The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here are the Top 10 things to know about Handel’s “Messiah.” The Madison Bach Musicians will perform it with period instruments this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 4, 2016
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ALERT:  Tomorrow on Tuesday, April 5, there will be two on-air events about the Madison Bach Musicians’ performances of Handel’s “Messiah”: On Wisconsin Public Radio’s Midday program on WERN (88.7 FM) noon-12:30 p.m., MBM director Trevor Stephenson will be Norman Gilliland’s guest. They’ll play and discuss selections from “Messiah.” Then MBM will perform two arias from “Messiah” live on the CBS affiliate WISC-TV Channel 3 “Live at 4” program 4-5 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday night and Sunday afternoon, the Madison Bach Musicians will perform the well-known oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel (below). The performances feature period instruments and historically authentic performances practices.

handel big 3

Here are the details:

FRIDAY: 6:45 p.m. lecture followed by a 7:30 p.m. concert

SUNDAY: 2:45 p.m. lecture followed by a 3:30 p.m. concert

Both performances are at the First Congregational United Church of Christ (below), 1609 University Avenue, Madison, near Camp Randall Stadium.

MBM holiday 2014 singers and instrumentalists JWB

The forces and period instruments MBM has assembled for this event are similar in many respects to those used by Handel in the world premiere of “Messiah” in Dublin in April of 1742.

For more information, including a complete list of performers, visit:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org/april-8-10-2016/

The concerts feature an all-baroque orchestra ─ with gut strings, baroque oboes, natural trumpets and calf-skin timpani ─ plus eight internationally-acclaimed soloists, and the Madison Boychoir (part of Madison Youth Choirs), which will collaborate in the “Hallelujah” Chorus and Amen, under the direction of early-music specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill), professor of bassoon at the University of Wisocnsin-Maidson School of Music.

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

Pre-concert lectures at both events will be given by MBM founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below), who is as entertaining as he is enlightening.

Prairie Rhapsody 2011 Trevor Stephenson

Advance-sale discount tickets are: $33 general, $28 students and seniors (65+). They are available at Orange Tree Imports, Farley’s House of Pianos, Room of One’s Own, and Willy Street Co-op (East and West)

You can also buy advance sale tickets online at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are $35 general, $30 students and seniors (65+), Student Rush: $10 on sale 30 minutes before lecture (student ID required) Visit or call www.madisonbachmusicians.org at 608 238-6092.

To prepare you to appreciate the oratorio, here is Trevor Stephenson’s Top 10 list of things – a la David Letterman — that you should know about it:

TOP 10 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT HANDEL’S ‘MESSIAH

#10. Its title is “Messiah” not “The Messiah”

#9. Handel, at 56 years of age, wrote Messiah in just 24 days in the late summer of 1741.

#8.  Some of the pieces ─ like “For unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep” ─ Handel borrowed or adapted from pieces he had composed earlier, usually by laying the new text over the existing musical material. This technique, known as “parody,” was employed by most composers as a way of recycling good musical material.

#7. The original words to the tune we know as “For unto us a child is born” were  (Italian) “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi, cieco Amor, crudel Beltà” — meaning roughly “No, I won’t trust you, blind Love, cruel Beauty” (Hear the YouTube video at bottom.)

#6. Messiah premiered in 1742 in Dublin, Ireland two weeks after Easter (March 25 that year) on April 13. By uncanny dumb luck, this 2016 period-performance of Messiah by MBM will also take place two weeks after Easter (March 27) on April 8 and 10.

#5. Handel divided this oratorio into three parts. Part I: a world in need of salvation; the promise that salvation is on the way; arrival of the savior in the world; Part II: Christ’s passion and crucifixion, descent to hell and resurrection, beginnings of the church, triumph of truth over death (Hallelujah); Part III: Faith and the world to come; the awakening of all souls (The Trumpet Shall Sound), paean to the Lamb of God; closing, majestic meditation on Amen.

MBM Messiah poster

#4.  In a baroque orchestra the string instruments use gut strings—made from dried and carefully processed sheep intestine. Gut strings assist in the performance of baroque music in two important ways: 1) because gut as a material is very supple, the tone it produces is naturally “warm” in an acoustic/aesthetic sense; therefore, vibrato is not necessary in order to produce a pleasing sound and the player’s attention can focus more on pitch. 2) Gut strings, because they are very textured, produce a natural friction with the hair of the baroque bow which ensures that the instant the player’s bow hand moves the pitch is in the air. This optimizes the sense of directness in performance.

#3. The harpsichord and organ were used as continuo instruments in baroque music. MBM will be using both instruments in the upcoming Messiah performances. 18th-century keyboard tunings were generally of the un-equal/circulating variety known as Well Temperaments, as in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” of Johann Sebastian Bach. In these tunings, every tonality has a unique acoustic color, ranging from the transparently clear and harmonious keys (C major, A minor and other keys near the top of the circle of fifth, unencumbered by accidentals), then shading all the way down to the lugubriously opaque and gnarled keys in the basement of the circle of fifths, like G-flat major and E-flat minor. Notice in Messiah the contrast between the acoustical openness of the initial Sinfonia in E minor (one sharp) and the rigid density of the passion-of-Christ choruses near the beginning of Part II, “Surely, He hath borne our griefs” and “And with His stripes we are healed” both in F minor (four flats). 18th-century temperament will bring such differences into keen relief.

#2. Messiah was very successful and greatly admired in Dublin at its premiere. When Handel led performances of it in London several months later, the reception was much cooler. Nevertheless, from there on the popularity of Messiah grew steadily and it was performed often in Handel’s lifetime under his direction. Though much of Handel’s music was widely published in his lifetime, Messiah was not published until a few years after Handel’s death in 1759.

