The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Mendota Consort’s outstanding concert of music by the early Baroque master Johann Schein left one wanting more of both the music and the singers

July 25, 2018
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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 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 photographs.

By John W. Barker

The Mendota Consort is to some extent a spin-off of the Madison Early Music Festival, first in 2017 and now this year.

Its membership has been shifting, though the versatile Jerry Hui has been a cornerstone, and the drive for its continuity has been the work of Maya Webne-Behrman.

The group’s concert at Luther Memorial Church on last Saturday night was the last of three performances given around the state. There are plans for several concerts in the season ahead, around the country, despite the members’ diverse and far-flung individual residences.

The group performing this latest program are five singers. As shown in the photograph below, they are (from left): sopranos Webne-Behrman and Chelsie Propst; bass Matt Chastain, alto Hui, and tenor Drew Ivarson.

Their program for these current concerts was devoted to selections from the collection Fontana d’Israel, or Israel’s Brünnlein, published in 1623 by Johann Hermann Schein (below, 1586-1630), one of the important composers of the early German Baroque, and a distant predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach in his position in Leipzig.

The collection’s title is conventionally translated as the “Fountain of Israel” but might also be rendered as “Israel’s Wellspring.” It consists of 26 relatively short pieces setting texts that the composer selected from various books of the Old Testament, texts with messages both personal and communal between Jehovah and His Chosen People.

These five-voice pieces — with optional basso seguentefor organ — might readily be construed as choral works in the post-Renaissance polyphonic style. But that would be a mistake, for the publication’s long subtitle stipulates that these are “in a special, graceful Italian manner.”  In other words, they are madrigals, not motets. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They show a German composer learning particularly from Claudio Monteverdi, constantly using his early trick of turning the five-voice writing into exchanges between two “trios,” consisting of Soprano-Soprano-Alto against Alto-Tenor-Bass, with the alto voice singing in both.  (So Jerry Hui never got any rest!)

The clever part-writing deserves to be heard with absolute clarity. And that is what these five singers gave us, with admirably precise German diction as well. They performed only nine selections from the full 26, effectively only one hour’s worth of music, but demanding the most disciplined part-singing, which can be very tiring for the vocalists.

This seemingly short program left one craving more, but it was a beautiful treasure in itself. It makes one hope earnestly for the Mendota Consort to continue to flourish and mature — and to return to Madison as soon as possible.


Classical music: How do various venues or performing spaces affect the music? Consider three examples of the same early vocal music sung by Eliza’s Toyes.

November 28, 2012
4 Comments

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 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Through the month of November, I have been tracking the efforts of the same group in the same program, but in three different presentation spaces and situations. I have always found much illumination in attending rehearsals as against performances, but comparative performance study can also be quite stimulating.

First, let’s consider the performers and their program. The musicians (below and at bottom) call themselves Eliza’s Toyes (after an image in an Elizabethan madrigal text), as founded and lead by the formidably versatile Jerry Hui. Their program is a collection of sacred and secular works from the first half of the 17th century, by three composers who were pioneers in the transition from Renaissance to early Baroque styles in Germany — from the old vocal polyphonic style to the new idiom of singers with instruments, over the new basso continuo.

These three are Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672, below top), Johann Schein (1586-1630, below middle), and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1672, below bottom), good friends and comrades in a common enterprise. We’ve all heard of “the Three B’s” (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms), and it has become frequent to describe our early German masters as “the Three S’s”–or, as Jerry and his crew would have it, “the Three Sch’s”.

Their program took shape as far back as last spring, when they first performed it on May 12, at The Gates of Heaven (below). I reviewed that for Isthmus (May 18). At that time, the program consisted of a first part containing sacred works: three by Scheidt (one in Latin, otherwise German) and two by Schein. Two of these were in eight vocal parts, and varied in textures to very simplified motet style to the newer and more complex concertato idiom of combining voices with instruments; two of these even for eight parts.

