The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 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

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to

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Classical music: Prize-winning violinist Ilya Kaler returns to perform Paganini with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this Friday night

April 18, 2018
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features bassoonist Juliana Mesa-Jaramillo, clarinetist Jose Garcia-Taborda and pianist Satoko Hayami in music by Mikhail Glinka, Max Bruch and Carlos Guastavino. The concert takes place from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

If you were in the audience two years ago when violinist Ilya Kaler (below) made his Madison debut with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, it is unlikely that you have forgotten it.

Kaler proved himself a complete virtuoso when he performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major. The audience went wild and so did the critics, including The Ear.

Backed up with a first-rate accompaniment by music director and conductor Andrew Sewell and the WCO, Kaler showed a perfect mix of dramatic virtuosity, songful lyricism, lush tone and sonic clarity that you rarely hear.

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center Kaler returns to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), again under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell.

The vehicle this time is the Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 7, by perhaps the most famous violin virtuoso of all time, Niccolo Paganini (below, playing for astonished listeners).

The concerto is famous for the “La Campanella” (The Bell) theme of the last movement that inspired the show-off etude of the same name by the great pianist Franz Liszt, who sought to emulate and transfer Paganini’s fiendish violin virtuosity on the piano. (You can hear that last movement in YouTube video at the bottom.)

Also on the program are: The Mozart-like and operatic String Sonata No. 2 by a 12-year-old Goiachino Rossini; and the Symphony No. 81 in G Major by Franz Joseph Haydn, a composer who is one of the interpretative strengths of Sewell (below).

Tickets are $15-$80. For ticket information and purchases, got to:

Born in Russia and trained at the famed Moscow Conservatory, Kaler now teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. He also won major gold medals in the 1980s at three major international competitions: the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow; the Paganini Competition in Genoa; and the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki.

He also records frequently for Naxos Records. To find out more about the impressive Kaler, go to:

Classical music: The 18th annual Madison Early Music Festival concludes its look at the Spanish Renaissance with another outstanding “concept concert” featuring all participants

July 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Nobody here does “concept concerts” better than the Madison Early Music Festival.

Proof came again last Saturday night in Mills Hall when the large forces of professional faculty members and workshop student participants (both below) joined to present a comprehensive overview of Renaissance music in Spain.

The program featured various combinations, including a quartet (below) as well as choral music and instrumental music. It offered sacred and secular fare, courtly music and folk music, Latin and vernacular Spanish.

Once again, the impressive program was assembled and conducted by Grant Herreid (below top) of the internationally acclaimed Renaissance band Piffaro (below bottom), a popular and regular guest at MEMF. (You can hear Piffaro perform music from the Spanish Renaissance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As in past years, history, biography, literature, religion and music get layered on top of each other and interwoven among each other. As a formula, from year to year the concept keeps getting refined and keeps succeeding.

In this case, the narration and story line centered on the surprisingly adventurous life of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (below), who wrote the first important novel, “Don Quixote.”

Last year, the festival celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare; this year, it was the 400th anniversary of the death of Cervantes.

The Ear really likes the format. The All-Festival concert ran 75 minutes and was done without intermission. Even if you are not a big fan of such early music, the concert was varied enough and short enough to hold your attention.

Unity was provided by excerpts from various texts of Cervantes, including “Don Quixote” as well as less well-known works. Some of his words were even substituted for other texts in songs and choruses.

The chorus and soloists sounded very well rehearsed, and the large instrumental section – with all those unusual-looking early instruments like sackbuts and shawms – was exceptional.

Herreid kept an outstanding sonic balance between the vocal and instrumental forces throughout the event.

There were quite a few narrators (below) who presented the short texts by Cervantes. And they proved the only weak point. Some people just don’t seem as up to the task as others do.

Perhaps in future years, the festival could pick, say, one man and one woman to alternate in the readings. The audience would have a better sense of their identities, and the effect would be better if the narrators were chosen for their ability to project dramatically and enunciate clearly but with expression – something that proved uneven with so many different narrators taking turns.

The Ear didn’t go to a lot of the festival events. He confesses that he is more a Baroque than a Renaissance person who looks forward to next year’s theme of “A Journey to Lübeck,” with German Renaissance and even Baroque music, especially music by Dietrich Buxtehude. (The 19th annual festival will be held July 7-14, 2018.)

But this final wrap-up concert is proof that even if very early music is not your thing, you shouldn’t miss the final event.

The All-Festival concert really is a MUST-HEAR.

You learn a lot.

And you enjoy even more.

Certainly the audience seemed to agree.

Were you there?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

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