The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet plays in Spring Green this Monday, then tours Germany during August. It will perform the same tour program in several Wisconsin cities, including Madison, in early September

August 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about another Madison group – in addition to the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra’s tour of Peru and the Scotland concerts by the Madison Youth Choirs – that is bringing its music to international audiences.

The group is the Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis), which will leave for a tour of Germany next week. From left are: violinists Wes Luke and Robin Ryan; violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb.

A sort of send-off concert is this Monday night in Spring Green. Here are the details:

The concert is for the Rural Musicians Forum and will take place on this coming Monday night, Aug. 13, at 7:30 p.m. at Unity Chapel, located at 6597 County Hwy T, in Spring Green.

The program features works by Joaquin Turina, Franz Joseph Haydn and Samuel Barber.

Admission is by free will offering, with a suggested donation of $15.

Soon to start its 18th season, the Ancora String Quartet has an impressive and extensive resume. The four players have well-established individual musical careers as soloists, chamber musicians and orchestral players. They perform regularly in Madison and beyond, appearing in such ensembles as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Bach Musicians, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, and the Bach Collegium of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Here is what violist Marika Fischer Hoyt says about the upcoming tour to Germany:

“The Ancora String Quartet looks forward with eager anticipation to our first overseas tour.

“We are partnering with a fabulous mezzo-soprano, Melinda Paulsen (below), who serves on the voice faculty at the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt.

“Together, we have selected a program of works by German and American composers, for mezzo-soprano and quartet, and for string quartet alone.

“The program includes: the beautiful Wesendonck Lieder by Richard Wagner; Melancholie by Paul Hindemith, Drei Lieder (Three Songs) by Victor Ullmann; and Dover Beach by Samuel Barber, as well as the iconic Barber String Quartet with the slow movement that was re-orchestrated as the “Adagio for Strings.” (You can hear Samuel Barber’s “Dover Beach” with a mezzo-soprano in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“The quartet will be in Germany (map is below) from August 17 to August 26, performing at the Rathaus in Nieder-Olm; the Musikschule Chroma in Vellmar (north of Kassel); the Lutheran Church in Schlitz (halfway between Frankfurt and Kassel); and at Phillipsburg in Braubach, as part of the festival in St. Goar. The concert at the music school in Vellmar will be a lecture-concert for students, so we’re brushing up on our German!

“Following our performances in Germany, we will all return to Wisconsin to perform this same program Sept. 4-9 in Germantown, Whitewater, Janesville, Beloit and Madison. That includes an interview with radio host Norman Gilliland on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 5.

“We have secured funding from several German organizations, and received a generous grant from the Kassel County-Dane County Sister County Taskforce.

“Melinda and the members of this quartet are thrilled beyond words that this project has taken shape. We look forward to sharing with our audiences a program exploring the intersections between two cultures that are quite distinct today, but which share deep, common roots.”


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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 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 photos.

By John W. Barker

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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Classical music education: Before leaving for a festival in Scotland, the Madison Youth Choirs boy choirs will give a FREE send-off concert on Tuesday night. It features the world premiere of a new work by Madison composer Scott Gendel

July 23, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

This July, 55 members of Madison Youth Choirs’ boy choirs will travel to Aberdeen, Scotland to sing in the Aberdeen International Festival of Youth Arts, a new celebration of talented young performers from across the world. (Below is the Britten boy choir.)

The festival will continue the legacy of the Aberdeen International Youth Festival (below), a tradition which had been running nearly 50 years when it was cancelled in late 2017 after Aberdeen city councilors withdrew its funding, citing budgetary concerns.

A groundswell of local and global support for the festival led to the creation of a new event, hosted by the Aberdeen Multicultural Center, which will continue to offer world-class performing opportunities for young artists.

In order to ensure that every eligible singer, including those whose families face significant financial challenges, had the opportunity to participate in this extraordinary experience, MYC undertook a major fundraising effort for the Scotland Tour Scholarship Fund, led by a generous anonymous benefactor who offered to double every dollar donated up to a total of $10,000. In total, 107 individual donors contributed to the fund, raising $20,224 to support the young singers’ journey.

