The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Middleton Community Orchestra and UW’s Perlman Trio shine together in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto | June 3, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by 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

The Madison area’s musical season is hardly over, with continuing concert events of quality still very much in evidence.

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below top) gave the final concert of its season on Wednesday evening, June 1, in the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below bottom) at Middleton High School. And, once again, it was a generous program.

To be sure, the opening item was something of a disappointment. “An Outdoor Overture” by Aaron Copland (below) is one of the weakest of Copland’s overtly American orchestral pieces. Conductor Steve Kurr and his players sounded less than committed to it. The pacing was slow, without much lift, and the effect was generally ponderous rather than exhilarating.

On the other hand, the concerto component was an exceptional treat. Beethoven‘s “Triple Concerto” for violin, cello and piano, with orchestra, is not very frequently programmed in concerts – although it coincidentally was broadcast live Tuesday night on PBS” Carnegie Hall tribute with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Gil Shaham with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert.  After all, what managements want to pay three soloists instead of just one?

The solo parts certainly demand great skills and artistry, but, while three individual virtuosos can bring illumination to a performance, Beethoven (below) was writing not so much for three separate players as for a three-member team.

Some commentators have compared this early Romantic work to the Baroque concerto grosso. But the carefully limited and restricted textures of that idiom are not at all the precedent Beethoven had in mind. He came from a musical world still delighted by the form known as the “sinfonia concertante,” an orchestral work of symphonic scope but with “concertizing” soloists, usually more than one. Such scores would feature passages of individual prominence, but the players would also function as a team integrated into the orchestral scheme.

Beethoven’s team, in this case, was one with which he was already well familiar: the piano trio. This work is a concerto not for three soloists, but for piano trio and orchestra.  Both live and recorded performances of the work derive special benefit when the three “solo” players are accustomed to working together, as a standard piano trio in its chamber literature. And such was the case for this Middleton concert, with the added interest of showing off a very distinctive group of University of Wisconsin School of Music students, the Perlman Trio).

The group takes its name from retired Prof. Kato Perlman, whose munificence has created a continuing chamber group to be filled by top students (so far, undergraduates) in the School of Music. This team (below) has consisted, for the year now ending, of violinist Eleanor Bartsch (below right), cellist Taylor Skiff (below center) and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below left).

Already seasoned players and ensemble partners who have offered performance of professional quality, they learned this concerto for this concert, so they clearly were still working their way into it. But their experience as a team, together with their individual talents, made for an already secure and strong performance. The orchestra rode along comfortably with them, visibly delighted to have their company.

For the second half there was Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous symphonic “Scheherazade.” Maestro Kurr seems to have an affinity for Russian Romantic music, and he demonstrated it in a thoughtful and unconventional performance of this rich score.

Knowing he does not have a virtuoso orchestra (below) at his disposal, he made no effort to achieve plush sonorities and dramatic bombast. His string band is less than lush so far, but it is healthy and well-disciplined, allowing Kurr to nourish the more carefully his fine wind players — especially the woodwinds –in their very important contributions.

There were some rough entries and brittle joints here and there, with tempos on the somewhat relaxed side, but the shaping was often quite poetic, amid the unfolding of the absolutely amazing orchestral writing by Rimsky-Koraskov (below).

For an encore, there was a lively polka by Johann Strauss the Younger (I think “Unter Donner und Blitzen,” but I may be wrong), played for all the fun it was worth.

Middleton is really blessed to have a community orchestra of such talent and enterprise.

Posted in Classical music

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