#1.  In Messiah, the balance between the sense of play and sense of purpose is unrivalled (though a different animal in many ways, a blood brother of Messiah in the movie domain might be The Wizard of Oz). Indeed, it is almost as if in Handel’s world, these two elements — play and purpose — do not oppose, but rather fuel each other. Handel’s descendent in this regard is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose also could consistently fuse melodic joy with harmonic and theatrical pacing, pushing scene after scene ever-higher until it seems the roof opens to the realms of limitless joy.


Classical music: Two concerts of great music by Bach and Schubert are on tap for Saturday afternoon and Saturday night

March 17, 2016
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ALERT: Although it is listed on the Events Calendar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, there is NO concert TONIGHT by UW Symphony Strings.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear wants to draw your attention to two smaller but very worthwhile concerts this Saturday.

GRACE PRESENTS

This Saturday afternoon, from noon to 1 p.m., the Grace Presents concert series offer harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson in a FREE lecture-performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.

The FREE concert takes place at Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, on the Capitol Square.

grace episcopal church ext

MBM Grace altar

Writes Stephenson who is the founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians: “In the lecture, entitled Odyssey of the Soul, I’ll discuss the large-scale structure of the WTC – how it tells a story from the beginning of beginnings in C major out to the final frontier (and edge of tonality itself) in B minor.

“I’ll also talk about and demonstrate how 18th-century Well Temperament is made and how Bach (below) integrates the variety of its sound colors with the expressive message of each piece that I’ll be playing.”

Bach1

The program includes: Prelude and Fugue in C major; Prelude and Fugue in C minor; Prelude in C-sharp major; Prelude and Fugue in E-flat/D-sharp minor; Prelude and Fugue in F major; and Prelude and Fugue in B minor.

The harpsichord that Stephenson (below, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer) will play was made in Madison in 1999 by Norman Sheppard (sheppardkeyboards.com). It is modeled on a 4-octave Flemish instrument of 1669 by Couchet.

Trevor Stephenson at harpsicord CR Kent Sweitzer

MOSAIC CHAMBER PLAYERS

The Mosaic Chamber Players will give an all-Schubert program this Saturday night, March 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the Meeting House of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison. The concert will conclude the group’s 2015-16 season.

The Mosaic Chamber Players will be performing two of Schubert’s late works: the Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major, D. 929 (you can hear the haunting and lovely slow movement played by violist Isaac Stern, cellist Leonard Rose and pianist Eugene Istomin in a YouTube video at the bottom); and the rarely heard Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C Major, D. 934.

There will be a reception following the program.

Tickets are $15, $10 for seniors, and $5 for students. Only check or cash will be accepted.

The Mosaic Chamber Players (below, from left) is made up of pianist and founder Jess Salek; violinist Laura Burns (below middle); cellist Michael Allen; and violinist Wes Luke. The various members play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra,the Rhapsodie String Quartet; the Ancora String Quartet; the Willy Street Chamber Players;  the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Youth Choirs and other local ensembles.

Mosaic Chamber Players 2016. Jess Salek piano. Laura Burns violn, Michael Allen cello. Wes Luke violin

The chamber music group has been praised as “among the finest purveyors of quality chamber music in Madison” by critic John W. Barker on The Well-Tempered Ear blog.


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Chorus performs a medley of choral music this Sunday at 2 and 4 p.m. Plus, a FREE harpsichord recital of music by Bach, Handel and Scarlatti is at noon this Friday.

February 25, 2016
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, Trevor Stephenson — the founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians — will play harpsichord music by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Domenico Scarlatti.

He will perform on his own four-octave, crow-quilled 17th-century-style Flemish instrument and will talk about the well-tempered tuning of this instrument, the composers’ lives and the concert repertoire. Selections are from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” Scarlatti’s Sonatas and Handel’s “Keyboard Suites.”

By Jacob Stockinger

Some groups perform more in tandem or as adjuncts to other groups than by themselves. This seems especially true of choruses.

But this weekend, the Madison Symphony Chorus, which normally performs with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will have the spotlight to itself. (You can hear the chorus sing as part of the MSO’s Christmas concert in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Twice on the same day.

Here are the details:

On this Sunday, Feb. 28, at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., director Beverly Taylor and the Madison Symphony Chorus  (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) will present a “Memories” concert in Promenade Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts.

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

Taylor (below) is the longtime assistant conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

The concerts will feature an array of musical styles, including classical music selections from Johannes Brahms and contemporary American composer John Corigliano, a collection of Swedish, Norwegian, Scottish and Mexican ethnic tunes, traditional spirituals and gospel music, and nostalgic songs from the Tin Pan Alley era by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, and Fats Waller.

Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) Principal Pianist Daniel Lyons will accompany much of the music.

Dan Lyons

Tickets are $20, and are available: at madisonsymphony.org/chorusconcert; at the Overture Box Office (201 State Street); or by calling (608) 258-4141.

Formed in 1927, the Madison Symphony Chorus gave its first public performance in 1928 and has performed regularly with the MSO ever since.

The Chorus was featured at the popular Madison Symphony Christmas concerts in December and will join the MSO April 29 and 30, and May 1 for Carmina Burana, the colossal modern oratorio based on medieval Latin songs by 20th-century German composer Carl Orff.

The Chorus is comprised of more than 125 volunteer and amateur musicians from all walks of life who enjoy combining their artistic talent. New members are always welcome.

Visit madisonsymphony.org/chorus for more information about the chorus and the program for this concert.

 


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