oneida Street, in Appleton, Wis., 54911. www.zionappleton.com/home

Contact: Matthew Walsh, 920-739-3104

*Saturday, Oct. 28, at 3 p.m. at Christ the King Lutheran Church, 1600 North Genesee Street, in Delafield, WI 53018

ctkdelafield.org

Contact: Mark Gould, 262-646-2343

*Saturday, Oct. 28, at 6:30 p.m. at Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, 204 North Tenth Street, Watertown, WI 53094

www.watertownimmanuel.org

Contact: Janis Shackley, 920-261-1663

*Sunday, Oct. 29, at 2 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 5701 Raymond Road, Madison, WI 53711

www.gslcwi.com

Contact: Jared Stellmacher, 608-271-6633

Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble

“The Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble plays with warmth, elegance, and panache,” said U.S. music magazine Fanfare in a review of the ensemble’s debut CD. “[They] are perfect companions for the music lover in need of calming nourishment.”

The group takes its whimsical name from the stone figures atop gothic buildings at the University of Chicago, where the now-professional ensemble got its start in 1992 as a brass quintet of faculty and students. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Under its founder and artistic director Rodney Holmes, it has evolved over the decades into an independent organization of classically trained musicians that focuses on commissioning and performing groundbreaking new works and arrangements for brass and pipe organ. You can find more information at gargoylebrass.com.


Classical music: The 18th annual Madison Early Music Festival concludes its look at the Spanish Renaissance with another outstanding “concept concert” featuring all participants

July 19, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Nobody here does “concept concerts” better than the Madison Early Music Festival.

Proof came again last Saturday night in Mills Hall when the large forces of professional faculty members and workshop student participants (both below) joined to present a comprehensive overview of Renaissance music in Spain.

The program featured various combinations, including a quartet (below) as well as choral music and instrumental music. It offered sacred and secular fare, courtly music and folk music, Latin and vernacular Spanish.

Once again, the impressive program was assembled and conducted by Grant Herreid (below top) of the internationally acclaimed Renaissance band Piffaro (below bottom), a popular and regular guest at MEMF. (You can hear Piffaro perform music from the Spanish Renaissance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As in past years, history, biography, literature, religion and music get layered on top of each other and interwoven among each other. As a formula, from year to year the concept keeps getting refined and keeps succeeding.

In this case, the narration and story line centered on the surprisingly adventurous life of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (below), who wrote the first important novel, “Don Quixote.”

Last year, the festival celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare; this year, it was the 400th anniversary of the death of Cervantes.

The Ear really likes the format. The All-Festival concert ran 75 minutes and was done without intermission. Even if you are not a big fan of such early music, the concert was varied enough and short enough to hold your attention.

Unity was provided by excerpts from various texts of Cervantes, including “Don Quixote” as well as less well-known works. Some of his words were even substituted for other texts in songs and choruses.

The chorus and soloists sounded very well rehearsed, and the large instrumental section – with all those unusual-looking early instruments like sackbuts and shawms – was exceptional.

Herreid kept an outstanding sonic balance between the vocal and instrumental forces throughout the event.

There were quite a few narrators (below) who presented the short texts by Cervantes. And they proved the only weak point. Some people just don’t seem as up to the task as others do.

Perhaps in future years, the festival could pick, say, one man and one woman to alternate in the readings. The audience would have a better sense of their identities, and the effect would be better if the narrators were chosen for their ability to project dramatically and enunciate clearly but with expression – something that proved uneven with so many different narrators taking turns.

The Ear didn’t go to a lot of the festival events. He confesses that he is more a Baroque than a Renaissance person who looks forward to next year’s theme of “A Journey to Lübeck,” with German Renaissance and even Baroque music, especially music by Dietrich Buxtehude. (The 19th annual festival will be held July 7-14, 2018.)

But this final wrap-up concert is proof that even if very early music is not your thing, you shouldn’t miss the final event.

The All-Festival concert really is a MUST-HEAR.

You learn a lot.

And you enjoy even more.

Certainly the audience seemed to agree.

Were you there?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This Friday night and Sunday afternoon, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs music composed by immigrants to the U.S.

April 14, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Robert Gehrenbeck (below), the talented and energetic director of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir who also directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, writes:

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will present “Songs In a New Land” on this Friday, April 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Bethel Lutheran Church, 312 Wisconsin Ave., in Madison and on Sunday, April 17 at 3 p.m. at Cargill United Methodist Church, 2000 Wesley Ave., in Janesville.

Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for students.

Advance tickets are available from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org. They are also available at the door.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir 1

The WCC’s concert will celebrate composers who were immigrants from the 15th century to the present, including emigres to the United States from China, Russia, Syria, Germany, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

At a time when immigration has become a burning issue in national politics, the WCC’s program highlights composers who emigrated from the country of their birth to make new homes elsewhere. They imported traditions from their homelands and enriched the cultural life of their adopted countries in innumerable ways.

Their reasons for leaving home were varied-some moved voluntarily but many were forced to emigrate for political, economic or religious reasons or, often, a combination of all of these.