Prior to their departure to Scotland, the MYC boys will present a send-off concert on Tuesday, July 24, at 7 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 5701 Raymond Road, in Madison. The concert is FREE and open to the public, but donations at the door will be accepted.

The concert will feature the world premiere of a new work by UW-Madison graduate and Madison composer Scott Gendel (below), “For That Alone,” which combines text from Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” with text from a work that may have inspired it, the “Declaration of Arbroath,” written in 1320 to assert Scotland’s independence.

The full list of repertoire includes:

“Sumer is icumen in,” Anonymous, mid-13th century

“O là, o che bon echo” by Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594)

“No che non morira” (from Tito Manlio) by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

“Bar’chu” by Salamon Rossi (c. 1570-1630)

“Il est bel et bon” by Pierre Passereau (fl. 1509-1547)

“Hopkinton” by William Billings (1746-1800)

“The Pasture” (from Frostiana) by Randall Thompson (1899-1984)

“Gloria Tibi” (from Mass) by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

“II. Adonai ro-I” from Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

“For That Alone” (world premiere) by Scott Gendel (b. 1977)

“Chorus of Street Boys” from Carmen by Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

“Weevily Wheat,” American play-party song, arr. Krunnfusz

“The Plough Boy,” Traditional, arranged by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) You can hear it for solo tenor with piano in the YouTube video at the bottom.

“Rustics and Fishermen” (from Gloriana) by Benjamin Britten

“I Will Howl” by Timothy Takach (b. 1978)

“Fugue for Tinhorns” (from Guys and Dolls) by Frank Loesser (1910-1969)

“Bonse Aba,” Traditional Zambian

“Birdsong” by Heather Masse, arranged by Randal Swiggum

“Revelation 19:1” by Jeffrey LaValley

“Anthem” (from Chess) by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Tim Rice, arranged by Randal Swiggum

“Will Ye No Come Back Again,” Traditional Scottish, arranged by Randal Swiggum

For more information about the Madison Youth Choirs, including how to join them and how to support them, go to:

https://www.madisonyouthchoirs.org


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Classical music: After 20 years, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble still delivers performances to relish of Baroque vocal and instrumental music

November 28, 2017
2 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 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

On Nov. 26, 1997, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble gave its first public performance.

On Sunday afternoon, exactly 20 years later to the very date, the group (below) presented a concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in honor of this distinguished anniversary.

This ensemble is the longest-lasting, still-continuing group in Madison devoted to early music. Despite the arrival three years later of the Madison Early Music Festival, the WBE gave the very first start to building an audience here for this literature. (You can hear a typical concert in the lengthy YouTube video at the bottom.)

Working under Sunday afternoon time pressures, the group offered a particularly rich and diversified program, employing a total of seven performers: one singer, mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo, with instrumentalists Brett Lipschutz (traverso flute), Monica Steger (recorder, traverse flute, harpsichord), Sigrun Paust (recorder), Eric Miller (viola da gamba), Max Yount (harpsichord), and founder Anton TenWolde (cello).

There were nine items on the program.

Sañudo (below) had in some ways the amplest solo role, singing five pieces: a cantata aria by Luigi Rossi; a long cantata by Michel Pignolet de Monteclair; a late villancico by Francisco de Santiago; and two particularly lovely songs by Jacopo Peri.

All these she sang with her usual devotion to textual as well as musical subtleties—making it a little sad that the provision of printed texts could not have been managed.

One solo sonata by Benedetto Marcello was for recorder and continuo, while one double sonata (below), a particularly delightful one by Georg Philipp Telemann for two recorders, and another one by the obscure Jacob Friedrich Kleinknecht rounded out these ingredients.

Along with continuo assignments, Eric Miller (below) played an extensive viol da gamba suite by Marin Marais.

Active in his own varying assignments, Lipschutz (below) bubbled with skill and charm in a set of variations for flute on a Scots folk melody, taken from a published collection credited to a mysterious Alexander Munro.

