The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: UW-trained singer Emily Birsan returns home to be the special gift package in the holiday concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra. | December 23, 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, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. 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

Some weeks back, my wife and I attended a production of “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Chicago Lyric Opera, in which we saw soprano Emily Birsan in the role of Stella. We saw her, but could not hear her, because the bit of music that survives for the part was denied her.

So it was a great joy to be able to hear Birsan after all, as the featured soloist at the holiday concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) on Wednesday night.

Birsan’s appearance was a kind of homecoming for her, since she has previously attracted the ear of Madison area audiences by singing in the University of Wisconsin School of Music graduate program and with the Madison Opera. (As an undergraduate, she also attended the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin.)

She immediately made clear how much she has matured. To a strong, clear, handsomely balanced, and beautiful soprano voice, she joins strong dramatic feeling. She demonstrated the fact in her clever choice of three contrasting opera selections.

Birsan, ( below) conveyed all the nervous bravado of Fiordiligi in the florid aria “Come scoglio!” from Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”; the unstable mental health of the heroine, amid her ardor, in “Regnava nel silencio” from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”; and the way a love-smitten daughter can bend daddy around her finger in Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.”

In each of these selections Birsan’s facial expressions and body movements were fully apt, while her handling of even the most virtuosic demands was always perfectly precise. She is already a true pro, and an artist with very great promise for the future.

The Middleton orchestra gave sturdy support for these vocal selections, but also had its own room to show off. Conductor Steve Kurr (below) downplayed the usual glitz in Rossini’s “La scala di seta” Overture with more thoughtful tempos, though the tricky writing for the first violins still imposed strains. The flowing melodiousness of Waldteufel’s “Skater’s Waltz” — the program’s only seasonal concession — showed off better the orchestra’s unity.

The only possible reason for programming Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as the grand finale was just to show that the orchestra could tackle it. And, in fact, Kurr and his players brought it off with credit. The work is so overplayed that one forgets what an exciting and revolutionary work it really is, until a group of players ardently committed to it reminds us.

I give particular credit to maestro Kurr, too, for consistently opposing first and second violins, the value of which was notably demonstrated in the Beethoven.

This was the third concert I have attended this month that was not caught up in the usual mindless frenzy of Christmas. That said, a lapse was allowed in the encore, some Vaughan-Williamsy arrangements of some Christmas songs. Tolerable, at least.

Middleton should take particular pride in being able to support an orchestra like this. Its ranks are full of really fine musicians, not to be shrugged off with the misused label of “amateurs.”

I understand that ordinarily they have only four rehearsals (below) before each concert, with little time in between to hone ensemble discipline and burnish their corporate sound. But this is a group with real potential for maturing, and the hope is that the continued experience of playing together will further such goals.

I, for one, look forward to their remaining concerts this season, on February 29 and May 30 at the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below), next to Middleton High School.

For more information about joining the orchestra, attending upcoming events and more, visit:

Posted in Classical music


  1. Question for you, or perhaps Prof. Barker, or anyone else who might be interested in weighing in: What exactly is the value of opposing the violins, or of the various seating arrangements?

    I have only performed in ensembles using the seating (conductor’s left to right) First Violins, Seconds, Violas, Celli (basses behind celli), but the MSO uses Firsts, Celli, Violas, Seconds (with basses in the back left).

    Perhaps we could even have a few perspectives on the values and drawbacks of various arrangements, perhaps even as a future interview or article, if you’re as interested as I am in this. I can offer my personal point of view if you’d like, but I’ve only played in the one arrangement, so it’s rather limited.


    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — December 25, 2011 @ 10:57 pm

    • Dear Mikko,

      I know musicians themselves differ on this point, but the American practice of placing the second violins behind the firsts is at odds with what many European orchestras use.

      The basic justification for opposing the two violin sections is that composers of the late 18th century through the 19th built into their orchestral writing frequent dialogues or interplay between the two sections.

      I can understand that second-violin players might like to be close to the firsts so as to coordinate these interactions. But, from the audience’s point of view, the effects are buried and often lost.

      Such a pattern as the MSO has taken up, grants that audience perspective, and I have made a point of following the clarified interplay in the MSO concerts, and I am convinced it works better than the past seating. Besides, the second violins and the violas often are used as closely related middle voices, between the framings of firsts and cellos. That can be a compensatory coordination for second-violinists, while it also clarifies textures for the audience.