While the experience of leaving behind all that is familiar and making a new life in a foreign country was rarely easy, the interaction of old and new influences resulted in some of the most lasting and unique artistic creations in history.

Most of the featured composers were or are immigrants to the United States, but the program opens with a set of Renaissance motets—“Stabat Mater” by Josquin des Prez (below top) and “Domine, Convertere” by Orlando di Lasso (below bottom) — demonstrating that migrant composers have played a major role throughout history.

Josquin Des Prez

Orlando Gibbons

Some of the more recent composers represented are: Kurt Weill, whose Kiddush was composed for Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City; Chen Yi (below top), represented by “A Set of Chinese Folksongs”; Osvaldo Golijov (below bottom), with an excerpt from his “Pasion segun San Marcos” (Passion According to St. Mark); and 20th-century giants Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.

Chen Yi

Osvaldo Golijov 2

Although Schoenberg and Stravinsky were known for their dissonant, modernist works, much of the music they composed in the U.S. was tempered by an effort to communicate with audiences here. During the 1940s, both men ended up settling in Hollywood, along with countless other exiled European artists fleeing totalitarian regimes and persecution at home.

In the case of Schoenberg (below), even though he is known as “the father of atonality,” and the originator of “12-tone” music, he continued to compose tonal music throughout his life, and often wrote in a more accessible style for amateur musicians. The WCC will present two such tonal works by Schoenberg: “Verbundenheit” (Solidarity) for male chorus, and the folksong arrangement, “Mein Herz in steten treuen” (My Heart, Forever Faithful).

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

In the American works of Stravinsky (below), the Credo movement of his 1947 Mass was subtly influenced by American Jazz.

Igor Stravinsky old 2

Joining the WCC will be Madison organist Mark Brampton Smith, who will accompany several pieces at the organ as well as perform solo organ works by Paul Hindemith and Joaquin Nin-Culmell (two additional mid-century immigrants to the U.S.).

Mark Brampton Smith

The movements from Stravinsky’s Mass will be performed with Brampton Smith at organ and guest trombonist Michael Dugan (below), who will also enhance Josquin des Prez’s “Stabat Mater” by playing sackbut, the Renaissance ancestor of the trombone.

Michael Dugan

Guest percussionist Stephen Cherek will enliven several of the Latin American selections, playing a variety of instruments.

Here are some YouTube links to sample performances:

Josquin des Prez, “Stabat Mater”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsayDDRl3kI

Orlando di Lasso, “Domine Convertere”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufP3S_M4mog

Kurt Weill, “Kiddush”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RI2jTYqso0

Chen Yi, “Mo Li Hwa” (“Jasmine Flower” from A Set of Chinese Folksongs)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtlsW2ZjSHA

Osvaldo Golijov, “Demos Gracias” (from La Pasion segun San Marcos)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vldVEk29s3Y

Arnold Schoenberg, “Verbundenheit” (from Six Pieces for Male Chorus)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPAeA3sIoc8

Arnold Schoenberg, “Mein Herz in steten Treuen”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPsE1LBMHrs&index=5&list=PLdXviD-nr2a7RIabEqL5XrXLi4G7V71tP

Igor Stravinsky, Credo (from Mass)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBpfSfq9v0A


Classical music: Conductor Andrew Sewell reveals how he keeps Handel’s “Messiah” fresh. He will perform it on Friday and Sunday nights with the Wisconsin Chamber orchestra, soloists, the WCO Chorus and the Festival Choir of Madison

December 7, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The weekend will see two seasonal performances of the iconic oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel.

Conductor Andrew Sewell – who will also be busy leading performances of the Madison Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” this weekend — will again lead the combined forces of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra along with the WCO Chorus and the Festival Choir of Madison.

WCO Messiah stage and banners

There will also be four guest soloists:

Soprano Sarah Lawrence:

Sarah Lawrence photo

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck:

Jamie Van Eyck photo 2015

Tenor Calland Metts:

Callend Metts photo

Returning bass Peter Van de Graaff, who is also the host of overnight music on Wisconsin Public Radio:

WCO Messiah bass Peter Van de Graaff

The two performances will be in different locations and have different ticket prices:

The first performance is this Friday night, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Blackhawk Church, at 9620 Brader Way, in Middleton.

The second performance is on this Sunday night, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m. at the Westbrook Church, at 1100 Highway 83, in Hartland, about an hour from Madison and near Milwaukee. It is about 1-2 hours from Madison.

For more information, here are two links:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/messiah-at-blackhawk-church/

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/messiah-at-westbrook-church-hartland-wi/

Andrew Sewell recently talked via email to The Ear about “Messiah”:

andrewsewell

What keeps “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel so perennially popular with the public, especially at holiday time? In your mind, does it have to do more with the music or the text? And is it as popular with the performers as with the audiences?

I think the meaning of the text, the recounting of the story of the life of Christ particularly in the first part, which is always recounted at Christmas, makes this work so enduring. It gives people pause to stop and think.

It has become a tradition, not unlike the Nine Lessons and Carols, although one can perform it at any time.

