The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW Choral Director Beverly Taylor talks about her life with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which she will conduct this Sunday afternoon and night

April 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always ranks high on the short list of the greatest choral works ever composed.

And for good reason.

It represents a peak of Bach’s sacred music and his choral compositions.

This Sunday afternoon and night in Mills Hall, Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the UW Choral Union (below) — comprised of university and community singers — plus soloists and an orchestra, in a performance of the complete work.

At 4 p.m. they will do Part 1 and then at 7:30 p.m., Part 2.

Tickets (one ticket is good for both parts) are $15, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Tickets will also be available at the door.

The Ear is always curious to learn more about the relationship between a professional musician and a towering masterpiece.

He found out more when Taylor (below) recently answered an email Q&A about her past and current experiences with the “St. Matthew Passion”:

When did you first hear the “St. Matthew Passion” and what was your reaction?

I never heard it until my late 20s, would you believe? I’d been through grad school and all its training, and learned German, knew a lot of Bach; and when Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony did it on Good Friday, I sat spellbound for over three hours.

I was shaken to the core by its beauty, and even though it was hardly an early music performance, it was well handled, and one of my favorite British singers, Robert Tear, was the Evangelist. I’ve never forgotten it!

Where do you place the “St. Matthew Passion” among Bach’s works and especially among his many choral works?

As with all masterpieces, it’s hard to choose. It’s the longest work, and its size and scope alone make it a frequent choice of many for favorite work.

It’s more dramatic than the breath-taking B Minor Mass and more meditative than the St. John Passion, but I also love the unbelievable variety of cantatas that Bach (below) produced.

Don’t make me choose!

What role has the “St. Matthew Passion” played in your personal and professional life?

I’d say it’s a pinnacle work. This is only my second time performing it, and I’m unlikely to have the chance again, although one hopes. So I’m invested in its beauty and in its core message of hope in the face of tragedy.

Are there things you would like audiences to know about your upcoming performance?

There are several things.

We have a wonderful cast of soloists, and the orchestra is not the usual student orchestra, since the UW Symphony Orchestra is committed to another program in the near future, but is instead a mixture of students, semi-pros and pros.

The work is set for the two choruses and two orchestras that play with them. Many of the choral movements are set for both orchestras, but Bach varies the texture of each movement by varying who plays in what.

If a listener hasn’t been to a Passion performance before, then you might want to know that:

The character of the Evangelist (sung superbly in this case by Wesley Dunnagan, below) is the narrator of the drama. He is accompanied by the continuo part—which is made up of a keyboard (usually organ with sacred works) and a low melody instrument, usually cello.

The chorus members sing sometimes in the character of Greek chorus commentary, sometimes as characters in the roles of Mob, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, and disciples. Most of this text comes from the book of St. Matthew. However, German theologians wrote commentary that is used for the beautiful Chorales-which basically are hymn-style settings of well-known Lutheran tunes. These chorales turn personal—for instance when Judas betrays Jesus, the chorus, after being a mob, turns around and says in repentance—It is I, I’m the one that killed you. (You can hear the final chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The text is so important, and Bach uses myriad details to bring it out. It is typical that when the text is about death, or evil, or sin, the writing is chromatic, or full of augmented fourth intervals (once nicknamed the devil’s interval). When Jesus has died and been buried, the chorus sings what feels like a lullaby, with the rocking cradle motion. When an earthquake follows Jesus’ death and the curtain of the temple is torn, the continuo cello breaks out of accompaniment mode and tears down the scale like lightning

Although this work presents Bach’s Christian view in the heart of the church year, the scope and issues of faithfulness and disloyalty, trust and fear, should resonate with listeners of all faiths.

We’ve chosen, as some other presenters have, to have a dinner/snack break between the two parts of the three-hour work. One ticket will get you into either or both halves. We do this to give singers and players a little rest, and a little movement to our listeners. Part I runs from 4 p.m. to about 5:15 p.m., and Part II runs from 7:30 p.m. to about 9:15 p.m.


Classical music: Starting this Friday, the Madison Early Music Festival will devote a week to exploring familiar and unfamiliar Iberian music during the age of Cervantes. Part 1 of 2

July 2, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday, when the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) starts its week-long exploration of Iberian music during the Renaissance Age of novelist Miguel de Cervantes (below) and his pioneering novel “Don Quixote,” much will be familiar but much will also be new.

To provide a look at what to expect, the longtime co-artistic directors of the festival – wife-and-husband singers soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe and baritone Paul Rowe (below) – provided the following overview through an email Q&A with The Ear.

All-festival passes are $90 and tickets to individual concerts cost $20, $10 for students.

Click here to buy online, call 608-265-ARTS (2787), or visit the Campus Arts Ticket Box Offices in Memorial Union or Vilas Hall (click here for hours).

