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:
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:
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.
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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
For eight years, the Madison Summer Choir (below) has been giving an annual concert. This year’s, on Saturday night, under founder and conductor Ben Luedcke, was built around the theme “This is My Song! – Music in the Struggle for Peace and Justice.”
And, indeed, Luedcke (below) introduced most of the selections with pointed remarks, addressing issues faced today, and the need for making ours a better world.
The first part of the program began with the “big tune” from Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia, set to English words. This was sung a cappella, while the four short items that followed had piano accompaniment.
Two of those pieces—by composers Stephen Chatman and Sven Lekberg—carried poems by Walt Whitman, while another, by Joan Szymko, set a text by Wendell Berry. But the gem of the set was a short partsong, An die Heimat (To my Homeland), by that truly great choral master, Johannes Brahms.
After the intermission, the chorus of 66 voices was joined by an orchestra (below) of 32, for the musical plateau.
Felix Mendelssohn is one of the handful of supreme choral composers (think of his oratorio Elijah!). As a warmer-upper, we were given his brief setting of Martin Luther’s translation of the Latin Dona nobis pacem as Verleih uns Frieden (Grant us Peace). (You can hear Mendelssohn’s beautiful “Verleih uns Frieden” in a YouTube video at the bottom)
But the true main event was a rousing performance of Mendelssohn’s unfairly neglected cantata, Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night). This sets a ballad by Goethe portraying a band of Druids arranging to celebrate a holy solstice rite in the face of newly triumphant Christian intolerance. By making an unholy racket, they drive away their persecutors and launch the myth of St. Walburga’s Night (Walpurgisnacht, on April 30) as an occasion of Satanic rumpus (think Goethe’s and Gounod’s Faust).
The work calls for three solo singers (below), this time contralto Jessica Timman Schwefel, tenor Dan O’Dea, and baritone Ben Li (of whom the tenor was the most impressive). This score is one of striking dramatic effect and musical force, but it is too brief to find a place in most concert repertoire.
Singers and players threw themselves into it with wonderful gusto under propulsive direction. We must thank Luedcke for giving us a rare chance to enjoy it.
The final piece was a movement from a choral symphony by Srul Irving Glick: making a truly splendid choral sound that, however, quite obliterated the uplifting words.
Overall, the program showed that Luedcke had nurtured, in a short time, a choir of nicely balanced and blended voices. With the best of their material, they made a wonderfully glowing sound.
One more example, then, of the quite stunning riches of Madison’s summer musical life!
ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) will offer a free hymn sing with Principal Organist Samuel Hutchison in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, in this Saturday, April 30, at 11 a.m. All ages are welcome to join in the singing with the Overture Concert Organ. No tickets or reservations are needed for the free Hymn Sing, which will last approximately 45 minutes.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will close out the current season this weekend with three performances of Carl Orff’s popular 1937 secular or profane oratorio “Carmina Burana” and Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome.”
Also participating are Boychoir members from Madison Youth Choirs, Michael Ross, Artistic Director; soprano Jeni Houser, who was acclaimed for her role in the Madison Opera’s recent production of “The Tales of Hoffmann”; tenor Thomas Leighton; and baritone Keith Phares.
The concerts are in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
For more information, visit:
Single tickets are $16 to $85 each, available on the MSO website; the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups
Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.
Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.
Here is a link to program notes by Michael Allsen:
Here is a link to translations of the Latin texts:
This season also marks the 20th anniversary of assistant MSO conductor Beverly Taylor, who also directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.
The ever-busy Taylor agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear about her duties and the program:
You are the very busy director of choral activities at the UW-Madison. But this is your 20th anniversary directing the Madison Symphony Chorus and serving as assistant conductor of the MSO. Can you take us behind the scenes and tell us what your MSO duties are?
They are three-fold.
First, I’m a “cover” conductor, meaning I’m supposed to be prepared to take over for John DeMain on short notice in case he’s suddenly sick or injured. This hasn’t happened in 20 years, but I HAVE covered some rehearsals by schedule when he’s been out of town or we fear a delayed plane arrival.
Normally the cover conductor conducts the concert if the delay or injury occurs at the beginning of the concert. If it happens in the second half, orchestras often just end the concert—like calling a baseball game after the five official innings.
My second job is preparing the chorus to sing for John De Main. Our rehearsals are like any other chorus rehearsal at first. We focus on notes, intonation, rhythmic accuracy, pronunciation and diction, beautiful phrasing and appropriate tone and balance.
