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.

 


Classical music: Bach and the H-Bomb. The Ear celebrates five years of writing his blog by offering a poem about thermonuclear weapons, Edward Teller and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

August 22, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, marked the fifth anniversary of The Well-Tempered Ear blog, which this past June surpassed one million hits and now has over 1,800 daily posts and 6,200 comments. Thank you, all, for your loyalty and your participation. The results have exceeded my wildest expectations or hopes.

To mark the occasion, I thought I would do something different, something I have not done before: Offer a poem of my own from a personal project: A collection of poems I often write about the piano pieces that I am myself playing or listening to. Maybe a reader out there who likes the poem will know, or even be, a literary agent or a publisher of some kind who would be interested in seeing the poem, and others like it, reach a larger audience. The YouTube link at the bottom to the music in question adds a certain unusual attraction.

This particular poem is based on historical fact, but I have of course taken some liberties. It is like historical fiction, only in the form of poetry.

The poem concerns Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) and the late Hungarian-born and controversial theoretical physicist Dr. Edward Teller (1908-2003, below bottom), who was the model for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s famous 1964 satirical movie of the same name. Teller developed the Atomic Bomb, created the Hydrogen Bomb and proposed Star Wars.

Bach1

Edward Teller

Here is a photo of the young Dr. Edward Teller, whose mother was an accomplished concert pianist, playing the Steinway piano that he bought at a hotel auction in Chicago, while his wife Mici looks on:

Edward Teller plays piano with wife MIci CR Jon BrenneisIf you wish to check out more biographical information, including his being named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1960, here are some links:

http://www.webofstories.com/play/edward.teller/7;jsessionid=2C9ABDC3269E3F2ABC31706C137871EA

Here is a biography with a video clip at the bottom of the web page of Edward Teller playing the first movement, in an overheated manner, of the “Moonlight” Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven at his home at Stanford University, California, in 1990, when he was 90 years old. He died there of a stroke at 95, two months after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush.

http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/tel0bio-1

At bottom is a link to a YouTube performance by Friedrich Gulda –- a famous jazz musician but also an important teacher of classical piano titan Martha Argerich — of the Bach prelude and fugue in question.

I hope you like the poem and find it rewarding. If you do, let me know, and perhaps I will post some more in the future.

Hydrogen Bomb

DR. EDWARD TELLER PLAYS BACH

By Jacob Stockinger

Late at night, when he is not in his lab
Building the world’s first atomic bomb,
Dr. Edward Teller is back in his barracks.
He thinks through his fingers
As he pedals with his fake right foot,
Practicing and playing on the century-old Steinway
He had shipped to the high New Mexico desert.

The physicist’s taste runs to Mozart and Beethoven.
But tonight he is working on Prelude and Fugue No. 8
In E-flat Minor and D-sharp Minor,
from Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach’s
The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

Since childhood, his mind has been held captive
By only two things: the music of mathematics
And the mathematics of music.

This slow, melodious and mournful
Music, he finds, is solidly, stolidly built.
The paired-up pieces match,
Mirror-like in their linkage
Like fission and fusion,
Like Bombs A and H.

Bach and bombs seem compatibly ingenious,
Old equations for a new beauty.
He likes how the main melody at the core
Radiates and grows, outward and inward,
Down and up, across treble and bass.
The multiple voices echo in a chain reaction of sound,
Like the counterpoint of nuclei and electrons,
And the dialogue of chalkboard equations.

The transparent thickness of Baroque beauty
Suits his scientific bent and emotional need,
His taste for a stately and elegant destruction
In which he can lose himself and others.

He knows that the two pieces remain something of a mystery,
The only ones Bach wrote in those keys,
Obscure keys that no one used back then.
But rarity equals a kind of originality
and that attracts Teller, who is still thinking up
“The Super,” his own word for an even
more powerful thermonuclear device.

That is what he now calls apocalyptic energy,
When he is not playing Bach.

