The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra opens its season with polished viola playing from Vicki Powell and infectious enthusiasm from the entire orchestra in a Dvorak symphony. | October 25, 2014

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 for 20 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 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

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below) opened its fifth season on last Wednesday evening with a mix of novelties and old favorites.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

The orchestra’s new concertmaster, Valerie Clare Sanders, a senior at the UW-Madison School of Music  who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, also made her debut with the MCO.

Valerie Clare Sanders MCO 2014

The starter was the ever-popular, ever-rousing Overture to the opera “William Tell” by Rossini. The playing seemed a little less fully digested, but the piece still came off with spirit.

The unfamiliar elements were two display pieces for the young but highly gifted, Madison-born violist, Vicki Powell (below). She offered a superbly warm, rich, clearly projected tone, presented in a thoroughly professional manner— reminding us, too, how underappreciated the viola is as a solo instrument.

Vicki Powell at MCO

Her first selection was a Fantasia on themes of Mozart, by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), a protégé of Mozart and rival to Beethoven. Originally a solo piano piece of 1833, if I am not mistaken, it was arranged for solo viola and chamber orchestra by the French musician Fernand Oubradous. It proved to be charming music, beautifully played.

The second piece was a Romance, Op. 85, of 1911, for viola and orchestra. Composed in lush late-Romantic style, it could have been a movement of a concerto, and was a handsome dialogue between soloist and orchestra, realized with particularly gorgeous tone by Powell. She is a musician to watch for.

Vicki Powell and Steve Kurr MCO finale

The grand finale was the Symphony No. 8 in G major by Antonin Dvorak.

Here I must ask the reader’s patience if I indulge in a strong personal memory about this work — and a very pertinent one.

When I was a graduate student in the late 1950s at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick N.J., I attended a concert by the New Brunswick Community Philharmonic (if I remember its name correctly). It consisted of semi-professionals and amateurs of the area, under the baton of the local high-school bandmaster, one Max Pecker. This has proven to be one of the most memorable concerts of my musical lifetime, and I still recall the program vividly.

Franz Schubert’s bouncy Overture to his opera “Alfonso und Estrella” immediately revealed that this orchestra was a pretty scrappy affair in terms of discipline. BUT: the players were having so much fun in their work that it was impossible not to share their enthusiasm.

The second work was the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Camille Saint-Saëns, featuring a local keyboard whiz just back from the Paris Conservatory. For him the orchestra had made its most careful preparation, and their playing came off as quite credible.

But the final work was this very same G major Symphony by Dvorak (below). Now, the orchestra’s concertmaster was also the local newspaper’s music critic (!), and in her review of the concert she revealed the profundity of her knowledge by observing that, though this symphony was not as well-known as Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 “The New World,” it was, she insisted, “not without moments of interest” (! again). (You can hear the entrancing and beautiful symphony in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

dvorak

The important thing was that, even though the work was rough going for this ensemble, the sheer joy of the players was simply contagious. The most honest kind of musical pleasure filled the hall. As I said, this is a concert I have never forgotten, always remembered affectionately.

I had that concert very much in mind in listening to the MCO performance.

Oh yes, there were some passing fluffs here and there. But this was an orchestra that could play with discipline and coherent unity of purpose, far beyond the New Brunswickers’ capacities. The parallel was, however, that the players seemed clearly to have caught the enthusiasm for the score conveyed to them by conductor Steve Kurr (below).

Steve Kurr and MCO 2014

Better than most performances I have heard, Kurr projected an intensity and even dramatic emphases that the orchestra took up and gave back to him gloriously.

One member told me afterwards: “We enjoyed playing it.” And I found myself at times transported with delight at how this magnificent score once again came alive for me, thanks to music-making that was more than just a matter of artistic efficiency.

My point is not just a matter of nostalgia revived. It is a reminder that one does not have to have a performance by one of the super-polished orchestras of our Big Cities, or of the international world, in order to have a memorable listening experience.

A deeply committed orchestra under inspired and inspiring leadership can offer as satisfying a musical experience as can be found anywhere.

Madison audiences should therefore listen up and pay attention to Middleton’s really splendid community orchestra, taking advantage of its offerings to discover the genuine rewards.

 

 

 

 

 

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