The program pattern was generally familiar, with each of the performers having a say in the choice of selections, notably their particular solos. In this sense, the group acts as a collective, as TenWolde likes to say, rather than an operation exclusively shaped by him.

As it has been defined and employed over two decades now, this organizational format has given so much for both performers and audiences to relish.

But, to be sure, there is more to come. So we will check back in another 20 years.


Classical music: Can playing classical music quiet rowdy or drunken customers? Some McDonald’s restaurants say it works

July 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is some short good news on the classic music front.

Some McDonald’s restaurants are using classical music to calm late-night customers who are rowdy or drunk and prone to fighting as they wait for their fast food.

The international phenomenon started in Glasgow, Scotland. Then it apparently spread to Stockport, Liverpool and Gloucester in the United Kingdom. Finally, it ended up at several restaurants in Australia.

Several news stories specifically mention the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (portrayed below as Ronald McDonald Mozart).

Here is a link to one of the stories, published in The New York Post:

http://nypost.com/2017/07/05/mcdonalds-is-fighting-drunk-customers-with-mozart-and-bach/

The Ear wonders if any McDonald’s restaurants in Madison or the surrounding area, or in the state of Wisconsin or even anywhere in the U.S. have tried the same strategy and had the same experience, which seems grounded in neuroscience and the effect of classical music on releasing dopamine and other stress-lessening hormones.

If you hear of any or know of any, let The Ear now.

But maybe there is also a downside. The news reminds The Ear of Muzak, the motto of which used to be, “Not just a melody but a management tool.”

Oh well. If it fosters peace, who cares what came first – the chicken or the Egg McMuffin?

What do you think about all this?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music education: Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras performs “Sounds of the Season” with area high school choirs on TV once again on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Plus, WYSO names Randal Swiggum as its new interim music director

December 23, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras has two pieces of news to report:

As in past years, WYSO will perform its popular one-hour, commercial-free “Sounds of the Season” concerts on TV on NBC 15 this weekend. 

Three WYSO groups will be featured: the Youth Orchestra (below top), the Youth Brass Choir (below middle) and the Percussion Ensemble (below bottom).

WYSO Youth Orchestra James Smith conducting 2015

WYSO Brass Choir

WYSO Percussion Ensemble 2012

There will be one performance on Christmas Eve at 10 p.m., and then two performances on Christmas Day at 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

The orchestra and ensembles will also be joined by choirs from area high schools. Sorry, but The Ear can’t find word of which ones.

You can hear part of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” as performed by WYSO on “Sounds of the Season” in the YouTube video at the bottom.

For more information, photos and audiovisual clips from a last year’s “Sounds of the Season,” go to:

http://www.nbc15.com/content/misc/NBC15-Sounds-Of-The-Season-2016-406076915.html

wyso-sounds-of-the-season-logo

In addition WYSO has named an interim replacement for outgoing music director James Smith (below), who is retiring from WYSO as well as from the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the end of this season.

james smith Jack Burns

Here are details from WYSO’s executive director Bridget Fraser:

“WYSO is very pleased to announce that Randal Swiggum (below) has been appointed WYSO Interim Artistic Director and Youth Orchestra Conductor for the 2017-2018 season.

“Randy is well-known to many WYSO students already, whether through Summer Music Clinic, the recent Wisconsin Middle Level Honors orchestra, or Suzuki Strings of Madison. He prepared the WYSO Youth Orchestra for its 2012 Overture Center performance of “To Be Certain of the Dawn,” and has subbed in with Philharmonia Orchestra and chamber music rehearsals.

Randall Swiggum

“Randy is in his 19th season as Artistic Director of the award-winning Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra, a large program similar to WYSO, which draws students from 70 different communities in suburban Chicago.

“Under his direction, the EYSO has collaborated with renowned artists like Midori, Yo-Yo Ma and Rachel Barton Pine, as well as Grammy-winning chamber ensemble eighth blackbird. The EYSO has appeared on NPR’s “From the Top” and at the Ravinia Festival, where they will return to perform again in 2018.

