The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and UW duo-pianists showcase the remarkable music of Camille Saint-Saens and Mozart in the popular concert that closes its season | June 1, 2019

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

By John W. Barker

The mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Margaret Barker) closed its season Thursday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center with a promising and well-received program.

The centerpiece featured two graduate student soloists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, pianists Thomas Kasdorf (below right) and Satoko Hayami (below left), who joined in Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 365, for two pianos and orchestra. The two soloists were alert and polished collaborators. (You can hear the energetic and catchy final movement, used in the Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Conductor Steve Kurr (below) set a bouncy pace but a rather fast and overpowering one, and with an orchestra — especially strings — quite overblown by the standards of Mozart’s day.

The MCO was blessed by the loan of a very special model of a Model B Steinway instrument, now owned and lovingly restored by Farley’s House of Pianos. This was paired against a Steinway of much later vintage, owned by the hall. But nowhere was there identification about which piano was which as they sat onstage, much less which pianist was playing which piano (and they switched between the two works utilizing them.) This was disappointing for it prevented making an informed comparison of the two instruments.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below) is backhandedly treated as being on the margins of composer greatness. But his scope was remarkable, as witnessed by the two works that were the program’s bookends.

The opener was his humorous Suite, “Carnival of the Animals.” This set of 14 short pieces was written for one private performance, in chamber terms, one player per part. So the orchestra that was used — of 87 listed musicians, 60 of them were string players — became a crushing distortion. The two pianists were a bit formal, but ideally facile.

Saint-Saens made no provision for any kind of spoken text, certainly not in French. In the middle of the last century, the American poet of high-spirited doggerel, Ogden Nash, wrote wickedly funny verses with offbeat rhymes and puns to go with each movement.

It was these Nash verses that Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below), who was only identified as the “narrator,” read with a good bit of tongue-in-cheek. Nowhere are these at all identified or credited in the bumbling program booklet.  (Many in the audience might have just thought that they were written by Gilliland himself.)

In many of the suite’s movements, Saint-Saens quoted or alluded to hit tunes by earlier composers, for parodistic purposes. Unfortunately, there are no program notes in the booklet, so these tidbits would easily go unnoticed by many listeners.

Saint-Saens composed, among his numerous orchestral works, a total of five symphonies, only three of which are numbered. I had originally been given to expect No. 2, a charming work I love, as the program closer. All but the last of them are early works in a graceful post-Classical style.

But No. 3 was composed much later in his life, and in a more expansive style. This is a frequently performed spectacle, unconventional in plan and in scoring. It adds the two pianists and an organ — hence the nickname the “Organ Symphony.”

Unfortunately, the hall has no organ of its own, so the substitute was a rig of electronic organ with its own booming speakers and exaggerated pedal notes. Again totally unmentioned is that this contraption was played by MCO sound technician Alex Ford (below, with the portable electronic organ keyboard from Austria with its computer-screen stops).

This kind of organ could never be integrated into the full orchestral texture and served only to allow the orchestra to play this grandiose score. Such ambition was backed by really splendid and well-balanced orchestral playing.

As intended, the large local audience, with many children and families, was wildly enthusiastic.


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10 Comments »

  1. The Bumbling Reviewer also appears to have missed the Midday Radio Show on WPR a few days ago which discussed with pianists Thomas Kasdorf and Satoko Hayami, th program that was performed in Middleton Community Orchestra’s Spring Concert on May 30. Had the reviewer listened (or done his homework) he would have found out lots of exciting information including that the pianists would perform on both pianos, that there would be a narrator, that the Organ Symphony (not #2) would be played and that there in fact would be an organ.

    Here’s a link to that program: https://www.wpr.org/listen/1462751

    Comment by fflambeau — June 1, 2019 @ 9:51 pm

  2. “(Many in the audience might have just thought that they were written by Gilliland himself.)”

    I suspect that many in the audience knew more about the music on the program, and what the program was intended to be, than the bumbling reviewer.

    Comment by fflambeau — June 1, 2019 @ 9:15 pm

  3. Thursday’s concert was supported by advance publicity provided by this blog and other local sources, and by the presence and useful commentary of Prof. Barker and by the photos provided by Ms. Barker.

    Comments here often add further interesting and helpful insights, but not always!

    Comment by dan53705 — June 1, 2019 @ 4:02 pm

    • “Thursday’s concert was supported by advance publicity provided by this blog and other local sources, and by the presence and useful commentary of Prof. Barker and by the photos provided by Ms. Barker.”

      All the more reason to be puzzled by his writing that Saint-Saens #2 was to be on the program (it was #3) and that the reviewer was surprised that Mr. Ford was playing the organ; both were announced well in advance. No?

      Comment by fflambeau — June 1, 2019 @ 9:01 pm

  4. Enjoyed the knowledgable review, as do I Mr. Barker’s in general.

    Comment by bbead — June 1, 2019 @ 10:48 am

    • I read it quickly, as I do most things, and not to parse and pick apart. I found it outlined clearly enough what he liked and didn’t like.

      Comment by bbead — June 1, 2019 @ 11:02 am

  5. Wow… what a review… So you didn’t like the program notes (or lack thereof…) We get it…

    Comment by tom — June 1, 2019 @ 6:21 am

  6. “The opener was his humorous Suite, “The Carnival of the Animals.” This set of 14 short pieces, was written for one private performance, in chamber terms, one player for part. So the orchestra that was used — of 87 listed musicians, 60 of them were string players — became a crushing distortion.”
    ******************

    Meanwhile, in the real world. From Wikipedia: “Carnival has since become one of Saint-Saëns’s best-known works, played by the original eleven instruments, or more often with the full string section of an orchestra.”

    This reviewer continues to not understand one of the basic laws of musical performance: you work with the forces available.

    ***************
    “I had originally been given to expect [Symphony] No. 2, a charming work I love, as the program closer.”

    Why? The MCO’s website (link above) indicates No. 3 on the program, it even says the symphony name for you, the “organ symphony”; so did a column here days ago.

    Comment by fflambeau — June 1, 2019 @ 3:15 am

  7. “Again totally unmentioned is that this contraption (an electric organ) was played by MCO sound technician Alex Ford… .”

    Really? It was mentioned at this very web site a few days ago. It is also mentioned on the Middleton Symphony Orchestra’s web site here: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org/concert_information

    Shouldn’t a reviewer know these things?
    ***************

    “Nowhere are these at all identified or credited in the bumbling program booklet.”

    Yes, you are an expert in bumbling but perhaps it was the intent of the programmers to force the audience to actually listen to the narrator?

    **********************

    Poorly and confusingly written; “This was paired against a Steinway of much later vintage, owned by the hall. But nowhere was there identification about which piano was which as they sat onstage, much less which pianist was playing which piano (and they switched between the two works utilizing them.) This was disappointing for it prevented making an informed comparison of the two instruments.” What does your “this” refer to? The fact that the pianos were not identified or the switching around of the pianists? And shouldn’t a knowledgeable music reviewer be able to tell the difference in sound without a sign and an arrow?

    Please can the great bumbler?

    Comment by fflambeau — June 1, 2019 @ 1:19 am

    • Well, Mr. or Ms Flambeau. I don’t always agree with you but I’m with you on this one.

      Comment by Ann Boyer — June 1, 2019 @ 6:58 am


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