(Note: All MEMF Concert Series concerts and lectures are free for participants in the MEMF Workshop. There is a $4 transaction fee per ticket when purchasing online or by phone.)

How successful is this year’s festival compared to others in terms of enrollment, budgets, performers, etc.? How does this program of MEMF’s reach nationally or even internationally compare to previous years?

We will have about 100 students at our workshop this summer, which has been a steady number for the past five years. Our budget increased to cover the big Don Quixote project by Piffaro, which you can read about below.

We continue to attract workshop participants and performers from all over the United States and Canada, and this year our concert series will present Xavier Diaz-Latorre from Spain. For more information, go to: www.xavierdiazlatorre.com

What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and performers?

The following events are new to MEMF this summer:

The Historical Harp Society will be giving a conference before MEMF begins, from Thursday, July 6 through Saturday, July 8, with classes and lectures that will culminate in a concert of Harp Music from the Spanish Golden Age on Friday, July 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, which is FREE and open to the public. Go to www.historicalharpsociety.org

Master teacher and performer Xavier Diaz-Latorre  will be giving a master class in Morphy Recital Hall on Saturday, July 8, from 10 a.m. to noon. It is free and open to the public.

We have a new partnership with the Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS) Program at UW-Madison. LACIS has helped us translate materials and supported MEMF with two grants. www.lacis.wisc.edu

A new display in the Memorial Library foyer will celebrate the 2017 Madison Early Music Festival with a special exhibit of Don Quixote Through the Ages, featuring a selection of books, musical scores, and other materials from the UW-Madison Libraries. While viewing the exhibition, patrons can scan a QR code and listen to a Spotify playlist featuring music that will be heard at the MEMF 2017 Concert Series! This is a MEMF first, created by co-artistic director Paul Rowe.

We worked with several librarians to select the materials: Paloma Celis-Carbajal, Ibero-American Studies and Romance Languages Librarian; Jeanette Casey, head of Mills Music Library; and Lisa Wettleson from Special Collections at Memorial Library (below, in a photo by Brent Nicastro).

Dates: June 26 – August 10, 2017

Location: Memorial Library foyer | 728 State Street | Madison

Library Hours: 8 a.m.-9:45 p.m.

We have several new performers this year.

Xavier Diaz-Latorre, a vihuela player from Spain, and the ensemble Sonnambula from New York. Xavier is a world-renowned musician, and plays the vihuela, a Spanish Renaissance type of guitar, and the lute.

Xavier will perform a solo recital featuring music of the vihuela by composers Luis Narváez, Alonso Mudarra, Gaspar Sanz and Santiago de Murcia. The link below will give you more information about the predecessors to the guitar:

http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/~lsa/aboutLute/Vihuela.html

Daphna Mor and Kane Mathis will present a program featuring music from the geographic regions of Andalusia, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and the Sephardic Diaspora. Based on the monophonic music of modes referred to as the Makam, the audience will be drawn to distinct beauty and great similarities of music from the courts, liturgical forms, dance airs and folk music.

Daphna Mor (below top) sings and plays several historical wind instruments, and Kane Mathis (below bottom) plays the oud, a lute type of stringed instrument with 11 or 13 strings grouped in 5 or 6 courses, commonly used in Middle Eastern music.

Percussionist Shane Shanahan (below) will join them. Shane is an original member of the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma and a Grammy award winner. https://www.stepsnyc.com/faculty/bio/Shane-Shanahan/

And watch Shane play frame drum in the Cave Temples of Dunhuang at the Getty Museum:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQjC3y6CXQ8

Hear and read about Daphna Mor: http://www.daphnamor.com/

You can watch Kane Mathis play the oud at this link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tHrxEohai8

Sonnambula (below), an ensemble of violins and viol da gambas, has performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and have a regular series at the Hispanic Society of America in New York. It played a sold-out program of Spanish Golden Age works drawn from the over 450 pieces in the Cancionero Musical de Palacio, a manuscript at the Royal Palace of Madrid. This same program will be presented at MEMF on Friday, July 14. (You can hear them perform Spanish music in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

www.sonnambula.org

Why was the theme of the Spain’s Golden Age and The Age of Cervantes and Don Quixote chosen for the festival? What composers and works will be highlighted?

We liked the connection with last year’s theme, Shakespeare 400, because, although they never knew one another, Cervantes and Shakespeare (below) were contemporaries and share a “deathaversary,” as they both died on April 23, 1616. They led quite different lives, as Shakespeare was very successful throughout his lifetime and Cervantes wasn’t well known until the end of his life, when Don Quixote was published in 1605.

http://www.dw.com/en/shakespeare-and-cervantes-two-geniuses-and-one-death-date/a-19203237

Also, the Renaissance band Piffaro (below, in a photo by Church Street Studios) — an ensemble from Philadelphia that is well loved by MEMF audiences — suggested we explore this connection to Don Quixote and present their program The Musical World of Don Quixote, a huge project that they have been researching for several years.

They created a musical soundtrack to the novel in chronological order, and their program will open our 2017 concert series. This link from the Early Music America article “Piffaro Tilts At Musical Windmills” will tell you about their project in depth:

https://www.earlymusicamerica.org/web-articles/emag-piffaro-tilts-at-musical-windmills/

www.piffaro.org

The other concerts in the series draw from the music that is mentioned in Don Quixote and from the Spanish Renaissance, known as Siglo de Oro, or the Century of Gold. Many composers from this time period will be represented: Tomás Luis de VictoriaCristóbal de MoralesFrancisco GuerreroLuis de Milán and Alonso Lobo

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Golden_Age

https://artsinstitute.wisc.edu/memf/concerts.htm

Check out our website for the most up-to-date information and how to get tickets:

www.madisonearlymusic.org

Tomorrow: What makes Renaissance music in Spain different? What composers and music will be featured in concerts?


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and piano soloist Ilya Yakushev excel in a varied program. But audience members should do better at observing concert etiquette. Plus, retired UW-Madison bass-baritone Sam Jones dies at 87.

January 26, 2015
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ALERT: Sad news has reached The Ear. Samuel M. Jones, a bass-baritone who was an exceptional performer and teacher at the UW-Madison School of Music for 37 years and who also served as the cantor at Temple Beth El and the Choral Director at Grace Episcopal Church, has died at 87. Here is a link to the obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://m.host.madison.com/news/local/obituaries/jones-dr-samuel-m-jr/article_8a445e98-0cf3-5112-bd72-8840b58a0399.html?mobile_touch=true

Samuel M. Jones

By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night, The Ear couldn’t be in two places at once.

Being in the mood for some solo piano playing – because The Ear himself is an avid amateur pianist – he attended the solo recital of works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, William Bolcom and Johannes Brahms performed by UW-Madison School of Music professor Christopher Taylor. But more about that will come in another post this week.

However, Larry Wells — a college classmate and good friend who is a longtime and very knowledgeable classical music follower and who has worked, lived and attended concerts in Rochester, San Francisco, Moscow, Tokyo and Seoul — went to the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

He filed this review:

WisconsinChamberOrchestrainCapitolTHeaterlobby

By Larry Wells

The program opened with a short introduction by Maestro Andrew Sewell, the longtime music director and conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, to the “English Suite” for string orchestra by the contemporary British composer Paul Lewis. (Sewell himself is a New Zealand native who also trained in England.)

Paul Lewis composer

Although the work was termed by Sewell as an obligatory form for British composers in the manner of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and the like, I found the rhapsodic opening and closing of the second section, “Meditation,” reminiscent of VW’s “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” But the remainder of the piece seemed trite and forgettable.

Following was the Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach. In this case, a concert grand piano was used featuring soloist Ilya Yakushev, a Russian native who now lives in the U.S., who was making his second appearance with the WCO.

This familiar piece was played bouncily in the first movement, sweetly in the second, and really fast in the third. I enjoyed Yakushev’s playing, although from my seat the piano seemed slightly muffled and occasionally unheard over the orchestra.

ilya yakushev 3

The second half of the evening opened with the Chamber Symphony No. 2 by Arnold Schoenberg, which Maestro Sewell claimed to be in the manner of Richard Strauss. If so, Strauss was much more expressive and engaging.

The evening ended with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Felix Mendelssohn, again featuring Yakushev. I was unfamiliar with the piece, and found it immediately engaging and enjoyable throughout. (You can hear Ilya Yakushev perform the Mendelssohn piano concerto in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether, it was a good evening of music.

But it was unfortunately marred early in the aforementioned “Meditation” movement when a woman two seats down from me decided to answer a text. The bright light from her cell phone was distracting, so I pointedly stared at her until her seat mate nudged her, and she put away the phone. The seat mate clearly felt that I was in the wrong and glared at me.

I noticed that there is no caution in the program about turning off cell phones, so I believe it would be a good idea for a brief announcement to be made at the beginning of the concert and at the end of the intermission for people to turn off their phones. That simple courtesy has still not become a part of all concertgoers’ routines.

smart phone

And what is with the Madison tradition of giving everything a standing ovation? (Below is a standing ovation at a concert on the Playhouse by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.)

BDDS 2014 Playhouse standing ovation

There have been perhaps a dozen times in my long concert-going life when I have been so moved by the moment that I’ve leapt to my feet. I think of a standing ovation as recognition of something extraordinary — not as a routine gesture that cheapens to the point of meaninglessness.

For purposes of comparison, here is a link to the review of the same concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and pianist Ilya Yakushev that veteran local music critic and retired UW-Madison medieval history professor John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=44422&sid=6243d3d1e78139b69884d31c5c1126e2


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