The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra deliver outstanding performances of great music by Mozart and Brahms

December 12, 2017
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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. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The program for the first concert this season by the UW Choral Union (below), mercifully, had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, and just offered great music.

There were only two works, one by Brahms and the other by Mozart. Surefire!

Johannes Brahms composed three relatively short works for chorus, without soloists, and orchestra. Of these, I wish conductors would get busy with two of them in particular. The Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) and Nänie are simply superb works by one of the greatest of all choral composers.

The third, the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54, I would rate just a bit lower for musical content, but that is the one of the three that is more frequently performed, and that was the one we heard.

That said, there is much quite beautiful music in the piece, which sets a poem of Friedrich Hölderlin that moves from anxiety to desperation. Brahms (below) preceded the choral setting with a serene introduction that—to satisfy his aesthetics if not the poet’s—he repeats at the end to restore order.

Conductor Beverley Taylor (below) employed rather broad tempos, but this enabled her to bring out some of the melodic material with great beauty.

And, with a chorus of some 124 singers, she was able to give the music tremendous sonority, if a bit at the price of German diction. With the very good UW Symphony Orchestra in fine fettle, too, this was an excellent performance that should alert listeners to neglected treasures.

The main work was the unfinished “Great” Mass in C minor, K. 427, by Mozart (below). This is music inspired by the composer’s marriage and by the new (for him) artistic climate of Vienna. Even incomplete – it has a fragmentary “Credo” and is missing an “Agnus Dei”) — it still stands, with his also uncompleted Requiem, as a towering masterpiece of his sacred choral output.

Taylor displayed a fine feeling for both the overall and individual qualities of the work, projecting them with vigor and discipline.

There were four student soloists (below), with promising young voices.

But eventually the standout proved to be soprano Sarah Richardson (below). The operatic-style aria, “Et incarnatus est” from the “Credo” was apparently sung by Mozart’s wife in its preliminary performance, and is often heard as a separate solo number today. This was sung by Richardson (below) with skill and eloquence. (You can hear the aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This chorus was really a bit oversized for a work like this, but Taylor made it the real star of the performance, in singing with both power and precision.

A truly rewarding concert!


Classical music: UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra plus soloists will perform Brahms and Mozart this Saturday and Sunday nights. On Friday night, the Choral Arts Society Chorale performs a holiday program.

December 7, 2017
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ALERT: The Choral Arts Society Chorale of Madison, under director Mikko Rankin Utevsky, will perform “Frostiana: Songs for a Winter’s Night” this Friday night at 7 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1904 Winnebago St. Admission is $15, students $10. The program is: Brahms, “In stiller Nacht”; Barber, “Sure on this shining night”; Lasso, “Matona mia cara”; Victoria, “O Magnum Mysterium”; Gendel, “It was my father’s custom”; Myers, “The Winter’s Night”; Leontovych, “Shchedryk“; and Thompson, “Frosting.”

For more information, go to www.ChoralArtsMadison.org

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the UW-Madison campus and community Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra (below) will perform the rarely heard “Schicksalslied” (Song of Destiny) by Brahms and the “Great” Mass in C Minor, K. 427, by Mozart.

The performances are in Mills Hall on Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday night at 7 p.m.

Writes conductor Beverly Taylor (below):

The “Schicksalslied,” Op. 54, by Brahms (below) is a heartfelt, 16-minute work that sets Friedrich Hoelderlin’s poem about the yearning and loss of beauty, and suggestion of hope for the future.

“The work starts with gorgeous, muted harmonies; goes into a passionate whirlwind in the middle; and then ends with an orchestral recollection of the opening themes.

“If the work were longer, it might be performed more often. It is a real jewel of Brahms’s repertoire.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Adds Taylor: “The C minor Mass, like the Requiem, was unfinished by Mozart (below) —we are not sure why. It contains vibrant writing for the chorus, including several movements for double chorus, and some of the finest solo music he ever wrote.”

The soloists will be sopranos Sarah Richardson (below top) and Chelsie Propst (below second), tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below third), and baritone Matthew Chastain (below bottom).

Tickets are $15 for the public, $8 for students.

For more information about obtaining tickets and for more about the works and performers, go to; http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/choral-union-symphony-orchestra-2/


Classical music Q&A: Pianist Isabella Wu discusses Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which she will perform tonight at the opening of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s 31st annual Concerts on the Square. Plus, the Madison Summer Choir sings Brahms and Bizet on Friday night.

June 25, 2014
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ALERT: Just a reminder that the Madison Summer Choir (below) will present the “Song of Destiny” by Johannes Brahms and the “Te Deum” by Georges Bizet with orchestra this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave. The concert is entitled “Philosophically Speaking,” also features pieces exploring human reality, existence, and reason.  The first half includes works by Orlando Gibbons, Stephen Chatman, Cecil Effinger and Daniel Mulholland. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for students. Here is a link with information about the concert and about how to join the choir:

http://madisonsummerchoir.org

Madison Summer Choir

By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight at 7 p.m. brings the opening of what has been billed in the past as “The Biggest Picnic of Summer”: The 31st annual FREE Concerts on the Square (below) by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under the baton of WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell. Each of the six concerts draws upwards of 10,000 people.

(NOTE: The weather reports call for possible storms tonight. To find out about  possible cancellation of the concert, final word will be posted every Wednesday afternoon by 3 p.m. on www.wcoconcerts.org.)

Over the next six consecutive Wednesday nights (Thursdays are the rain date), all kinds of music -– from classical to rock, pop and blues -– will be featured on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

ConcertsonSquaregroupshot

Of special note is the appearance tonight by Madison pianist Isabella Wu (bel0w), who won the annual young artist concerto competition this year. She will perform the first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor by the Romantic 20th-century Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov.

Isabella Wu

Also on the “Midsommer Stars” program are: the “Swedish Festival Music” by Swedish composer August Soderman (1832-1876); Swedish Dance Nos. 1-7 by Max Bruch; the “Cossack Scherzo” from the Symph0ny No. 2 by Mily Balakirev; the Festival Overture on the American National Air by British composer Percy C. Buck (1871-1947); and “Midsommervaka” by Swedish Hugo Alfven (1872-1960).

Here is a link to an overview of this summer’s six Concerts on the Square.

http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square/

Here is a link to rules and guidelines that are useful for attending the concerts:

http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square/attendingtheconcerts/

And here is a link to vendor menus if you don’t bring your own food for dinner:

http://wcoconcerts.org/assets/files/153411_2014COSVendorMenus.pdf

Pianist Isabella Wu recently agreed to doing an email Q&A about her performance tonight:

Isabella Wu2

Can you briefly introduce yourself to readers.

I am Isabella Wu, age 15 and a freshman at Madison Memorial High. I began piano lessons at the age of 5. In third grade, I became interested in picking up a second instrument, the violin (below, Wu is seen soloing with WYSO’s Philharmonia Orchestra) and have been in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (below) for six years. (I will be on WYSO’s tour to Argentina in late July).

My other pursuits in music have been numerous. I am an avid singer, and recently finished a semester coaching choir at my middle school. Most recently, my interests have extended to playing percussion and composing.

Music has been the most essential part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I would consider it my first language and my first world. Where I would be without music or art, for that matter, would be most certainly a cataclysmic shift; hence, I expect to be in the music world in the future. Where, I don’t know. I have an interest in the back-stage business area of the artistic world, and being an impresario is a possibility.

Isabella Wu on violin with WYSO Philharmonia Soloist 3

Why did you choose the rarely played Piano Concerto No. 1 by Sergei Rachmaninov to study, play and perform?

When I heard the Rachmaninov 1, the work touched me as something soulful and heart-wrenching, yet fleeting at times, and touched with a bit of bravura. The soaring theme following the opening passage became an immediate favorite with my daily spontaneous outbursts of singing.

But the cadenza of the first movement is where I felt the heart of the first movement could be found. Around that time, I was deciding between this Rachmaninov 1, and his famous second concerto. I was a bit puzzled when I found I was reluctant to play the second, as I had always longed to play it. (The second concerto is much-loved and very popular).

