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: The Oakwood Chamber Players and guest artists give two performances of a holiday program this coming Sunday afternoon

November 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their 2017-2018 season series “Journey” with a concert titled Quest on  this coming Sunday, Nov. 26, at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors and $5 for students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

At the heart of this holiday-themed concert is British composer John Rutter (below) and his imaginative story about the origins of the holiday favorite In dulci jubilo.

Believed to have been sung by angels as an inspired gift to a medieval monk, the musical fable traces how life’s distractions can sometimes interfere with sublime gifts.

The quest for the carol’s completion is told with heart-warming humor.

Narrator Buzz Kemper (below) will bring the whimsical story’s characters to life along with instrumentalists and a vocal quartet.

Canadian-Slovenian composer Marjan Mozetich (below) characterizes his music as that which explores the spiritual by showing introspective and meditative qualities. Written for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet his evocative Angels in Flight is poignant and layered with a shimmering melodic framework.

The animated short of Raymond Brigg’s children’s story The Snowman was set to music by British film composer Howard Blake (below). A string quartet arrangement of his uplifting music for the film highlights the memorable moments. The suite includes the delightful “Walking in the Air” capturing the moment when imagination brings the snowman to life and it flies a young boy toward the North Pole.

The program will also include Ralph Vaughan Williams’ March Past of the Kitchen Utensils (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) and George Shearing’s jazzy arrangement of Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind. UW-trained composer and pianist Scott Gendel (below) wrote a Christmas piece — It Was My Father’s Custom — in 2011, and it will be presented by the ensemble and singers.

Guest vocalists are: Mari Borowski, Lauren Gruber, Robert Goderich and Jace Nichols.

Guest instrumentalists are: Scott Gendel, piano; Margaret Mackenzie, harp; Thalia Coombs, violin; Katrin Talbot, viola; and Jennifer Morgan, oboe.

This is the second of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2017-2018 season series entitled Journey. Remaining concerts will take place on Jan. 13 and 14; March 10 and 11; and May 19 and 20.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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