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: Sonata à Quattro does justice to the spiritual piety and beautiful music in Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”

April 28, 2019
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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 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

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s newest ensemble is called Sonata à Quattro (below), using the Italian Baroque expression for instrumental works scored for three upper parts and basso continuo. That idiom was the background to the more integrated balance of the string quartet.

It was Franz Joseph Haydn (below) who really consolidated that transformation, and so it was appropriate that the new group should at this early point in its development pay a major tribute to that composer.

Responding to a commission from a Spanish prelate, in 1786-87 Haydn composed a set of seven orchestral adagios  — plus opening and closing pieces — to be played in a Good Friday ceremony celebrating the seven final statements by Christ from the cross (below, in a painting by Diego Velazquez) that are cumulatively reported by the Gospel writers.

At the same time, Haydn made a reduction of those orchestral movements into the string quartet format. That version he published outside his regular sets of string quartets, which had opus numbers.

Especially in the quartet form, this music achieved wide circulation, so much so that several attempts were made by others to create an oratorio out of this music, prompting Haydn himself to make his own oratorio version in 1795-96. Along the way, someone else made a keyboard transcription of the music that Haydn sanctioned.

It was, of course, the string quartet version — The Seven Last Words of Christ — that the Sonata à Quattro performed. It did so, first as part of a Good Friday church service in Milwaukee on April 19, and then as an independent one-hour free and public concert at the Oakwood Village West auditorium last Thursday night.

Fischer Hoyt (below), the group’s founder and violist, gave an introductory talk about the group’s name and about its decisions as to instrumentation.  (It usually plays on period instruments, but chose this time to use modern ones with period bows.) Cellist Charlie Rasmussen added some comments about the music and its history. Violinists  Kangwon Kim and Nathan Giglierano were happy just to play.

Haydn’s music was written in the deepest piety and sincerity, and that comes through in the individual components, which cost him much effort. (You can hear the second half of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The seven Sonatas are framed by a solemn Introduction and a furious evocation of the “earthquake” that we are told followed the death of Jesus. Each successive Sonata is cast in very tight and concentrated sonata form. Haydn makes the Latin form of each statement or “word” the theme of each sonata. In all, the cycle makes the most deeply absorbing combination of spirituality and ingenuity.

The players brought out both those dimensions in a performance of rapt beauty. This score has quite a few recordings, but it is not heard in concert all that often, so it was a treasure to be given this wonderful presentation.

And now we know that Sonata à Quattro has great possibilities to develop.


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Classical music: Madison Opera gives completely satisfying and nearly perfect performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” Here are four reviews

November 8, 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 Madison Opera and filed this review, with performance photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I attended performances of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” presented by the Madison Opera at Overture Hall last Sunday afternoon.

Each of the operas is an hour and a quarter long. At least for “Cavalleria” (below), the time flew by while I was captivated by the good singing, excellent playing and charming staging. The opera is tightly constructed and the production flowed effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

The feckless mama’s boy Turridu was ably portrayed by tenor Scott Piper (below top) who sang beautifully throughout. His nemesis, Alfio, was sung by baritone Michael Mayes (below bottom). Mayes has an excellent voice and terrific musicianship, but he tended to overact.

The star of the show was soprano Michelle Johnson (below) as Santuzza.  Her big aria “Voi lo sapete” and her duets with Piper were rapturously dramatic. Her supple and nuanced performance had me uncharacteristically leaping to my feet and shouting “Brava!” as she took her curtain call. Hers is a voice I hope to hear again soon.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra shone throughout the performance, ably led by guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below). I cannot recall hearing before such subtle control of its orchestral voices, and the ensemble glimmered in the well-known intermezzo. (You can hear that famous and beautiful Intermezzo, used in the film “The Godfather” and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The set and costumes, the bravura singing by the chorus, and the lighting were all above expectations. It was a completely satisfying experience.

“Pagliacci” is a more troublesome work for me. It has moments of lyrical genius but also what to me seems like filler – the chorus going on too long about getting to vespers, for example.

Mayes (below) portrayed the villainous Tonio in this opera.  Although his prologue was beautifully sung, his creepy overacting was a bit too much. For example, when Nedda spat at him in contempt, he wiped the spittle from his face and then licked his hand. His final utterance “La commedia e finita” was overly dramatic and lacking irony.

