The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians venture beyond the Baroque into the Classicism of Haydn and Mozart with impressive results.

April 22, 2013
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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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

In its program on Saturday night (repeated Sunday afternoon), Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians took a bold step forward.  Certainly so in chronology, going beyond their usual halting point at Bach’s demise (1750) to sample music of the later 18th century.

The composers represented were the two giants, Haydn and Mozart (below top and bottom respective): a concerto and a symphony for each.

Haydn

mozart big

This move is partly an expansion of Stephenson’s growing new collaboration with Marc Vallon, the world-class bassoon virtuoso on the UW Music School’s faculty, who has plunged into earlier literature for his instrument, but who has also ventured into conducting. (Below is Marc Vallon conducting Haydn.).

Marc Vallon conducting Haydn

Examining the program by genres rather than composers, we find one concerto featuring each of the two leaders.

Stephenson opened the program with Haydn’s familiar Keyboard Concerto in D, notable for its Hungarian Rondo finale.

The work was probably written for harpsichord, but is today misrepresented on the modern piano. Stephenson took a middle road, using a fortepiano, a predecessor of the modern piano, and one with tone coloring and character of its own.

Further, Stephenson played discreet keyboard continuo in the Haydn Symphony and the Mozart Concerto that followed–certainly correct for Haydn, who would have led his ensemble from the keyboard to keep everybody together.

Trevor Stephenson talking about fortepiano

Vallon (below) gave a fruity and colorful rendition of the solo part in Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in B-flat, leading the orchestra along the way.  In the two Symphonies, he took over full conducting functions, using enthusiastic body language, but contributing phrasing and agogics that revealed fine musical insight.

Marc Vallon playing Mozart on bassoon

The Haydn Symphony was No. 45 in F-sharp minor, known as the “Farewell.” Written in a willfully weird key, it is full of wild, even angry music, until its epilogue, in which the composer makes a plea to his employer, on behalf of his overworked musicians, for a long-deferred vacation.

This is done by the clever touch of having members of the orchestra drop out and leave one by one until only two violins remain. This game was played out with relish by our performers. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the finale of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony played by another group.)

MBM Haydn Farewell finale

The Mozart Symphony, his No. 29 in A major, is a work of youthful brio and charm, one of his earliest masterpieces in the form.

All these works are marked by elements of humor. The two concertos, especially that for bassoon, pokes gentle fun at the solo instrument in musical gamesmanship.  Aside from the “departure” joke in Haydn’s Symphony, both of them featured the same use of surprise, in the Menuet movements for each, with comically abrupt endings.

Above all, however, this concert was an important landmark of sorts: the first time (if I am right) that anybody has assembled in Madison a working recreation of a late-18th century orchestra. One feature of this fact is numbers: 12 string players plus pairs of players on oboes and horns.  Moreover, these were period-style instruments, the strings made of gut and played without vibrato.

The total result was a lean sound drastically different in tone, texture and balances from that we are accustomed to in the “modern symphony orchestra.” The players were all quite expert in their skills, many coming from widely scattered points around the country–such is Trevor Stephenson’s far-reaching network by now.

MBM size of group

I could have wished for just a little tighter ensemble from the violins (as might come with more regular and consistent working together), but the playing was committed and artistic.

The texture allowed the sometimes ferocious discords in Haydn’s Symphony to sound with powerful effect, while the overall balances allowed the horns to ring out, even dominating at times, instead of being buried under lush string sound. In the Mozart Symphony, one could hear the clever harmonic and rhythmic material the composer gave to the violas (an instrument he himself loved to play).

This was, as I say, a landmark event in Madison’s musical history, and more.  The program, played at the new Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society, was preceded, as always, by a witty and informative talk by Stephenson.  The quite large audience (I would guess at least 250 attendees on Saturday) was enthusiastic, and justly so at a concert both significant and wondrously enjoyable.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams


Classical music review: British soprano Amy Haworth brings her outstanding voice to Madison in Baroque arias and Schubert songs.

