The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra closes its fifth season with a lively concert that featured fiery Marquez, subtle Brahms, lyrical Bruch and thrilling Tchaikovsky. | June 5, 2015

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 12 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.


By John W. Barker

Spring is officially over now, for the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) has given the fourth and last concert of its fifth season — as usual, on a Wednesday night and before a sizable crowd at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

The opening work was a rarity from the little-known Mexican composer Arturo Marquez (b.1950, below), called Danzon 2. It is a piece that starts with promise of melodic expression, but soon slips into a piling up of the usual hard-driven Latin dance rhythms, for a large orchestra, playing very loudly. A kind of musical refried beans.

arturo marquez 3 USE

More substantial was the early orchestral masterpiece, the “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” by Johannes Brahms (below).

This is a very thickly scored piece, placing particular emphasis on the winds. I found myself, as I listened, appreciating more than ever how cunningly Brahms designed the seams and sutures among the instruments, taxing the skills of the players for subtlety. Fortunately, the Middleton musicians faced the challenges bravely and brought off a very sturdy and convincing performance.


After the intermission, it was concerto time.

First, as MCO maestro Steve Kurr (below top) has regularly done, the young concertmaster was given a chance to tackle a solo assignment. Valerie Sanders (below bottom), a new graduate from the UW-Madison School of Music, took on the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Max Bruch, though only its slow movement. She played this lovely music quite sweetly, and one was tempted to wonder how she would have fared in taking on the two bolder wing movements, in the full concerto.

Steve Kurr conducting

MCO Valerie Sanders plays Bruch

The Big Event was, of course, local pianist Thomas Kasdorf playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This is a very warhorse of the warhorses, a work that some will be surprised to learn that predates Van Cliburn, whose recording of it was the first classical album to sell one million copies. (Vladimir Horowitz was once the exponent automatically brought to mind.)

It is a colossally demanding piece, technically, and a summit of virtuosic display — as you can see and hear in the popular YouTube video at the bottom.

Kasdorf (below), a locally born, raised and educated pianist and a well-established young Madison fixture of enormous talent and virtuosity, made this his latest entry into the warhorse corral.

MCO Thomas Kasdorf plays Tchaikovsky

Yes, he had the chops to bring it off, in an undeniably exciting performance. But I had the sense that his heart was really in the quieter passages, where he had some ideas of his own.

In the prevailingly bravura writing, by contrast, he was battling for survival. He certainly won the battle, on technical points alone. But this is not a work he has fully made his own—he played from score, rather than memory. It is an interpretation in progress, rather than one securely controlled.

And I hope this is not a career effort in progress. He is too fine a musician to be just a barn-storming, roof-raising virtuoso. He should pursue rather the great variety of roles he as developed, in which he has so much more that is personal and nuanced to offer.

The orchestra, with fewer perils to face than in the Brahms, sounded confident and full-voiced.

All in all, it was a lively and stimulating concert, as we have come to expect from Steve Kurr and his remarkable Middletonians.


1 Comment »

  1. I found this comment by Mr. Barker amusing: “And I hope this is not a career effort in progress. He [Thomas Kasdorf] is too fine a musician to be just a barn-storming, roof-raising virtuoso.”

    I guess Mr. Barker sees virtuoso musicians out there (good guys) and “barn-storming, roof-raising” ones too (bad guys). Sorry, to me, that makes no sense. Maybe he disapproved of players like the great Earl Wild? Who knows? Wild after all was called a “super-virtuoso in the Horowitz class” by another (and better) music critic, Harold C. Schonberg. But he also wrote some lovely music and made brilliant transcriptions. He was a tour de force, no question about that, but he had an omnivorous repertoire and he was loved and applauded as few others have been.

    Maybe Barker is in favor of a new typology: fine musicians, virtuoso musicians , “barn-storming virtuoso” and “barn-storming, roof-raising virtuoso” musicians?

    I suspect most people, including Mr. Kasdorf, would love to be considered a “barn-storming, roof-raising virtuoso.”

    And for heaven’s sake? What’s wrong with the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1? It’s long been a crowd favorite. As this blog notes, Van Cliburn’s recording was the first classical album to sell more than 1 million copies. What’s wrong with it? It has lovely music, needs to be played by a virtuoso (of whatever type), has lovely nuances between loud and soft passages and has that instantly recognizable Tchaikovsky sound, universally admired. It has been recorded and played by some of the greatest pianists of all time, again, to the delight of audiences most everywhere.

    And if one does by chance consider it an “old war horse” (Isn’t almost anything by Beethoven and Mozart and Brahms also in that category?) didn’t the conductor balance it off with lesser known and performed works?

    I’d call all of this well done, perhaps even of a “barn-storming, roof-raising” level.

    Comment by fflambeau — June 5, 2015 @ 1:20 am

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