The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Middleton Community Orchestra and cellist Andrew Briggs succeeded beautifully in music by Rossini, Dvorak and Mendelssohn but a public reading of short essays by Matt Geiger seemed out of place | March 3, 2017

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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Despite nasty weather and icy conditions, a quite substantial audience turned out for the concert Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra  (below).

steve-kurr-and-mco-marc-2017-jwb

There was an unusual element to the program.

The mostly amateur orchestra opened with an exuberant performance of Rossini’s overture to his opera Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy).

Then the normal procedures were interrupted by a local writer, Matt Geiger (below), reading two of his short essays from a recently published collection, which was sold in the lobby.

This appearance was based on his long and valiant boosting of the orchestra in his journalism, but it would have been more appropriate at some community festival than in the midst of an orchestra concert. His essays were not without wit, but had absolutely nothing to do with music.

matt-geiger-at-mco-march-2017-jwb

Back to business with guest soloist Andrew Briggs (below), a young cellist who played two miniatures for his instrument, with orchestra, by Antonin Dvorak.

Silent Woods, Op. 68, No. 5, is sometimes heard as a foil or filler for the composer’s great cello concerto, especially in recordings. Still less familiar is a Rondo in G minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 94. It is a work of charm and imagination.

Briggs played both of these with affectionate sensitivity. Currently finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, he is an artist with an already expanding reputation and a great future.

andrew-briggs-mco-march-2017-jwb

The second half of the concert was devoted to Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, the “Reformation.” Composed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, it was offered here as a gesture to this year’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s launching of his Reformation movement with the posting of his 95 Theses. This is a score full of Lutheran symbolism, particularly with the prominent use of Luther’s chorale, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”). 

NOTE: You can hear how Mendelssohn uses the Luther hymn in the symphony’s final movement by listening to the YouTube video at the bottom.

Commentators have sometimes shrugged off this work, and it has been overshadowed in audience favor by the composer’s popular third and fourth symphonies. But it is a well-wrought score, full of fine musical interest. Conductor Steve Kurr (below) led the orchestra through a sturdy and solidly played performance, ending the concert on a triumphant note.

Steve Kurr conducting

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6 Comments »

  1. […] At the March 1 concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra, cellist Andrew Briggs played two works by Antonin Dvorak: Silent Woods, Op. 68, No. 5,and Rondo in G minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 94. “Briggs played both of these with affectionate sensitivity. Currently finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, he is an artist with an already expanding reputation and a great future,” wrote reviewer John Barker. […]

    Pingback by A musical thank-you to the Mead Witter Foundation; Shain Woodwind-Piano Duo Winners Announced; New Music Premieres & Papers at Musicology Consortium: “Jewish Archive” Project Continues Worldwide | A Tempo! — March 8, 2017 @ 11:26 am

  2. While I’m grateful that Mr. Barker attends MCO concerts, I have to wonder why he feels the need to point out that it’s an “amateur” performance every single time. Is that really relevant?

    Comment by Jane Doe — March 6, 2017 @ 11:56 am

    • Thank you for reading and replying.
      I include the word amateur because it is a fact that is germane to a review.
      It is an achievement to be celebrated and admired, something the public should know about them.
      So yes, the description of the orchestras’s mostly amateur status is relevant.
      Not everyone knows that it is an amateur group, or that musical performance is not just for professionals.
      I hope that reasoning will persuade you.
      Best wishes,
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 6, 2017 @ 11:06 pm

  3. I felt there were some delightful parallels between Mr. Geiger’s 2 short stories and the 2 Dvorak cello works. In addition to the similar timing, both sets demonstrated contrast between contemplative introspection and humor, sensitivity and playfulness. Perhaps the idealization of monastic life echos Waldesruhe and the Rondo captures the spirit of the anticipatory joy of childbirth. I thought it worked, whether intended or not. I agree with Mr. Barker on the celebration of Mr. Briggs’ performance, and with regards to the weather.

    Comment by Steven E — March 5, 2017 @ 9:23 pm

  4. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 “Reformation” is a fine example of classical repertoire, the Finale of which ends on a Hi D in the 1st trombone for about 20 measures @ fff. If you needed something to take your breath away, this should do it.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — March 4, 2017 @ 1:19 am

  5. Ah, Mr. Barker again.

    This time objecting to the reading of essays at a public concert by the Middleton Symphony Orchestra. Here are his boneheaded comments:

    “Then the normal procedures [that in itself is worth a comment; who ever said there were “normal procedures” for these concerts?] were interrupted by a local writer, Matt Geiger (below), reading two of his short essays from a recently published collection, which was sold in the lobby.

    This appearance was based on his long and valiant boosting of the orchestra in his journalism, but it would have been more appropriate at some community festival than in the midst of an orchestra concert. His essays were not without wit, but had absolutely nothing to do with music.”

    Now, I didn’t attend the concert and do not know Mr. Geiger and for that matter have never read anything he has written. But the tradition, as anyone who really knows the history of classical music can surely attest, of the reading of poetry, prose, essays and other matters at events that featured classical music and orchestras has been widespread and dates from far back, even to pre-Barker days. Indeed, the mixing of art forms has a salon basis to it: salons were houses or apartments where friends and musicians and well educated people in general gathered to listen to music, to each other, and to poetry and stories too. In short, all were considered entertainment.

    Surely even Mr. Barker has heard of that upcoming and new guy on the block, Franz Schubert. Schubert and his friends famously held what they called Schubertiades. These were often informal gatherings at houses and featured music, drink, dance, poetry and prose. This delightful combination has met recognition in Madison through the UW School of Music. The program in Middleton, especially since it also included food, drink, and talk with the performers sounds like this is something of what the Middleton folk were trying to replicate, and why not?

    Is there anything really that different from what the good folk in Middleton were doing or what others have done elsewhere: to mix music, poetry, and prose? You see, an “orchestra concert” can mean many things: it doesn’t have to mean just music played by violins, flutes, kettle drums etc. it has often meant music accompanied by words and by readings. Think of any number of great pieces of music set, for instance, to just one writer’s work (Walt Whitman’s free verse. Fine examples can be found in compositions by Vaughan Williams or Howard Hanson.

    And do such events have “absolutely nothing to do with music,” as Barker would have it? Well, it depends on how narrowly you want to define music but I think most intelligent people would see music and poetry and prose and essays as part of a larger cultural feast, a great entertainment of life itself. But in Barker’s case, his fare seems pretty much to be bread and water. That’s his loss, it doesn’t have to be ours.

    Comment by FFlambeau — March 3, 2017 @ 4:43 am


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