The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra scores another success with difficult works, a young local soloist and rarely heard repertoire. Plus, French organist Marie-Claire Alain is dead at 86.

March 1, 2013
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NEWS UPDATE: Famed French organist Marie-Claire Alain (below) has died at 86. She had a very impressive career, with hundreds of recordings to her credit, especially for a serious rather than showy organist, as you can read about by using this link to an obituary in the British Gramophone Magazinehttp://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/obituary-marie-claire-alain-organist

Marie-Claire Alain young BW

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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

It is a pity that the audience was not larger for the winter concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) at the Middleton Performing Arts Center on Wednesday evening.  Snowy weather was doubtless something of the cause.  But the program, rather a grab bag, was in fact most enjoyable.

One might discern national circles in it.  Framing the whole was Italian music.  The opener was the overture to Verdi’s third opera, “Nabucco.”  Under conductor Steve Kurr, it received an appropriately dramatic reading.  And at the end came Benjamin Britten’s witty suite of arrangements of five tidbits by Rossini.  Britten’s colorful orchestrations gave the players a lot of fun to enjoy.

Middleton Community Orchestra Steve Kurr conducting

Then there was an inner framing, a Wagnerian one, to be sure.  On one side, the mighty “Siegfried’s Funeral March” from Die Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), and on the other an orchestral interlude from Lohengrin.  These were ambitious choices, and proofs of the MCO’s willingness to tackle demanding assignments. The exacting orchestral writing by Wagner (below) requires absolute precision in order to achieve the intended sonorities.

These pieces were a challenge for the largely amateur players, and some ensemble difficulties could not be avoided entirely — the brass in particular has a way to go toward necessary balance and discipline, one must say.  But the power and richness of these pieces was by no means betrayed.

Richard Wagner

At the dead center of the program was its major work, a French one, the Violin Concerto No. 3 by Camille Saint-Saëns (below).

The concertos by this composer were once standard concert fare, but most have tended to sink into neglect, partly as a result, I think, of a snobbish negativity that has somehow developed toward this composer in recent years.

But they are wonderful works, and this violin concerto in particular. It is full of splendid tunes and ample opportunities for brilliant solo display–it was composed, after all, for Saint-Saëns’s friend, the famous virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate.  Its opening movement, in straight sonata form, is a piece of calculated melodrama, while the rondo-finale is full of dazzling variety. In between is a barcarolle-slow movement of absolutely melting beauty.  (Call it rather a Siciliana or a lullaby, if you will, it’s simply gorgeous!).

Camille Saint-Saens

Stepping from her usual role as principal violin and concertmaster into the solo spotlight was young Alice Bartsch (below), one of two gifted violinist sisters from Minnesota who are still in student mode at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.  In this concerto, Bartsch took on a demanding virtuoso role and succeeded handsomely.  She already has a full tone and growing technical confidence, demonstrating a genuinely advancing maturity as an artist.

Alice Bartsch

Above all, specific praise is due to her, and to maestro Kurr (below), for bypassing more obvious warhorses and reviving this unjustly neglected masterpiece by the unjustly underrated Saint-Saëns.  That, too, within acknowledgement of how Kurr and his talented and enthusiastic players continue to grow in ensemble ability, despite their limited rehearsal time.  Their concerts should be appreciated and supported by a widening audience.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here is a link to another positive review by Greg Hettmansherger, who writes his “Classically Speaking” blog for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/February-2013/Middleton-Community-Orchestra-Rising-Stars-and-High-Aspirations/

Steve Kurr.


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