The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: What music would you choose to honor Notre Dame de Paris and the loss from the fire that engulfed the historic cathedral on Monday

April 16, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

You’ve seen the heart-rending photos of the raging flames, the collapsed spire and the billowing smoke.

We have yet to learn a lot of details about the interior of the historic cathedral Notre Dame de Paris (below in a photo by Agence France-Presse and Getty Images) and how it fared.

But surely music is a fine way to honor such a world treasure.

Like many of you, The Ear has been to Notre Dame in Paris, several times in fact, both inside and outside. I have seen it and heard it.

While we wait for more news of what survived and what didn’t, here is a moving YouTube video of people in the cathedral listening to an improvisation on the mighty organ that is joined by singers.

One wonders: Did the organ survive? Is it usable?

When will services resume?

When will music once again shake the monumental interior?

Please leave a comment about what music you would play to honor Notre Dame de Paris. It doesn’t have to be French or religious – just suitable to the occasion.


Classical music: On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, the Madison Bach Musicians explore the miracle of Mozart across his lifetime and across different genres

April 1, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians concludes its 15th season on this coming Saturday night, April 6, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 7, at 3:30 p.m. with  The Mozart Miracle .

The program features performances of beloved music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, below) with an all period-instrument chamber orchestra in the magnificent acoustic setting of the First Congregational United Church of Christ (below), 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

Period-instrument specialists hailing from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Omaha, Seattle, Philadelphia and New York City will perform on natural or valveless horns, classical oboes, gut-strung violins, violas, cellos and a double bass played with 18th-century transitional bows.

Early music specialist and bassoon professor Marc Vallon (below to, in a photo by James Gill) of UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music will lead the orchestra (below bottom, in a performance last year at the First Unitarian Society of Madison).

Internationally acclaimed soprano Ariadne Lih (below), from Montreal, Canada, will join the ensemble for  Exsultate Jubilate — a ringing example of how Mozart could seamlessly fuse religious zeal with vocal pyrotechnics. (You can hear Renée Fleming sing “Exsultate Jubilate” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program also features dance sequences, choreographed by Karen McShane Hellenbrand (below) of the UW-Madison, from Mozart’s ballet Les Petits Riens  (The Little Nothings).

Also included are pre-concert lectures: On Saturday, April 6, at 7:15 p.m.  there is a lecture by MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson with an 8 p.m. concert . On Sunday, April 7, his lecture is at 2:45 p.m.  with the concert at 3:30 p.m.

Advance-sale discounted  tickets are $35 for general admission.

Tickets are available at  Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (East and West). You can also buy advance tickets online at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are:  $38 general for adults, $35 for seniors 65-plus, and student rush for $10, on sale 30 minutes before lecture.

MBM artistic director Stephenson (below) sent the following remarks to The Ear:

Here are two fantastic quotations about Mozart:

“Together with the puzzle he gives you the solution.” Ferrucio Busoni on Mozart

“It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together as a family, they play Mozart…” Karl Barth

Both quotes underline, I believe, Mozart’s charismatic generosity of spirit, his sense of play and camaraderie. We’re all in this together! Mozart’s music is a perfect fusion of melodic inspiration — tunes so good they can stay in your head for joyous weeks at a time, or even a lifetime — and structural clarity.

His sense of proportion — when to display 18th-century balance and when to step outside the frame — is uncanny and always a delight. And for me, as a five-year-old-boy, dancing about the living room to the old LP vinyl — dancing lightly, though, so the record wouldn’t skip — it was Mozart’s boundless energy and joy, pouring out of the speakers, that really revved me up.

The Madison Bach Musicians program on this coming Saturday and Sunday will explore several sides of Mozart’s genius: master orchestrator and symphonist; aficionado of fugues; virtuoso keyboard player and mesmerizing improviser; ballet composer; and the greatest fashioner of material for the soprano voice.

MBM has assembled a Classical-period chamber orchestra, replete with gut strings and transitional bows, natural horns, and classical oboes. To this we’ll add: a fortepiano — the type of instrument Mozart toured with; an elegant dancer — for dance was an integral part of 18th-century living; and a magnificent soprano — Mozart was virtually besotted with the magic of the high female voice, and he wrote for it throughout his life with imagination and a sense of thrilling experiment that has never been equaled before or since.