Then closer to the performance, I check with Maestro De Main (below, in a photo by Prasad) on any special markings or tempos he may want. During my early years he often came to our last chorus rehearsal, but we’ve worked together for so many years now that he trusts me to put his choices into the chorus’ training.
In the long term, my duties also include programming and conducting our non-orchestral concerts, auditioning new singers and ensuring that returning singers keep their abilities high.
My third job is challenging, interesting and fun. It’s to give Maestro Demain information from the audience’s point of view. That means balances between guest soloist and orchestra, balances and rhythmic acuity between sections of the orchestra, and any other notes or opinions that he might find useful.
His own hearing is acute, but anyone who conducts can tell you that the instruments right in front of you make so much noise, that you can’t always judge the relative balances of the orchestra as they project outwards.
Depending on how much time is available in the rehearsal, I make fast notes as the orchestra plays, and give him the notes after the Maestro has done most of his rehearsing. If we’re out of time, I give him the notes backstage and occasionally am asked to pass these notes on to the players involved – for example, a little more triangle, less cello and bass on measures 45-48, etc.)
How has the chorus changed over the past two decades?
I think the biggest way in which the chorus has changed is that it sight-reads better and is more acute with a cappella intonation. The main point in having good sight-readers is that it is a HUGE time saver in rehearsal and allows us to get deeper into musical decisions and development. Having said that, we do still take some people with fast ears and good voices who can prove they can keep up.
What do you think explains the immense popularity of “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff (below)? How does it compare in popularity to other choral works, especially modern ones?
I think the work is easy to understand. The rhythms are clear, pulsing, repetitive and engaging, and the melodies are memorable and singable. In many ways, it has the appeal of musical comedies. The use of percussion instruments also is appealing and is familiar to people used to bands or popular music. (You can hear the mesmerizing opening in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
While perhaps not the most profound work, it is well crafted. And who hasn’t heard the opening tune in commercial after commercial?
The “modern” style today can’t be well defined because so many composers do so many things. I giggle a bit when audiences say they don’t like dissonance when five minutes in a movie theater with eyes closed will make the listener aware of FAR more dissonant music than in most modern concerts.
Many modern works can be understood at first hearing. Others yield more with a little study. It’s not really different from sports. You may have one person go to a baseball game for the weather, popcorn and home runs who will be disappointed if they miss those. Others will go noticing bad calls for strikes and balls, the stance of the batter, and will quote statistics from past games. They may have a richer experience because they know more, but it doesn’t mean people can’t go and get what they want out of it. Just go to concerts with open minds!
Are there special things you would like to point out to the public about “Carmina Burana” in general and about this performance in particular?
There are three basic sections to “Carmina,” with an introduction and ending. The opening is based mainly on the subject of Fortune (the introduction) and songs that come out of the monk’s life—some of them were obviously sent to the monastery without a vocation!
The second section is for tenors and basses only—“At the Tavern,” and it’s operatic in its depiction of the fun of mocking life at the monastery, concluding in the great drinking song sung by the men in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan — excuses to toast everyone of every shape and size, and listing who drinks, which is everyone!
The third section, known as the court of love, is beautiful and emotional as the women who know the off-duty monks think about love and if they should yield or not. We finish off with the monumental “O Fortuna” — if Frank Sinatra was singing it would be “sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down.”
There are techniques commonly and cheekily attributed to late Romantic works, especially Tchaikovsky: fast is good, loud is better, fast and loud is best. Orff follows this: his pacing builds steadily so that you are swept up in the excitement.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
This isn’t the only thing on the program. Most people will adore the gorgeous “Pines of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi (below), full of color, majesty and the sound of trumpets all through the hall!
Plus, I give the pre-concert lecture this weekend. It’s free for all ticket-holders and is held in the hall an hour before the performance, lasting for half an hour. This means on Friday, it’s 6:30-7 p.m.; Saturday 7-7:30 p.m.; and Sunday 1:30-2 p.m.
ALERT: Tomorrow afternoon, Sunday, Feb. 28, at 3:30 pm. in Morphy Recital Hall, the winners of the Woodwind-Piano Competition sponsored by Irving Shain, emeritus chancellor of the UW-Madison and a distinguished chemist, will perform a FREE recital. The program includes music for oboe and bassoon by Francis Poulenc, Robert Schumann, Gabriel Pierne and others. For more information, visit:
By Jacob Stockinger
Friends of The Ear — who wishes that early music groups and others would provide English translations of German, French and Italian titles for the general public — have sent him the following note:
“The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble invites you to a concert of baroque chamber music on this Sunday, Feb. 28, at 3 p.m. in Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below, exterior and interior), 1833 Regent Street, Madison.
