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: This Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) starts a week-long exploration of how the Lutheran Reformation and the invention of printing changed Western music 500 years ago. Part 1 of 2

July 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this Saturday and running through the following Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival will explore the profound effects that the Lutheran Reformation had on Renaissance and Baroque music of the time.

The festival, to be held at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, is called “A Cabinet of Curiosities: A Journey to Lübeck.” For a complete listing of programs, lectures, concerts and workshops, with information about tickets, go to the website: https://memf.wisc.edu

Soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe — who co-directs the festival with UW Arts Institute’s Sarah Marty and with her husband and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe — recently agreed to do a Q&A with The Ear about the upcoming festival. Here is Part 1 of 2. The second part will appear tomorrow.

How successful is this year’s festival compared to others in terms of enrollment, budgets, performers, etc.? How does MEMF’s reach nationally or even internationally compare to previous years?

Each year enrollment in the workshop averages 100 students. As of June 15, we have 110 students enrolled. MEMF attracts students of all ages, from 18–91, amateurs and professionals, from all over the country and Canada.

What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and performers?

The ensemble Quicksilver (below, in a photo by Ian Douglas, and located at quicksilverbaroque.com) is returning to Madison after several years to open the MEMF Concert Series.

This will be an incredible virtuosic display of chamber music played at the highest level, and includes violinist Julie Andrijeski, sackbut player Greg Ingles and gambist Lisa Terry; harpsichordist Avi Stein and violinist Robert Mealy are on the faculty at the Juilliard 415 program, which is creating a fantastic opportunity for instrumentalists to study Baroque music with some of the finest early music professionals in the country.

Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, will return to play a live concert of the CD they just released, Back to Bach. For more information, go topiffaro.org

The Tuesday concert is at Luther Memorial Church. Abendmusik (Evening Music) features organists John Chappell Stowe (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), of the UW-Madison, and James Kennerley (below bottom) joined by the MEMF Faculty.

Abendmusik, refers to a series of performances at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, Germany. In the 17th century through 1810, a series of concerts were paid for by local business owners to provide admission for the public. Organists Franz Tunder and his successor Dietrich Buxtehude, organized the Abendmusiken with performances of organ, instrumental and vocal music. For more, go to: https://www.jameskennerley.com/

New to MEMF, Schola Antiqua of Chicago — see schola-antiqua.org — will perform on Friday, July 13, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. They will sing musical treasures from a program prepared last fall for The Newberry Library’s exhibit “Religious Change 1450-1700” on the occasion of the quincentennial of the Lutheran Reformation.

Printed musical artifacts from the multidisciplinary exhibit testify to a period filled with religious dynamism and struggle with both theological and musical traditions. Their director, Michael Alan Anderson, will give a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. with projections of the printed music from The Newberry Library.

Why was the theme of “A Cabinet of Curiosities: Journey to Lübeck” chosen for the festival? What composers and works will be highlighted?

We chose the 2018 theme to explore the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and how the shifts in religion and 16th-century printed materials, including music, changed the world.

The Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Lübeck was an important musical center at this time. Built with Catholic ritual in mind, it easily was turned into a Lutheran church in the early 16th century as Lübeck changed into a Protestant town due to the Reformation that was inspired by Martin Luther.

The composer Dieterich Buxtehude (below) was the organist at the Marienkirche and was an improvisational genius. He attracted many musicians throughout Europe to come and visit, including Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann and George Frideric Handel.

Around this same time collectors were sorting their wide-ranging collections of objects into “cabinets of curiosities,” and sometimes the categorical boundaries were not defined. With new-found compositional freedom, 17th-century composers similarly created many musical wonders and curiosities, stretching the boundaries of musical conversation.

We will be featuring works of Buxtehude, Tunder and Matthias Weckmann, and there will even be a bit of Bach on Sunday night’s concert by Piffaro.

Tomorrow: Part 2 – How did a Reformation in religion and printing technology change music?


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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
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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: 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: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform rarely heard vocal and instrumental holiday music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras this Saturday night.

December 10, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you follow this blog, you know the high respect that The Ear has for the Madison Bach Musicians (below) and its founder-director Trevor Stephenson, who is also a first-rate keyboard player and a supremely talented explainer whose talks are unfailingly instructive and entertaining.