And especially when he is.

© Jacob Stockinger

 


Classical music education: Prize-winning Korean conductor and pianist Myung Whun Chung records an album of music that rewards and encourages piano students.

June 16, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Spring is the time for year-end piano recitals, for piano teachers and students to show off their stuff as the school year ends.

Lutes 12 Maylynn Hu

If you are looking for something to give a young piano student -– or, for that matter, even an older piano student -– The Ear can’t think of a better gift than a new album from ECM Records.

It is the debut recital of solo piano works by the prize-winning Korean conductor and pianist Myung Whun Chung (below), whose fabulously musical family includes a famous violinist sister and a cellist brother with whom he recorded many famous trios by Antonin Dvorak, Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn and others. (Below, he is seen conducting at the BBC Proms.)

myung-whun chung

Here is a link to his biography:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myung-whun_Chung

And here is a taste with some description from ECM:

http://player.ecmrecords.com/myung-whun-chung–piano

Myung Whun Chung recital cover

The CD features great sonic engineering. The piano sound is clear and upfront, not overly resonant and not percussive. The treble and bass are well-balanced. And the playing seems relaxed and natural, never tense or forced, whimsical or neurotic.

The album contains a variety of 10 pieces for different levels of playing, though most are for advanced beginners or intermediate students. As Chung explains at the bottom in a YouTube video, he made this album not for pianists, but for young people. We need more of that kind of caring and music education.

Fur Elise’ by Ludwig van Beethoven and Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Autumn Song” lead on to more difficult works like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as well as two Impromptus from Op. 90 (E-flat Major and G-flat Major) by Franz Schubert and two Nocturnes by Frederic Chopin.

The simpler “Traumerei” from “Scenes of Childhood” by Robert Schumann, which the great virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz always used as a signature encore, leads to the underplayed as well as harder and longer Arabesque by the same composer. (Below is Myung Wha Chung recording at the piano in a photo by Rainer Maillard for ECM Records.)

Myung Whun Chung at piano CR Rainer Maillard ECM Records

So there is a variety of learning levels built-in as a teasing incentive to push on to the next one.

But such playable beauty is its own incentive.

The CD makes clear that great music is not necessarily hard or virtuosic music. Chung’s “Fur Elise” is not rushed, but instead beautiful and unrushed Beethoven at his best.

I also like the way Chung opens the recital slowly with Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune.” It proves an engaging and inviting way to set the mood, to calm the often hectic and nervy experience of a solo recital. (Below, Chung is seen playing on stage at the plush and warmly Old Word-elegant Teatro La Fenice in Venice in a photo by Sun Chung for ECM Records.)

Myung Whun Chung on stage at Teatro La Fenice in Venice CR Sun Chung ECM Records

You can see why Chung won second prize at the Tchaikovsky International Competition and why he guest conducts so frequently. He is a born musician. This is fine playing, not over-pedaled. Good rhythms and very fine tempi rule the day. And Chung demonstrates a fine use of rubato, or flexible tempi and timings, as well as a legato singing tone.

The album also serves as a reminder to piano students that there is more to music, and to possible professional and even prominent careers in music, than solo playing. The many famous conductors who went on from playing the piano include George Solti, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein and, locally, both John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera, and Andrew Sewell of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

This CD reminds The Ear of the albums “My First Recital” and “My Second Recital” albums by the late Ruth Laredo. They too also had all good pieces, all very well played. The Ear thinks we could use more albums that help show how great musicians started and then got great. As for music education and music appreciation, it serves a similar purpose to Leonard Bernstein’s great “Young People’s Concerts.”

Ruth Laredo BW

Sure, I would have liked to hear something included by Johann Sebastian Bach, who is so essential to learning music — maybe one or two of the Two-Part Inventions that most piano students get to know. Or maybe one of the easier Preludes from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” or a movement from one of the French or English suites.