Performers includes: UW-Madison professor Mimmi Fulmer – soprano; Nathan Giglierano – baroque violin; Eric Miller – viola da gamba, baroque cello; Consuelo Sañudo – mezzo-soprano; Monica Steger – traverso, harpsichord; Anton TenWolde – baroque cello; and Max Yount – harpsichord
Tickets at the door are $20, $10 for students.
The varied program is:
Georg Friedrich Handel – “Occhi miei, che faceste” HWV 146
Arcangelo Corelli – Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo, Op. 5, No. 11 (heard at bottom in a YouTube video)
Antonio Vivaldi – “Di verde ulivo” from “Tito Manlio” (1719)
Francois Couperin – “Les Nations,” Quatrième Ordre
There will be a reception at our studio at 2422 Kendall Ave (second floor) immediately following the concert.
By Jacob Stockinger
The third time is the charm.
By then you know a tradition has been born.
For the third year in a row, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is holding a Schubertiade at the end of January, near the birthday of Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828, below). Can there be a better way to kick off the second semester of concerts and music-making?
The event, which was founded by and now is organized by and performed by the wife-and-husband team of UW-Madison collaborative piano professor Martha Fischer and piano teacher and former music director for Wisconsin Public Radio Bill Lutes, takes place this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.
Admission is $15 for adults, free for students of all ages. A post-concert reception is included.
ALSO, BE ADVISED THAT THERE IS A UW HOCKEY GAME THAT NIGHT, SO FINDNG PARKING WILL BE MORE CHALLENGING THAN USUAL. ALLOW FOR EXTRA TIME TO GET TO THE CONCERT. THE HALL WILL OPEN AT 7:30 P.M., IF YOU WANT TO COME EARLY AND GET TO YOUR FAVORITE SEATS.
What is it about Schubert that makes him special to the many performers and listeners who will take part?
One answer can be found in a press release from the UW-Madison:
More can be found in a story written by Sandy Tabachnick for Isthmus:
But Bill Lutes also agreed to talk about Schubert (below) and the Schubertiade in an email Q&A with The Ear:
This is the third consecutive year of the UW-Madison Schubertiades that you have presented in honor of his birthday on Jan. 31, this year being the 219th. What is it about Schubert that draws audiences and performers to his music?
Probably the most obvious thing we love about Schubert is the endless stream of glorious, memorable melody – melodies that we can only call “Schubertian.” Who can forget a tune like “The Trout” or “Ave Maria” or the famous “Serenade”? These are part of our cultural DNA.
Then there is Schubert’s rich harmonic vocabulary, and his expansiveness and generosity of form. Although he fashioned innumerable miniatures of exquisite perfection – short songs and piano pieces – he also wrote some of the biggest works of the time, including some of the songs we are performing.
They are big in every way, the “heavenly length” that Robert Schumann wrote about and loved, the sense of adventure and the unexpected and the sheer spaciousness of his musical paragraphs — and the long passages of rhythmic obsession that seem to anticipate today’s Minimalist composers.
Above all, his music is unique in the ways it explores the most joyful and the most tragic aspects of our experience, often interwoven, and ambiguously overlapping.
Those of us who are attracted to Schubert feel that he is our friend, our consoler, our guru and our guide to something that shines beyond the travails of our earthly life. He left us such a rich and varied body of music. The amount he composed in his 31 years is absolutely incredible. But also the level of inspiration is so high throughout so much of it.
Your program has a lot of variety. Is there some overarching “theme” that ties the program together?
This year, the pieces we are doing are all inspired by Schubert’s exploration of the sounds and imagery of nature. We’re calling it Schubertian “Naturescapes: Water, Winds and Woodlands.” Schubert came along at a time when the Romantic poets, painters and musicians began to think of nature in a new way.
Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Schubert and his poets spelled Nature with a capital N. The poetry he set to music often evokes the grandeur and sublimity of Nature, and the ways that we humans experience transcendence by observing mountains, forests, lakes and seas, and rushing winds or gentle breezes. All of the lieder that we have selected for this program reflect this almost religious attitude toward Nature (depicted below in the painting “Summer,” with a couple embracing amorously under a tree, by the Romantic German artist Casper David Friedrich.)
What are some of the challenges that Schubert’s music poses to pianists in particular?
Schubert’s piano style is unique, and calls for an ability to sing on the instrument, and to play with an array of orchestral colors.
