The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is an eloquent and timely testament to Black victims of racism. It deserves to be performed in Madison and elsewhere

July 6, 2020
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PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

A reader recently wrote in and suggested that fellow blog fans should listen to “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by the Atlanta-based American composer Joel Thompson (below).

So The Ear did just that.

He was both impressed and moved by the prescient piece of choral and orchestral music. It proved both powerful and beautiful.

The title alludes to the Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but also to the musical setting of it that was composed by Franz Joseph Hadyn in the 18th century. But it stands on its own as a much needed and very accomplished updating, especially with the “last word” or phrase “I can’t breathe.”

It is hard to believe the work was written five years ago, and not last week or last month. But it couldn’t be more relevant to today.

It shows how deeply artists have been engaging with the social and political issues of the day, particularly the role of personal and structural racism in national life, and the plight of young Black men and women who face discrimination, brutality and even death at the hands of the police and a bigoted public.

The work was premiered by the Men’s Glee Club at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2015. This performance comes from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The SSO and featured guest University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Men’s Glee Club, led by conductor Eugene Rogers  (below) – who directs choral music and teaches conducting at the UM — premiered a 2017 commissioned fully orchestrated version of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” You can hear it in the YouTube video below.

It is an eminently listenable and accessible, multi-movement work honoring the lives, deaths and personal experiences of seven Black men.

The seven last words used in the work’s text are: “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66; “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16; “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23; “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18; “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22; “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22; “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43.

The Ear thinks that once live concerts begin again after the coronavirus pandemic is contained, it should be programmed locally. It could and should be done by, among others, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choir; or the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choral Union; or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Festival Choir of Madison; or the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

They have all posted messages about standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the protesters against racism. But will words lead to commitment and action?

It will be interesting to see who responds first. In addition to being timely, such a performance certainly seems like a good way to draw in young people and to attract Black listeners and other minorities to classical music.

Here is a link if you also want to check out the almost 200 very pertinent comments about the work, the performance, the performers and of course the social and political circumstances that gave rise to the work — and continue to do so with the local, regional, national and international mass protests and demonstrations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNXoqNuLRQ&app=desktop

And here is the performance itself:

What do you think of the work?

How did you react to it?

Would you like to see and hear it performed live where you are?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Cellist-composer Steuart Pincombe performs music by Bach, Biber and Abel on this Thursday night at the Chocolaterian Cafe in Middleton

September 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about a special and unusual populist concert:

Cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) can regularly be found playing in some of the world’s more prestigious concert halls, premiering new compositions and soloing in major festivals.

On this coming Thursday night, Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m., Pincombe will perform music in a more intimate setting: the Chocolaterian Cafe (below), located at 6637 University Avenue in Middleton. Phone is 608 836-1156.)

The concert is part of an international movement called Music in Familiar Spaces, which is bringing the classical music experience at its highest level into homes, cafes, breweries, bookstores or any place where people feel comfortable.

One of the aims of the Music in Familiar Spaces is to make classical music accessible to a wide and varied audience. This is accomplished not only by performing in familiar, comfortable and untraditional spaces, but by designing programs that invite the audience to experience the music in a new and engaging way.

The program at the Chocolaterian is titled “Sweet Sorrow” and features music of some of the Baroque period’s most beloved composers: Karl Friedrich Abel (below top in a painting by Thomas Gainsborough), Heinrich Biber (below middle) and Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom) plus an original composition by Pincombe.

Pincombe will be joined by local violinist and concertmaster of the Madison Bach Musicians Kangwon Kim (below) in a selection from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.

Here is the program:

Selections in D minor (From 27 Pieces for Viola da gamba) by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787)

Violin Sonata No. 10 in G minor, “Crucifixion” (From the Rosary sonatas) by Heinrich Biber (1644-1702)

Suite No. 5 in C minor for Solo Cello, BWV 1011, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). You can hear Mischa Maisky playing the Prelude to the Bach suite in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Psalm 56 for Voice and Viola da gamba by Steuart Pincombe (1987-)

In order to make the concert accessible to anyone, the audience is asked to name-their-own-ticket-price for the concert, paying what they can afford and what they deem the concert is worth.

The suggested ticket price is $15-30 per person, plus the cost of whatever food and drink you wish to purchase from the cafe.

Want to know more about Steuart Pincombe?

Here is a link to his home website: https://www.steuartpincombe.com

Steuart Pincombe’s career as a cellist has brought him to leading halls and festivals across North America and Europe and he has been named by the Strad Magazine as a “superb solo cellist” and a “gorgeous player [with] perfect intonation, imaginative phrasing” by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Highlights of Steuart’s recent concert seasons include being a featured soloist with Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop (Germany), festival appearances with Asko | Schönberg (Netherlands), Cello8ctet Amsterdam (Netherlands), Ensemble Ansonia (Belgium), Oerknal! (Netherlands), performing with Holland Baroque Society (Netherlands) for King Willem Alexander of The Netherlands, appearing as soloist at the Amsterdam Cello Bienalle (Netherlands), and recording Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw for All of Bach.