But then you could also ask for some of the easier Chopin preludes, mazurkas or waltzes, or maybe a Brahms Waltz.

Maybe those will come in a sequel, and maybe by next spring’s recital time.

One can hope –- and listen to this lovely recording while waiting.

But for this lesson, in any case, Myung Whun Chung — seen below in photo by Jean Francois Leclerq for ECM Records– gets a gold star.

Myung Whun Chung CR Jean-Francois Leclerq ECM Records

 

 

 


Classical Music Q&A: Bach’s Mass in B Minor is perfect music for Easter. It reconciles Catholicism and Protestantism, and is a distillation of Bach’s own Cantatas and Passions, says Trevor Stephenson, the director of the Madison Bach Musicians who, with the Madison Choral Project, will perform the Mass in B Minor on Friday and Saturday nights.

April 14, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear still remembers fondly the beautiful and moving performance he heard five years ago of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” by the Madison Bach Musicians. 

Since then the MBM has turned in many memorable performances of cantatas and concertos by Bach and other early music on period instruments, including works by Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli and George Frideric Handel.

But this Easter weekend will bring a special treat.

The Madison Bach Musicians, will partner with the Madison Choral Project, under Albert Pinsonneault, to perform Bach’s magnificent and monumental Mass in Minor.

Performances are at on this Friday night at 8 pm. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ. And on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive, near UW Hospital.

Advance tickets are $20 for adults; $15 for students and seniors over 65; at the door, $25 and $20, respectively. For more information about how to buy advance tickets, visit:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org/tickets/

For more information about the music and the performers, visit:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org

Stephenson (seen below, in a pre-concert lecture in a photo by Kent Sweitzer), who is a knowledgeable, articulate and entertaining speaker about Baroque music, agreed to an email Q&A about the Mass in B Minor.

Trevor Stephenson lecture at FUS October 2012 by Kent Sweitzer

Where do you place the B Minor Mass with Bach’s enormous body of work and choral music? How does it stand or rank in terms of quality and power to, say, the Passions and Cantatas?

Musicians often talk about their “desert island piece”— the work they would most want to have at hand if they were forced to live on a desert island. For me, the B minor Mass has always been my desert island piece. (But if I could sneak in the Well-Tempered Clavier too, that would be great.)

The Passions are incomparable investigations into the relationship between the human embodiment of divine spirit and the dark machinations of this world. The Passions are also Bach’s great statements on the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good of love. (Jesus gave up his life for love of us, and we should in turn give of ourselves to that which we love.)

The Cantatas are the laboratory where Bach worked out–on a nearly weekly basis–the fusion of musical and textual material toward a spiritual end.

The Mass in B minor focuses more on the relationship between—and really the joining of–the metaphysical and the everyday. Just as an example, as Bach expert John Eliot Gardiner (below) points out in his wonderful new book, “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” look how the opening of the Credo fuses the gravitas, dignity, and mysticism of plainchant (in the voices) with the elegant, bubbling stride of the baroque bass line. And together these elements create a third thing, beyond themselves, a new joy. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the uplifting and joyous “Gloria” movement, performed by Karl Richter leading the Munich Bach Orchestra.)

John Eliot Gardiner

Why did a devout Lutheran like Bach turn to a Roman Catholic musical form? Is it appropriate to the Easter season, like the Passions and certain cantatas? What kind of liberties does Bach take with it? How does he reinvent it, if he does?

In Bach’s family, the work was often referred to as “The great catholic mass”–precisely because it was not usual Lutheran practice to set the entire Latin mass. The first appearance of the Mass in B minor comes in 1733 when Bach and his family copied out a beautiful set of presentation parts for the Dresden court–which had not only one of the greatest orchestras and vocal ensembles in Europe, but was also a Catholic court.

I’ve always felt that Bach’s Mass in B minor is something of a reconciliation with the Catholic church after the spiritual and political upheaval of the 17th century and the devastation of the 30-years War.

