The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Local students form a new chamber orchestra that adds excitement to Madison’s music scene.

June 21, 2012

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

I am always amazed at Madison’s musical life–not only for its expanse and richness, but for the new groups that constantly spring up nowadays, and, above all, for the contributions made to them by local students.

Only in its second season is the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO). It is very much the creation of its conductor, a remarkably gifted young musician, Mikko Utevsky.

A talented violist, Utevsky has soloed with his high school orchestra and has been section principal in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras’ leading ensemble. He has already become a member of the UW Symphony Orchestra, a year before his admission to the UW Music School this fall, where he will begin undergraduate studies in conducting, which he intends to make his career.

Last year, Utevsky assembled a group of mostly high school students to form an ad-hoc small orchestra, and gave a concert.

This year, he has assembled a new group, of up to 40 players of high school and college age. He has planned a summer season of no less than two concerts: one given on Friday, June 15; the other to be held on Saturday, August 18, both at 7 p.m.  (NOT 7:30, as erroneously posted at first) in Music Hall (NOT Mills Hall, as previously listed here) on the UW-Madison campus.

Unfortunately, my schedule denies me the pleasure of attending (much less reviewing) either or both of those concerts. I did, however, spend the morning of June 15 at the orchestra’s final rehearsal.

Much as I missed attending the actual concert, I did not feel that the rehearsal was scanty compensation. In their own way, rehearsals can be as rewarding as the concerts themselves–indeed, rehearsals can reveal a great deal about the ensemble and the conductor that the concerts do not.

The student players are a remarkable lot. Utevsky selects them all himself, essentially from personal knowledge of them. He does the administrative as well as musical chores, and he uses the good offices of WYSO to secure performing arrangements at Mills Hall. As long as he is studying at the UW, the orchestra will continue as a summer activity.

His players already combine veterans of last year with newcomers, and he likes the possibilities of continuing such a combination. He sees the group as an opportunity–surely much-needed–for fledgling musicians to have that much more experience in playing orchestrally, and even to have a crack at rotating sectional principal chairs.

It is obviously Utevsky’s blossoming skill as a conductor that gives MAYCO its artistic impetus. He is low-keyed, amiable and quietly self-assured. But he demonstrated at this rehearsal that he knows musical literature, that he can bring well-informed interpretational individuality to his leadership, and that he can use rehearsal time to identify points of difficulty or rough spots and correct them.

Utevsky (below, conducting, in a photo by Steve Rankin) has a string band of about 16 players and already has them sounding like a surprisingly mature group, while the other players can work up to advanced standards, even with only a week’s rehearsal time.

I was able to hear work done on all four of the contrasting pieces prepared for the June 15 concert. With the players spread around spatially, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” was quite magnificent. Utevsky lavished particular affection on the beguiling but sadly neglected “Masques et Bergamasques” by Gabriel Fauré, while bringing both gusto and insight to Haydn’s beloved Symphony No. 104.

In addition, soprano Shannon Prickett(below) contributed three solo arias: the wonderful aria with which Amelia opens Act I of Verdi’s magnificent opera “Simon Boccanegra; and two of Mimi’s arias from Puccini’s “La Bohème,” in which Prickett sang the role for the UW Opera’s production this past season. She again proved the power and fullness of her fine voice, but it was also interesting to observe Utevsky working with her to resolve performance details. Clearly, Utevsky is already a conductor who can accompany as well as his own interpreter.

The August concert will make an interesting combination of Ravel’s glittering “Mother Goose” Suite, and Schubert’s Haydnesque Fifth Symphony. Madison’s music lovers should watch for that — especially in the year’s thinnest musical time — and for future MAYCO activities. (Below, MAYCO in Mills Hall in photo by Steve Rankin.)

There is no pretense that this is already a polished, professional ensemble, but in it we are allowed to hear talented young players working their way to that level. Its concerts are more than just show-off benefits for proud family and friends. These are true musicians in the making – both players and conductor — and for my part I consider it an honor to listen to what they can do.

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