By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.
On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.
(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)
At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”
This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:
Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org
Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:
Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.
As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.
From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)
I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.
The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.
Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.
For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion ― on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).
The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:
These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.
Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.
The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.
MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.
Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.
ALERT 1: Tonight at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW-Madison trombonist Mark Hetzler will give a FREE recital with pianist Vincent Fuh. Hetzler will perform a retrospective of pieces he has recorded over the past 14 years, representing five different recordings. Music from the following recordings from his Summit catalogue will be represented in this recital: American Voices (2002); Serious Songs, Sad Faces (2003); 20th Century Architects (2004); Three Views (2012); and Blues, Ballads and Beyond (2015).
Hetzler will repeat this concert on Thursday, Nov. 17 in Fond du Lac, at St. Patrick’s Church, 41 E. Follett Street, as part of the Searl Pickett Chamber Music Series.
For more information go to: http://www.markhetzler.com/
ALERT 2: Tomorrow afternoon, Sunday, Nov. 13, at 4 p.m., Dan Broner, the music director at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, will give a FREE organ recital at the FUS Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive. The program features the Trio Sonata No. 4 in E minor, “Sleepers Wake!” and the Prelude and Fugue in A major by Johann Sebastian Bach; Prelude, Fugue and Variations by Cesar Franck; and “Dorian Chorale” and “Litanies” by Jehan Alain. Donations will be accepted.
By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.
By John W. Barker
The clavichord was an instrument of subtle importance in the 18th century. It was a kind of alternative to the harpsichord in several ways. For one, its strings were not plucked, as in a harpsichord, but hammered, as in its descendants, the fortepiano and the subsequent pianoforte or just plain piano.
The clavichord, moreover, was really an instrument for private use, for practice, study and composing work, rather than for concert use, beyond the most intimate of audiences. (You can hear a sample, using J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Local builder and restorer, Tim Farley has made several clavichords before, but this one is a relatively large one. Notable is its incorporation of wood from a number of old pianos, and some rare maple wood that had been submerged in water for a long time. Out of these elements he has created an instrument of great beauty and elegance, as well as of distinctive artistic usefulness.
To introduce this new instrument to Madison’s musical community, Tim and his wife Renee, the reigning royalty of the remarkable Farley’s House of Pianos on the city’s far west side, chose not to do so in their usual salon, as it is too commodious and not noise-free.
Instead, they brought it to the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 6. A program of four works was played on it by David Schrader (below), an early music specialist who teaches at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.
An audience of about 45 attended. I suspect many were surprised by how tiny (not tinny!) was the instrument’s sound—much more pale than what they would have expected from a harpsichord. Modest as is the Gates of Heaven hall, it was still a bit larger than ideal. Nevertheless, the audience followed the performance intently, and I heard no complaints from anyone afterwards about inaudibility.
The music chosen was entirely from the 18th century. It began with the Partita No. 5 from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Clavierübung or Keyboard Works. On these terms, we heard it as Bach might have played it himself for his own pleasure—or as a student might do for study.
The two middle works were from the other end of the century. An extended Sonata, K. 330, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would in its time have been played on the fortepiano, or even harpsichord, and sounded rather pallid this way.
But a two-movement Sonata in G minor by Franz Joseph Haydn, full of introspective feeling, worked well on the clavichord as highly personal expression.
Balancing the opening with J. S. Bach was the closing work, a three-movement Sonata in A minor (Wq49), a relatively early work by Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, his most influential son. C.P.E. Bach was famous as an expressive player, and for music of inward probing.
I had hoped to hear Schrader demonstrate on this new instrument its feature of Bebung, a capacity for quasi-vibrato quivering on sustained notes that the clavichord’s action famously allowed the player to exploit. There was some of that, but Schrader explained that such an effect did not work on many pitches, limiting its possibilities.
Listeners for whom this type of instrument is unfamiliar surely found this program illuminating, while this instrument’s excellence was a further reminder of what craftsmanship Tim Farley (below, seated at the clavichord he built) has brought to Madison.
ALERT: The recital by violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Alessio Bax on this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater is SOLD OUT. But a few extra tickets will be released on Saturday at 6 p.m. at the WUT box office, where interested persons should go in person to buy them.
By Jacob Stockinger
On Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., Farley’s House of Pianos owner Tim Farley will unveil his latest handmade clavichord (below) at the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue, 302 East Gorham Street in James Madison Park. (Photos are by Tom Moss.)
If you wonder about the difference between the clavichord and the harpsichord, fortepiano and piano, here is a link to a definition on Wikipedia:
David Schrader (below), a professor at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts Music Conservatory, will perform on the instrument. Details of the program have not been announced.
A $20 cash or check donation to Farley’s House of Pianos is suggested. The ticket donation goes towards Schrader’s fee and the venue rental.
Farley created the German clavichord using reclaimed Spanish cedar and redwood from Broadwood pianos dating back to 1880, and shipwrecked walnut wood that had been underwater for nearly 60 years. The clavichord was built over three years by Tim Farley and another worker.
Farley chose Schrader to perform specifically for this concert. Schrader has a background in early keyboard and church music. He also performed on Farley’s 1976 Steinway Centennial Grand piano for the Madison Early Music Festival this year.
“In the times we live in today, we never truly experience absolute quiet,” Farley says. “We don’t have that white space background like performers had in the 19th century. Gates of Heaven Synagogue has a perfect acoustical ambience for a clavichord. No question, this is the most personal, sensitive, intimate keyboard instrument ever made.”
Adds builder Farley: “This clavichord is after the eminent clavichord builder, Friederici, who worked in the Silberman workshop. It has many of the attributes of the famous clavichord built by Silberman for Johann Sebastian Bach.
“Unlike Silberman’s clavichord that had 53 keys (C to E), the Friederici has five full octaves. It is perfectly suited to much music by Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and even some by Ludwig van Beethoven.
“I am indebted to my colleague Dietrich Hein, the German instrument builder, who sent me his drawing of the instrument and that is what I used.
“All of the other wood on the inside of the instrument is wood that had a previous musical life from such pianos as Broadwood, Steinway, Mason and Hamlin, and Chickering.
“The lid has new walnut veneers. On the inside of the lid, the woods are bookmatched. The outside of the lid features individual pieces of figured walnut. The trim is fiddleback soft maple.
“It took about three years to complete the instrument including turning the legs for the case. It is 72 inches long. It has a deep, rich sound and a long sustain duration.”
Here is a YouTube video with much more information about the clavichord: