Classical music review: Jerry Hui is the Steve Jobs of classical music in Madison

By John W. Barker; originally posted on Well-Tempered Ear

We hear much these days about the need for enterprising young innovators, ready to start from scratch and create successful new ventures.

We have also been inundated by tributes to Steve Jobs (below), who started in a garage and built a unique and triumphant business empire before he died at 56 last week.

Perhaps music would not be the realm in which to seek or expect such dramatic personalities.  But it can be just such. In that perspective, I would like to nominate someone for designation as the Steve Jobs of Madison’s music scene.

He is Jerry Hui (below top). Jerry is a young musician and composer.  His own writing is modern and progressive. He is also a promoter, supporting new and experimental operatic composition.  And yet one more of his “garages” is the early music vocal group Eliza’s Toyes (below bottom, inside Gates of Heaven), of which he is the leader, the guiding spirit, and the soul.


He demonstrated what he has created in the latest performance by this group on Sunday evening.  He has made a point of leading his group into areas of musical and cultural literature barely touched even by established early music ensembles, with programs built around particular themes that can relate the music to its contexts.

His choice this time was the music of a single composer, Ludwig Senfl (1486-1543).  This was a brilliant choice because Senfl (below) remains a composer of major significance who has just not caught the attention of performers the way more familiar “stars” of Renaissance music have–like Josquin Desprez, or Orlandus Lassus, or Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, or even Senfl’s own teacher, Heinrich Isaac.

Senfl was a court composer, first to the Holy Roman Emperor and then the Duke of Bavaria, working in Augsburg, Vienna, and Munich.  As such, he wrote both sacred music for chapel use and secular music for court and wider dissemination. He was also involved in efforts to recreate ancient metrics in setting the poetry of Roman authors.  He was a productive and versatile composer, greatly admired in his time.  Among his fans was Martin Luther, and Senfl, though serving Catholic courts, conducted a sympathetic and friendly correspondence with the great Protestant Reformer.

Senfl’s polyphonic writing shows him a great master of contrapuntal technique, and places him among the foremost masters of sacred music in his day. Other composers drew upon well-known secular songs, in both their own sacred and secular writing. but in most cases the songs were themselves polyphonic chansons of sophisticated character. Senfl was unusual in going directly to “popular” songs, of ordinary life, and in German, rather than the fashionable French or Italian. He is really the founder of German Renaissance song, while using tunes in clever, even wicked, combinations and superimpositions.

That’s a lot to work with, then.  And Hui, with his scholarly eye, assembled a program that surveyed both the sacred and the secular in Senfl’s output.

In the first half of the program, there were three movements from his Mass setting based on the enigmatic chanson “L’homme armé” (“The Armed Man”), which almost every important composer of the day used for a Mass composition. Also, a treatment of one of German hymns by Martin Luther (below), as against a Latin motet that particularly attracted Luther’s admiration.

In the second half, the group performed secular pieces. One was an autobiographical German song in praise of his teacher. Several selections showed Senfl combining both Latin and vernacular tunes in his witty composites. One of these was the well-known tune “Fortuna desperata”, on which the group’s lutenist, Douglas Towne, devised a Renaissance-style fantasia of his own, triumphing over its difficulties as its performer.  There was a purely instrumental piece, and a German polyphonic song as an all-hands finale.

Hui is not only versatile in the ventures he pursues but also within them.  He can sing in almost any vocal range, and he plays various recorders. He himself is one of seven singers, and, with another versatile vocalist, joins as player the group’s three instrumentalists.  These are mostly young performers, not drawn from what would be considered the top ranks of local musicians, but performers of skill and dedication nevertheless.  With drastically minimal rehearsal time, they put together demanding programs that they bring off with quite accomplished ensemble blends.

The group pops up in various places but this concert was at one of their regular locales, the historic former synagogue, The Gates of Heaven (below) — perhaps his favorite “garage” – in James Madison Park.  Its intimate size created exactly the kind of court chapel ambiance with which Senfl would have worked himself as composer and singer.  The audience was rather small — perhaps some 50 or 60 or so, kept disappointingly limited by other distractions of the moment.

But more of the public should catch up with Eliza’s Toyes. This is one of those under-the-radar groups that makes Madison’s musical life not only so rich and varied, but also puts it so far ahead of many larger cities in terms of enterprise.

All the participants merit praise, but it remains the achievement of Hui in creating and fostering the group that most impresses. Our own musical Steve Jobs.

Some day, I think a lot of us in Madison will be able to say proudly that we “knew Jerry Hui back when.”

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