The second half offered secular music, partly by Schein: two five-voice vocal works, an Italian love-madrigal and a comic German song about monks making whoopee while the abbot was away, plus a suite of four dances from his instrumental collection, Banchetto musicale. But Schütz was predominant, with two five-voice Italian madrigals from his Venetian publication in 1611, and a splendid eight-voice dedicatory piece for double choir from the same collection. As an encore, a late neo-polyphonic German motet of 1648 was added. The performers consisted then of seven singers (two of whom also played instruments) and five instrumentalists.

This was the program that was used, in revised form, for three performances this November.

To begin with, the group was diminished by one singer, so that his vacated vocal parts had to be filled in by instrumental substitution–a not unusual practice at that period. Also in the second half, one of the Schütz madrigals from the 1611 publication was replaced by a longer, two-part example from that source.

The first of the November performances was held at the downtown Grace Episcopal Church (below, the exterior) on Saturday evening, Nov. 3, with reduced forces, eliminating instrumentalists, and specifically the Schein dance suite. Also eliminated was one Scheidt sacred piece, Schein’s merry-monks song, and Schütz’s eight-voice double-choir madrigal of 1611; and there was no intermission. Full forces (less the departed tenor) were on display at the second concert, at Luther Memorial Church at 4 p.m. on the afternoon of Nov. 17, in the full revised program. And this same revised program was then presented at 12:30 p.m. last Sunday as one of the “Live from the Chazen” concerts broadcast live statewide by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Through these three performances, circumstances dictated certain obvious adjustments in the program and performer placements. But what particularly interested me is how the music, and the performers’ responses to it, varied through no less than four different venues.

All of the music in the program represented moves away from the old, grandly architectural styles of vocal polyphony that had been the glory of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and into the newer, more intimately textured complexities of writing for essentially modest (not to say, greatly enclosed) spaces, where clarity of part writing was crucial.

The setting last spring at Gates of Heaven, a small and tight public space (below, interior at the Gates of Heaven), was quite ideal for this newer German idiom, and close audience involvement was guaranteed. The first two locations in November were, however, quite different: spacious churches with the problems of projection and reverberation. Grace Episcopal on the Square is large, but not overwhelming, whereas Luther Memorial on University Avenue is comparatively huge, a large space of echoes and extended sonic decay. Finally, Brittingham Gallery III at the Chazen, though a generously sized room, suggests a rather tight and confined ambience, especially when full of audience.

I had my own reactions to the differing results of these differing settings, but it was instructive to compare notes with some of the performers. The two church locations (below, the interior of Grace Episcopal) added a wondrous glow to their singing, in which they could luxuriate. But such spacious conditions are more sympathetic to sonically expansive polyphony, whereas the smaller, closer forms of their program are less at home, and the singers found problems in hearing each other as they sang.

On the other hand, they surprised me by their enthusiasm for the Chazen situation. It had less tightness and more warmth than they expected: they could hear each other clearly, and they plainly took particular pleasure in doing their work. I, too, found unexpected advantages in this room—madrigal-like pieces worked especially well, and the climactic eight-voice Schütz madrigal came off with particular lucidity and beauty, it seemed to me.

The greater confidence in their repertoire that the performers seemed (to me) to display may partly have resulted from the value of repeated presentations.  But I think that also a factor was the extent of rehearsal opportunities at each site.  At the churches, there were preliminary warm-up opportunities, but not much chance to work fully into the differing acoustical situations. At the Chazen, apparently there were a few hours in the morning allowed for rehearsal, so that a little fuller adjustment to acoustics there gave the performers a greater sense of comfort with them.

Obviously, the Chazen folks can take pride in this further endorsement of their concert setting. It might be added that the performance/broadcast format, with gracious commentary interspersed by Wisconsin Public Radio announcer Lori Skelton, added a more leisurely and less formal quality to the event.

For me, this adventure also brought home how very important performance setting is to performance results–the more so when the same music and same performers shift among different places. This is a point of concern not only for musicians themselves, but also for the public, which would benefit from developing sensitivity to the effects of venue and acoustics — especially when varied — upon musical achievements as one listens, experiences and enjoys.


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