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.


Posted in Classical music
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