The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Middleton Community Orchestra opens its new season with British music by Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams that highlights its remarkable talent and high quality.

November 17, 2012
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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 MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The season’s opening concert for the Middleton Community Orchestra (below), held last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, was something of a mixed bag.

The program title, “The British Are Coming” was a little strained. Of five composers represented, one was a German-born naturalized citizen and another a Belgian who never left home (except to concertize). At least the other three were undoubted Britons.

The printed program, too, omitted a lot of significant information. The opening number was not the complete “Royal Fireworks Music” by Georg Frederic Handel, but only its long overture. Played in the full-orchestra version (complete with repeat of the fast middle section), but with too big a group here, the music found the players sounding tentative and not fully comfortable with it, while the pacing by conductor Steve Kurr (below) was stiff and rigid.

Everyone was more at ease with the follow-up, Sir Edward Elgar‘s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 4, however at bottom).

Naha Greenholtz (below), concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, was soloist for the program. She began with the Second of six Sonatas for unaccompanied violin, by the Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931). Each in the set was dedicated to a great violinist of the day. This one honored Jacques Thibaud, and its four brief movements (not listed in the program) are “Obsession,” “Prelude” “Malinconia,” “Danse des ombres,” “Sarabande” and “Les furies.” This is extremely difficult and virtuosic music, and Greenholtz brought it off with aplomb.

Without a break, she then launched into Ralph Vaughan Williams’ lovely pastorale, “The Lark Ascending,” with accompaniment conducted by her husband, Kyle Knox (below), a clarinetist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The elaborate solo part–again performed with skillful precision–is backed by a modest accompaniment from a chamber orchestra, rich in evocation of the English folksong style Vaughan Williams (below) loved, all reminding us how desperately we need to hear more of that great composer’s music.

The real meat of the concert, though, was a partial serving of the blockbuster “Astrological Suite” by Gustav Holst (below). Of its seven movements, the MCO gave us four–if, again, without full identification in the program list. Indicating their number in the complete cycle, and restoring their important subtitles, we heard: 1. “Mars, The Bringer of War”; 2. “Venus, The Bringer of Peace”; 6. “Uranus, The Magician”; and 4.” Jupiter, The Bringer of Jolity.”  Omitted were “Mercury, The Winged Messenger”; “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age”; and “Neptune, The Mystic.” The last of those requires an offstage women’s chorus, not mustered here. On the other hand, the performance managed to bring off No. 6 without its chilling organ glissando at the climax.

For the full suite, a massive affair often performed and recorded, high playing standards are well established. Against those, maestro Kurr and his brave players made a fully credible showing. They clearly had worked very hard on this music, and displayed a palpable confidence. They roared out the grim menace of Mars with full-blooded power. There was particularly fine string sheen in Venus. The “big tunes” of Uranus and especially of Jupiter blared out with thoroughly British heartiness.

My only regret was that Kurr and his players had not gone whole-hog and tackled the entire seven movements.

Once again, we must marvel at what Steve Kurr has achieved in building so able an orchestra (below) out of a mix of local talents and limited rehearsal time.

Three more concerts lie ahead this season. For information about performances, how to join and how to support the MCO, visit:

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