The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir celebrates 20 years with a retrospective concert and alumni singers this Saturday night

April 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a retrospective concert that includes alumni.

The performance is at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program features favorite works from the choir’s history.

Founding conductor Gary McKercher (below top) will join current artistic director Robert Gehrenbeck (below bottom) – who directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — to lead the choir in this special performance.

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Familiar composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Franz Joseph Haydn share billing with Jean Belmont Ford (below), whose Sand County, a setting of Aldo Leopold’s words, will be performed.

Also on the program are a set of pieces by Howard Helvey (below top) that the WCC commissioned in 2002, and the U.S. premiere of Utyos by longtime WCC member Albrecht Gaub (below bottom).

Alumni of the choir will participate as guest singers in the final two works on the program: Haydn’s humorous Eloquence; and Gregg Smith’s serene Now I Walk in Beauty, which is based on a Navajo prayer and can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom. 

Immediately following the performance, audience members are invited to join the singers for cake and refreshments to celebrate this milestone in the history of one of Madison’s premiere music ensembles.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres of commissioned works.

Artistic director Gehrenbeck has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Advance tickets for the April 13 performance at are available for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets.

Tickets are also available in Madison from Orange Tree Imports, all three Willy Street Co-op locations, and from members of the choir. Tickets at the door will be available for $20 for adults and $10 for students.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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 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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” this Friday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater

December 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about performances this coming weekend by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) and the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra of what is, unfortunately and undeservedly, often considered, when compared to Handel’s “Messiah,”  “The Other Oratorio” for the holiday season:

There will be two performances of four parts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (1734). On Friday night, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave., in Madison; and on Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater, 930 Main Street, in Whitewater.

Advance tickets for the Friday night performance at Luther Memorial Church in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports (Madison) and Willy Street Coop (all three locations in Madison and Middleton).

Advance tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets

Of the six cantatas that make up the “Christmas Oratorio,” Part, 1, 2, 3 and 5 will be performed. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the brisk and energetic opening, performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.)

Parts 1 to 3 tell the Christmas story: Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and the angels. Part 5 introduces the magi from the East, traditionally known as the Three Kings.

The music offers a sampling of every style of music in the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) as a composer.

Massive, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares, booming timpani and virtuosic fugues highlight the full chorus.

Solo arias, duets and trios and even one instrumental movement provide a contemplative contrast with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes and the pastoral sounds of oboes and bassoons.

Featured vocal soloists include mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below top) and tenor J. Adam Shelton (below middle), both on the faculty of UW-Whitewater. Highly accomplished members of the choir, including baritone Bill Rosholt (below bottom, and a Madison Savoyards regular), will share the solo parts with these professionals.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra, under concertmaster Leanne League (below), are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Trumpet virtuoso John Aley (below top) and oboist Marc Fink (below bottom) will also perform.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios, a cappella choral works from various centuries, and world premieres.

Bach’s music has always occupied a special place in the choir’s repertory, with performances of the Christmas Oratorio (2002 and 2003), the Mass in B minor (2005), the St. John Passion (2010) and the Magnificat (2017).

Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below) has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will sing a varied holiday program about peace on Earth this coming Saturday night

December 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will sing its holiday concert featuring works about peace on Earth.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium, (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The holiday message of peace and good will to all people resonates across the centuries. Tragically, the proclamation, “Peace on earth” is every bit as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.

WCC director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who directs the choral program at the UW-Whitewater and who is celebrating his 10th season with the group, writes in his program notes to the concert:

“According to New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges, “Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” “This evening’s program by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir explores humanity’s yearning for peace through the centuries. 

The centerpiece of the WCC’s 2017 holiday concert is British composer Gerald Finzi’s exquisite retelling of the Christmas story, In terra pax, for choir, soloists and chamber orchestra. Baritone Brian Leeper (below top) and soprano Ann Baltes (below bottom) are among the featured soloists, performing with members of Sinfonia Sacra, the WCC’s professional orchestra.

In his own program notes, Finzi explained that the Nativity “becomes a vision seen by a wanderer on a dark and frosty Chrismas Eve, in our own familiar landscape.”

Finzi scholar Andrew Burn elaborates: “On New Year’s Eve, 1926, the 25-year old Gerald Finzi (below) joined the bell-ringers of the tiny church of St. Bartholomew perched on the crest of Chosen Hill, near Gloucester, as they rang in the New Year. For Finzi, the experience was unforgettable—the frosty starlit night with bells ringing out from churches far and near across the Severn valley—and from it sprang the orchestral New Year Music and [25 years later] In terra pax, his last major composition.