October 12, 2012
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REMINDER: This Sunday in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Concert Band and the University Bands — the first directed by  Scott Teeple  (below) and the second by Justin Stolarik and Matthew Mireles — will perform FREE concerts at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., respectively. The Concert Band  will perform works by Del Borgo, Jacob, Chance, Holst and Nixon. Sorry, no word about the program for the University Bands.

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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Save for the astute scrutiny of Jake Stockinger and his Ear, a striking young artist has stolen into town, otherwise under most everyone’s radar, for a pair of exciting concerts.

The artist is the British soprano Amy Haworth (below), brought to the upper Midwest through the auspices of Trevor Stephenson, founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians.

Stephenson first heard Haworth a few years ago when, at the Boston Early Music Festival, he singled her out among members of the famous Tallis Scholars chamber choir. Excited by her talents, he negotiated for her to work with him in what has become now a complex of activities. This is built around a series of their appearances in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois during the month of October, offering a pair of concert programs.

These programs were showcased in Madison in recent days. Last Saturday night at the First Unitarian Society, Haworth presented one of these programs, with the backing of Stephenson on harpsichords and Chicago gamba-player Anna Steinhoff (below).

The two instrumentalists each had their solo moments, but the concentration was on Haworth’s singing of short selections by Baroque composers ranging from Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Giulio Caccini of the late 16th century, through Monteverdi, Caldara, Cesti, the two Scarlattis, and Purcell, of the 17th and early 18th centuries, culminating in examples from J. S. Bach and Handel.

Then, on this past Wednesday evening, Haworth and Stephenson gave their second program, devoted entirely to Lieder of Schubert, and held at his home.

Haworth (below) is an example of the singers generated by early music-making in England — with Emma Kirkby as prime specimen of the type. Haworth’s experience in working with chamber choirs and vocal concerts has carried over into solo singing of a wide literature extending through the 19th century.

Her background experience is shown in her cultivation of the clear and “white,” vibrato-less singing now common in early music performance. But she has developed a technique, used variably, of attacking a note with a “straight,” almost piercing tone and then letting it blossom into carefully controlled vibrato.

Her sense of pitch is invariably spot-on, her diction is refined in any language, and her projection can be fitted to venues either small or large. Though successful in singing a Handel aria, she professes no interest in opera performance, Baroque or otherwise, preferring concert work.

Particularly endearing was her singing of Schubert with Stephenson. He has experimented before with accompanying that composer’s Lieder on the fortepiano, the early keyboard model expanded eventually into the modern concert grand.

But the lighter, more deft and delicate sound-world of the fortepiano (below) gives a whole meaning to such music. The singer no longer has to fight the power of the later instrument and can enjoy the intimate balance and more silvery tone of the earlier one. With Haworth Stephenson has found a perfect partner for the kind of music-making that Schubert himself relished in his “Schubertiad” evenings with his friends.

But there is more.

In addition to giving these two performances in Madison, and to the carrying them on tour this month, the ever-resourceful Stephenson has used the opportunity to add two new recordings to his Light and Shadow label. The 24 vocal items of the Baroque Songs and Arias program has already been recorded and just now released. And the program of 17 Schubert songs heard at the house concert are about to be recorded, for imminent release.

Finally, a word should be said about the house concert idea itself. House concerts have become quite common in our musical life these days, many of them designed for promotional and fund-raising purposes. But, for some years now, Stephenson has been presenting a season of offerings in his home, parallel to his season with the Madison Bach Musicians.

For these domestic concerts, Stephenson has sometimes brought other musicians to join him, but mostly he gives programs by himself on harpsichord or piano, regularly on some theme or on the music of a given composer.

Stephenson (below, explaining the action of the fortepiano) has developed a practice of giving pre-concert talks at the MBM events, and he extends the idea for the house concerts, filling them with both insightful commentary and witty charm.

These programs are open to the public by reservation, since space is limited to about 40 people each time. For those who have become habituated to them, they are among the special delights of Madison’s variegated musical life.

Stephenson’s MBM has two public appearances ahead, on Dec. 14-15 and April 20-21, while dates for further house concerts are pending. Information on events, and on recordings, may be had at www.trevorstephenson.com


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