Some Enchanted “Evening” from Madison Early Music Festival

Tuesday night’s “Abendmusik” more than the journey MEMF promised


This year’s theme for the Madison Early Music Festival is “Journey to Lubeck,” the North German city that became as culturally influential in the 17th century as it had been economically. Tuesday night’s concert was titled “Abendmusik” (“Evening Music”), and further subtitled “Sounds of Grace and Glory: Organ and Sacred Music in Lubeck.” (The photo above is from last year’s All-Festival concert, courtesy of UW-Madison Arts Institute).

They should have hyped it more…not that there were more than a few empty seats in the magnificent Luther Memorial sanctuary on University Avenue. To be honest, I was only there because it was MEMF’s only event that I could fit into my schedule. Well, further evidence that God works in mysterious ways, as I was blessed beyond anything I could have anticipated.

Part of the reason for that, it must be confessed, is that I am still playing catch-up when it comes to experiencing much music by Bach. Even if names such as Buxtehude are known to me, nearly all of his works are not.

The structure of the concert was eminently persuasive, opening with a “Praeludium in G” by Scheidemann. As organist James Kennerley performed, my first thought was that, as much as I’ve enjoyed the magnificent organ in Overture Hall, there is an added dimension to experiencing sacred organ music in such a breathtaking setting.

A “Magnificat II,” with verse settings of Mary’s famous response from the Gospel of Luke, interspersed with organ-only movements directly expressing some of the verses came from Matthias Weckmann (the organ solos) and the vocal passages composed by Johann Cruger. The soprano soloist was Erin Bryan, her voice as pure and light (yet penetrating) as one could ask for. The work also had a large handful of accompanying instrumentalists, including three sackbuts (the forefunner of the trombone). It was an unexpected delight to hear how beautifully Bryan blended with that surprising trio in particular.

The first great organist to hold the most important position in Lubeck during the middle portion of the 17th century was Franz Tunder, and he was represented by one of his greatest organ works, a set of variations on “Christ Lag in Todesbanden,” and a setting for soprano and a few viols and continuo, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.” Stowe and Bryan and friends, respectively, continued to enthrall all.

Dieterich Buxtehude was Tunder’s successor, and achieved even greater fame, then and since his death. He was the organist whose reputation compelled a 20-year old Johann Sebastian Bach to walk 250 miles to hear…well, not just to hear, but to study with. Bach’s employer at the time allotted him a four-week leave; by all accounts, he took four times that length for his leave.

Who could blame him? It doesn’t take much more than hearing the “Praeludium in F-sharp Major” by Buxtehude (which closed the first half), or a similar work in E-minor, which opened the second half. Stowe did a nice job on more than one occasion of addressing the throng from on high (the currently used organ at Luther Memorial is up and behind the pews); his insightful comments were a nice addition to the voluminous and incredibly complete program notes of J. Michael Allsen. Allsen not only gave great info on the individual works and composers, but laid out a foundation of historical context of Lubeck’s importance going back to the 13 century. Thanks to the MEMF board in giving him all those pages to elucidate us.

After one of Buxtehude’s brief vocal works, “Sicut Moses,” Kennerley again gave keen insight into another of that master’s organ works, “Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern.” Based on a Christmas hymn, Kennerley indicated that for Buxtehude it may have been a representation of the Christmas star, along with an understanding of Christ as the bridegroom of His church; Kennerley went on to point out that a prophetic vision of this is given in Psalm 45.

The largest work presented was Buxtehude’s “Alles was ihr tut.” This was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink affair, with something like 16 or so performers in all. Soprano Chelsie Propst, as she had done earlier in the second half, matched the luminosity of Bryan’s earlier work. One of the notable effects was that a major section of a type usually assigned to a soloist, was conceived by Buxtehude as a kind of quartet solo, with Matthew Dean and Chiwei Hui, along with bass Bill Chin joining in.

The program concluded with a “Praeludium in G” by Nicolaus Bruhns, Buxtehude’s successor, performed by John Chappell Stowe, who assembled much of the program and played continuo organ on the stage when required. The ovations were long and lusty for all the performers, and certainly more than one among the throng was glad to have been enriched by music new to them. Congratulations and deep thanks are owed to Artistic Directors Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe, and Program Director Sarah Marty.

The Madison Early Music Festival, which is presented by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arts Institute in partnership with the Mead Witter School of Music, continues with two major concerts on Friday and Saturday, the first featuring Schola Antiqua and the closing event utilizing larger forces to explore the 2,000+ choral works collected at Marienkirche in Lubeck during the 17th century. Full concert details can be found here.

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