In terra pax is a masterpiece in miniature. Finzi’s pacifism is at its heart, and his belief that men and women of goodwill should live harmoniously together. Weaving through the music are three ideas: the pealing of the bells with their joyous message, a phrase from the carol The First Nowell, and the alleluia refrain from the hymn Lasst uns erfreuen (‘Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones”).”  (You can hear the opening of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Complementing Finzi’s music are two other works with instrumental accompaniment: Felix Mendelssohn’s moving prayer for peace, Verleih uns Frieden, and an energetic Gloria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in A major.

Several more recent works bring the concert’s message up to date, including Cry Peace by Libby Larsen (below top) and the haunting Winter Solstice Carol by Giles Swayne (below bottom).

A varied selection of carol arrangements rounds out the program, including a resplendent setting of Silent Night by one of the WCC’s favorite composers, Peter Bloesch (below).

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres.

Advance tickets for the Dec. 16 performance are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (all three locations).

Tickets will also be available at the door for $25 ($10 for students).


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Magnificat” and other music by Handel and Schütz this Friday night and Sunday afternoon in Madison and Whitewater

April 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat with full orchestra and additional works by Bach, George Frideric Handel and Heinrich Schütz on this coming Friday, April 28, at 7:30 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, in Madison.

There will be an additional concert on Sunday, April 30, at 2 p.m. at the Young Auditorium, UW-Whitewater, 930 West Main Street, in Whitewater.

 

The Baroque splendor of Bach’s Magnificat will be performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir with its professional orchestra, Sinfonia Sacra.

Featured soloists include trumpet virtuoso John Aley, oboist Marc Fink, violinist Leanne League, New York-based tenor (and former Madisonian) Alex Gmeinder (below top) and mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below bottom, in a photo by Michael Cooper.)

Sharing billing with the Bach is Handel’s impressive Utrecht Te Deum, which, like the Magnificat, exalts in the colors of voices, trumpets, timpani, oboes, flutes and strings.

Rounding out the program are Bach’s double-choir motet, Fürchte dich nicht (Be Not Afraid), and a work by Bach’s great predecessor Heinrich Schütz: Nun danket alle Gott (Now Thank We All Our God).

Inspired by Mary’s song of praise from the Gospel of Luke (depicted below), the Magnificat is one of Bach’s most glorious and varied pieces. Its music offers a sampling of every style of music in Bach’s repertoire as a composer.

Imposing, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares highlight the full chorus, whereas solo arias, duets and trios deepen the mood of the text in counterpoint with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes to the dolorous oboe d’amore. (You can hear the “Magnificat” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In the solo movements the professional singers share the stage with highly accomplished members of the choir including Christopher Eggers and Nicole McCarty; Madison Savoyards regulars Bill Rosholt and Natalie Falconer; and many others.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres. Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who directs choral activities at the UW-Whitewater, has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Advance tickets for the April 28 performance at Luther Memorial Church in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (all three locations).

Advance tickets for the April 30 performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs a varied holiday concert of all-classical music this Saturday night

December 15, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following notice to post:

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will perform “O Wondrous Mystery” this coming Saturday night, Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in the Bethel Lutheran Church, 312 Wisconsin Ave., in Madison.

Tickets are $15 (for students, $10) in advance; $20 ($12) at the door. Advance tickets are available from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (East, West and North locations).

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Magnificats 1

Explore the magic and mystery of the holiday season with the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, whose program highlights the beloved Latin chant ”O magnum mysterium” in musical settings by Tomas Luís de Victoria and Francis Poulenc. (You can hear Poulenc’s setting, conducted by the legendary Robert Shaw, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Rounding out the performance are the remainder of Poulenc’s Four Christmas Motets along with seasonal works spanning five centuries by William Byrd, Heinrich Schütz, Johannes Brahms, Herbert Howells and Bob Chilcott, plus the world premiere of “Methinks I See a Heavenly Host” by Peter Bloesch (below).

Peter Bloesch

The 50-voice choir will be joined by organist Mark Brampton Smith (below top) of Grace Episcopal Church, and Madison Symphony Orchestra trombonist and program annotator J. Michael Allsen (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), who will accompany the Schütz selections on the sackbut, the Renaissance ancestor of the trombone.

