The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all-20th century program of works by Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky and Poulenc this coming Saturday night. Plus, conductor Beverly Taylor talks about how severe budget cuts are hurting the choral program at the UW-Madison.

December 8, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union, a campus and community chorus, and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all 20th-century program. (Both are below.)

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Featured are the “Symphony of Psalms” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; the “Gloria” by French composer Francis Poulenc; and the Overture to “The Wasps” by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Tickets are $15, $8 for seniors and students.

Here is a link to more information, including how to buy tickets:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union1/

Beverly Taylor, who heads up the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who is assistant music director at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct.

Taylor agreed to a recent email interview with The Ear:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

This year, you are giving only one performance, both now and in the spring for “The Creation” by Franz Joseph Haydn. For many years, you have generally given two performances. Why the change? Is it an experiment or trial, or is it permanent?

Three things combined:  Really, the main reason was that the hall and players were only available one night.  As more groups emerge and the hall is booked, and string players may be playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra or several new chamber groups, it’s hard to get everyone together on the same night.

Also, we thought we’d pack them in for one night, although with all that goes on in town, we may leave some people out.

Third, because we did not have a full chamber ensemble yet available at the time we planned “The Creation,” and knowing I’d have to hire some additional players, we planned on one night for budget reasons.

Next year?  Who knows?  Check back in February …

UW Choral singers

It is a great program of very different 20th-century works. What was your idea or reason for linking them by putting them on the same program?

Great question, and yes I’ve given it a fair amount of thought.

Before I answer that, I should say that I’ve added a bonus piece to the program in the form of the orchestra-only Overture to “The Wasps” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Because the program is a bit on the short side, I had an overture in mind, but hadn’t confirmed it till I saw how quickly the orchestra took on the challenges of the Poulenc and Stravinsky.

One of the great things about programming 20th century music — and I expect will be the same as we add more 21st century music — is the astounding variety of styles available to us. And many of the 20th-century composers lived long enough to provide differing styles within their own work.

UW Symphony violins 2015

UW Symphony Strings cellos

What can you tell us about the work by Stravinsky (below)?

Stravinsky’s earliest works were late Romantic, then, with pulsing rhythms, sometimes called primitive; later there was neo-Classicism, and 12-tone, etc.  If forced to choose a title, I would call “Symphony of Psalms” a mixture of the primitive and the Romantic.

What makes it Romantic is the writing for the choir, which entails long lines, some stunning dynamic changes from loud to soft, and a pure, almost disembodied gentle melody at the end.

What makes it Primitive is the pulsing rhythms in the orchestra in movement III and the unexpected chord interpolations in the first.

What makes it clever intellectually is the difficult, jagged but fascinating double fugue in the second movement; and what makes it a wonderful sonic treat is the elimination of Violin I, II and Viola in favor of FIVE flutes, FIVE oboes, FOUR bassoons, FOUR horns, FIVE trumpets, THREE trombones TWO pianos, ONE harp and ONE tuba, some cellos, double basses and a partridge in a pear tree.

When you get four flutes and a piccolo, playing sometimes a half-step apart, you set up weird shimmering overtones.  It’s fascinating to hear, although I may be deaf after the concert from being so close to them.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

What about the work by Poulenc (below top)?

I wanted to contrast the modern instrumentation of the pulsing rhythms of Stravinsky with an equally interesting 20th-century work with a different flavor.

What makes Poulenc’s “Gloria” (heard in a YouTube video at the bottom) hard to sing is what we hear all the time in popular music — the major seventh chord — think C, E, G and B natural.  For performers, singing C’s against B’s can be hard to tune, but the chords are closely allied with jazz and the piano bar!  And the piano was Poulenc’s composing instrument.

With long lines in the strings, we are treated to the lushest of lines in the third, fifth and sixth movements. The first movement is regally strong; the second and fourth are playful.

Our wonderful soprano soloist, Tyana O’Connor, sings gorgeously in three of the movements, both powerfully direct, and then in soft floating sounds.

Francis Poulenc

And the work by Vaughan Williams?

I chose the Vaughan Williams for its length, its instrumentation (lots for the upper strings, which weren’t playing in the Stravinsky, and nice parts for the harps that we have already playing in the Poulenc and Stravinsky) and its buoyant, positive nature as an opening to our concert.

Vaughan Williams (below) wrote it while he was fairly young, as occasional music to a production of Aristophanes’ play “The Wasps.” He makes a nod to “The Wasps” in the form of a string buzz in the opening and toward the end. But for the most part the overture is formed of two tunes — a perky, angular march and a warm, lush tune aligned with English folksong.  These tunes are presented separately and then combined.

By choosing three different flavors of 20th-century music, I hope to present a balanced evening with appeal to everyone.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

Have steep budget cuts to the UW-Madison hurt the Choral Union? Do such cuts affect your ability to hire guest soloists? Do they account for the reduction in performances? Do they alter the repertoire that you can do?

Yes, they have hurt the Choral Union in certain ways, although I don’t think our excellence will be any the less.

Without the availability of some discretionary concert funds, we have had to increase some fees for members, and we have had to postpone some special works that might include high rentals of materials or special instruments or another venue to perform in.