The Mass in B minor, though it is certainly Christian, also points toward a more inclusive picture of humanity’s universal — the original meaning of catholic — spiritual quest. It is hard to quantify, but I feel there is something in this music that speaks to—and really helps and inspires–us all.

Bach1

Why will Marc Vallon conduct it rather than you?

Marc and I have been working together for several years now. He has played several bassoon concertos with MBM; also with MBM he has conducted symphonies and concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus, Franz Joseph Haydn and Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.

Marc, who now teaches and performs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, was principal baroque bassoon—for 20 years—with the internationally acclaimed Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Ton Koopman. And during that time Marc performed and recorded many of Bach’s Cantatas, Passions and the B minor Mass.

Marc’s tremendous performance background with the Mass, and his infectious enthusiasm for this timeless masterpiece make him perfectly suited to lead the rehearsals and the concerts. I really can’t wait to hear what happens on Friday and Saturday when these amazing musicians and Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) and a great audience gather for the Mass in B minor.

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

What are the special aspects (one-on-one versus larger chorus, for example, or the Madison Choral Project or the period instruments and practices) that you would like to point out about this performance?

The Madison Choral Project is providing a 17-voice choir for the Mass in B minor concerts. In this work, since Bach usually uses a five-part choral texture (soprano I, soprano II, alto, tenor, bass), this comes to about three voices per part, depending on how things are distributed in a particular moment.

In two movements of the Mass (first Credo and Confiteor), we’ll have the soloists sing one-voice-per-part.

The orchestra will consist of 25 players, all on period instruments: 12 strings, 2 baroque oboes, 2 baroque flutes, 2 baroque bassoons, natural horn, 3 baroque trumpets, timpani, and continuo organ, which I what I will play. The balance between choir, soloists and orchestra should work out beautifully. (Below is the Madison Bach Musicians performing the “St. Matthew Passion” in a photo by Karen Holland.)

MBM in 2009 St. Matthew Passion CR Karen Holland

What should the public listen for in the mass both musically and performance-wise?

I would say notice how Bach contrasts grandeur with intimacy, metaphysical inquiry and prayer with rollicking celebration, and yet makes an exquisitely coherent whole. I think the Mass in B minor is a miracle of form.

Also, these concerts will feature an entirely period-instrument orchestra of outstanding baroque performance specialists hailing from throughout the United States — Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

The wonderful thing about playing this incomparable baroque masterwork on instruments that Bach was familiar with, is that the sound becomes fresh and energized in a way that is readily apparent. It really is a way of going Back to the Present!

The 18th-century instruments typically speak faster than their modern descendants — that is, the pitch actually forms more quickly, often by just a fraction of a second. But in music-making—especially very intricate baroque music-making—that fraction of a second can be the critical difference.

Bach’s absolutely amazing counterpoint in the Mass in B minor, which he often weaves effortlessly in 4 and even 5 independent parts is much more transparent when played on period instruments. You can peer more deeply into the infinite world of Bach’s fugues.

Period instruments are also set up to articulate quite deftly, that is, baroque instruments help the players define the shorter musical groupings of connected and non-connected notes. This in turn assists the audience in assimilating the elegant rhetorical shapes of Bach’s lines.

I will also preface both the concerts starting at 6:45 p.m. with a 30-minute lecture on period instruments (below is Stephenson discussing the keyboard action of an 18th-century fortepiano), approaches to singing baroque music, and the structure and history of the Mass in B minor.

HousemusicStephensonfortepianoaction

Is there anything else you would like to say or add?

I’d like to say a bit about the two venues where we’ll perform the Mass in B minor. “Where is it?” is one of the first questions most people ask when they hear of an exciting upcoming musical event. Because–particularly for classical music–the acoustics really matter. And the feel of the place, the vibe, needs to be right too.

The sound will be rich and the mood will be spiritually focused on Friday and Saturday as the Madison Bach Musicians and the Madison Choral Project collaborate in two performances of J. S. Bach’s monumental masterpiece the Mass in B minor, BWV 232.

The Friday concert will be given in the magnificent setting of the sanctuary at First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 1609 University Avenue, a landmark building in Madison’s cultural life.

MBM Bach canata 2013 Dec

The Saturday concert will be in the acoustically brilliant Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. The performances will feature a 24-piece period-instrument baroque orchestra, 5 outstanding vocal soloists, and a 17-voice professional choir from the Madison Choral Project.

Bach composed the Mass in B minor during the final 18 years of his life; adding, editing, and re-working it into his final year, 1750. The result is about 100 minutes of music that is instantly engaging, highly varied in its variety of ensemble and style, unified to the Nth degree, and structurally perfect. And somehow the Mass in B minor it is at once both magnificent and intimate.

The First Congregational United Church of Christ, with its neo-Georgian design (begun in 1928), captures the 18th-century ideals of dignified ambiance and sonic balance that Bach understood. The sound has tremendous detail, yet everything contributes to the warm cumulative tonal glow.

The much more recent Atrium Auditorium (below), built in 2008, at First Unitarian Society brings out the immediacy of the music-making. The sight lines are direct, and the acoustics brilliant; the audience feels very connected with the performers.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

Both venues are absolutely perfect for period-instrument performance, which emphasizes the detail and vitality of the music rather than sheer decibels.

Seating is limited at both venues, so purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended.

 

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Classical music: University of Wisconsin percussion group Clocks in Motion will give a FREE concert of unusual new music, including the world premiere of the winner of its first composing contest, this Sunday afternoon. Plus, on Saturday a harpsichord recital of Baroque masters will be given at the First Unitarian Society.

February 13, 2014
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ALERT: This Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium at the historic Meeting House at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, Stephen Alltop of Northwestern University will give a harpsichord recital. The program features the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (Toccata in E minor, Preludes and Fugues in D major and D minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I), Domenico Scarlatti (two sonatas), Jean-Philippe Rameau (Suite in A Minor), Franz Joseph Haydn (Sonata No. 6 in G Major) and George Frideric Handel (Suite in G Minor). A free will offering will be taken. 

Stephen Alltop harpsichord

By Jacob Stockinger

Clocks in Motion, Madison’s cutting-edge new music ensemble, will present Unfamiliar Voices 1.0, an expansive program featuring music from both the heart of the established percussion ensemble literature and the forefront of modern percussion composition. 

The FREE performance is this coming Sunday, Feb. 16, at 3 p.m. in Mils Hall. It will celebrate composer and UW-Madison student Ben Davis, the 2014 Clocks in Motion Call for Scores winner, with the world premiere of his exciting new work, “Night.”

The ensemble will also perform the meditative percussion quartet, “Threads,” by Paul Lansky and the grand percussion sextet, “Kryptogramma,” by Georges Aperghis.

clocks in motion in concert

Ben Davis (below), a composer, trumpeter and teacher from Richmond, Virginia, writes for unique instruments built by Clocks in Motion. His new work employs sixxen — large aluminum keyboard instruments that are tuned microtonally (vastly different from the standard repeating 12-tone scale in most western music).

ben davis

The three sets of sixxen (below, in the foreground with other percussion instruments) in the piece are purposefully out of tune with each other, creating an entrancing sound cloud of beading frequencies for the listener.  In contrast, the other three players in the piece each play a bombastic multi-percussion setup of tom toms, snare drums, kick drums, and china cymbals.  Davis’ innovative work is sure to impress.

sixxen ensemble foreground-1

Paul Lansky (below) shares some insightful thoughts on his 2005 work: “Threads… is a half-hour long ‘cantata’ for percussion quartet in ten short movements. (You can hear it at the bottom in a YouTube video performance from the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.)

