The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: Turning chaos into order. Conductor Beverly Taylor explains what makes Haydn’s “The Creation” special and fun to listen to. The UW-Madison Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra with soloists will perform it on Sunday afternoon.

April 18, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the campus-community UW-Madison Choral Union (below), the UW Chamber Orchestra and soloists will perform the oratorio the “The Creation” by the Classical-era master Franz Joseph Haydn.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

First, The Ear wants to clear up any confusion about the date of the performance – which is ONE-TIME ONLY. (In the past, the Choral Union usually gave two performances.) The performance was originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Then it was moved to Saturday night and then, after a conflict with the Jewish Passover was seen, moved back to Sunday afternoon.

Tickets are $15 for the general public, $8 for students. For more information about tickets, the work and the performers, here is a link:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union2/

Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music who will conduct the performance, agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

What is the place of Haydn’s “The Creation” is the choral literature? Was it influential? Popular?

It’s considered wonderful and innovative. Its choruses are magnificent, and the opening depiction of Chaos is unlike anything that had been heard up to that time.

It was written late in Haydn’s career, and showed many aspects of his wonderful talent, including musical depictions of non-musical things—water, birds, dawn — and has terrific pacing of the extended choruses building to majestic climaxes.

The premiere was enthusiastically received. It was indeed popular, although the composer’s late masses also deserve great attention. The other vocal works by Haydn (below), such as “The Seasons,” are more slowly paced, and although they contain great music, they are not often felt to be as compelling as “The Creation” with its easy-to-follow sequence of creative days.

Haydn

Are there special moments or parts of the work you would like to point out to the public? How about special aspects of the performance?

Yes! One thing to do is to listen with an open mind to Chaos. (You can preview “Chaos” in a YouTube video at the bottom as performed by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music.)

When I first heard a dull performance of it years ago, I wondered what the big deal was. Then I took a good look at it: It contains chaotic oddities — a horn suddenly blaring loudly with no reference to other instruments, a trilling flute that never resolves its trill, bassoons and clarinets who play bubbling and pointless arpeggios until it all settles down to begin the first day of the Creation (famously depicted below by the British artist and poet William Blake).

Creation and God William Blake

There are also delightful musical depictions and sound paintings of weather that can be confusing unless you know that the orchestra depicts the weather before the bass tells us about it. That way hail won’t sound like snow! The same holds true for the description of animals — we hear the leaping stags before our singer tells us.

There will be terrific moments in the work — orchestral playing, fabulous choral singing. And there will be wonderful solo work by our experienced alumni and faculty artists soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below top), tenor James Doing (below second), bass-baritone Benjamin Schultz (below third) and baritone Benjamin Li (below bottom). It’s a pleasure to make music with them.

Jamie Rose Guarrine 2016

James Doing color

Benjamin Schultz 2016

Benjamin Li 2016

Composer John Harbison says that Haydn is the most neglected of all the great composers. Why do you think Haydn isn’t thought of more highly and performed more often?

Among musicians, Haydn is certainly thought of highly, and many people enjoy his work, especially the element of surprise in his work — sforzandos, sudden silences, changes of rhythm.

But many of his works are chamber works designed for smaller rooms and audiences. And in our modern life, the size of the orchestra and special instruments and added theatrical elements often attract more people. Haydn’s chamber works are fabulous, but sometimes subtle. However, they repay well those who pay attention to them.

The Creation poster 2016

What else would you like to say about the composer, this particular work or this performance?

Haydn was influenced by and had influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, on all the European composers. But what inspires audiences — including, we hope, ours — is the immediacy of the beauty of the music. You don’t need special training to jump right in and listen.


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