      I have talked with second-violinists who have shifted from the older placement to this revised one, and my perception is that, after initial misgivings, the revision works for them.

      It is good that you raise this as an issue for discussion, and that will help concert-goers, as well as musicians, sort out the values of seating plans.
      John W. Barker

      Comment by John W. Barker — December 26, 2011 @ 8:22 am

      • Thank you, John.
        This is a terrific explanation.
        Cheers to 2012!

        Comment by welltemperedear — December 26, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

    • Hi Mikko,
      Great question!
      Thank you.
      I hope the answer from John Barker satisfies you.
      Cheers to 2012 and to your music career!

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 26, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

      • I can add a few additional reasons to the list Prof. Barker has started:

        1) I have found that second violins have a tendency to feel more independent as a section when they are placed to the conductor’s right. At times, when placed behind the firsts, the seconds get buried.

        2) Placing the cellos in the center facing out puts some more of the musical bass parts in the center where both the other musicians and the audience can hear better.

        3) The split set creates a balanced aural experience rather than having a left=treble, right=bass sound.

        4) There is a visual effect very often in the violin sections, with passages passed back and forth. There are some spots in music (think of some great excerpts in Tchaikovsky, for example) where that visual effect is vital to the composer’s desires.

        The tricky part of this arrangement is balance: since the seconds are facing backward, they often need to play out (or you can add a few players to that section).

        I am fully convinced and do not plan to change any time soon.

        Steve Kurr

        Comment by Steve Kurr — December 29, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

      • Thank you both for your perspectives; in particular, I definitely see the value in spreading the bass sound throughout the orchestra. My reticence to try the arrangement is largely founded on two points both of you mentioned: balancing the seconds, whose f-holes now project backwards, and coordinating those back-and-forth passages across the whole body of strings. (The former is why I refuse to sit on the outer edge of my string quartets; placing the cello on the outside doesn’t really hurt its projection, but the viola needs all the help it can get in some pieces. I also don’t like being separated from the second violinist, who in quartet writing I don’t think can bear being separated from the first either.)

        There are also a few passages that I think would suffer visually and aurally in that arrangement, where a statement will ascend or descend through the orchestra section by section; in those cases, the effect would be more powerful with low-to-high seating from right to left (Beethoven 5 springs to mind, at the very beginning (ms. 6 and beyond) of the first movement, and the Trio from the third movement; the Finale also passes motives through the orchestra – the triplet-quarter figure in the development in particular).

        I am hoping to ask Prof. Smith’s opinion on this as well, to get an opposing view; both WYSO and the UW Symphony and Chamber Orchestra play with the violins grouped together and the celli on the conductor’s right. I’m also curious as to why DeMain changed the seating for Haydn 104 this season. Depending on how much interplay the violins have in my music this summer, I may try a concert with the split seating.

        Thank you again for your responses, and have a happy new year!

        Comment by Mikko Utevsky — December 30, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

  2. Congratulations to all my friends in the Middleton Community Orchestra! Truly an accomplishment to be reviewed here.

    Comment by Leyla Sanyer — December 23, 2011 @ 11:42 am

    • Hi Leyla,
      You are right to wish the Middleton community Orchestra well.
      It is a major achievement to pull such a community group together and then to give public performances.
      And I have no doubt they will redeem your good wishes.
      Happy holidays to you.
      Thank you for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 23, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  3. Your reviewer is correct that the Middleton Community Orchestra is indeed a very good group & the conductor is an excellent orchestral leader, not only because he does that at Middleton High but because he’s inherently an exemplary musician with a sense of generosity.

    As a founding member, I initially enjoyed being a part of it, but soon withdrew because I was being asked to do things I knew the composers didn’t want, like doubling trombone parts. With no auditions, the group pretty much accepted anyone who was willing to pay the membership fees.

    Middleton does have some truly world-class musicians like the female violinist who occasionally appears at the First Unitarian Society’s Friday luncheon recitals, and I’m sure the Community Orchestra will continue to improve and grow. I wish them only the best.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — December 23, 2011 @ 10:37 am

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