Kangwon KIm with Madison Bach Musicians

Stephenson writes to The Ear about this weekend’s upcoming holiday concert, which will feature a lot of vocal music and compositions that are rarely heard in the usual holiday concert programs. Each year, he says, attendance keeps growing steadily for the early holiday music performed on period instruments with historically informed performance practices.

Here is what Trevor Stephenson (below) says:

Prairie Rhapsody 2011 Trevor Stephenson

This Saturday evening, Dec. 13, at 8 p.m. the Madison Bach Musicians will present its fourth annual Holiday Concert (below is a photo from the 2012 holiday concert) in the beautiful sanctuary of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 1609 University Avenue, near historic Camp Randall stadium.

Madison Bach Musicians in Bach Cantata Dec. 2012

The preconcert lecture is at 7:15 p.m. and the concert begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 for the public, $20 for students and seniors over 65, and they are available at Orange Tree Imports, Willy Street Co-op (east & west), Farley’s House of Pianos, Room of One’s Own and Ward Brodt. For tickets bought at the door, add $5. Student rush tickets will be available for $10 with a valid student ID. For more information about tickets and about MBM, visit www.madsionbachmusicians.org

This year, MBM has set the “Way-Back” machine for the 16th and 17th centuries.

We’ll open with a set of five masterworks for a capella or unaccompanied vocal quartet by Orlando di Lassus.

In addition to soprano Chelsea Morris (below, who now lives in Madison and who won the second Handel Aria Competition last summer at the Madison Early Music Festival), and alto Sarah Leuwerke (who also lives here in Madison), two outstanding young singers from New York City will be featured. Bass Davone Tines and tenor Kyle Bielfield are both recent graduates in voice from the Juilliard School and both are concertizing extensively throughout the world. Here are their websites. http://www.davonetines.com/ and
http://www.bielfield.com/

Chelsea Morris soprano

Then an instrumental band featuring recorder, dulcian or Renaissance bassoon, two viola da gambas, two baroque violins, and positive organ will present sonatas by Antonio Bertali and Johann Schenk.

Instruments and voices will join in works by Heinrich Schütz, Johann Schelle, Johann Froberger, and two of Johann Sebastian Bach’s amazing uncles Heinrich Bach and Johann Michael Bach.

The 16th and 17th centuries were full of religious upheaval, scientific advancement, global exploration and great advances in the dissemination of knowledge through the publishing revolution. The music printing presses as well really start rolling during these centuries.

The astoundingly beautiful music of Orlando di Lassus (below), which will open our upcoming concert, might have been largely unknown and –- after his death — even completely lost had it not been for the publishing houses (many of them in the Netherlands) that saw a strong market for this work.

Orlando di Lasso

It’s staggering really to think of the dozens, probably hundreds, of musicians pre-dating the advent of broad publication whose works existed only in a few handwritten copies that have not survived. Of course, even after publishing gets going in the latter part of what we now call the Renaissance in the 16th century, only a few composers enjoyed consistent press

What strikes me over and over again me about Lassus’ music is how the incredible complexity of its counterpoint is consistently directed toward a clear spiritual point. Remarkably, this miracle of style is still present 200 years after Lassus in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, where the density of the countrapuntal fabric actually helps keep the emotion centered. Claude Debussy remarked how in Bach’s music “the issue is never lost.”

Also, Lassus treats the human voice so well; all four singers have beautiful, independent lines that weave together into a mesmerizing curtain of sound. Legend has it that Lassus’ voice itself was so compelling that as a young singer he was “absconded with” more than once.

For the second work on the program I’ll play a fugue on the positive organ. This type of organ weighs only about 200 pounds and is relatively portable; MBM borrowed this beautiful instrument, made by the Dutch builder Klop, from Stephen Alltop in Evanston, Illinois.

The fugue I’ll play is by Giovanni Gabrieli, music director at the magisterial St. Mark’s church in Venice, which still stands today. Pieces like this fugue were typically composed in “open score,” simply four independent lines with no instrumental designation — the counterpoint is so great, the music works in any medium. I always imagine what it might have sounded like on four sackbuts (Renaissance trombones) positioned in opposing galleries in a resonant space like St. Marks.