Adds Lansky: “There are three “threads” that are interwoven in the piece: Arias and Preludes that focus on the metallic pitched sounds of vibraphones, glockenspiel and pipes; Choruses in which drumming predominates; and Recitatives made largely from John Cage-like noise instruments, bottles, flower pots, crotales, etc. The aim of the different threads is to highlight the wide range of qualities that percussion instruments are capable of, from lyrical and tender to forceful and aggressive, and weave them into one continuous ‘thread.’ The movements are performed without interruption.”

paul lansky

Georges Aperghis’ 1970 composition “Kryptogramma” is a massive undertaking. Puzzling instrumental combinations and bizarre rhythmic structures make this one of the most fascinating and complex percussion ensemble works ever written.

“Kryptogramma” means “concealed text/writing”.  In the  words of composer Aperghis (below): “Every cyptogram [in the piece] conceals a text or number sequence, behind which information is hidden…simple rhythms…are developed in a tapestry of soaring movements, and…subjected to a mass of variation.”

georges aperghis

Clocks in Motion members are Dave Alcorn, Jennifer Hedstrom, Sean Kleve, Michael Koszewski James McKenzie, and Joseph Murfin.  For the concert on Feb. 16, Clocks in Motion will welcome percussionists Vincent Mingils and Somali Wilson as guest performers.

All performers are either current or former students of the UW-Madison percussion studio.

Hailed as “nothing short of remarkable” (ClevelandClassical.com), Clocks in Motion is a group that performs new music, builds rare instruments, and breaks down the boundaries of the traditional concert program.

Formed in 2011, the ensemble is currently in residence at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.  The individual members of Clocks in Motion’s unique skill sets and specialties contain an impressive mix of musical styles including, rock, jazz, contemporary classical music, orchestral percussion, marching percussion, and world music styles.

Among its many recent engagements, the group served as resident performers and educators at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Rhapsody Arts Center, University of Michigan, Baldwin-Wallace University, and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Admission is free. For more information, including repertoire, upcoming events, biographies, and media, visit http://clocksinmotionpercussion.com.

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Classical music: University of Wisconsin-Madison flutist Stephanie Jutt will survey Spanish and Latin American music at her two recitals with pianist Thomas Kasdorf this weekend in Madison and Richland Center. Plus pianist Mark Valenti performs music by Ives, Bach, Beethoven and Debussy for FREE on Friday at noon.

January 30, 2014
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ALERT: Pianist Mark Valenti will perform this Friday at the weekly FREE Noon Musicale in the Landmark Auditorium of the historic First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. His program includes: “The Alcotts” movement from the “Concord” Sonata by Charles Ives; Four Preludes and Fugues (three from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier) by Johann Sebastian Bach; Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109, by Ludwig van Beethoven; and “L’Isle Joyeuse” by Claude Debussy.

Mark Valenti

By Jacob Stockinger 

This Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music flute professor Stephanie Jutt will perform recitals that survey flute masterpieces from Spain and Latin America. 

Jutt (below, in a photo by Paskus Photography) will perform her program for FREE on Saturday at 8 pm. in Mills Recital Hall; and then again on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Richland Center, where it is presented by the Richland Concert Association. The address is: 26625 Crestview Drive, Richland Center. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for students and FREE for students with UW-Richland ID.

Stephanie Jutt CR Dick Ainsworth

Jutt — who is also known as the principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and as the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society –- has sent the following notes and background.

“I have received a grant from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to record Latin American and Spanish masterpieces for flute and piano. Recording will take place in New York in August of 2014, with Venezuelan pianist Elena Abend and Uruguayan pianist Pablo Zinger. The music was collected and researched during my sabbatical to Argentina in 2010.

“The pianist for my recitals is the impressive Thomas Kasdorf (below), a Middleton native who studied at the UW-Madison with pianists Christopher Taylor and Martha Fischer.

