The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: It’s time to go back to the future. The classical music scene needs more professional groups to act like the Middleton Community Orchestra and break down barriers between performers and listeners. | June 7, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

There was a time when no professional symphony orchestras existed, at least outside of royal courts. Even Ludwig van Beethoven had to hire freelance pick-up orchestras to premiere his monumental and iconic symphonies and concertos.

That meant that classical music was much more of a home activity and much more of a community affair that it usually is today.

But there are exceptions.

I was reminded of that on Wednesday night when – in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School — I attended the concert that closed the fourth season of the Middleton Community Orchestra (below).

MCO June 2014 orchestra

As I sat there, I realized I was simultaneously getting a glimpse of both the past and the future of classical music, which is under siege and needs some new strategies to thrive and prevail if it is to attract new and younger audiences.

I have written before about why I like the Middleton Community Orchestra so much.

Here is a link to a 2012 review with the nine reasons why I like them and think you should too:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/classical-music-review-let-us-now-praise-amateur-music-makers-and-restoring-sociability-to-art-here-are-9-reasons-why-i-liked-and-you-should-attend-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

But this most recent concert only deepened and expanded those convictions.

So here are some of my more recent thoughts, not necessarily deep but perhaps helpful and even insightful:

First and foremost, I liked the way the barriers between the performers and the audience members were broken down. I took some photos of what I saw: brass and string players talking with friends, family members, admirers and strangers both before the concert, during the intermission and then during the social dessert reception after the concert.

It all made the act of music-making seem more humane, more do-able, more central to daily life. Music seemed a cohesive bond for the entire community.

MCO trombonist and public 6-2014

MCO violinist and public 6-2014

I also liked that the community orchestra –- which used some professional members but also many amateur musicians — once again turned in convincing readings of great music.

And they did so by once again spotlighting local talent.

One was pianist and Middleton native, Thomas Kasdorf, who did his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who returns there in the fall for a graduate degree.

Kasdorf  (below) gave an absolutely thrilling and gorgeous reading of Edvard Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16. Here is a link to an interview The Ear did with him:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/classical-music-qa-native-son-pianist-thomas-kasdorf-talks-about-playing-solo-recitals-chamber-music-and-the-grieg-piano-concerto-with-the-middleton-community-orchestra-which-also-closes-out-i/

MCO june 2014 Thomas Kasdorf plays Grieg

Kasdorf played with dynamism and lyricism, drawing a big sound out of the smaller-than-concert grand Steinway. He captured the many moods and beautiful tunes, the infectious rhythms, the long and songful phrases, and the stirring harmonies of Grieg’s evergreen concerto.

Not everyone agreed. Here is critic John W. Barker’s dissent for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/music/article.php?article=42912

No less than pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff  (below) told Arthur Rubinstein that the Grieg Piano Concerto was the best and most effective piano concerto ever composed. And Rachmaninoff, who himself used the Grieg as a model, knew a thing or two about composing and performing piano concertos.

Rachmaninoff

Kasdorf wasn’t alone in excelling.

UW-Madison graduate violist Alice Bartsch (below) also turned in a sublime and moving reading of Antonin Dvorak’s soaringly lyrical Romance in F Minor, Op. 11, for Violin and Orchestra. It was all the more moving because it was her last concert as concertmaster of the MCO before she moves on to a professional job. (You can hear Dvorak’s lovely Romance at the bottom in a popular YouTube video. Tell me it doesn’t make you want to hear more of the tuneful Dvorak’s music.)

MCO June 2014 Alice Bartsch plays Dvorak

In fact, conductor Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School, also recognized other members of the orchestra who were moving on after this valedictory concert and asked them to stand up for applause — which they received:

MCO June 2014 players who will leave

I also loved the audience. I don’t know them by name, but enough people were there that the house seemed plenty full. Moreover, many of the listeners were very young or looked like people you don’t usually see at events like the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

Well, one reason is that the price is right. WCO admission has two prices: $10 for adults and free for students. At that level, who can’t afford to take a chance? It might be nice if bigger groups tried cutting costs instead of increasing them. Affordability begets accessibility, The Ear suspects.

The orchestra, of course, also played on its own. It gave a respectable and at times moving reading to Sir Edward Elgar’s ambitious musical portraits in the “Enigma” Variations. As happened in also in the Grieg, I found especially the brass and percussion outstanding, though all sections, and especially the strings and winds, also held their own and had much to be proud of.

That’s not to say there weren’t mistakes or lapses or shortcomings. But, hey, this isn’t the Berlin Philharmonic. Besides, imperfection is an inherent part of most performing arts. But the orchestra clearly communicated the music’s emotion to the audience, and that is what matters most.

MCO June 2014 Orchestra stands up

The concert finished with the suite of three dances from Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s ballet score for “The Three-Cornered Hat.”

And there was my one criticism.

I am afraid the MCO has unfortunately expanded to imitate more professional organizations. I prefer the 90-minute, no intermission format. I think that could have been done if they had programmed this way: open with the Dvorak Romance; then do the Grieg Piano Concerto; and then finish with the Elgar Variations. (By my reckoning that would add up to about 85 minutes of music, with time left over for some stage changes.)

This concert was just a bit too long. People were tired, especially on a weekday night. And beside, it is nice to get in The Zone and then leave The Zone –- and not try to renter the Zone after intermission. It is also nice to get back home early when work is facing you the next day.

Then came the FREE desserts and the chat between hungry musicians and hungry audience members.

MCO June 2014 reception

But it seemed everyone left with their appetite for music satisfied.

So congratulations then to the MCO co-founders Mindy Taranto and Larry Bevic plus conductor Steve Kurr. Over four seasons, they have grown an experimental project into a new tradition that seems to be attracting more people who appreciate them -– as you could tell from the cheers and hearty applause and prolonged standing ovations.

MCO June 2014 standing ovation

Next season promises very good things: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8; Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”; the famous “William Tell” Overture (the “Lone Ranger” theme) by Giacchino Rossini and the Academic Festival Overture and Tragic Overture by Johannes Brahms; plus Thomas Kasdorf again in the great Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky (with, three cheers, Thomas Kasdorf as soloist in what The Ear jokingly calls the Van Cliburn Piano Concerto No. 1) and more.

It is something to look forward to.

All that music and all that fun for all that affordability.

See you then, see you there!

 

 

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5 Comments »

  1. […] Classical music: It’s time to go back to the future. The classical music scene needs more prof… […]

    Pingback by Ludwig van Beethoven – Romance for Violin & Orchestra No. 1 (make music part of your life series) | euzicasa — July 17, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

  2. It was delightful! Thanks for your review. Libby

    Comment by libbybestul — June 7, 2014 @ 8:32 am


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