Here is a bit about each selection:

Symphony No. 1 in E-flat majorComposed 1764 when Mozart was just eight years old (below), during an extended stay in London with his father Leopold and sister Nannerl. Strongly influenced by the symphonies of C. F. Abel and J. C. Bach (The London Bach, youngest son of Johann Sebastian).

Symphony No. 29 in A majorComposed 1774 when Mozart was 18 years old (below). It is often considered the pinnacle of his early symphonic writing.

Exsultate Jubilate  for soprano and orchestra – Written 1773 in Milan for the castrato, or male soprano, Venanzio Rauzzini, it is an elegant fusion of rapturous melodies and vocal display.

Adagio & Fugue  in C minor for strings – Composed in 1788, certainly the latest Mozart work on the program when the composer was 32. Mozart had by this time — largely through the Sunday soirees at Baron van Swieten’s—been studying Bach’s fugues closely for several years. This fugue is an arrangement of a work for two fortepianos, K. 426, which Mozart had composed five years earlier in 1783. Mozart added the opening Adagio for the strings version.

Fantasy in D minor for fortepiano – Mozart improvised frequently as part of both private and public performance. This Fantasy, with its dark distinctive opening which explores the fantastical low register of the fortepiano, may give us a good idea of what Mozart might have done one night just sitting down to “jam” for his friends.

Two French Songs for soprano and fortepiano — Birds follow the warm weather, so they never cease their courtship. And in the woods one day the protagonist foolishly rouses a sleeping Cupid — and pays a terrible price.

Ballet excerpts from  Les Petit Riens – literally The Little Nothings. Mozart composed most, but not all, of this ballet in Paris 1778 for Jean-Georges Noverre, ballet master of the Paris Opera. The work served as an interlude to an opera by Niccolo Piccinni that closed after just four performances.

For more information, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


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

March 31, 2018
5 Comments

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.


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: Madison Symphony Orchestra closes its season with the German Requiem by Brahms and the American premiere of Charles Villiers Stanford’s 1921 Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra

May 1, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger 

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), led by music director John DeMain, will close out its current season this coming weekend.

For the season-closing concert, soprano Devon Guthrie and bass-baritone Timothy Jones will make their MSO debuts when they join the orchestra for Brahms’ A German Requiem.

The concert will open with the American premiere of Charles Villier Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra featuring Nathan Laube (below top), who is returning to the MSO.

The finishing touch to the 2016-17 season happens in the second half of the concert, when more than 100 members of the Madison Symphony Chorus (below) take the stage with the orchestra and organ to perform Johannes BrahmsA German Requiem.

Featured vocal soloists in the Brahms German Requiem are soprano Devon Guthrie (below top) and bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below bottom), who is familiar from multiple appearances with the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

The concerts in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., are on this Friday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m.; this Saturday, May 6, at 8 p.m.; and this Sunday, May 7, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16-$87. For more information, go to: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/brahms

Charles Villiers Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra was completed on April 15, 1921. Stanford (below) is one of the leading figures in what is sometimes called the “Second English Musical Renaissance” — which was a movement in the late 19th century, led by British composers.

Stanford (below) believed in more conservative English contemporary music, rather than the music of Wagner, for example. He composed in all genres but had a great commitment to the organ.

His Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra was never performed or published during his lifetime. This is the piece’s debut performance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and the American premiere of the work.

Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem was completed between 1857 and 1868. The word “Requiem” is Latin for “rest” or “repose” and in the Catholic faith the Requiem is the funeral Mass or Mass of the Dead. (You can hear the opening movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

While usually filled with “terrifying visions of the Last Judgment and pleas for intercession on behalf of the souls of the dead and the living,” Brahms however puts death in a different light. He took sections of the Bible that are religious, but not necessarily Christian, and tells a story of salvation for all.

Although upon its completion, Brahms (below) called this piece, “Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der Heiligen Schrift” (which translates to; “A German Requiem, from Words of the Holy Scripture”), he was quoted saying that his piece should really be called “A ‘Human’ Requiem.” It is believed to be dedicated to Brahms’ mother, and his musical father and mentor, Robert Schumann.

One hour before each performance, Beverly Taylor (below), MSO assistant conductor and chorus director, as well as director of choral activities at the UW-Madison, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, visit the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/8.May17.html

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 May concerts is provided by: Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc., Larry and Jan Phelps, University Research Park, and BMO Wealth Management. Additional funding is provided by: WPS Health Solutions, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, and Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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