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: