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: UW-Madison Professor Marc Vallon offers a personal appreciation of the pioneering French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez who has died at 90. Plus, this Sunday afternoon Wisconsin Public Radio starts a 13-week series of concerts by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

January 9, 2016
2 Comments

ALERT: This Sunday at 2 p.m., Wisconsin Public Radio (WERN-FM 88.7 in the Madison area) will start a new weekly two-hour broadcast series. It features 13 weeks of live recorded concerts given by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. This Sunday’s music, conducted by MSO music director Edo de Waart, includes three outstanding works: the Four Sea Interludes from the opera “Peter Grimes” by Benjamin Britten; the beautiful Cello Concerto by Sir Edward Elgar with soloist Alisa Weilerstein; and the lyrical Symphony No. 8 in G Major by Antonin Dvorak. 

For more information about the series and performers, visit:

http://www.wpr.org/programs/milwaukee-symphony-orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

This past Tuesday, avant-garde French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (below) died at his home in Baden Baden, Germany. He was 90. No cause of death was given.

Pierre Boulez obit portrait

Just last year saw celebrations of Boulez, on the occasion of his 90th  birthday, around the world.

That included one here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music by bassoonist and Professor Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) who studied and worked with Boulez and the famous Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris.

Professor Vallon generously agreed to write a personal reminiscence and appreciation of Pierre Boulez for The Ear.

Here it is:

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

By Marc Vallon

I had the privilege to work with Pierre Boulez in the early 1980s, a couple of years after he founded the Ensemble Intercontemporain (below) in Paris, the first-ever fully salaried ensemble devoted to contemporary music.

Ensemble Intercontemporain

Boulez was a very demanding conductor (below) and everyone would come to the rehearsals very prepared. If you were not, you would likely take the sting of his sarcastic humor.

I remember a situation when the flutist kept fumbling on a tricky passage in Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony for Wind Instruments. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, he made the mistake of saying, “I don’t understand, it worked perfectly at home,” to which Boulez replied, “Well then, perhaps we should play the concert in your living room.”

Conductor and composer Pierre Boulez from France conducts the Lucerne Festival Acadamy Orchestra during a concert at the Lucerne Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006. (AP Photo/Keystone, Sigi Tischler)

Conductor and composer Pierre Boulez from France conducts the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra during a concert at the Lucerne Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006. (AP Photo/Keystone, Sigi Tischler)

I was involved in the first performance of the work often considered as Boulez’s masterpiece, Répons for orchestra and live electronics (heard at bottom in a YouTube video). It was a fascinating window into Boulez’s compositional process.

During the two-week rehearsal period, the parts would be collected after each session and would come back on our music stands the next day with numerous additions of grace notes and changed rhythms and dynamics. The longer we worked, the more intricate and multi-layered the piece became.

This is not surprising if one remembers Boulez’s definition of good music: It is complex and can be looked at from so many different angles that it ultimately resists full analysis.

Another important contribution that Boulez brought to the French musical scene, and the artistic world in general, was the often explosive radicalism of his ideas.

From “Schoenberg is dead” to “We have to blow up the opera houses,” who else would proclaim the end of serialism or attack the conservatism of established opera houses in such provocative terms?

Boulez’s public aversion to any artistic conservatism was, in the 1970s, a much-needed antidote to an international musical scene that was often too easily tempted to fill concert halls by programming symphonies by Tchaikovsky again and again.

It is still needed today. “Boulez est mort,” but his fight for the endless renewing of musical creation should go on.

For more obituaries and appreciations of Pierre Boulez, who served as music director of the New York Philharmonic and was a major guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, here are four sources:

The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/07/arts/music/pierre-boulez-french-composer-dies-90.html?_r=0

National Public Radio or NPR:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/01/06/462176284/french-composer-pierre-boulez-dies-at-90

ABC-TV NEWS:

http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/pierre-boulez-leading-figure-classical-music-dies-90-36121322

And here is a terrific and insightful personal appreciation of Pierre Boulez, with a link to current issues and events in classical music, by Anthony Tommasini, the senior classical music critic for The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/07/arts/music/recalling-pierre-boulez-a-conductor-composer-with-an-ear-to-the-alternative.html?_r=0

 


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