“The Illinois Council of Orchestras has twice named him Conductor of the Year and awarded its prestigious Programming of the Year Award to the EYSO.

“A frequent guest conductor of orchestral and choral festivals, Randy recently conducted the Scottish National Youth Symphony in Glasgow, All-State Orchestras in Georgia and Illinois, the American Mennonite Schools Orchestra Festival, Northern Arizona Honors Orchestra, the APAC Orchestra Festival in Seoul, and both the Wisconsin Middle Level Honors Choir and Orchestra, among many others.

“Randy also works with a number of professional orchestras, designing and conducting concerts for young people. Last year, he led the Madison Symphony in his original “Symphony Safari: What Nature Teaches Us About the Orchestra,” attended by several thousand middle school students in Overture Hall.

“Next February, he returns for a fourth season with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in its acclaimed “Teen Partner” series, conducting the Gloria by Francis Poulenc.

“He also appears next spring with the Chippewa Valley Symphony, conducting his “Beethoven Superhero” concert, which has been popular with teachers, students and parents alike, with the Elgin Symphony and The Florida Orchestra (Tampa).

“As an author and lecturer, Randy works with teachers around the country and internationally, most recently with international school teachers in Hong Kong and at Carnegie Hall, where last summer he returned for a fourth season teaching its Music Educator Workshops, and leading members of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA.

“Randy is a proud UW-Madison graduate and lives in Madison, where you can find him on Monday nights working with the Madison Boychoir (in the Madison Youth Choirs) alongside colleague Margaret Jenks.

“WYSO is truly fortunate to have such a dedicated and tireless educator guiding its artistic vision next season.”


Classical music: Female classical musicians are coerced to sex up their image, says star violinist Nicola Benedetti

July 27, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear loves all the talk about female equality happening at the Democratic National Convention this week.

It seems only fitting, after all, given that Hillary Rodham Clinton last night became the first female presidential nominee of a major political party in the U.S.

Now, you might think that culture and especially the arts lead the way in such progressive matters.

And sometimes they do.

But not always.

In a story in the newspaper The Daily Mail, published in the United Kingdom, Scottish star violinist Nicola Benedetti (below) says that female classical musicians are still coerced to “sex it up” to have major careers. (Y0u can hear another interview with her in the YouTube video at the bottom. She seems both charming and candid.)

NIcola Benedetti PIcture:- Decca/Simon Fowler

NIcola Benedetti
PIcture:- Decca/Simon Fowler

Hmmm. Sounds almost like an appropriate story at a time when conservative political genius and news director Roger Ailes was forced to leave his Fox News job because of multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

Benedetti cites her own career as an example, and also the case of singer Charlotte Church (below), who had to wear sexy lingerie in a crossover video.

Charlotte Church

It sure sounds like sexism is alive and well in the world of classical music.

Here is a link to a story with Benedetti’s charges.

Read it and see what you think:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3682724/Proms-star-Nicola-Benedetti-Charlotte-Church-parading-lingerie-does-NOT-empower-women.htm

Then tell the rest of us what your opinion is.

And if you know of other examples.

The Ear recalls a sexed up album cover for American violinist Lara St. John (below) who, on a recording of solo works by Johann Sebastian Bach, used her instrument to conceal her bare breasts.

Lara St. John Bach breasts

Let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Ear offers a big shout-out and good luck to three girl choirs in the Madison Youth Choirs. They are headed this week to a major world youth festival in Aberdeen, Scotland and give a FREE send-off concert this Tuesday night

July 25, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Two years ago, it was the boy choirs of the Madison Youth Choirs that were invited to sing at the prestigious international festival in Aberdeen, Scotland.

It is, after all, the oldest youth arts festival in the world, about 40 years old and features performers form around the world.

