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: The Madison Bach Musicians will give their eighth annual Baroque Holiday Concert this Saturday night

December 3, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians will give their eighth annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below in a 2014 photo by Kent Sweitzer) on this coming Saturday night, Dec. 8, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

The critically acclaimed and well attended annual concert will follow the usual format with a 7:15 p.m.  lecture by founder, artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson (below) followed by the concert at 8 p.m.

A critically acclaimed chamber ensemble of voices and period instruments will perform masterworks from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Performers include: Hannah De Priest, soprano; Margaret Fox, mezzo-soprano; Ryan Townsend Strand, tenor; Matthew Chastain, bass-baritone; Arash Noori, theorbo; Katherine Shuldiner, viola da gamba; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.

The Ear asked Stephenson: Why are vocal music and Baroque music both so popular during the holiday season?

He answered: “Many holiday traditions focus on soulfulness and reflection. So, as my great-grandmother used to say, “Pay attention to the singing, it is closest to the soul.””

“On top of this, Baroque music—as one of the great achievements of Western culture—is a natural when reflecting upon the past,” Stephenson adds. “Baroque music is also festive and uplifting, and there is, I believe, some message within its intricacies and design that suggests that there is “a beautiful crystalline structure within which we all live.” (These words come from my colleague Norman Sheppard.)

“This concert marks the Madison Bach Musicians’ eighth consecutive year in the magnificent setting of the First Congregational Church. I simply cannot imagine a better acoustic and spiritual ambiance for this music. (Below is a performance from the 2016 concert in the same church.)

“The program will progress in chronological order from the very early 16th century up to the middle 18th century, from Josquin des Prez to Johann Sebastian Bach.

“We’ll start with the Kyrie and Gloria movements from one of Josquin’s last completed masterworks, the Missa Pange Lingua (c. 1515). Martin Luther’s praise for Josquin’s compositional genius was boundless: “Joaquin (below)  is the master of the notes. The notes must do as he wills; as for other composers, they have to do as the notes will.”

“MBM is thrilled that virtuoso lutenist Arash Noori (below) from New York City will join us for this concert; second on the program, Noori will perform (on theorbo, which is a mega-lute) Niccolo Piccinni’s sparkling Toccata Chromatic and Gagliarda Prima published in the early 17th century.

“We’ll follow this with three musical gems for vocal quartet and continuo from the Kleine geistliche Konzerte (Short Spiritual Concerts, 1636−1639) that Heinrich Schütz (below) composed specifically for small ensembles, which were all that were available during the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War (1618−1648).

“The second half of the program is devoted to works by Bach. We’ll start with the exquisite Sonata in G major for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord; gambist extraordinaire Kate Shuldiner (below) from Chicago will be featured and I’ll accompany her at the harpsichord.

“We’ll follow this with two Christmas songs from the Schemelli Songbook—a collection published in 1736 of more than 60 spiritual songs for which Bach wrote most of the harmonizations and contributed several great original tunes to boot.

“Soprano Hannah De Priest (below top) and mezzo-soprano Margaret Fox (below bottom) will be featured in the bouncy and charming duet, Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten (from Cantata 78, “We hasten, with weak, yet eager steps, O Jesus, O Master, to You, for help!”), which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Bach not only worshipped God, but also felt comfortable enough in the relationship to occasionally party; this work is an ingenious fusion of high art and polka romp!

“The concert will conclude with Bach’s glorious motet, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, All Ye Nations). It was Mozart who — when he journeyed to Leipzig in 1789, or 39 years after Bach’s death, and heard the Thomaskirche choir perform a Bach motet, from memory, no less  — exclaimed, “Now here is something one can learn from!””

TICKET INFORMATION

Advance-sale discount  tickets are $30 general admission.

Tickets are also available at  Orange Tree Imports and the Willy Street Coop East and West.

You can also purchase advance tickets online: www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are  $33 for general admission, $30 for seniors 65 and over. Student Rush tickets are $10 and will be on sale 30 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. lecture.

For more information, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


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Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform Baroque and Renaissance English music this coming Friday night and Sunday afternoon

October 3, 2016
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ALERT: The strike by the players in the Philadelphia Orchestra has been settled. For details, go to this website:

http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20161003_Philadelphia_Orchestra_strike_ends__contract_vote_73-11.html

For more background about that strike and others, which The Ear writes about yesterday, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/classical-music-the-pittsburgh-and-philadelphia-symphony-orchestras-start-their-seasons-with-a-strike-by-the-players/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians will open its 2016-17 season this coming weekend with two performances of a program that features English music from the Baroque and Renaissance eras.

mbm-2016

The first performance is this Friday, Oct. 7, at 7:30 p.m., preceded by 6:45 lecture, in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

The second is this coming Sunday, Oct. 9, at 3:30 p.m., preceded by a 2:45 lecture, at the Holy Wisdom Monastery (below), 4200 County Highway M in Middleton.