Giovanni Gabrieli

The program also features two viola da gambas, bowed though fretted instrument in roughly the same register as a cello (there are also tenor and treble gambas).

Gambists Martha Vallon and Anna Steinhoff will perform a sonata by Heinrich Schenck based upon the famous Rhinemaidens legend, though this work comes two centuries before Richard Wagner went ballistic on the idea in hid “Ring” cycle.

Johann Schenck

The first half of the program will end with instrumental sonatas by the Italian virtuoso violinist Antonio Bertali (below and in a YouTube video at the bottom), who worked most of his career in Vienna, and was known for importing early Italian opera into the Austrian region. We’ll mix baroque violins, gambas, recorder, dulcian and organ in the Bertali set.

antonio bertali

The second part of the program opens with two pieces by German composer Heinrich Schütz (below).

Heinrich Schutz

The first is a celebratory Christmas piece (Christ the Lord is Born Today) for voices and instruments. That will be followed by a very secular piece, Golden Hair–for soprano, alto, two violins, and continuo—about how “you torture me with your beauty. Why won’t Venus send me some comfort! I languish and die.”

Seventeenth-century or whenever — how some things never change! Schütz worked at the Dresden court during the incredibly turbulent times of the Thirty Years War; some of his music is even designed for reduced ensembles, due to the ravages of the war. As a young man he traveled to Italy and studied with Monteverdi. Some of Schutz’s music is even directly borrowed, or adapted from Monteverdi, as is the case with Golden Hair as Schutz converts it from Italian to German.

Next are two works by Heinrich Bach (below),  Johann Sebastian Bach’s great uncle. First is an instrumental transcription of “Have Mercy Upon Us, O Lord God” for two violins and two gambas. Second is the mezzo-soprano solo, with instrumental accompaniment, “Oh, had I tears enough in my head to wash away my sins.” This unusual work sounds almost like 20th-century expressionism in many places. The harmony is very gnarled, twisted and gothic. To me, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is just around the corner.

Heinrich Bach

Following this is a rare vocal work by the great 17th-century keyboard composer Johann Froberger (below). The inventive texture mixes three voices and instruments and the text celebrates the vanquishing of death and the ecstatic speaking in tongues by the Apostles when visited by the Holy Spirit. The vocal lines are very nimble and suggest the animation of “speaking in all languages.”

johann froberger

Johann Schelle’s wrote a good deal of seasonal music and this Christmas piece is a prayer to the infant Jesus imploring him to rest in our hearts so that we will never again forget him.

The sentiment is very close to that found in the final aria in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, “Mache dich mein herze rein,” in which the soul expresses its longing to have the Savior entombed and enshrined within our hearts, so that we may live in grace. Schelle was the Kapellmeister at Leipzig during much of the latter part of the 17th century — two generations before J. S. Bach took the job in the early 1720s.

The final composer featured on this Holiday program, Johann Michael Bach, was the son of Heinrich Bach and was also the father of Johann Sebastian Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara Bach. Put another way, Johann Michael Bach was J. S. Bach’s father-in-law. The text is from the Christmas gospel, where the angels implore the shepherds not to be afraid, but to rejoice, for the Savior has come to earth. J. M. Bach set the text for antiphonal choirs, and MBM will do this by having voices in dialogue with the instrumental band.

Johann Michael Bach

Here is the complete program:

Orlando de Lassus (c. 1532–1594): Ave Regina Coelorum; Adoramus te; Carmina Chromatico; Missa pro defunctis; Introit Jubilate Deo

Giovanni Gabrieli (1557–1612): Fuga del nono tono

Johann Schenck (1660–1716?): Sonata III for two viols from “Le Nymphe di Rheno”

Antonio Bertali (1605–1669): Sonata in A minor for two violins and continuo; Sonata in G major for recorder, violin and dulcian

INTERMISSION

Heinrich Schütz (1585–1682): Heute ist Christus der Herr geboren; Güldne Haare

Heinrich Bach (1615–1692): Erbarm dich ein, O Herre Gott (instrumental version).

Johann Froberger (1616-1667): Ach, dass ich Wassers genug hätte; Alleluia Absorta est mors.

Johann Schelle (1648–1701): Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein

Johann Michael Bach (1648–1694): Fürchtet euch nicht


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