The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra excels in difficult music by Wagner and Sibelius.

April 16, 2016
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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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

It was a short program — lasting under an hour — but an outstanding one, that the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave on Wednesday evening.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

There were only two works, but profoundly challenging ones, and associate conductor Kyle Knox (below) really put his amateur players’ feet to the fire.

Kyle Knox 2

The first work was the Prelude to Act I of the opera Lohengrin by Richard Wagner (below). This is music of spun silk, noteworthy for its use of divided violins most of the way through.

That creates a uniquely etherial sound, but one that takes great effort to bring off. The MSO has been developing a surprisingly fine string band. Its violinists met the demands of tone and balance beautifully, producing a performance of transcendent beauty.

Richard Wagner

The other, longer, work was a symphony heard far too rarely. This was the Symphony No. 3 of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (below).

I say quite frankly that it is my favorite among the symphonies of Sibelius. After the post-Tchaikovsky bombast of the First and Second, it was in this Third that the composer first found his own orchestral voice, establishing how to make his instruments and their ensembles work in ways that were totally his.

In its use of variations, and especially of thematic evolution, the Third also drafted the blueprint for the Fifth Symphony, which conductors and audiences adore, but to the cruel eclipse of the Third.

sibelius

This Third– which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom– is not an easy work to bring off. Its orchestral textures are full of tricky intricacies. No surprise that, here and there, one might hear quick moments in which the tension slackened. But Knox drew the players through a performance of beauty and power, finely honed and sonorously rendered.

The players clearly relish working under Knox. (The orchestra’s founding father, Steve Kurr, was sitting modestly in the viola section for this concert.) Knox’s own growth as a conductor is paired with his guiding of the orchestra to higher and higher achievements. Just for programming the Sibelius Third, I award him strong praise, but for bringing it off so well I must multiply my accolades.

I take this as a landmark event for the MCO—a genuine achievement. It is sad that the audience was not larger. Madison music-lovers, where are you when music and artistry like this is available to you?

I anticipate ranking this as my “concert of the year” when the final returns are in!


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