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 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


Classical music: Baroque arias and Schubert songs will be performed by Madison Bach Musicians harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson; guest artist Tallis Scholars soprano Amy Haworth; and Chicago viola da gambist Anna Steinhoff.

October 3, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed local early music group Madison Bach Musicians will kick off its new season this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society, below), 900 University Bay Drive.

The MBM-sponsored program features “Baroque Vocal Masterworks” with English soprano
 Amy Haworth (below top) of the famed Tallis Scholars; MBM founder and harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson; and viola da gambist
 Anna Steinhoff (below bottom) who lives in Chicago and performs with the Newberry Consort and other well-known early music, period-instrument groups.

The chamber music program featuring vocal gems from the Baroque 
era composed by Monteverdi, Caccini, Luzzaschi, Caldara, Cesti, Alessandro Scarlatti, Purcell, J. S. Bach and G.F Handel.

Advance tickets are: $20 general, $15 students/seniors (over 65). At the door: $25 general, $20 students & seniors (over 65), $10 children ages 6-12
. Advance-price discount tickets are on sale at: A Room of One’s Own, Farley’s House of Pianos, 
Willy St. Co-op (east and west), Orange Tree Imports and Ward Brodt.
 Tickets are also available at the door.

The Baroque Vocal Masterworks 
Concert is part of a CD-Release Tour that runs Oct. 5-17. Other performances include: Friday, Oct. 5, at 7:30 p.m. in the 
Christ Church Episcopal, 5655 N. Lake Drive, Whitefish Bay, Wis.;
 Saturday, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the
First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive in Madison, Wis.; Saturday, Oct. 13, at 7:30 p.m. in
 Sundin Hall at Hamline University, 1531 Hewitt Ave., St. Paul, Minn.
 (For advance tickets for Oct. 13 in St. Paul: call 651-523-2459, press 4); and Wednesday,
Oct. 17, at 7:30 p.m. in
 Nichols Hall at Music Institute of Chicago, 1490 Chicago Avenue, in Evanston, Ill.

Then on Wednesday evening, Oct.  10, at 7 p.m., soprano Amy Haworth (from the Tallis Scholars) and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson on the fortepiano will give an informal  “house concert”  of art songs by Franz Schubert (below, at the keyboard in a print by Moritz Schwind), that social amiable composer who often premiered his works at gatherings of friends called “Schubertiades.” That same week the two performers will be in the process of recording these 16 lieder for an upcoming CD.

The concert is at the home of Rose and Trevor Stephenson (below) 
at 5729 Forsythia Place on Madison’s far west side. Tickets are $35 with refreshments served. About 35 to 40 people can be accommodated. Reservations are required: email trevor@trevorstephenson.com or call 238-6092.

Says Stephenson (below), who is a master guide to and explainer of music: “We’re thrilled to have a chance to run the set for you and to discuss the pieces some as we go along. These are simply some of the most beautiful songs ever written, and I believe that the way in which the fortepiano’s vibrant immediacy and Amy’s outstanding pitch and diction combine will shed new light on these masterpieces. I hope so very much that you will be able to attend. The concert will be in our home music studio. Yummy treats and drinks will appear as well!! Please let us know if you can make it. It would be great to see you.”

For more background and information about both concerts, visit madisonbachmusicians.org or www.trevorstephenson.com, or call (608) 238-6092.


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