Playing his songs of course means that you understand something about what it takes to sing them, and you have to completely get into the poetry and the ideas being explored.
He was a very social and sociable composer, and so a lot of playing Schubert involves playing nicely with others. That includes of course playing duets by two pianists at one keyboard.
Schubert was probably the greatest composer for this medium and wrote some of this greatest works for piano duet.
The two pianists must play the same instrument, and sound as one. It is harder than you might think! The issue of playing in such close proximity to your partner invites a level of physical intimacy that can be quite pleasant or quite awkward, depending on the music in question.
The great pianist Artur Schnabel (below) spoke of “music that is better than it can be played.” He included most of Schubert in this category.
The idea for the Schubertiades originated in Schubert’s lifetime — social gatherings devoted to hearing Schubert’s music, but also to having a good time with friends. How do modern performers recreate this informal atmosphere?
Part of it is the variety of the music, and the large number of performers who will be joining us, most of whom will be seated around the piano on stage during the concert (below top). We will also have seating on stage for audience members who want to have a bit of the intimate feeling of those first legendary Schubertiades (below bottom) held in salons in Vienna.
We aim for an atmosphere of spontaneity and informality, as we have in the past two Schubertiades. We are thrilled this year that our concert is underwritten by a generous donor, Ann Boyer, whose gift has allowed us to include opera singer Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below, in a photo by Peter Konerko) as our featured guest artist and alumna.
We both worked a lot with Jamie-Rose when she was a student here and she’s a wonderful singer who will be travelling to us from New England where she is a new voice faculty member at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
And of course we are delighted to be making music with so many of our UW-Madison School of Music faculty, other alumni and friends.
Anything else you want to add?
We will be performing all the songs in their original German. However, you’ll find full German texts and translations at the door. We encourage people to come early and read the poetry before the concert begins. It’s a nice way to familiarize yourself with the gist of the poems without having to be glued to your program while the songs are being sung.
Here is the impressive and appealing complete list of works and performers:
Schubertian Naturescapes – Water, Winds and Woodlands
Jamie-Rose Guarrine (JRG), Mimmi Fulmer (MF), Sara Guttenberg (SG), Marie McManama (MM), Daniel O’Dea (DO), David Ronis (DR), Paul Rowe (PF), Benjamin Schultz, (BS), singers
Soh-hyun Park Altino (SP), violin
Sally Chisholm (SC), viola
Parry Karp (PK), cello
Ben Ferris, (BF), double bass
Daniel Grabois (DG), horn
Wesley Warnhoff (WW), clarinet
Bill Lutes (BL) and Martha Fischer (MF), piano
Wanderers Nachtlied (II), D. 768 Wayfarer’s Night Song (MF, BL) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Der Fluss D. 693 The River (JRG, BL) Friedrich von Schlegel
Widerspruch, D. 865, Contrariness (DO, DR, BS, PR, MF) Johann Gabriel Seidl
Auf dem Wasser zu Singen, D. 774, To Be Sung on the Water (SG, MF) Friedrich Leopold, Graf zu Stolberg-Stolberg
Fischerweise D. 881, Fisherman’s Ditty, (BS, MF) Franz Xaver von Schlechta
Die Forelle, D. 550, The Trout (MM, BL) Christian Friedrich Schubart
Piano Quintet in A major “Trout,” D. 667 (SP, SC, PK, BF, MF) Movement IV: Theme and Variations (heard in a YouTube video at the bottom)
Suleika I, D. 720 (JRG, BL); Suleika II, D. 717 (JRG,MF) Marianne von Willemer, rev. Goethe
Auf dem Strom, D. 943, On the River (DO, DG, MF) Ludwig Rellstab
Frühlingsglaube, D. 686, Faith in Spring (DR, BL) Ludwig Uhland
Im Walde “Waldesnacht,” D. 707, In the Forest “Forest Night” (PR, BL) Friedrich Schlegel
Dass sie hier gewesen, D. 775, That She has Been Here (MF, BL) Friedrich Rückert
Allegro in a minor ”Lebensstürme,” D. 947, Life’s Storms (MF, BL)
Der 23 Psalm, D. 706, (MM, SG, MF, MF, BL) The Bible, trans. Moses Mendelssohn
Der Hirt auf dem Felsen D. 965, The Shepherd on the Rock (JRG, WW, MF) Wilhelm Müller/Karl August Varnhagen von Ense
An die Musik, D. 547 To Music. Franz von Schober. Everyone is invited to sing along. You can find the words in your texts and translations.