The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Summer Choir addresses current events with outstanding performances of great choral music

June 28, 2016
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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 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.


By John W. Barker

For eight years, the Madison Summer Choir (below) has been giving an annual concert. This year’s, on Saturday night, under founder and conductor Ben Luedcke, was built around the theme “This is My Song! – Music in the Struggle for Peace and Justice.”

Madison Summer Choir 2016 with piano JWB

And, indeed, Luedcke (below) introduced most of the selections with pointed remarks, addressing issues faced today, and the need for making ours a better world.

Ben Luedcke.1jpg

The first part of the program began with the “big tune” from Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia, set to English words. This was sung a cappella, while the four short items that followed had piano accompaniment.

Two of those pieces—by composers Stephen Chatman and Sven Lekberg—carried poems by Walt Whitman, while another, by Joan Szymko, set a text by Wendell Berry. But the gem of the set was a short partsong, An die Heimat (To my Homeland), by that truly great choral master, Johannes Brahms. 

After the intermission, the chorus of 66 voices was joined by an orchestra (below) of 32, for the musical plateau.

Madison Summer Choir 2016 with orchestra JWB

Felix Mendelssohn is one of the handful of supreme choral composers (think of his oratorio Elijah!). As a warmer-upper, we were given his brief setting of Martin Luther’s translation of the Latin Dona nobis pacem as Verleih uns Frieden (Grant us Peace). (You can hear Mendelssohn’s beautiful “Verleih uns Frieden” in a YouTube video at the bottom)

But the true main event was a rousing performance of Mendelssohn’s unfairly neglected cantata, Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night). This sets a ballad by Goethe portraying a band of Druids arranging to celebrate a holy solstice rite in the face of newly triumphant Christian intolerance. By making an unholy racket, they drive away their persecutors and launch the myth of St. Walburga’s Night (Walpurgisnacht, on April 30) as an occasion of Satanic rumpus (think Goethe’s and Gounod’s Faust).

The work calls for three solo singers (below), this time contralto Jessica Timman Schwefel, tenor Dan O’Dea, and baritone Ben Li (of whom the tenor was the most impressive). This score is one of striking dramatic effect and musical force, but it is too brief to find a place in most concert repertoire.

Madison Summer Choir 2016 3 soloists No. 2 JWB

Singers and players threw themselves into it with wonderful gusto under propulsive direction. We must thank Luedcke for giving us a rare chance to enjoy it.

The final piece was a movement from a choral symphony by Srul Irving Glick: making a truly splendid choral sound that, however, quite obliterated the uplifting words.

Overall, the program showed that Luedcke had nurtured, in a short time, a choir of nicely balanced and blended voices. With the best of their material, they made a wonderfully glowing sound.

One more example, then, of the quite stunning riches of Madison’s summer musical life!

Classical music review: High school musician and critic Mikko Utevsky praises the new opera “Wired For Love” by UW student Jerry Hui.

January 26, 2012

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium (below) of the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, features oboist Scott Ellington and pianist Ted Reinke, in music by Alex (Alec) Wilder, Gordon Jacob and Srul Irving Glick. For information, call 608 233-9774 or visit

By Jacob Stockinger

Earlier this week, I posted a a review of the world premiere of UW student Jerry Hui’s chamber opera “Wired For Live” by guest reviewer by John W. Barker, who normally reviews for Isthmus and who is veteran music critic as well as a distinguished retired UW-Madison history professor.

(By the way, “Wired For Love” has been recorded and there will be CDs available of it in the near future. I’ll pass along word when I get it.)

Here, for purposes on comparison is a link to that first review:

But I also heard from a loyal blog reader and a multi-talented young musician in Madison, Mikko Utevsky.

Mikko (below) is a senior at Madison East High School and a part-time music student at the UW-Madison. He also plays the viola in WYSO (Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra) and the UW Symphony Orchestra and conducts the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO). He has done a Q&A for this blog (link is below) and offered comments on other postings. But this is his first major review and I am pleased to offer a forum to such a discerning young musician. It is vital that we in classical music cultivate and encourage young talent.

By Mikko Utevsky

I was very impressed Jerry Hui’s new opera “Wired For Love.” I’ve known Jerry (below) for four or five years, but I’ve never heard much of his music before. It was well worth braving the cold on Friday night, though it is too bad it competed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra concert.

To speak of the opera itself, the synopsis helps a great deal with piecing the story together. The narration can become a tad fragmented, but having read the original emails that’s not terribly surprising.

The set was spare and showcased the action nicely, I thought, although it did bother me when the singers weren’t quite placed opposite each other on a stage so strikingly symmetrical.

The singing was good, particularly from tenor Daniel O’Dea (below right) as Bako Ndiovu. I’m no judge of vocal technique, but with the exception of a few diction issues in the very beginning, a few consonants missing from the rather demanding high writing for Ethel Wormvarnish (played beautifully by Jennifer Sams, below left) whose arresting voice and expressive physicality perfectly matched the role), and a few little discrepancies between the words and the supertitles (which often lagged behind the singers), I thought the vocalists carried their roles very well and brought the story across with wit and intelligence.

Peter Gruett’s countertenor was surprisingly nuanced (Gruett is below on the far right), despite the inherently comic feel of the register and writing. And while the voice of James Held (below, far left)  felt a tad thin at one or two moments, I thought it more a character trait than a technical flaw — it made sense in context. The humorous cracks in “I have a cold” were carried off very well, and made it one of my favorites.

The cast’s unique voices all stood out well in ensemble numbers, so you could catch all the jokes – and there were quite a few (both textual and musical).

It’s certainly a funny opera; the painstaking transcription of the scammer’s poor English is hilarious, as are Ethel’s antics. The opening of the opera feels a little awkward (although the overture is seriously fun), but it soon finds its groove.

Only once did the transitions feel jarring – moving between the sweet “Please Call Me” and Ethel’s vicious aria “Serpent! Viper!” was a tad awkward, and one short passage in the latter (and a few others in other places) might benefit from a slight enlargement of the string sections.

By and large, I liked the soloistic sound, but sometimes the string lines weren’t quite prominent enough (or needed the mass of a section for confidence’s sake; which was generally not a problem regardless).

That aside, the orchestra (below) danced and sparkled through Jerry’s vivacious score, lingering sweetly where needed. Ching-Chun Lai did a marvelous job bringing out the colors of the nine-player ensemble. Bako’s aria “Where the rivers meet” was beautifully tender, showcasing both Jerry’s writing for voice and orchestra and O’Dea’s sweet tenor well.

The final number (“The Moral Lesson”) was my favorite musical joke of the opera, a Renaissance dance with all the wrong counterpoint. That is a nod to Jerry’s work in early music, certainly, and one that drew a few laughs from the audience, which was curiously subdued until Ethel’s first aria, at which point we finally started applauding. The music earlier certainly deserved more than it got, but we were cold.

Perhaps Saturday’s performance will draw a larger crowd once the streets are plowed. Jerry’s work deserves it.

(Editor’s Addendum: Jerry Hui will teach a Continuing Education class on singing Gregorian Chant at the UW.  The class meets every Saturday from 2 to 3:30 p.m., and will begin next Saturday, Feb. 4. Registration is required and can be done online through the website of the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies:

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