It is both the text and the genius of Handel to set the text so beautifully to music. Especially when you realize he was not a native English speaker, yet wrote it for an English-speaking audience.

Back in the day when I was a violinist, we would perform the full “Messiah” (all 3 hours and 15 minutes) twice on two successive days. Yes, it became hard work after a while, just the sheer physicality of holding your instrument up with very few breaks. However, the score never became old, and there is always something new to be found whether a different soloist, or the way the choir is prepared.

WCO Messiah Cover 2

How many times have you conducted “Messiah”? As a conductor, how do you keep it fresh for yourself and not boring or predictable? How do you find new things to say or new ways to say them?

Well this is our seventh season since performing it at Blackhawk Church, and before then we performed it twice a year for the “sing-out” Messiah from 2000 to 2008. I have conducted it also in Syracuse. So, I’ve conducted it probably around 30 times.

I think it’s the same with any piece of great music that is often repeated year after year: you find ways to keep it fresh. Perhaps you try new things — new articulations, different repeats, adding or subtracting movements, using different “cuts” since we have the challenge of bringing a 3 hour and 15 minute work in under 2-1/2 hours.

WCO Messiah full orchestra and two choirs

How have your conception of the work and your performances of it evolved over the years?

I have found that the tradition in the United States was different to the one I had been accustomed to in New Zealand. Again, I found that for the most part, for local performances of “Messiah,” church choir directors usually cut it down to be about 2 to 2-1/2 hours in length.

I had never heard of the Christmas portion or the Easter portion before moving to the United States. My experience had always been to play the work in its entirety — merely a different tradition.

Nowadays, I enjoy including as many choruses and arias as we have time for, that both challenge the chorus and make sense of the text in some chronological capacity. And of course, there are those arias you cannot omit -– “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” for instance.

WCO Messiah WCO Chorus and Festival Choir 1

What would you like the public to know about Handel and “Messiah” that they may not already know or need to be reminded of?

That it ostensibly started out life as a secular work in a secular environment; and that, over the years, it has become to be considered more as a sacred work and performed in a church. In either venue it is okay and a great masterpiece, whatever your religious or non-religious affiliations may be.

WCO Messiah taking bows

Is there something else you would like to say?

I think as you pay attention to the ebb and flow of the arias and choruses, they should tell a compelling story that reaches its climax in the most positive way. It is a story of great redemption for humanity and is what Handel achieves with his setting of “Worthy Is the Lamb” and the “Amen.” (You can hear the glorious “Amen” in the YouTube video below.)

 


Classical music: Four “passion” chorales by J.S. Bach are perfect music to mark Easter and Passover. What music would you choose?

April 5, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend both Easter and Passover are being celebrated.

Perhaps the earliest Easter music I heard was by Johann Sebastian Bach (below), the so-called “Passion Chorale” from the St. Matthew Passion.

Back then it seemed perfect music for the occasion.

It still does.

I suspect it always will.

It reaches into your heart and soul like no other music, even if you are not religious.

Bach1

It doesn’t matter whether it is the crucifixion of Jesus or the bondage of the Israelites under the Egyptians, the music suits the occasion of portraying the suffering some people inflict on other people.

That old music seems all the more timely, given the new religious conflicts and religion-based terrorism the world now confronts.

And now along comes a genius-like a cappella setting by Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe (below), who combines four different settings into a single work that is profoundly moving.

philippe herreweghe conbducting

Here it is, at the bottom in a YouTube video.

Listen for the glorious dissonances and the lovely part-singing.

Choral music just doesn’t get better, or more empathetic and compassionate.

Listen to it and tell me what you think.

Also tell us what music you prefer to mark this weekend’s spiritual and religious holidays.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy Easter and Happy Passover.


Classical music: Can religious music make you a believer? If so, one example would surely would be the moving Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that airs on Wisconsin Public Radio today at 9 a.m. CST and on Christmas Day at noon.

December 24, 2013
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

I suppose you can argue that it is not really classical music.

But no one can say that it isn’t classic music.

I am talking about the yearly broadcast of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College in the United Kingdom.

Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College

Music is so central to the service. And there are old standards as well as new commissions.

The Ear finds the whole production so moving that it would give make non-believers the desire to believe. After all, what is evoked and summoned are the ideals of compassion and redemption. And who can’t benefit from those values?

I also feel that same way about many of Johann Sebastian Bach‘s cantatas and passions and abut the requiems by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gabriel Faure. (Tell us what pieces make you feel that way in a COMMENT.)

Anyway, the festival service will be broadcast LIVE this morning at 9 a.m. CST on Wisconsin Public Radio (88.7 FM in the Madison area) with an encore production on Christmas Day at noon CST. (You could stream it also by going to wpr.org.)

But in case you miss it or can’t listen to it, here in a YouTube video is the always inspirational opening hymn — “Once in Royal David’s City” that features a solo boy d soprano singing out to the entire world — and procession from another year’s production, from 2010. The opening is just so poignant, so beautifully developed and expanded, and the service continue to live up to the high standards that have been established over many decades of the ceremony.

So for 2013, from The Ear to you, Merry Christmas Eve and Merry Christmas!


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