Holy Wisdom Monastery interior

If bought in advance, tickets are $28 for the general public and $23 for students and seniors over 65; at the door tickets will be $30 and $25, respectively. Student rush tickets are $10, require a student ID and are available 30 minutes before the lectures. For more information, visit www.madisonbachmusicians.org

The program features: Sonata in Four Parts in F major “Golden Sonata” by  Henry Purcell (1659−1695); Suite No. 2 in D major from “Consort of Four Parts” by Matthew Locke (c. 1621−1677); Songs to texts by William Shakespeare by Robert Johnson (1583−1633); “Diverse bizzarie Spra La Vecchia” by Nicola Matteis (c. 1650−c. 1709); Division No. 7 for two bass viols by Christopher Simpson (c. 1606−1669); “Solus cum sola” for solo lute solo  by John Dowland (1563−1626); “The Broken Consort” Part 1, Suite no. 2 in G major by Matthew Locke; “The Carman’s Whistle” by William Byrd (c. 1540−1623); “Light of Love” by Anonymous as arranged by David Douglass; “John Come Kiss Me Now” by John Playford (1623−c. 1686) as arranged by David Douglass; “Long Cold Night” and “Queen’s Jig.”

Performers include: Dann Coakwell, tenor; David Walker, lute and theorbo; Kangwon Kim violin and concertmaster; Brandi Berry, violin; Anna Steinhoff and Martha Vallon, viola de gamba; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.

mbm-playing-2016

PROGRAM NOTES

Here are some edited notes by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson (below):

Madison Bach Musicians is delighted to start off its 13th season with a foray into new repertoire for the group: English music from the Renaissance and Baroque.

A special feature of the program will be the recognition in song of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

Both the smaller lute and the larger theorbo were considered ideal for accompanying the voice in songs, and the theorbo could project a bit better in larger ensembles.

Like the lute, the viola da gamba is also fretted, but it is bowed and not plucked. Moreover, the gamba is held between the legs, the “gams,” and its name literally means “viol of the legs.”

MBM Trevor Stephenson at Immanuel concertos

The baroque violins we’ll use in this program will be strung in the usual fashion of the 16th and 17th centuries, that is, with gut strings (from dried sheep intestine); and the bows will be of the Elizabethan “short” variety (shorter length, and with the stick arching away from the hair), which make them ideally suited for the intricate articulations and lively dance rhythms of this repertoire.

All of these instruments enjoyed great popularity in England during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Henry Purcell (below) flourished during the arts boom of the Restoration period under King Charles II and is widely known for his theater music and operas. However, he also wrote quite a bit of instrumental music.

The four parts of this sonata refers here not to numbers of movements, but to the number of simultaneous instrumental lines—in this case, four, which is notably different from the typical three-part (or trio sonata) Italianate texture of the 17th century.

purcell

The Purcell sonata is followed by an instrumental Suite in D major by Matthew Locke (c. 1621-1677). Locke was a close friend of the Purcell family and in particular of Purcell’s father, Henry Purcell Sr. The younger Henry Purcell wrote a musical elegy on Locke’s death in 1677.

Locke’s years of greatest musical activity in London began as the period of Puritanical Commonwealth rule, under Oliver Cromwell, was waning in the late 1650’s. The Commonwealth had severely restricted the theater and the arts in general. Fun fact: Locke (below) was the first composer to indicate a musical crescendo and decrescendo in a score.

matthew-locke

The texts for the songs are from various Elizabethan poets—John Fletcher, John Webster and Shakespeare himself—and all of the music was composed by lutenist Robert Johnson (below, 1583-1633).

Johnson worked closely with Shakespeare in theatrical productions at the court of James I during the first few years of the 17th century. Johnson even provided music for Shakespeare’s original production of “The Tempest.”

robert-johnson-lute

The first part of the MBM program will conclude with two works that explore a favorite 17th-century technique of ornamentation over a repeated bass line, sometimes called a ground bass or chaconne.

The first is by the Italian virtuoso violinist Nicola Matteis (below, in a painting by Gottfried Kneller, c. 1650-1709), who enjoyed a successful career in London during an era when the English were importing Italian music masters by the dozens.

nicola-matteis-by-godfrey-kneller

The second work, by Christopher Simpson (below, c. 1606-1669), explores “divisions” or variations tossed back and forth between two bass viols (gambas) while they simultaneously repeat a ground bass.

christopher-simpson

The second half of the program will feature songs for tenor and voice by John Dowland (below). We’ll also play Locke’s Broken Consort, “broken” meaning “mixed”–in that violins and gambas, which were considered in Elizabethan times to be artistically quite different instruments—were being asked by the composer to play nicely together.

John Dowland

Following that, I’ll play a rousing set of variations for harpsichord, “The Carman’s Whistle,” by William Byrd (below).

William Byrd

And to conclude the program, the consort will play a set of sprightly dances originally published in 1651 in the collection “The English Dancing Master” by John Playford (below).

john-playford

 


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