Something didn’t quite seem so right. Months after I had chosen the first, I was still pondering why. I think I knew the Second Concerto by Rachmaninov (below) was too ingrained in the public’s mind, too well-known by onlookers and by me to search for my own voice. If I had chosen the second, I would have felt overwhelmed by the high stature placed on it, and been (as I already was) too influenced by the numerous recordings to call it my own.

But the first concerto — that was something different. The sparse recordings I found were none alike, and it was not well-known, but equally special. The concerto is not so spectacular at first glance, but has the capability of bringing tears to the most reticent of audience members.

rachmaninoffyoung

What do you most like about the concerto and what would you like the public to know about it?

Rachmaninov wrote this concerto, his Op. 1, at the age of 19, when he was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. As was the custom for novitiates of the Conservatory, Rachmaninov based his work on that of another composer — in this case, the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Edvard Grieg (below).

“Based” is an understatement — Rachmaninov literally wrote his music into Grieg’s concerto, copying it form for form. If you compare the two concertos, you will see that they are very much alike in structure.

edvard grieg

Rachmaninov entered his concerto into the conservatory competition, and took first place. However, years later, after Rachmaniov had sought asylum in the United States, and even after he had edited his second and third concertos, Rachmaninov went back to redraft the first.

As the concerto was already published, there was not much structural change he could make to the piece. Instead, he filled in the lines, developing a much more mature work, and completely re-writing the cadenza.

Yet the public did not receive his work well, and Rachmaninov is said to have stated: “I have rewritten my First Concerto; it is really good now. All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily. And nobody pays any attention. When I tell them in America that I will play the First Concerto, they do not protest, but I can see by their faces that they would prefer the Second or Third.”

Once when Rachmaninov was asked what inspired his music, he replied, “Love. Love -– this is a never fading source of inspiration. It inspires like nothing else. To love means to combine happiness and force of the mind. It becomes a stimulus for the flourishing of intellectual energy, and as such -– for creativity.”

One can only wonder what he meant. At the time of 19, he had already experienced a great number of tragedies, including the deaths of two of his sisters. He had also fallen in love with a neighbor, Verochka Skalon, but was forbidden to write letters to her. Later, after many years, his statement probably also included his love for his country, which he could never go back to.

Whatever the love might be, I hope you too find it in this piece.

Rachmaninoff

You are a competition veteran and winner. How do you cope with performance, especially before such a big crowd? Do you get nervous? How do you prepare? Are there “tricks” you would like to share with others?

Performance anxiety is a nasty deal. Experience usually helps, but isn’t the ultimate solution. For me, yes, I do get nervous, but the key is to channel the nervousness into a positive asset. Nervousness, if directed correctly, gives you the extra boost.

Another occasional problem is “Paralysis by Analysis,” which occurs when the analytical left brain tries to dominate the more natural right brain. However, if you manage to find the zone where your mind clicks, you will do fine.

I usually do stretching exercises and slow down my breathing. I also have some pieces I’ve designated as “warm-up” pieces that tend to click. Try to develop a routine; it will all feel natural in good time.

stage fright

What do you think we have to do to interest more young people in classical music? How did you get interested in it?

For me, music just always happened to be around, with the stereo playing Johann Sebastian Bach while I went to sleep. The big difference, say, between pop music and classical is the accessibility of pop music. Pop songs are generally around 5 minutes long and “catchier,” and can be easily simulated by voice. Classical music, however, requires — most unfortunately — money, and usually a good deal of it. Not to mention classical music’s centuries-old rules, whereas pop songs are more spontaneous and thriving.

The problem is that our liberal-minded age seeks the more libertarian values. However, we’ve been doing a good job introducing classical music to the young public. The high school music program, and to a lesser degree, the middle school program, does a good job of introducing students to an individual instrument and developing a passion for ensemble works. Even some of the elementary school programs are noteworthy, with the common recorder and occasional musicals.

Around here in Madison, Michelle Kaebisch (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), of both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, does an excellent job of bringing classical music to the schools through numerous programs — Link-Up, the Hunt Quartet and the Fall Youth Concerts, in  which I soloed twice — that are eye-openers to students.

Michelle Kaebisch WYSO cr Katrin Talbot

What else would you like to say or add?

Hope to see you Wednesday!


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