The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) starts a week-long exploration of how the Lutheran Reformation and the invention of printing changed Western music 500 years ago. Part 1 of 2

July 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this Saturday and running through the following Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival will explore the profound effects that the Lutheran Reformation had on Renaissance and Baroque music of the time.

The festival, to be held at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, is called “A Cabinet of Curiosities: A Journey to Lübeck.” For a complete listing of programs, lectures, concerts and workshops, with information about tickets, go to the website: https://memf.wisc.edu

Soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe — who co-directs the festival with UW Arts Institute’s Sarah Marty and with her husband and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe — recently agreed to do a Q&A with The Ear about the upcoming festival. Here is Part 1 of 2. The second part will appear tomorrow.

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

Each year enrollment in the workshop averages 100 students. As of June 15, we have 110 students enrolled. MEMF attracts students of all ages, from 18–91, amateurs and professionals, from all over the country and Canada.

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

The ensemble Quicksilver (below, in a photo by Ian Douglas, and located at quicksilverbaroque.com) is returning to Madison after several years to open the MEMF Concert Series.

This will be an incredible virtuosic display of chamber music played at the highest level, and includes violinist Julie Andrijeski, sackbut player Greg Ingles and gambist Lisa Terry; harpsichordist Avi Stein and violinist Robert Mealy are on the faculty at the Juilliard 415 program, which is creating a fantastic opportunity for instrumentalists to study Baroque music with some of the finest early music professionals in the country.

Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, will return to play a live concert of the CD they just released, Back to Bach. For more information, go topiffaro.org

The Tuesday concert is at Luther Memorial Church. Abendmusik (Evening Music) features organists John Chappell Stowe (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), of the UW-Madison, and James Kennerley (below bottom) joined by the MEMF Faculty.

Abendmusik, refers to a series of performances at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, Germany. In the 17th century through 1810, a series of concerts were paid for by local business owners to provide admission for the public. Organists Franz Tunder and his successor Dietrich Buxtehude, organized the Abendmusiken with performances of organ, instrumental and vocal music. For more, go to: https://www.jameskennerley.com/

New to MEMF, Schola Antiqua of Chicago — see schola-antiqua.org — will perform on Friday, July 13, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. They will sing musical treasures from a program prepared last fall for The Newberry Library’s exhibit “Religious Change 1450-1700” on the occasion of the quincentennial of the Lutheran Reformation.

Printed musical artifacts from the multidisciplinary exhibit testify to a period filled with religious dynamism and struggle with both theological and musical traditions. Their director, Michael Alan Anderson, will give a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. with projections of the printed music from The Newberry Library.

Why was the theme of “A Cabinet of Curiosities: Journey to Lübeck” chosen for the festival? What composers and works will be highlighted?

We chose the 2018 theme to explore the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and how the shifts in religion and 16th-century printed materials, including music, changed the world.

The Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Lübeck was an important musical center at this time. Built with Catholic ritual in mind, it easily was turned into a Lutheran church in the early 16th century as Lübeck changed into a Protestant town due to the Reformation that was inspired by Martin Luther.

The composer Dieterich Buxtehude (below) was the organist at the Marienkirche and was an improvisational genius. He attracted many musicians throughout Europe to come and visit, including Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann and George Frideric Handel.

Around this same time collectors were sorting their wide-ranging collections of objects into “cabinets of curiosities,” and sometimes the categorical boundaries were not defined. With new-found compositional freedom, 17th-century composers similarly created many musical wonders and curiosities, stretching the boundaries of musical conversation.

We will be featuring works of Buxtehude, Tunder and Matthias Weckmann, and there will even be a bit of Bach on Sunday night’s concert by Piffaro.

Tomorrow: Part 2 – How did a Reformation in religion and printing technology change music?


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform Bach’s “St. John Passion” this Friday night and Saturday night in authentic early music style

April 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday  and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.

(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)

At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”

This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/st-john-passion-to-be-performed-on-all-historical-period/article_0e6e3d51-c03e-5803-9230-faed6a48ed1d.html

Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:

Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.

As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.

From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)

I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.

 

The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.

Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.

For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).

The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:

  • Gut-strung violins, violas, cellos, and bass played with baroque bows which facilitate articulation and phrase grouping
  • Early 18th-century single-keyed wooden traverso flutes and single-keyed wooden oboes―uniquely warm-sounding and clear-toned. Plus the baroque ancestor of the modern English horn, the tenor oboe da caccia
  • A baroque chamber organ with wooden pipes tuned in 18th-century Well Temperament
  • And specialty instruments—even by 18th-century standards. The viola da gamba, featured during the tombeau– or tomb-like Es ist vollbracht (It is fulfilled) aria heard after Jesus’ death; and two violas d’amore, delicate and velvet toned, replete with sympathetic strings for a haunting after-glow of sound. (You can hear that aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.

Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.

The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.

MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a  photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.

Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.


Classical music: Award-winning pianist Stephen Hough is an accomplished polymath or Renaissance man who also blogs and paints. His personal history is fascinating. So are the sharp stylistic differences he demonstrates in different art forms.

August 4, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Longtime readers of this blog know my admiration for the British pianist Stephen Hough (below).

Hough_Stephen_color16

Hough, who won the prestigious Naumberg Competition while at the Juilliard School, plays the piano superbly well and has a large shelf full of international awards for his recordings on the Hyperion label. He especially likes to explore less well-known repertoire.

He is a terrific teacher and coach, as I have witnessed firsthand in a masterful master class (below) in Madison.

But in addition to his career as a concert pianist, the supremely talented Hough — who is an astonishingly accomplished polymath or Renaissance man — also writes a regular and highly informative and entertaining blog for the Telegraph newspaper in the United Kingdom. He touches on everything from, of course, the piano (especially historic pianists and performances) to theology (an openly gay man he converted to Roman Catholicism at 19) and fashion (especially his fondness for hats). One of his best entries for me was about the role of hitting wrong notes:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/classical-music-how-do-you-cope-with-wrong-notes-you-hit-or-hear-pianist-stephen-hough-has-a-healthy-and-helpful-point-of-view/

Here is a link to his website:

http://stephenhough.com/index.php

Here is a link to his marvelous blog:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/author/stephenhough/

What most people – and I include myself – – most admire about Hough’s playing is its clarity, its sense of measure and proportion.

As he himself says, he is not much given to “hairy-chested” interpretations of big, intense Russian music like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. His recent award-winning recording of the complete Chopin waltzes shows his ability to find new and convincing things to say about familiar works and he says them clearly as well as gracefully and elegantly. (Just listen to the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Stephen Hough Chopin waltzes CD cover

He discusses his approach in a fine interview and profile that appeared in The New York Times just before a Carnegie Hall recital this past spring in which is also played his latest big work, his own Sonata “Notturno luminoso.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/arts/music/stephen-hough-brings-his-eclectic-style-to-carnegie-hall.html?pagewanted=all

And here is a review in the Times of that recital:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/06/arts/music/stephen-hough-at-carnegie-hall.html?_r=0

hough

But the real surprise for me came when I about and saw his style of painting. He paints in oils, and he exhibits and sells his art.

But unlike his music-making, his painting of this MacArthur “genius award” winner seems almost violently Abstract Expressionist.

Here are a couple of examples:

Stephen Hough painting Impromptu

Stephen Hough painting Bunte Blatter IIBut of course ultimately it is piano playing that keeps Hough – who resides in the UK, New York and Australia – in the public eye. Listen to this Chopin waltz and you can understand why.


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