The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, with guest soloists, offered a welcome trio of rarely heard works.

November 29, 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 for 20 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Well, last weekend was another train-wreck weekend with too many good things in competition with each other: pianist Valentina Lisitsa at the Wisconsin Union Theater (Thursday, Nov. 20), the Madison Opera’s Fidelio at the Overture Center (Friday, Nov. 21, and Sunday, Nov. 23), the UW-Madison Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra (Saturday, Nov. 22, and Sunday, Nov. 23), and the intimate Solo Dei Gloria concert at Luther Memorial Church (Saturday, Nov. 22). I won’t mention the basketball game, as well.

I was able to revel in Beethoven’s Fidelio on Friday evening, enjoy the SDGers on Saturday, and catch the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra (below) on Sunday evening. And a rewarding finale that was.

UW Choral Union and Symphony Nov. 2014

Conductor and director Beverly Taylor (below) wisely avoided any seasonal associations and gave us the chance to hear music that we are rarely likely to hear otherwise.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

There were three pieces.

The “filler” in the middle was a lushly exotic curiosity by Ralph Vaughan Williams (below), his Flos campi (or “floss campy,” as a Wisconsin Public Radio announcer identified it) — “Flower of the Field,” inspired by lines from the Biblical Song of Songs, and scored for the unusual combination of solo viola, wordless chorus and orchestra.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

It is a rhapsodic affair, in six interconnected sections, exploring the sonorities and novel colors that his scoring allows. While it evokes a perfumed “eastern” ambiance, much of its musical character really derives from the composer’s steeping in folksong and folk spirit.

The chorus’s size gave its sound a good carrying power, helping the wordless ah-ing and humming to come through well against the orchestra, while viola soloist Sally Chisholm (below), a UW-Madison professor who also plays in the Pro Arte Quartet, made a beautifully ecstatic web of sound that only the viola can really achieve. When have you last heard such a dreamy novelty, and when again are you likely to?

UW Choral Union Sally Chisholm

On other side of that music came two different settings of the familiar Latin canticle, Te Deum laudamus, by two different composers. This all-purpose liturgical text has been set many, many times by a procession of composers over the centuries, but it would be difficult to imagine two more utterly contrasting treatments than the ones we heard.

The better known (or less unknown) one of the two was that by opera composer Giuseppe Verdi (below), among his very last compositions and now reckoned as the fourth of his Quattro pezzi sacri or “Four Sacred Pieces.”

Verdi 2

It is in a style familiar from his only other important setting of Latin liturgical texts, his Requiem. It is straightforward but noble, monumental and powerful music, and it was brought off with eloquence. (You can heard it, accompanied by the art of Michelangelo in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

That was the closing work.

The opening one was the other Te Deum. Antonin Dvorák (below), though a devout Roman Catholic, composed very little sacred music in Latin. Setting aside a purely functional Mass setting, his only familiar and recognized examples are his Stabat mater and his Requiem. Both of those are deeply felt, but are grandiose concert works.

dvorak

The only other such work is his setting of the Te Deum, cruelly neglected and unappreciated. It was composed in 1892 as a debut work for Dvorák’s new residence in New York City, and was intended as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

Against Verdi’s solemnity, Dvorák’s setting is festive. It is patterned along the lines of the traditional four-movement symphony, with a “slow movement” of folksong-like lyricism and a passionate “scherzo,” framed by flanking outpourings of extraordinary exuberance — all in unbroken succession.

For anyone who loves the music of this composer — as I do — or who is still discovering it, this work is an exciting revelation.

There were solo passages in the two Te Deums, beautifully sung by undergraduate soprano Emi Chen (below right) and graduate student baritone Joel Rathmann (below left).

Choral Union Joel Rathmann, Emi Chen

The UW Choral Union itself, 123 singers strong, sang with appropriate sonority. There were some rough spots in the opening of the Dvorák, with its off-putting rhythmic eccentricities, but the UW Symphony Orchestra played quite well otherwise — even if it sometimes was allowed to overshadow the other participants.