“While at the UW, he won many award and prizes, and was an inaugural member of the Perlman Piano Trio. He has also studied at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor with Martin Katz and been very active in Madison-area concerts including being a vocal coach for the University Opera and working in dozens of productions of musical theater, especially works by Stephen Sondheim.

“Thomas is the co-director and musical director of the Middleton Players Theatre’s production of “Les Miserables” and has performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Middleton Community Orchestra. He has also performed and appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

“The theme of my concert is “Evocaçao” (Evocation), and it features music from Argentina, Brazil and two distinctive ethnic regions of Spain. 

“The program includes works by South Americans: the “the Schubert of the pampas” Carlos Guastavino (below top, 1912-2000), whose popular and beautiful song “The Dove Was Confused” s on the program and can he heard as a song with guitar accompaniment in a YouTube video at the bottom); Heitor Villa-Lobos (below middle, 1887-1959); and the “New Tango” innovator Astor Piazzolla (below bottom, 1921-1992):

Carlos Guastavino

Villa-Lobos BW

astor piazzolla

Also included are the Barcelona Catalan composer Salvador Brotons (b. 1959) and the Basque composer Jesús Guridi (1886-1961).

Salvador Brotons

Jesus Guridi sepia

For more information, here is a link to the UW-Madison School of Music’s website. Click on events calendar and then click on Feb. 1 and the concert by Stephanie Jutt:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/calendar?eventcategory_id=0&ensemble_id=0&faculty_id=0&month=1&year=2014&nextmonth.x=7&nextmonth.y=4&nextmonth=true

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Classical music: Should soloists perform using a score or not? Which is more liberating for the performer, for the audience and especially for the music?

January 6, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

As he often does, the New York Times’ senior music critic Anthony Tommasini recently raised an important question:

After 200 years or so, are we starting to see a trend developing whereby the stigma of performing solo music with a score is disappearing and the use of scores is increasing in legitimacy? Many conservatories or schools of music even require students to perform without a score for a degree recital. But that may be changing.

Tommasini’s column had the perfect headline: “Playing by heart – without or without the score.”

And Tommasini drew on three specific recent examples of pianists: Alexandre Tharaud, who played Scarlatti and Satie’s “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” at Le Poisson Rouge with a score; Andras Schiff, who played both books of J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” without a score; and Emanuel Ax, who used a score for solo Bach but did not use a score for solo Schoenberg. I have also seen Christopher O’Riley and others use scores on an iPad with a foot switch to turn pages. (All of Tommasini’s examples are seen below. First is Alexandre Tharaud, below, in a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times. Tharaud’s playing is also heard at the bottom.)

Alexandre Tharaud at Poisson Rouge with score Ruby Washington NY Times

Is this a healthy or unhealthy development? Well it seems to depend on the individual performer and certain kinds of music (generally you find Chopin played without a score, but Elliott Carter and other new music with a score.)

Here is a link to Tommasini’s think piece:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/01/arts/music/memorizations-loosening-hold-on-concert-tradition.html?ref=anthonytommasini&_r=0

The Ear is of two minds.

On the one, hand I remember reading pianist veteran Murray Perahia (below) saying that although he loved playing chamber music and did so with a score, he felt most on top of the music when he memorized it and played it without a score. And the concerts I have heard by him all suggest he is right.

I’ll also bet that Murray Perahia has excellent nerves for performing, and a relative lack of stage fright of the incapacitating kind. He has the right temperament.

murray perahia at piano

On the other hand, even a master like Sviatoslav Richter (below) spent his last years using a score – and many critics said with great results. Of course, he said he turned to the score because age brought a decline in his perfect pitch, which used to help guide him through scoreless performances without wrong notes. Plus, the ability to memorize deteriorates with age.

richterwithcross1

And I can’t deny it: There is something so basic, so elemental and essential, about seeing a musician sit down at a piano or a cello and or stand with a violin, and start making music without any music in front of him or her.

