The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication | September 11, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


Posted in Classical music
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7 Comments »

  1. I hate to rain on the parade but there are far better reviewers than the one mentioned here. May he have a good retirement.

    Comment by fflambeau — September 11, 2019 @ 9:57 pm

  2. I have a feeling John Barker is still critiquing classical music, he’s just not sharing them with us. Have fun with that, John!

    Comment by Janet Murphy — September 11, 2019 @ 3:20 pm

  3. Many thanks too for this blog, for bringing us this good news of last Friday’s recognition of John’s contributions to the local scene, many of those – but by no means all – for the classical music scene. Just one example: his long collaboration with MidAmerica Productions, founded by UW alum Peter Tiboris; This organization has touched many lives, providing work for innumerable musicians, travel agents, and others. John’s life has been one of steady involvement and sharing of important ideas. All thanks to him!

    Comment by dan53705 — September 11, 2019 @ 1:06 pm

  4. What a lovely tribute by the orchestra! Thanks for sharing the news of this event. Here’s an addition to the list of John Barker’s musical accomplishments. He understood and participated in the shape note singing tradition, especially when American music was featured at the Early Music Festival. We are grateful.

    Comment by Johanna B Fabke — September 11, 2019 @ 11:51 am

  5. I took a Byzantine art history course with Professor Barker in college years ago. He changed the way I look at the world. It was always so good to see him at concerts, hear him on the radio, and read his reviews. I will miss that so much!!

    Comment by Rebecca Forbes Wank — September 11, 2019 @ 10:39 am

  6. I agree with Mike M. Thanks for your insightful critiques. I’ll miss your byline. All the best.

    Comment by Sandy Tabachnick — September 11, 2019 @ 8:46 am

  7. A fitting tribute to an exemplary writer and critic. Bravo, Professor B.! Your wisdom will be sorely missed.

    Comment by Mike Muckian — September 11, 2019 @ 7:46 am


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