Early but Lively in Madison, Wisconsin

By John W. Barker

“Early music” – generally, music composed up to 1750 – is certainly a familiar commodity in south-central Wisconsin, thanks in part to the Madison Early Music Festival, which runs the second week of every July. Inevitably linked to the music is the concept of “period performance” style: the attempted recovery of earlier sonorities and playing techniques.

What are the features of that effort?

  • Generally, reduction in ensemble sizes (often to one singer or player per part in choral/orchestral writing);
  • Reduction or elimination, in singing or playing, of vibrato – which became conventional only in the 20th century;
  • Use of gut strings instead of metal ones, and wind instruments of earlier design, mostly “natural,” with few keys or valves; and
  • Finally, escape from modern “equal” temperament into exploration of earlier tuning systems.
Madison Early Music Festival Singers
(from the MEMF website)

Revival and re-creation of early instruments began in the late 19th century but surged forward in the latter half of the last century. Musicians learned the earlier playing and singing traditions. Aided by a growing flow of recordings, audiences for period performances grew steadily, even though some listeners and critics rejected what they considered dry, scrawny, and “scrapey” sounds. Now, “historically informed” practices have prevailed widely: one can even hear Brahms’ symphonies played in the sounds of his day. At a recent Madison Early Music Festival, Robert Wiemken, of the wind ensemble Piffaro, capped the long struggle he and his colleagues have fought for the acceptance of period instruments with the triumphant cry, “We’ve won!!”

While many larger cities have nurtured groups devoted to period-performance practice, Madison is unusual in having grown in this area on a scale quite beyond what might be expected in a city its size – and in little over two decades!

Several “elders” of the local movement may be identified. Among them, Anton TenWolde perhaps ranks as the patriarch. In 1973 he came from his native Holland, seeking a graduate degree in environmental studies; he retired from the University of Wisconsin’s Forest Products Lab. But playing the cello has been his lifetime avocation. He first trained amid the pioneering early-instrument revival in his own homeland, where the use of gut strings had become standard. In his early Madison years, he worked with UW violinist Tom Moore. Together with Jess Anderson, they began performing in the 1980s as the Musical Camerata. They were eventually joined by flute player and maker Thomas Boehm and harpsichordist Alexander Silbiger (whose departure from the School of Music TenWolde considered a terrible setback).

In Milwaukee, in June 1997, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, TenWolde launched the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (WBE), later shifting its base of operations to Madison. David L. Crosby, the group’s harpsichordist until his death, was replaced by Max Yount of Beloit College. Other players were drawn in along the way, and, from the outset, “guest” singers were involved. TenWolde considers the group a “collective” of democratic operation, with his role “more an enabler than leader.” But the WBE has become the longest-lasting laboratory in Madison for exploring period performance style, while TenWolde himself is Madison’s indispensable Baroque continuo cellist.

Next in impact among the “elders” came the husband and wife team of Paul and Cheryl Bensman Rowe. They met in New York City while singing in such groups as the Waverly Consort and The Western Wind, pioneer early-music ensembles. They already had dreams of an educational program in the field when they arrived in Madison in 1998, when Paul joined the UW voice faculty.

He soon noted how empty and unused were the UW Music School facilities in the summer. In collaboration with Chelcy Bowles of the UW’s Continuing Education in Music program, and herself a dab hand at organizing music conferences, Paul Rowe developed the idea of the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF). It was launched in the summer of 2000, at first of two week’s duration; since then reduced to one.

Initially planning a program that emphasized teaching workshops in early music, the Rowe-Bowles team was surprised by the emergence of an enthusiastic public for concerts given by the festival’s staff and participants. TenWolde stresses the festival’s timing: while other early struggles for acceptance were uphill, MEMF arrived to turn the corner in public attitudes. In just a little over a decade, thanks greatly to the Rowes’ vast connections in the world of early music-making, MEMF has achieved national and international recognition, drawing outstanding performing faculty and eager students of all ages.

For TenWolde, MEMF was a decisive “catalyst,” supplying a “critical mass” for Madison’s period-music scene. His own WBE played a concert in the first festival. The MEMF also provided decisive impact for the last of our “elders,” Trevor Stephenson.

Missouri-born, Stephenson came to Wisconsin via Platville, the home of Margaret Hood, an early maker of fortepianos. He pursued an MA at the University of Illinois where he trained in piano but was introduced by the eminent Malcolm Bilson to Mozart on the fortepiano. He settled in Madison to write his dissertation on various 18th-century performance practices. Through the local sales and performance outlet, Farley’s House of Pianos, he met instrument-builder Norman Campbell and was drawn into in the study of historical tuning systems. Already established as a performer on harpsichord, fortepiano, and early pianos, Stephenson moved in 2004 – very much in the wake of MEMF’s success – to organize the Madison Bach Musicians as a period-performance group.

