A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Aug 3, 2013
12:22 PM
Classically Speaking

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble Rewards the Faithful

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble Rewards the Faithful

When I finally caught up to the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble, now in its twelfth season, the group came as advertised: Friday evening at Luther Memorial Church was as fine an example of choral singing as I have heard in Madison. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the audience—the sanctuary was only a few dozen shy of standing room only. If the church is as full on Sunday mornings, and the congregants as attentive and appreciative as the IVE audience, then Luther Memorial is a blessed place indeed.

Originally the group consisted of thirty-five members, and has grown to nearly sixty, but director Scott MacPherson said that he has long wanted to perform some of the works for double choir, that is, with eight distinct vocal parts rather than the usual four, and further enlarged the ensemble to seventy singers.

The opening works made for a cogent evolution from the end-of-the-Baroque Jan Sweelinck, to J.S. Bach to Brahms, with MacPherson giving a solid explanation between the first two works of the salient stylistic features. More importantly, the IVE exhibited blend, intonation, expressiveness and energy all at the service of the composers.

From the first bars of the Sweelinck setting of Psalm 150 (which was full of whimsical vocal imitations of the named instruments), there was a palpable passion, and it occurred to me that, just as this faithful audience savors the annual weekend performances of this unique group, so the members also desire to make the most of their opportunity.

While the first three works were full of praise and testimony from Old and New Testament passages alike, MacPherson closed the first half with a transcription that proved nothing short of stunning. Gustav Mahler’s songs to poems of Friedrich Ruckert are nearly as well known for their compelling orchestral settings as for the beauty of the vocal part. But Clytus Gottwald took perhaps the best known, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) and arranged it for sixteen vocal parts, a cappella.  One would have allowed for some loss of color in the arrangement, but the effect was to take a minor masterpiece and, not just illumine the original genius, but reveal new depths of expression. The IVE, along with a haunting solo by soprano Molly Wells, delivered fervency filtered through introspection.

The second half paid tribute to the centennial birth year of Britten (“Hymn to Saint Peter”) and followed with Grayston Ives’ “The Canticle of Brother Sun,” both given from the organ loft. As the singers made their way back down to the altar area, organist Kathrine Handford had a chance to display her gifts in the Dance-Rondo of Philip Moore.

MacPherson raised the event one more notch by offering a world premiere, “O Vos omnes” by UW-Madison alumna Linda Kachelmeier. With a mezzo-soprano solo by Sarah Leuwerke, Kachelmeier captures the group dynamic of sorrow from the Book of Lamentations with the personal pain of Mary at the foot of the cross. Composed in 2010, this work should not have had to wait this long to be heard—and we need to hear more from this engaging composer.

The program ended with a funny but telling fable of “Twa tanbou,” from the Haitian composer Sydney Guillaume. The text tells of drums that argue for the spotlight, only to learn of the power of teamwork…the most apt metaphor for what IVE has and continues to accomplish. A long standing ovation was ultimately rewarded with an encore of “O Shenandoah,” that nearly melted the pillars of granite.

The program is repeated Sunday, August 4 at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Madison at 3 p.m. It is guaranteed to make your weekend.

Photo: Isthmus Vocal Ensemble at the 2012 American Choral Directors' Assn. Courtesy: Graphic Inks, Green Bay, WI.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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