His concert “Bach and Beer” was selected by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as one of the Top 10 Classical Events of the Year and a concert in which he appeared as soloist with Rene Schiffer and Apollo’s Fire was numbered in London’s ‘5 Best Classical Music Moments of 2014’ according to The Telegraph (United Kingdom).

In 2015-2016, Pincombe toured North America for one year bringing classical music to new spaces and new audiences in a project he started called Music in Familiar Spaces.

He is currently visiting Teacher of Historical Performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.


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Classical music: With much of Wisconsin underwater from historic flooding, Britten’s opera “Noah’s Flood” seems timely. Can you think of other works inspired by floods and natural disasters?

August 30, 2018
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Right now much of Wisconsin lies underwater.

This past week has seen record-setting rain and historic flooding along with high winds and tornadoes that have left many towns and counties declared official disasters.

Then yesterday, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency for the entire state. More rain and thunderstorms are predicted for all weekend and next week.

The flooding is not on the order of the deadly and destructive wildfires out west. But the situation seems nonetheless the kind of emergency or natural disaster that usually draws some kind of attention of the national media — on a smaller scale something like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria that devastated  respectively, New Orleans, Houston and Puerto Rico.  

But this time The Ear can’t recall seeing or hearing even mentions or 10-second spot reports about the flooding of a state capital on national news programs. Can you?

New programs always seem to focus more on weather stories when they occur on the coasts and in the south. And right now the media also appear preoccupied with offering ever more words about the deaths of Senator John McCain and singer Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul.”

But the situation got The Ear to thinking and searching.

Are there works of classical music inspired by flooding and other natural disasters?

And he doesn’t mean just music inspired by and celebrating calmer and less destructive water such as George Frideric Handel’s “Water Music” or Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony or Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Ebb and Flow” Music.

One important discovery that met the criterion was the children’s opera, “Noah’s Flood,” composed by British composer Benjamin Britten (below) in the wake of his own personal and home experience with floods – as you can see in the YouTube video below.

Can you think of other works composed in response to a natural disaster?

If so, in the comment section please leave the names of the work and composer and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Madison Summer Choir celebrates its 10th anniversary with one of the best concerts of the year

July 20, 2018
3 Comments

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 once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Summer Choir (below) celebrated its 10th anniversary on Wednesday night at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Each year’s program has had a theme, and for this one it was “Old Wine in New Bottles”— though it might as well have been the other way ‘round.

The idea, though, was that the selections showed their composers looking back to the techniques and tastes of earlier generations while writing new music. Conductor Ben Luedcke (below) introduced each work to explain how such approaches worked out.

The first half of the program was devoted to four works, dating from three different centuries.

Two were by contemporary composers. A setting in English of the Psalm text “By the Waters of Babylon” by Sarah Riskind (below top) was followed by Amor de mi Ami, a tribute to his wife, in Spanish, by Randall Stroope (below bottom).

Each work had instrumental additions — in the first, piano with cello, in the second, just piano) which personally I found unnecessary. Riskind’s choral writing is attractively full and quite idiomatic, while Stroope achieves a natural lyricism. I would be interested to hear just the choral parts alone for each work. (Editor’s Note: You can hear the work by Randall Stroope in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These two items were framed by music of earlier epochs. The Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) by Johannes Brahms showed his ability to create his own version of both pre- and post-Baroque polyphony. And Mozart’s Psalm setting Laudate pueri, from one of his Vespers collections (K. 339), showed his assimilation of Baroque counterpoint.

Bruce Bengtson played the part Brahms included for organ (or piano), and he also played the organ reduction of the orchestral part for the Mozart.

It was partly the acoustics, but also a weakness in diction that made the words in those four pieces all but indistinguishable, in whatever language was being sung—my one serious criticism of the performances.

The second part of the program was devoted to the first of the numbered Mass settings by Anton Bruckner. In some ways, such large-scale sacred works were studies for his majestic symphonies yet to come.

In this Mass No. 1 in D minor, Bruckner saw himself in the line of earlier Austrian church music, but anyone expecting bald imitations of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven would be disappointed.

In his dense and highly chromatic writing — something like a step beyond Schubert — Bruckner created some very fascinating music. It reached really exciting power in the Credo, and the words “dona nobis pacem” at the conclusion had a deeply moving sense of serenity.

The choir, of 68 mixed voices, was joined for the Bruckner by four soloists — Chelsie Propst, Jessica Lee Timman, Peter Gruett, Christian Bester (below on the left) — who sang their parts handsomely, and by an orchestra of 30 players, who provided strong and sturdy support.

Luedcke deserves particular praise for giving a chance to hear the Bruckner Mass, which was thought to be its Madison premiere. It climaxed a really enterprising event, one that I think will stand as among the Best Concerts of the Year.


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