It was “a pickup thing,” he admits, drawing upon fortuitous pools of players both local and transient, with “everyone bring[ing] something to the table.” With his widening contact with period performers around this part of the country, Stephenson became a one-man networking center for local and visiting musicians – and, increasingly, youthful ones.

Those who work with Stephenson are full of praise for his initiative, knowledge, energy, administrative and promotional skills, and charm in talking to audiences. He’s “a miracle,” says one colleague, “the nicest guy,” and, notes another, unflappable amid intense concentration.

Stephenson’s landmark successes – pioneer period performances in Madison of Bach’s B-minor Mass (2008) and St. Matthew Passion (2009) – also prompted emulation. Robert Geherenbeck, after just three years as conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, and not previously an early-music specialist, ventured a period-style performance of Bach’s St. John Passion in April 2009 and followed it a year later with Haydn’s Creation.

Distinguished recruits have surfaced from the trenches. Local resident Marika Fisher Hoyt, trained as a professional violist, has played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and (like TenWolde) in the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; she is also a founding member of the blossoming Ancora Quartet. Drawn by Stephenson (and her love of Bach’s music) into period playing and literature, she has also become a kind of “procuress” for players for local ensembles.

The difficulties of making a living from period playing alone affect the contrasting growth of two remarkable young violinists currently in Madison. Both came to study with David Perry of UW, and both currently play in two modern-instrument orchestras as well as with two period-instrument ensembles. Michigan-born Edith Hines, who recently finished her DMA, parleyed a minor in Baroque studies into profound immersion in the music of Bach, through work in the UW Collegium Musicum. An opportunity to work with period violinist Robert Mealy at the 2005 MEMF allowed her to discover her “mother tongue” in early playing, prompting her to “unlearn modern baggage” and become a brilliant early-music virtuosa. She would like to make that work her career, in playing and teaching.

Minnesota-born Eleanor Wiley Bartsch, just finishing her undergraduate studies but already a dazzlingly mature and enterprising violinist , was introduced to Baroque playing by Hines. A quick and remarkably adept learner, Bartsch nevertheless regards the modern violin as “my love,” and she hopes to make a professional career in teaching and orchestral playing. She appreciates the early style for deepening her awareness of the scope of literature and technique. “I always like having to dabble in different things,” she says, but “when I pick up the modern instrument I feel relief.” Unlike Hines, she herself is little influenced by the MEMF, since she is away from Madison in summers. Both Hines and Bartsch insist they “miss Brahms” when involved in early music, and at least Bartsch plans not to forsake him. (Interestingly, Stephenson still adores Chopin’s music, though he plays it on period instruments.)

Differing paths also distinguish two notable Madison singers of early literature. Cheryl Bensman Rowe recognized early on that the lighter and more intimate character of early vocal music fit her voice perfectly, and she thinks that this literature is “great for young singers” in particular. Interested in chamber music, she also feels comfortable with contemporary vocal music. That connection between very old and very new literature is hardly unusual; it has been a feature of soprano Mimmi Fulmer’s career – likewise a singer with little interest in grand-operatic vocalism. For her part, however, as a professional singer and UW voice professor, Fulmer prefers diversified opportunity to specialization. She loves the chance to “create the new, as the first person to sing it,” in contemporary works, which, she finds, promote flexibility and alertness. “Style,” she says, “is making the music sound good.” In that, we have an interesting parallel to TenWolde’s decision to ignore arguments for historical “accuracy” and merely seek ways to make the music “convincing.”

TenWolde finds the perspectives of Bartsch and Fulmer very encouraging. Even though period playing has yet to become standardized in American musical curricula, the fact that versatile musicians now accept early music and performance as realities, not just some fad, means that these elements are digestible and beneficial even for performers who are not specialists.

All our musicians have faced up to the question: why has Madison, WI ,become such an outsized early-music center? Many speak of the Madison audience as highly educated, in comparative terms. Fisher Hoyt, mother of two children, is particularly impressed by the school string programs and by a supportive community that “values the arts.” “It’s like heaven in Madison,” she says. The city “attracts creative and intelligent people” who work together congenially; among the citizens are many spark-plug personalities. There are more stable ensembles and organizations than elsewhere, blending long-term oldsters with gifted youngsters – “they come, they light up, [and] then they go!”

And, of course, there is the rich musical world of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Particularly important has been the long operation of the Music School’s Collegium Music, under faculty direction. Run in the past by the likes of David Fallows and Lex Silbiger, its leadership now rotates between John “Chappy” Stowe and Jeanne Swack. It has proven to be a training ground for students who may specialize (like Hines) or who integrate period performing into a broader scope (like Bartsch).

The explanation for Madison seems to boil down, then, to just “three rights” – the right personalities, at the right time, in the right place.


This essay originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, in the Madison weekly, Isthmus.