The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Middleton Community Orchestra is impressive in its inaugural season

February 25, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special post that reviews a concert. It is by a 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. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Well aware of how splendidly we are served by our major musical institutions, I am nevertheless constantly delighted to discover how greatly our cultural scene is enriched further by less prestigious but quite enterprising and remarkably good musical organizations that are to be discovered hereabouts.

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below, rehearsing), founded just last year, is an offshoot of the Madison Community Orchestra, whose own foundation goes back to 1965 and to the initiative of Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor Roland Johnson.

I missed the November and December concerts of the Middleton group, but on Wednesday night I finally caught up with it in the third of its four concerts in this, its very first season of activity. And I found it really remarkable for a new group of its kind.

Its members come mainly from the Middleton-Madison area, with a goodly number of UW students, of course. But its outreach extends beyond, and not just with players drawn from residences further afield.

Of course, families and friends of the performers make up much of the audience, but I spoke to proud parents who had come great distances to hear their children play — one all the way from Dayton, Ohio.

There were also local soloists involved, two who happen to have spousal connections of distinction but who are accomplished professionals in their own right.

The first half of the program was dominated by Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and the soloist was Isabella Lippi (below). She is enjoying a lively career, both domestic and abroad, both as soloist and as concertmaster, and she is currently one of the candidates to be new concertmaster of the MSO. She is also the wife of David Perry, first violinist of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

And, in the second half, a group of French opera arias were sung by Middleton-raised Rebecca de Waart (below), a superb singer who also happens to be the wife of the world-famous conductor Edo de Waart, the music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra who currently resides with her and their children in Middleton.

Lippi does not have a big, bold tone, but a beautifully controlled one that she uses to avoid overdramatizing her playing. Her approach scales down the epic scope of this great concerto, imparting to it at times almost a Mozartean delicacy, even within its grand scope.

This approach paid off in the slow movement, too easily passed over as a mere breathing spell between the grandiose sonata form of the first movement and the rousing rondo structure of the third. The result was a valid intermezzo of relaxed but genuine lyricism. One might suggest that her approach was meant to accommodate the modest means of this orchestra, but it was a very satisfying rendition for its own sake, and a testimony to Lippi’s true artistry.

Gifted with a gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice and a fine dramatic flair, Rebecca de Waart addressed two arias from Bizet‘s “Carmen” and one from Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delilah.” For the Bizet items, she was joined by tenor Heath Rush, a fine product of the UW Music School. They not only sang their parts, but also acted them out appropriately.

As an accompanying ensemble, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below top) was well within its comfort zone in the arias and even in the Beethoven. And conductor Steve Kurr (below bottom) proved a very sympathetic and supportive accompanist.

What really put the orchestra to its test, however, were three workouts of their own.

Opening the second half, the brass players stood forth and delivered the prefatory Fanfare that Paul Dukas composed for his ballet score, “La Peri,” a grandiose piece that might be called, in an inversion of Copland’s famous counterpart, a Fanfare for the Uncommon Man.

The Middleton players certainly have a lot of strong blowing power, but one must admit that they could have benefitted from a bit more rehearsal. But the full orchestra showed utmost bravery in the works that opened and closed the concert.

Almost reckless bravado was displayed in their tackling Anatol Liadov’s short orchestral portrait of a wicked witch in Russian folklore, “Baba Yaga.” With its deliberately elusive colors and jerky rhythms, it is a very tricky piece indeed.

And at the other end of things was Liszt’s grandiose symphonic poem, “Les Preludes,” which requires a kaleidoscope of colors and sonorities of big-orchestra scope.

Totalling only 65 players in all, the Middleton group made an amazing showing for just its first season. Yes, there were a few tripped entries here and there, and the strings were overstressed in ensemble and strength (though congratulations for properly opposed first and second violins!).

But there are quite fine players among them. At the risk of neglecting other worthies, I express particular admiration for Andy Olson, a truly artistic master of oboe and English horn.

Above all, the orchestra in general showed such dedication and commitment that the rough passages of their initial character could be taken as merely growing pains in the course of their progress.

Offered in the really fine auditorium of the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below), part of the local high school, this was a genuinely enjoyable affair. It makes the point that area music lovers do not have to limit themselves to the major orchestras and big name guest artists (whose reputations are not always lived up to!) to experience local solo and ensemble performances of satisfying quality.

The Middleton Community Orchestra deserves fullest support in pursuing its growth and maturing.

For more information about the orchestra and concert dates, visit:

Posted in Classical music

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