Aberdeen International Youth Festival Opeing Ceremony

This week, on Thursday, 68 members of three girl choirs in the Madison Youth Choirs – the Capriccio (below top, in a photo by MYC director Michael Ross), Cantilena and Cantabile (below bottom) choirs — along with three conductors, are headed to the same festival.

Madison Youth Choir Capriccio CR Mike Ross

Madison Youth Choirs Cantabile

NOTE: You can hear a FREE send-off sampler concert on this Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at the Covenant Presbyterian Church, 326 South Segoe Road.

It is a BIG DEAL.

The repertoire the girls will sing covers classical music (Franz Schubert); folk music from Canada, Serbia, Bulgaria and Peru; and more popular music. Plus, they will sing in several languages. They will also sing a song composed in the Terezin concentration camp, or death camp, in Hitler’s Nazi Germany during World War II.

They will also give the world premiere of a piece – based on two Scottish melodies including a traditional walking song and the beautiful “The Water Is Wide” — that they commissioned from composer Scott Gendel, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. (You can hear James Taylor sing a heart-breaking version of “The Water Is Wide” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Scott Gendel color headshot

The Ear heard the girls sing live last week on the Midday program with Norman Gilliland on Wisconsin Public Radio. And they sounded great.

What an honor, especially in the wake of the concert tour to Italy two weeks ago by the Youth Orchestra of the Wisconsin Youth Chamber Orchestras.

Madison sure seems to be doing a fine job providing music education to its young people while many other areas of the state and country are cutting back on arts education and where many   politicians and businesspeople are mistakenly trying to turn public support to the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math — at the expense of the arts. But the arts and the sciences really feed each other, and success in one field often helps to assure success in the other.

madison youth choirs logo

Here is a link so you can learn more about the tour and how to support or join the Madison Youth Choirs, which serves young people in grades 5-12:

http://www.madisonyouthchoirs.org

http://www.madisonyouthchoirs.org/aberdeen

And here is a link to the festival itself:

http://www.aiyf.org

And finally here is a link to the Facebook page for the Madison Youth Choirs, with face photos of participants:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/448022498728594/


Classical music: Great choral singing by the Madison Chamber Choir and the Madison Choral Project should serve great choral music – and fewer second-rate novelties

May 25, 2016
6 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 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

Two of the city’s important choral groups joined forces for a program presented at the First Congregational United Church of Christ last Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

Albert Pinsonneault (below), who used to teach at Edgewood College and now teaches at Northwestern University, and who is the director of both groups, conducted.

Albert Pinsonneault 2

Each group had its own showcase in the program’s first half.

The Madison Chamber Choir (below) led off with the “Serenade to Music,” a setting of lines from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which Ralph Vaughan Williams  composed in 1938 for 16 of his favorite singers, with orchestra. He adapted this for full chorus, but that transition did not quite produce a work truly choral in character.

The choir sang the beautiful work very handsomely, but the substitution for the orchestra of a piano accompaniment was uncomfortable and, indeed, a disruption of diction. (You can hear the original version for chorus and orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Madison Chamber Choir JWB

The Madison Choral Project (below top) came next with a performance of “Images, Shadows, Dreams: Five Vignettes” by the late David Baker (1931-2016, below middle).

Baker was a noted scholar and promoter of jazz, and his goal was a “fusion” of jazz with classical forms. To the five composed poems, Pinsonneault added readings of poems written by five young participants (below bottom) in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Odyssey Project activities in cultural and educational support.

Madison Choral Project JWB

David Baker

Madison Choral Project jazz Odyssey student JWB

All this represents noble and praiseworthy efforts on behalf of disadvantaged African-Americans. But high ideals do not necessarily guarantee artistic achievement. Baker uses a combo of five instrumentalists, which bangs away behind the choir, hardly “fusing” anything in styles—neither honest jazz nor multicultural synthesis.

Madison Choral Project jazz drum and bass JWB

The choir, in its turn, sings mightily at music of generally simplistic technique — mostly unisons and chordal declamations. There is little to remember or admire, once the “messages” have worn off.

