The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Critic John W. Barker reviews two rehearsals and gives a big thumbs up for the concert TONIGHT by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) featuring local soloists and music by Vivaldi, Haydn, Beethoven, Sibelius and a world premiere local composer Jerry Hui.

August 9, 2013
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ALERT: This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, Madison marimbist Nathaniel Bartlett (below) will perform a FREE concert to celebrate the release of his fifth album “TimeSpacePlace.” Computer-generated music and the theramin will be used during the concert. For more information, visit

Nathaniel Bartlett 2

By Jacob Stockinger 

Here is a special posting, a “preview” review written by a 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

The second of the two concerts offered this summer by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) will be given at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Friday evening, Aug. 9, at Music Hall (below), at the base of Bascom Hill on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Admission is $5, for students by donation.


As the life of eternal schedule conflicts goes, I am unable to attend the concert itself. This is frustrating, for I have really come to enjoy what founder-conductor Mikko Utevsky (below) and his assemblages of student talent are able to achieve. But Utevsky very graciously allowed me to be a fly on the wall for rehearsals. He and his players have seven of them scheduled, on successive days (including a “dress” before the concert itself). I was able to sit in on two, and on them is this report based.

MAYCO Mikko Utevsky by Steve Rankin

The program will be a substantial one, culminating in Ludwig van Beethoven’s First Symphony.  It will include two concertos, one of them the delightful Trumpet Concerto by Franz Joseph Haydn, with the bright and superbly skilled Ansel Norris (below right) as soloist.

But there will also be a concerto by Antonio Vivaldi, written originally for oboe, violin, strings, and continuo.  Following the dubious practices of trumpet egomaniac Maurice André, the oboe part has been hijacked and given to trumpet. That shift quite destroys the balance of solo matching, but has the positive effect of allowing Ansel to partner with his own brother, Alex Norris (below left), who is also the orchestra’s concertmaster.

Alex and Ansel Norris CR Kathy Esposito

That kind of familial closeness is almost a symbol for the larger connectiveness shared by all these players.

Two other works, quite contrasting, fill out the program.  One is the brief but suavely flowing “Andante festive for strings (with final timpani) by Jean Sibelius. The other is a completely new work, the world premiere of a composition, commissioned by Utevsky and the orchestra, by local composer and jack-of-all-musical trades, Jerry Hui (below).

Called “Glacies,” Hui’s composition was inspired by the imagery of ice, evoked in a score that combines both lyrical and polyphonic textures, blended in an expansive coloristic palette not without touches of Richard Strauss, but altogether a piece with a distinctive profile.

Jerry Hui

I have written before that rehearsals can be as enjoyable, in their own way, as the final performances, and many ways more illuminating. Rehearsals are where the real work is done by the performers and the conductor. Performances are essentially the topping on the cake, however inspired they may prove to be.  Among other things, attending rehearsals allows one to “get inside” a score, as its anatomy is laid bare and its details are worked out.

MAYCO Mikko conducting Steve Rankin

I have to say that, sitting next to the players, and following with a score, I learned more about the internal workings of the Beethoven First than a lifetime of listening to concert and recorded performances afforded me.

What most concerned me, however, was not my own intellectual improvement (however welcome that always is), but rather the chance to observe in its own element what a remarkable institution MAYCO is becoming.

Mikko Utevsky himself is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Music, working in viola and in conducting.  Precocious from childhood, he is already a very mature musician, with a clear talent, and passion, for orchestral conducting.  The rehearsals demonstrated that.  Still genial and boyish, he is nevertheless musically astute, able to correct and instruct the players in issues of rhythmic articulation, dynamic subtleties, and part balancing.  He clearly works hard at knowing the scores inside out.

Mikko Utevsky conducts MAYCO Steve Rankin

Having already had experience at conducting in high school, he has gone so far as to try creating an orchestra of his own, catching players in slow summer seasons.  This is its third season.

Utevsky recruits the orchestra himself.  He has a wide personal acquaintanceship with budding young musicians, at both high school and college levels, on his own experience. The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO) is a particular source for players.  He regularly makes pitches at their rehearsals, and circulates printed information.

Utevsky also untiringly works the WYSO telephone listings to plead his case for participation. As a result, a majority of the players are WYSO veterans (as he is), mostly from the Youth ensemble of that organization. In some cases, players join after recommendations from friends.

Mikko Utevsky with baton

Fewer than half of this year’s players are college students, the remainder at high school level. But almost all have had experience at one level or another with orchestra or ensemble playing–if in a couple of cases, only in high school bands. That is an important point, for the group is not an introductory Orchestra 101 for the players, but rather a chance to move on in their experience. (Utevsky likes to rotate chairs for the wind players to widen that experience.)

There is, inevitably, considerable turnover in the membership, but Utevsky finds a growing amount of continuity as well. For his first concert this season he mustered 32 members, of whom 12 were returning players. This time, out of 37 players, 21 are repeaters.

MAYCO playing

Utevsky toys with the idea of taking his group into performance during the regular season, but there is a serious problem with this: many of his players are residents of Madison, here in summers, but away as schooling elsewhere during the academic year. Still, the prospects for summer continuity seem now quite well-founded.

What Utevsky is creating is, on however modest a scale, a training-orchestra tradition in Madison. It not only gives him the opportunity to hone his own podium talents, but to give young musicians valuable opportunities for ensemble experience.

These players are all so young: they would look like ordinary teenagers if you saw them on the street. Yet, they are talented musicians. It is simply wonderful to watch them dig into their parts and make fine music together.

MAYCO Mikko rehearsing score Steve Rankin

Yes, it is not possible for them to work together at length, and really to evolve into a finely blended ensemble. But they do a fully plausible job — this is no “amateur” orchestra. And most of these players will go on into professional careers as musicians. These are the players who will join their nationwide peers to continue and renew our classical orchestral tradition.

One other special feature of this program is that it unites two of what I consider Madison’s superlative musical products–conductor Utevsky and composer Hui. How can Madison music-lovers fail to recognize and celebrate the nurturing we are giving to such prodigiously promising talent?

So I regret that I have to miss the actual concert.  But you can enjoy it – TONIGHT.

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