We sometimes program using the great soloists available to us from our faculty and graduate students, and save funds for when we need to hire a professional voice that we don’t have. With more money we might do that more often, but we are lucky to have gifted people within our reach.

Good classical music has costs that the public often doesn’t know about — high costs for copyrighted parts and scores (below) for recent works, and specialty instruments such as viols or oboes d’amore and portative organs for early music.

Beethoven Symphony 5 score

What else would you like to say?

I’m so glad you asked me to write.  Although this concert by the Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra is a ticketed event, the great majority of our concerts are FREE.

We encourage listeners of all types and generations to TRY to listen to something new and LIVE, and perhaps in a different genre than they’ve ever tried before.

 


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra again proves that it’s not just for summer pops listening anymore as it opens its winter season to the full house its deserves.

October 14, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Can it really be that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra –- The Little Orchestra That Could -– is finally getting the long overdue recognition and larger audiences that it deserves? One hopes so, and it certainly seems so.

Last Friday night on the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opened its new winter season to a full and enthusiastic house.

WCO lobby

So perhaps the tide is indeed turning and the WCO will not continue to be hamstrung by its own success, by which I mean its historic role and pops repertoire in the always popular summertime Concerts on the Square. The WCO should be taken more seriously by the area’s classical fans.

Friday saw a full house – but not necessarily a sold-out house since the WCO generously offers tickets to students and others in need -– which was what they deserve, and have deserved, for a longtime.

The ensemble’s playing proved nothing short of terrific, and the soloists – violinist Rachel Barton Pine and violist Matthew Lipman – proved nothing short of spectacular.

Here are the points that The Ear took away.

1. The music of the famous 18th-century composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below top) and Franz Joseph Haydn (below bottom) can by now seem so safe and so predictable. The Classical-era style is that well established. So it is high praise to the WCO ‘s longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell, who his starting his 15th season, that these most established of Classical composers again seemed vital and even, at times, daring and radical. No music box Mozart from the WCO!

Mozart old 1782
Haydn

Sewell’s readings of both composers is not timid in any way, but robust and energetic. Not that Sewell (below) sacrifices the elegance and balanced proportion that we expect to hear in Classical compositions. But he also brings an approach that features up-beat tempi, sharply accented beats, long phrases and an emphasis on dissonant harmonies that helped listeners see how such staple Classical composers were innovative revolutionaries in their day and helped pave the way to modernity.

andrewsewell

Really, at one point during Haydn’s late Symphony No. 96 “The Miracle” The Ear could look down the road of music history and see not only Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert coming, but even Gustav Mahler (below), with his use of peasant dances, harmonic suspensions and dissonances, and a kind of tightly knit theme-and-variations method of composing and adding to the music’s momentum.

Gustav Mahler big

2. The WCO knows how to book outstanding and exciting soloists. Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below), playing a violin once chosen by Johannes Brahms himself, showed superb tone and musicianship with just the right splash of head-turning virtuosity. But she can sing too, and she held the audience in her hand when she played the famous quiet Lullaby by Brahms as an encore.

One very discerning listener whom The Ear knows thought that Barton Pine’s stellar rendition of Camille Saint-Saens’ showpiece “Introduction and Rondo capriccioso” was the best version of the several he had heard in three performances over the past several months. It helped, I think, that you could watch the playing as well as hear the piece. As the composer Igor Stravinsky used to advise: Listen with your eyes.

Rachel Barton Pine

Similarly the violist Matthew Lipman (below), who was making his WCO debut, did a terrific job. He may look about 16, but he plays like a seasoned veteran with confidence and fine tone.

matthew lipman violajpg

The two string players excelled in the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola by Benjamin Britten -– but more about that performance and work later. Yet what really brought the string duo a prolonged standing ovation was their encore: the famous solo Passacaglia for Violin and Viola by George Frideric Handel, as arranged by Johan Halvorsen. (You can hear a version of this great violin and viola piece, with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, in a YouTube video at the bottom.) What fun it was to hear it live!

3. The hybrid programming proved typical of Andrew Sewell, who likes to combine the familiar with the unknown. So  Mozart’s popular Overture to the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” and the well-known late Haydn symphony were balanced out by the rarely programmed Violin Concerto No. 5 by the mid-19th century Romantic Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps (below), a competent but, to The Ear’s ears, not a particularly inspired composition. I think I can wait another decade or two before hearing a repeat performance.

henri vieuxtemps

The Double Concerto for Violin and Viola by the young Benjamin Britten is another matter. I need to hear it again, and that will not be easy since it is not often programmed or recorded.

But the hallmarks of mature Britten (below) all seemed there, if not yet seamlessly assembled. The music sounded modern but accessible, clearly not academic. This was real music, not what The Ear calls R&D Music — Research and Development Music — that is designed more to make a point or win tenure than to please the ear or touch the heart.

Benjamin Britten

In all, it was a delightful night of music-making, and if you are not going to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, you are only cheating yourself of great pleasure and great performances.

Reviews, of course, are by nature subjective. So here is another one you can compare this review to:

It is a review by the highly respected John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=43770&sid=c9ccfe0ad418291bab1d31cde0181d49

John-Barker

 


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