Piper sang the clown Canio (below), and by the time he got to the showpiece aria “Vesti la giubba” I was nervous that he would not be able to hit all the high notes. He did hit the notes, but it will take a couple more years for this role to fit his voice comfortably.

Nedda was portrayed by sensational Talise Trevigne (below bottom). Her big aria “Stridono lassù” was sung beautifully, and the orchestra shimmered in its accompaniment. Her duet with her lover Silvio, ably sung by baritone Benjamin Taylor (below top), was another highlight of the production.

Once again, the orchestral interlude was beautifully played.

Altogether, this was almost a perfect afternoon at Madison Opera. There appeared to be a gratifyingly large number of younger people attending, which I took as a good sign for the future. (Below is the tragic final scene of “Pagliacci” with Robert Goodrich, Michael Mayes and Scott Piper.)

I look forward to the next production: Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10. I saw it recently at Des Moines Metropolitan Opera, so I am interested to see how it will compare.

When all is said and done, I enjoyed “Pagliacci” but feel it is inferior to “Cavalleria.” Although both operas are frequently performed together, I have attended other pairings for “Cavalleria” including one with Puccini’s comic short opera “Gianni Schicchi.” That combination worked well. I wonder: Do readers have other suggestions for pairings?

Editor’s note: Everyone has an opinion. How did you and other critics find the Madison Opera productions? Leave your opinion in the COMMENTS section. And here are links to some other reviews:

Here is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/music/satisfying-double-bill/

Here is the review, with a historical bent, that Greg Hettmansberger wrote for his blog “What Greg Says”: https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/madison-opera-goes-old-school/

 And here is what Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times newspaper: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/love-revenge-passion-violence-open-the-season-at-madison-opera/article_1c27e195-cc2f-5826-9502-00544b88fae6.html


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Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet excels in music by Haydn, Dvorak and especially Ravel as it impressively opens its new season in two acoustically different venues

October 3, 2017
2 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 Ancora String Quartet offered a nicely balanced program last Saturday night to open its new season at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, known as the “Sunrise” quartet. A work of the composer’s maturity, published in 1799, it shows him straining the boundaries of Austrian Classicism and pushing close to the proto-Romanticism of his student, Beethoven.

Each work in the program was preceded by a spoken introduction, given by a member of the ensemble, and for the Haydn quartet violist Marika Fischer Hoyt did the honors.

Then came three (Nos. 2, 5 and 10) of the 12 arrangements for quartet that Antonin Dvorak made from his song cycle, Cypresses. The spoken introduction in this case was given by first violinist Wes Luke (below), who not only spoke but also sensibly read aloud — in English translation — the words of each song. Dvorak’s deeply personal lyric expression came through the more meaningfully for that.

Finally came the Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel. For this, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb (below) gave a cogent spoken introduction. Ravel’s work matches Debussy’s string quartet — to be played later this season — as a chamber music contribution to so-called French “Impressionism.” But it also is one of the last great demonstrations of how initially stated themes can be quoted or re-introduced in new characters and colors throughout all the movements.

This program had special value for me because it was one I was able to hear twice on two successive evenings. I particularly profited from a double hearing of the Ravel, which allowed me to listen how the various themes popped out here and there in ever-varied differences. (You can hear the String Quartet by Ravel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The performances each time were beautifully precise and atmospheric, but the particular points of contrast involved instead a factor too often forgotten in evaluating a concert: the acoustic divergences of different performing sites.

The previous Friday evening, I heard the program in the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center. Its acoustics are tight and bright, bringing great clarity and immediacy to the playing.

By comparison, the sound at St. Andrew’s is bigger, richer and more reverberant, although differing in relation to how far up front or way back you sit—another variable to consider.

I spoke with the players about this, and it is clear that they must, and do, take account of such acoustic differences as they move from one performing site to another. Careful concert-goers, too, should always consider these differences as they listen.

A final thought: The Ancora String Quartet, which also includes Robin Ryan as second violin, has always played with splendid expertise and stylistic sense. But it seems clear to me by now that the settling in of Wes Luke as the new first violinist has brought added vigor and assertiveness to the group’s playing, making it an even more important ensemble than ever before in Madison’s musical life.

The concert will be repeated tonight in Janesville at 7:30 p.m. in the Kilmark Theatre of the UW-Rock County at 2909 Kellogg Avenue. The performance is FREE and OPEN to the public.

For more information about the Ancora String Quartet and its new season, go to the website: http://ancoraquartet.com


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