In sum, this proved an evening of truly refreshing choral experience, and another tribute to Beverly Taylor’s enterprise.


Classical music Q&A: Gabriel Faure’s music is hard to perform and very underrated, says First Unitarian Society of Madison music director Dan Broner who will conduct two FREE performances of Faure’s sublime Requiem this coming Palm Sunday.

April 8, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday, April 13, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. the First Unitarian Society of Madison will offer one of its All-Music Sundays.

This time, the event – open to the public and not just FUS members — features two FREE performances on the lovely and consoling Requiem by Gabriel Faure at the historic meeting-house, (below)  designed like a plow tilling the soil by Frank Lloyd Wright, at 900 University Bay Drive.

FUS exterior BIG COLOR USE

To The Ear, it seems a perfect choice for the upcoming Easter season – Sunday is, after all, Palm Sunday.

To be sure, a lot of sublime choral music has been or will be performed here in a short time, including Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” and Mass in B Minor, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s storied Requiem and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s a cappella Vespers.

I gave a rundown in this earlier post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/classical-music-april-will-bring-lots-of-choral-music-by-bach-mozart-beethoven-faure-and-rachmaninoff-among/

But there is something special in the quietude of the Faure Requiem that seems to marry the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions in away that also allows secularists to enter into the music.

I asked FUS music director Dan Broner (below), who programmed and will conduct the Requiem, to talk about it and he agreed to do an email Q&A:

Dan Broner

Why did you choose to do the Requiem by Gabriel Faure?

Two years ago we did the Requiem by John Rutter. A singer at the time asked if we could do the Faure Requiem next and since I hadn’t conducted the entire work for some time, I thought it would be fun to do it again.

John Rutter (below) worked on a new edition of the Faure Requiem in the early 1980s, which inspired him to compose his own requiem. So I thought it would be fun for the Society Choir to sing it while the Rutter was still relatively fresh in their ears.

John Rutter 10

What do you think of Faure’s music in general and what do you especially like about it and what makes it appropriate for the Unitarians?

I think Faure’s music is underrated. He was comparatively prolific, having written over 100 songs, many piano solo works, and lots of wonderful chamber music. Yet he is best known for his Requiem and a few instrumental numbers (“Sicilienne,” “Pavane” and “Elegie”).

I think it may be because he didn’t write many large-scale works, and his piano solo repertoire is quite difficult technically. (Liszt pronounced it too difficult.)

Faure (below) was a terrific melodist on par with Schubert and Chopin and his life (1845-1924) spanned a period that began with the music of Chopin and Schumann and into the jazz era and the second Viennese school. An important educator, he taught many well-known composers including Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger.

Faure worked for the Roman Catholic Church, and properly wrote his Requiem in Latin. But he eschewed the usual “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) movement with its emphasis on judgment and damnation for a gentler spirit that focused instead on eternal rest. I think this plays well with Unitarian humanist leanings.

faure

How does it differ from other well-known Requiems?

In addition to the “Dies Irae,” Faure also doesn’t include the “Benedictus” portion of the “Sanctus.” And his “Agnus Dei” (heard at the bottom in a popular YouTube video) is in F major and is more lyrical than the typical big, minor key “Agnus Dei” movements of other Requiems.

Interesting is the similarities with the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms, written some 20 years earlier. Both are in seven movements and both use soprano and baritone soloists. I think it was Aaron Copland (below) who declared Faure “the Brahms of France.”

aaron copland

What else would you like to say or add about the work and the performances?

We will be using John Rutter’s chamber orchestration which lends itself for performing in a relatively small space: organ, harp, solo violin, divided violas and cellos, bass, two horns and timpani. The chorus will number a little over 60 singers. Soprano Heather Thorpe and baritone Bart Terrell are the soloists. And it will take place in the older Landmark Auditorium (below) because that’s where the organ is.

Dan Broner FUS

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