It just all comes from within. Yes it is showy and impressive, but it also inner and poetic. I feel like I am hearing more directly and personally from the performers and that the lack of a score allows for certain liberties of subjective interpretation. (Below is a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times of Andras Schiff recently playing J.S. Bach by memory at the 92nd Street Y.)

Andras Schiff playing Bach's WTC by menory at 92nd St Y Ruby Washington NY Times

What do you think about playing with a score?

Should solo pianists, singers, cellists, violinists and others now feel that using a score is just fine?

I’ll bet that many of them don’t t really use the score They have already have the music memorized and simply find the score reassuring, as a kind of insurance against memory lapses and the like. (Below is a photo by Hiroyuki Ito of  The New York Times of Emanuel Ax using a score to play some solo Bach before he played with an ensemble.)

Emanuel Ax using a score with NY Phil Hiroyuki Ito for NY Tmes

But what about opera singers using a score?

What do you think?

If you are a performer, The Ear especially wants to hear from you.

And if are an audience member, I also want to hear from you about what you think of heating a performer play scoreless or with a score.


Classical music: Pianist Jeffrey Siegel celebrates his 25th anniversary of Keyboard Conversations in Madison, Wisconsin, with “Spellbinding Bach.”

October 15, 2012
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REMINDER: On Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, bass trombonist Gerry Pagano (below) will give a FREE recital on the Guest Artist Series at the University of Wisconsin School of Music. Joining Pagano will be pianist SeungWha Baek, trombone professor Mark Hetzler and trumpet professor John Aley. The program will feature “Duo for Bass Trombone and Piano” by Jeffrey Miller; “Sonata Rhapsody ‘the Arch'” by James M. Stephenson; “Pastorale for trumpet, bass trombone and piano” by Eric Ewazen, featuring John Aley on trumpet; “Three Preludes for Piano” by Dmitri Shostakovich, featuring Mark Hetlzer on trombone; and works by Vivaldi and J.. Bach.

By Jacob Stockinger

Happy Silver Anniversary!

Pianist Jeffrey Siegel (below) — who for decades has done more than his fair share of building audiences for classical music — will be performing and discussing compositions by J.S. Bach tomorrow night, on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall as part of his 25th annual Keyboard Conversations® series in Madison.

The program is all J.S. Bach (below) and includes the  Chorale Prelude “Rejoice, Beloved Christians,” BWV 734; Toccata in D Major, BWV 912; Prelude in B-flat Major, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 866; Prelude in B-flat Minor, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 867; and Italian Concerto, BWV 971, as well as the Bach-Busoni Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2, BWV 1004.

The program is followed by a Q & A session.

It could be a good chance to ask about the new book “Reinventing Bach” by Paul Elie, which talks about the music of Bach and how it successfully get transplanted to new technology. The Ear posted about it this past weekend. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/10/13/classical-music-in-his-new-book-reinventing-bach-culture-critic-paul-elie-tracks-how-music-and-technology-interact-through-the-avatars-of-johann-sebastian-bach/

Tickets are $32 for the general public, and $28 for Union Members, UW Faculty and Staff, and non-UW Students.  This is a family savings event with up to two youth tickets (age 6-18) at only $14 with the purchase of an accompanying adult ticket.  Age is verified at the door. 

University of Wisconsin-Madison students get in for FREE.

For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 608-265-ARTS (2787), fax your order at 608-265-5084, buy online here, or purchase in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing box office in Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.

Jeffrey Siegel has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as with numerous symphonies and orchestras abroad.

Siegel will play an evening of Bach, providing commentary on the music’s history, its form and structure.  The Los Angeles Times has said that Siegel has “An unusual gift for commentary as well as extraordinary pianism [which] bring Siegel’s audience wholly into the musical experience.”

Keyboard Conversations is designed for novices and experts alike, combining a masterful performance with illuminating commentary.  Here is an example of one of the Keyboard Conversations about one of the world’s most popular and well-known piano pieces,”Fur Elise” by Beethoven:


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