The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Choral Project performs “Finding Our Path” this Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Plus, the Madison New Music Ensemble performs a FREE concert this Friday night

December 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the critically acclaimed Madison Choral Project (below) will give two performances – in two different venues this year — of its seventh annual holiday program.

The MCP was founded and is directed and conducted by Albert Pinsonneault (below), who taught at Edgewood College and now works at Northwestern University. The group’s stated goal is to inspire, enhance and improve life through music. (You can hear them singing the Octet from Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In keeping with a format that you often find in places of worship — think Scripture and hymns — the MCP once again uses a holiday formula that remains popular and works very effectively by combining the spoken word with choral music.

This year’s theme is “Finding Our Path” and features music and texts on the theme of feeling adrift, seeking guidance and finding our path.

Performances are on this Friday night, Dec. 13, at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive; and this Saturday afternoon, Dec. 14, at 3 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

Noah Ovshinsky (below), the news editor at Wisconsin Public Radio, will once again serve as the narrator.

Unfortunately, The Ear has seen no word about the works or composers in the musical part of the program, except that two commissions, including a world premiere by MCP composer-in-residence Justin Merritt, will be performed.

PREFERRED SEATING has a limit of 20 per concert. A reserved seat is in an acoustically “prime” spot in the house (center, about a third of the way back from the stage) and costs $40.

GENERAL ADMISSION is $28 purchased in advance and online or $32 at the door.

STUDENT TICKETS are $10 and can be purchased in advance or at the door. Please show valid student ID at will-call to redeem the ticket.

To purchase tickets online, go to: http://themcp.org/tickets

For more information, including a list of other concerts this season as well as recordings and videos, go to: http://themcp.org/concerts-2

MADISON NEW MUSIC ENSEMBLE

This Friday night, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m. the Madison New Music Ensemble (below) will perform a FREE concert at the Capitol Lakes Auditorium, 333 W. Main St., in downtown Madison, two blocks off the Capitol Square.

Parking is available in the ramp across from Capitol Lakes.

The concert features music by Joseph Koykkar (below), a Madison-based composer who teaches at the UW-Madison; Gabriela Lena Frank; Gareth Farr; Astor Piazzolla; and Paul Harvey.

Performers in the Madison New Music Ensemble are: Danielle Breisach, Amy Harr, Xinyi Jiang, Elena Ross, Joseph Ross and Bethany Schultz.

For more information, go to the Madison New Music Ensemble on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/madisonnewmusicensemble/

Or go to the YouTube link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oehEnNWbA0Q

 


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Classical music: John W. Barker finds the Wisconsin Chamber Choir “moving” and “overwhelming” in its performance of the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms.

April 21, 2015
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 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

Having already established an enviable level of achievement with his Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below), conductor Robert Gehrenbeck led it to new heights with the concert on Saturday night at Luther Memorial Church.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir with conductor Brahms 2015 JWB

The program opened with two examples of Gehrenbeck’s interest in promoting new choral works through commissions.

The first, sung by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chamber Singers at his academic base, was by American composer Christian Ellenwood (below).

Entitled “Prairie Spring,” it set a poem by Willa Cather, celebrating the Nebraska landscape, scored for choir and string orchestra. This is a gentle piece, full of lyric grace, in a neo-Romantic style, and reflecting a confident command of choral texture. It made me think a little of the music of British composer Gerald Finzi. The words were somewhat obscured, but that may partly have been a function of the church’s spacious acoustics.

Christian Ellenwood copy

The second new work was by the older British composer Giles Swayne (below) that sets selected lines from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, under the title of “Our Orphan Souls.” Solo baritone Gregory Berg (below) delivered reflections of Captain Ahab, with chorus, alto saxophone, harp, double bass and percussion.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Ahab JWB (1)

The solo writing has strength, and might have been built into a more extended soliloquy—and baritone Gregory Berg delivered it with strength. But the choral writing — sung by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir itself — was unsettled and unidiomatic, running from word to word without much continuity of lines.

Giles Swayne

Ah, but the main event! Nothing less than the “German” Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), one of the greatest of choral works, by one of the greatest of choral composers, Johannes Brahms (below). Setting passages from Scripture in the Martin Luther translation, Brahms made this a big work, both in length and in performing demands.

brahms3

The chancel of Luther Memorial has only so much space, forcing a lot of crowding. The orchestra—37 players, familiar local performers—was arrayed through the center, while the two blended choirs were stationed on risers to either side: sopranos and tenors on the left, altos and basses on the right (below).

Wisconsin Chamber Choir, Brahms altos, basses JWB (1)

Such an arrangement could have strained ensemble coordination, but in fact it worked quite well. Indeed, it actually made it possible to follow the interaction of voice parts better than when the whole choir is in a single clump. German diction was a bit blurred, but, again, acoustics must take some blame. (I should note that I sat close and up front, so that what and how I heard may have been somewhat different from those in seating further back.)

The two soloists were both engaging. A last-minute replacement, soprano Catherine Henry (below left), was deeply expressive, a rich-voiced exemplar of the comforting mother we would all want to have.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Catherine Henry soprano JWB (1)

The baritone, Brian Leaper, was a deft guide to the mysteries of mortality.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Brian Leaper JWB (1)

The orchestra took on its large assignment with skill, and the choral singers were simply magnificent. But the highest praise must go to Gehrenbeck himself. His tempos were flexible, his balances neatly coordinated, and his sense of what each of the seven movements had to say was perfect. This is not only a superb choral conductor, but a musician of true artistry.

I write as someone for whom the Brahms Requiem has profound meaning. I have known and loved it since student days. I have sung in it several times, and listened to it in many recordings and performances. It is one of the musical threads of my life.

But I think I can honestly say that this was the most meaningful performance of the work that I have ever experienced. I often felt moved to tears by the beautiful, truthful messages that Robert Gehrenbeck (below) — who heads the choral program at UW-Whitewater — brought to realization out of it.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

There is a small lifetime list I keep of concerts and performances that I forever cherish, and this one is a rare addition—a presentation I will remember for the rest of my days.

One more reminder, then, of the riches Madison offers in choral music alone!


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