The Well-Tempered Ear

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: Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs two concerts this weekend that honor choral conductor Robert Fountain. Then founder and director Scott MacPherson steps down

August 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even 21 years after his death at 79 in 1996, the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s legendary choral conductor Robert Fountain (below) is spoken of with reverence and awe.

And with good reason, according to many singers and musicians.

The story goes that Fountain was offered a professional performing career, much like his friend Dale Warland enjoyed, but he chose instead to go into academia and teaching.

Fountain’s legacy will be celebrated this weekend with two performances by the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below).

IVE is a summer-only group that has performed for the past 16 years under its founder and artistic director Scott MacPherson (below), who worked at the UW-Madison with Fountain and now directs choral activities at Kent State University.

Performances are this Friday, Aug. 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the High Point Church on the far west side, 7702 Old Sauk Road, and on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 6 at 3 p.m. at Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for students. (Cash or check only will be accepted at Mills Hall.)

Here are some comments that The Ear received from MacPherson:

“These are my final concerts as artistic director with IVE. I am stepping down after 16 years. The IVE Board is in the process of finding a new artistic director and should be able to announce the new person in the coming week or so.

“It is the centennial of my mentor and former UW colleague Robert Fountain’s birth, so I have chosen to honor him with a tribute for my final concerts with IVE.

“Robert Fountain: A Choral Legacy” is a concert programmed as he would have programmed with his UW Concert Choir.

“Music from the Renaissance to living composers and everything in between will be featured. Many of my singers sang under his direction at one time or another. Some are even travelling from out of state to participate.”

“The composers represented include Johann Sebastian Bach, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Randall Thompson, Pavel Chesnokov, Gyorgy Ligeti, Andrew Rindfleisch and a spiritual arranged by Fountain.”

(IVE will perform Chesnokov’s “Salvation Is Created,” which you can hear sung by the Dale Warland Singers in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For the complete program, plus links to ticket information and purchases, go to:

https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/upcoming-performances

For more information about the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble and about Scott MacPherson, go to:

https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org


Classical music: The acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs its annual summer concerts this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

July 28, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at the critically acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble write:

When conductor Scott MacPherson convened some of Madison’s top singers in 2002, he had no way of knowing that the newly formed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) would begin one of Madison’s most anticipated summer musical traditions.

Known as “Madison’s most temporary choir,” the ensemble – a semi-professional choir of approximately 60 singers – brings new life to over 500 years of choral music within a brief two-week rehearsal period.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble group concert dress

This intense spirit of camaraderie produces a singular remarkable experience, year after year. (You can hear the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sing the “Abendlied” (Evening Song) by Josef Rheinberger in 2012 in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

This summer, Madison-area audiences have two opportunities to hear the 2015 program.

The traditional Friday night concert takes place on at 7:30 p.m. on this Friday, July 31, at Christ Presbyterian Church (below), located at 944 East Gorham Street in downtown Madison.

Christ Presbyterian Church

The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 2, at Lutheran Church of the Living Christ (below), located at 110 North Gammon Road, on Madison’s far west side.

Lutheran Church of the Living Christ

General admission tickets are available online at isthmusvocalensemble.org or at the door. Admission is $15 for adults; $10 for students and seniors. 

The program, “Unconventional Images” is a tapestry of unexpected beauty, including works spanning from the 1500s up to brand new compositions, featuring a world premiere from composer Corey Rubin (below) entitled “The Snow Man.”

Corey Rubin

Director Scott MacPherson writes: “For these concerts, prepare your ears and mind to be led down an unconventional path, where you will ponder such images as the nativity, snow in the summer, sensual beauty, the desert, glory, mortality and divine renewal.”

Other featured works include “Three Nativity Carols” by the late Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus (below top); “Beati quorum via” and “Coelos ascendit hodie” by Charles Villiers Stanford; “Du bist aller Dinge schön” and “Fahet uns die Füchse” by Melchoir Franck; “Schaffe in mir Gott” by Johannes Brahms; the Gloria by Dominick Argento; and several newly composed pieces, including “Desert Rose” by Frank Wiley, as well as “I Sing to Use the Waiting” and “An Irish Blessing” by University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus, Andrew Rindfleisch (below bottom).

stephen paulus

Andrew Rindfleisch portrait

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble is led by Scott MacPherson (below), director of choral activities at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Its members include professional singers, choral directors, professors, lawyers, students and passionate advocates for the arts. The choir has performed by invitation at the North Central Conference of the American Choral Directors Association, commissioned several world premieres and released two professional CDs.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble rehearsing with Scott MacPherson


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