Mark Brampton Smith

J. Michael Allsen Katrin Talbot

Founded in 1998, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart, and Brahms; a cappella masterworks from six centuries; and world premieres.

Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who heads the choral program at the UW-Whitewater, is the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s artistic director.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE


Classical music: John W. Barker finds the Wisconsin Chamber Choir “moving” and “overwhelming” in its performance of the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms.

April 21, 2015
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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 for 12 years hosted 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. He also provided the performance photos for this review.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

Having already established an enviable level of achievement with his Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below), conductor Robert Gehrenbeck led it to new heights with the concert on Saturday night at Luther Memorial Church.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir with conductor Brahms 2015 JWB

The program opened with two examples of Gehrenbeck’s interest in promoting new choral works through commissions.

The first, sung by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chamber Singers at his academic base, was by American composer Christian Ellenwood (below).

Entitled “Prairie Spring,” it set a poem by Willa Cather, celebrating the Nebraska landscape, scored for choir and string orchestra. This is a gentle piece, full of lyric grace, in a neo-Romantic style, and reflecting a confident command of choral texture. It made me think a little of the music of British composer Gerald Finzi. The words were somewhat obscured, but that may partly have been a function of the church’s spacious acoustics.

Christian Ellenwood copy

The second new work was by the older British composer Giles Swayne (below) that sets selected lines from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, under the title of “Our Orphan Souls.” Solo baritone Gregory Berg (below) delivered reflections of Captain Ahab, with chorus, alto saxophone, harp, double bass and percussion.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Ahab JWB (1)

The solo writing has strength, and might have been built into a more extended soliloquy—and baritone Gregory Berg delivered it with strength. But the choral writing — sung by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir itself — was unsettled and unidiomatic, running from word to word without much continuity of lines.

Giles Swayne

Ah, but the main event! Nothing less than the “German” Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), one of the greatest of choral works, by one of the greatest of choral composers, Johannes Brahms (below). Setting passages from Scripture in the Martin Luther translation, Brahms made this a big work, both in length and in performing demands.

brahms3

The chancel of Luther Memorial has only so much space, forcing a lot of crowding. The orchestra—37 players, familiar local performers—was arrayed through the center, while the two blended choirs were stationed on risers to either side: sopranos and tenors on the left, altos and basses on the right (below).

Wisconsin Chamber Choir, Brahms altos, basses JWB (1)

Such an arrangement could have strained ensemble coordination, but in fact it worked quite well. Indeed, it actually made it possible to follow the interaction of voice parts better than when the whole choir is in a single clump. German diction was a bit blurred, but, again, acoustics must take some blame. (I should note that I sat close and up front, so that what and how I heard may have been somewhat different from those in seating further back.)

The two soloists were both engaging. A last-minute replacement, soprano Catherine Henry (below left), was deeply expressive, a rich-voiced exemplar of the comforting mother we would all want to have.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Catherine Henry soprano JWB (1)

The baritone, Brian Leaper, was a deft guide to the mysteries of mortality.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Brian Leaper JWB (1)

The orchestra took on its large assignment with skill, and the choral singers were simply magnificent. But the highest praise must go to Gehrenbeck himself. His tempos were flexible, his balances neatly coordinated, and his sense of what each of the seven movements had to say was perfect. This is not only a superb choral conductor, but a musician of true artistry.

I write as someone for whom the Brahms Requiem has profound meaning. I have known and loved it since student days. I have sung in it several times, and listened to it in many recordings and performances. It is one of the musical threads of my life.

But I think I can honestly say that this was the most meaningful performance of the work that I have ever experienced. I often felt moved to tears by the beautiful, truthful messages that Robert Gehrenbeck (below) — who heads the choral program at UW-Whitewater — brought to realization out of it.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

There is a small lifetime list I keep of concerts and performances that I forever cherish, and this one is a rare addition—a presentation I will remember for the rest of my days.

One more reminder, then, of the riches Madison offers in choral music alone!


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir turns in an outstanding performance of music by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and his musical “friends.” But the fine singing deserved an orchestra, not just organ and violin, for the famous Serenade to Music.