Fortunately, the intermission yielded to the one work of substance on the program, the Mass for Double Choir, by the Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974, below), a combination of neo-classical and modernist styles that is better appreciated in Europe than here.

Frank Martin

For this, the two choirs (below) merged, then divided into the requisite two components.

Martin’s writing is subtle, and his juxtaposition of the two choirs is not just antiphonal but artfully varied in their interaction—to which is added a great deal of harmonic experimentation. This is one of the choral masterpieces of the 20th century.

Pinsonneault and his 57 choristers gave it a glorious performance, showing what this conductor can do to make great choral sound out of great choral music.

Madison Chamber Choir and Madison Choral Project combined JWB

The final programmed piece was a somewhat pretentious setting by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan (below) of a ballad by poet Robert Burns. As an encore, the singers perpetrated a glitzy, but uncredited, arrangement of “Loch Lomond”—the only piece that brought the audience to its feet.

James MacMillan headshot

This concert was an undeniable testimony to the splendid choral groups we have here, and to what Pinsonneault is accomplishing with these groups. But I kept returning to the dichotomy at which I hinted earlier.

Choral singing is a wonderful activity both to listen to and to participate in, and I share some of the enthusiasm for that. But I wonder how many in the audience were there seeking great CHORAL singing. I was there seeking great choral MUSIC.

Our choirs can give us the former, no question, and audiences can justly admire it. But has all this musical talent been applied responsibly to the latter? How much do our choral programs deal with trivia and little sweetmeats, rather than digging into the vast literature of magnificent choral art?


Classical music: The Madison Choral Project and the Madison Chamber Choir will give a joint concert of music by Frank Martin, Ralph Vaughan Williams and more this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

May 16, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following notice, which is noteworthy on several counts artistic, educational and social:

On Friday, May 20, at 7:30 p.m. and again on Sunday, May 22, at 2:30 p.m., two Madison choirs join forces on a unique pair of fantastic concerts.

The two performances will take place at the First Congregational Church of Madison, 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall.

Tickets are available in advance at www.themcp.org as well as at the door. Admission is $25 at the door, $20 in advance; students are$10 student with student I.D)

The conductor will be of Albert Pinsonneault (below), who used to teach at Edgewood College and now teaches at Northwestern University.

albert pinsonneault Edgewood mug BW

The Madison Choral Project (below top) and the Madison Chamber Choir (below bottom) will team up for the first time to present the transcendentally beautiful “Mass for Double Choir” by Frank Martin.

Madison Choral Project color

Madison Chamber Choir 1 BIGGER

The Mass for Double Choir (1926) by Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974, below) is one of the masterpieces of 20th-century choral music. Lush and gorgeous, with sweeping melodies, it is brilliant vocal writing on a grand scale. The 25-minute Martin Mass is truly a symphony for voices. (You can hear the “Agnus Dei” movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Frank Martin

The two choirs will also present “The Gallant Weaver” for three soprano soloists and a cappella (unaccompanied) choir by Scottish composer James MacMillan (below) and Jonathan Quick‘s arrangement of the Scottish folk tune “Loch Lomond.”

James MacMillan headshot

The choirs will additionally perform separately, with the Madison Chamber Choir singing Ralph Vaughan Williams’Serenade to Music,” and the Madison Choral Project performing David Baker’s “Images, Shadows, Dreams: Five Vignettes.”

Jazz icon David Baker (1931-2016, below) set text of poet Mari Evans (b. 1923) in “Images, Shadows, Dreams: Five Vignettes.” The poetry describes five tableaux or scenes from the perspective of the underprivileged in America.

The music is jazz-derived, with voices joined by a full rhythm section of string bass, drums, and piano as well as flute and guitar.

David Baker

During the performance of the Baker piece, students from UW-Odyssey Project (below) will recite original works, giving a local voice to complement the poems of Mari Evans. The UW-Odyssey Project serves adults near the poverty level.

Odyssey students have gone from homelessness to become college graduates, and from incarceration to doing meaningful work in the community. We are especially excited to share their voices in our concert.

UW Odyssey Project


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