June 3, 2014
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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

Robert Gehrenbeck and his Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave an entirely English choral program as the conclusion of their season on last Saturday night.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir with Gehrenbeck RWV

And, despite the heat, and the frightfully uncomfortable pews of Grace Episcopal Church on the Square — not to mention the competition of the Con Vivo chamber music concert — a considerable audience turned out to hear it.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir RVW audience

The program took as its theme “Ralph Vaughan Williams (below, 1872-1858) and Friends,” highlighting the work of one of the most important composers of the 20th century, but one whose music still has not been taken up sufficiently in our country. (When was the last time you heard one of the great nine symphonies of “VW” played by an American orchestra?)

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

The beginning of the program was rightly dominated by Vaughan Williams. After an elaborate Psalm setting, titled “A Choral Flourish,” a Latin motet by Thomas Tallis (below, ca.1505-1585) provided context for VW’s great a cappella Mass in G Minor—though, alas, only its first two movements. Like the composer’s famous Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, the writing cleverly opposes soloists, and small and larger groupings against each other. (I note for the record that there were a few moments of intonation problems.)

Thomas Tallis

Next came an English hymn by Imogen Holst (below top, 1907-1984), daughter of VW’s dear friend and colleague, Gustav Holst, and an anthem from an Anglican service by Herbert Howells (below bottom, 1892-1983), one of VW’s devoted disciples.

Imogen Holst

herbert howells autograph

The “Psalm tune” by Thomas Tallis (if with a modernized English text imposed) was a noteworthy gem, familiar, of course, as the subject for VW’s Tallis Fantasia, already mentioned, followed naturally by another of VW’s elaborate settings of Psalm 90, “Lord, Thou has been our refuge”—again, a piece that juxtaposed a small group (vocal quartet, below) against a larger (full choir).

Wisconsin Chamber Choir RVW 4 solists

Following the intermission, three of VW’s arrangements of examples from his favorite source, English folksongs, these about sailors.

There followed the one serious mistake of the program: VW’s Serenade to Music. This is a lovely setting of Shakespeare’s wonderful tribute to music in lines from Act V of The Merchant of Venice. It was composed in 1938 to honor conductor Sir Henry Wood and his orchestra, featuring 16 singers with whom he had worked. VW allowed the 16 solo lines to be adapted for full chorus, and Gehrenbeck’s compromise was to have 13 singers in the choir sing specifically solo lines, while their joint parts were taken by the full choir.

shakespeare BW

It was a shaky compromise, hindered by the fact that some of the choir soloists were not quite equal to their assigned solos. Most disastrous of all, however, was the substitution for the orchestral role of a solo violin and organ.

Violinist Leanne League (below top), who plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, fiddled very beautifully, and organist Mark Brampton Smith (below bottom) played well. But violin and organ do not an orchestra make. This piece just should not have been attempted this way in this program. (You can hear an orchestral version of The Serenade to Music, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult,  at the bottom in a YouTube video. Be sure to read the listener comment about the Serenade to Music reduced Sergei Rachmaninoff to tears.)

Wisconsin Chamber Choir RVW Leanne League

Mark Brampton Smith

Two short and supposedly humorous pieces about animals, composed by Elizabeth Maconchy (below, 1907-1994) were awfully trivial: I would gladly have sacrificed them for the rest of the Vaugah Williams’ Mass in G Minor.

elizabeth maconchy

Finally, to restore some balance, there were three folksong arrangements by Gustav Holst (below, 1874-1934) himself—the last of them, the “Blacksmith’s Song,” familiar to many in its alternate treatment as a movement in Holst’s Suite No. 2 for Band.

Gustav Holst

One thing that concerned me throughout was the question of section organization. Up to Imogen Holst’s piece, the chorus was grouped by voice parts. But thereafter the singers were repeatedly scrambled, breaking down such part groupings. This is a practice now favored by many choral directors, who will use the argument, among others, that such scrambling furthers blending.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir RVW mixed up

But blending can be achieved at the price of structural clarity. In much of the program’s music there was a great deal of unison writing, or very simple chordal writing, and the strength derived from the blending was truly powerful.

But in other cases, the interaction of parts was muddled. The prime example was the sturdy Tallis Psalm: its “tune” is in the tenor part, which should have had a united prominence but was instead dispersed and diluted.

I have raised this issue before, and I will continue to do so, no doubt to much scoffing.

That issue aside, the program demonstrated the wonderful choral sound that Gehrenbeck (below) has developed with these 33 singers. They sing their hearts out for him, but in suavely balanced ensemble that is a joy to hear.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

It is clear by now that Gehrenbeck, who directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, has set a new standard for choral singing in Madison, and has a lot to offer us in times ahead.

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