The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Looking for serious fun? The thoroughly successful opening concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society bode well for the upcoming second weekend

June 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

After 28 summers, going to a concert by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society still feels like attending a family reunion – the best kind of family reunion where everyone is familiar and friendly, where everything is fun, and where you always leave glad that you went.

That’s not by chance.

The first thing that co-founders and co-artistic directors Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes did last Friday and Saturday nights was to thank the loyal audience. And the audience, full of longtime fans, returned the favor by being attentive to and appreciative of the first-rate music-making as well as responsive to the horseplay and antics – such as the surreal scene of virtuoso Axel Strauss playing “The Skater’s Waltz” on his violin while rollerblading around the stage (below).

BDDS players really mean it when they say that their audiences are in for something different, something they won’t find elsewhere and won’t forget.

Last weekend that meant the return of two longtime guest performers: San Francisco cellist Jean-Michael Fonteneau and Montreal violinist Axel Strauss (below, with pianist Jeffrey Sykes). Neither disappointed as they performed very varied music by Franz Joseph Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Johannes Brahms, Gabriel Faure, Lili Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Ned Rorem. And as always, the amazing  pianist Jeffrey Sykes proved a chameleon who blended masterfully into the style of each period and each composer.

But for The Ear, the unexpected standout last weekend was guest accordion player Stas Venglevski from Milwaukee. Born in Russia and trained at the Moscow Conservatory, he is a virtuoso player, a sensitive arranger and a convincing composer – all done with good humor and a charismatic stage presence.

The Ear never thought of the accordion – the Russian bayan, to be specific – as an instrument for chamber music. But he does now, after hearing Venglevski play serious Russian, French and Latin American music that ran the gamut from a graceful waltz and a sprightly polka to torchy tangos. And then there were his flying fingers punching out “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” a real crowd-pleaser.

The large audience responded on both nights with wild applause and a standing ovation every time that Venglevski (below) played, and Jutt promised the audience that he will be back.

“As you can see, we have fun here,” Jutt deadpanned.

She is not exaggerating.

Which bodes well for the second weekend of three that will happen this coming weekend.

The second weekend — two programs in three venues — celebrates Jutt and Sykes, plus two of BDDS’ favorite guest artists: violinist Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio and Madison pianist Thomas Kasdorf.

Kasdorf (below) and Sykes are both featured in a program called “Rock the Sykes-o-delic Kas-bah.” Kasdorf is featured in Brahms’ Horn Trio with guest horn player Karl Kramer Johansen, and in the appealing and accessible Café Concertino by the contemporary Australian composer Carl Vine.

Sykes will perform another chamber transcription of a Classical-era symphonic work, which over the years has become a welcome specialty of BDDS. In this case it is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s snappy and appealing Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271, the “Jeunehomme” concerto. (You can hear the irresistible last movement of the piano concerto, used in the film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Sykes will also perform in Robert Schumann’s “Fairy Tales” for clarinet and viola.

A Madison native, cellist Alison Rowe (below) — an artist from the Dynamite Factory, which is BDDS’ program for emerging talent — will be featured in the Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Major by Johann Sebastian Bach.

“Rock the Sykes-o-delic Kas-bah” will be performed at the Stoughton Opera House on Friday, June 21, at 7:30 p.m. Braisin’ Hussies Food Cart will be parked outside the Opera House prior to the performance. The program will also be performed in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 23, at 2:30 p.m.

Jutt (below top) and Sant’Ambrogio (below bottom, in a photo by Stephanie Ann Boyd) worm their musical way into the most unexpected places in the other program, “Steph Infection.” The Nocturne for flute, violin, horn and piano of Franz Doppler opens the program, which continues with Jutt’s own arrangement of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “American” String Quartet, with a flute substituting for one of the two violins.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for flute, clarinet and piano add spice to the program, and the evening concludes with Ernst von Dohnanyi’s epic Sextet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano. A work that ranges from stormy and turbulent to tender and funny, it features an all-star cast including audience favorite clarinetist Alan Kay, horn player Karl Kramer Johansen, violist Carol Cook (principal at the Lyric Opera of Chicago), and Madison’s own cellist of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet, Parry Karp (below).

“Steph Infection” will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, Saturday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m.; and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 23, at 6:30 p.m.

And of course there could also be some unannounced surprises – more door prizes, perhaps a mystery guest, or more shenanigans and antics that correspond to the “Name Dropping” pun theme of the programs.

For tickets ($43-$49) and more information, go to: https://bachdancing.org


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” proved a complete, first-rate theatrical experience

February 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog  – attended two performances of “Into the Woods” at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and filed this review. (Photos are by Beau Meyer for the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.)

By Larry Wells

The University Theatre and University Opera’s recent joint production of “Into the Woods” was a feast for fans of Stephen Sondheim (below). It was a complete theatrical experience with excellent singing, a nuanced orchestral accompaniment, skilled acting and enchanting staging.

The nearly three-hour work is an amalgamation of several well-known fairy tales exploring themes such as parent-child relationships, loss of innocence, self-discovery, the consequences of wishes being fulfilled, and death – but all in an amusing, literate, fast-paced kaleidoscope of witty dialogue, catchy music and sophisticated lyrics.

The production employed an attractive, ever-changing set, designed by John Drescher, that was vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak.

Stage director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) utilized the large cast and what had to be an equally large number of backstage crew members in a captivating succession of ensemble pieces and solo numbers. I was never aware of the passing of time. Not looking at my watch is my acid test of a production’s success.

Among the many standout performances, Bryanna Plaisir (below) as the Witch was comical in her delivery and quite amazing in the physicality of her performance. There were a number of times when she flew, and each time I was taken by surprise at her effortlessness. Her initial song, accompanied mostly by percussion, was mesmerizing.

There were two roles that were double cast: Elisheva Pront and Miranda Kettlewell (below) as the Cinderellas; and Meghan Stecker and Zoe Bockhorst as the two Little Red Riding Hoods.

Both Pront and Kettlewell possess excellent voices.

Stecker was the more girlish of the two Red Riding Hoods, whereas Bockhorst (below left) portrayed a slightly more canny character.  Both were very funny in their encounter with Cobi Tappa’s Wolf (below right).

Tappa is a physical actor whose tall lankiness conveyed the Wolf’s lupine nature flawlessly. He also portrayed the Steward, and I was completely captivated by his performance, as was the appreciative audience.

Joshua Kelly (below) was the narrator and also played the baker’s father.  His was a professional quality performance from beginning to end – enunciating so clearly that he was completely understandable throughout.

Jack was played by Christian Michael Brenny. His portrayal of a simple-minded boy was touching, and his singing was outstanding.

Emily Vandenberg (below left) as the wife of the baker (played by Michael Kelley, below right) was another outstanding performer – an excellent comic actress and an accomplished vocalist.

Mention must also be made of Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes, Tanner Zocher  and Jacob Eliot Elfner. Their two duets, “Agony” and “Agony Reprise,” were enthusiastically received by the audience not only for their delivery but also for such lyrics as “…you know nothing of madness ‘til you’re climbing her hair…”.

Sondheim’s way with words continues to amaze me. In describing a decrepit cow, Jack’s mother gets to sing “…while her withers wither with her…”.  The Wolf gets to sing the line “…there’s no possible way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal…”

Chad Hutchinson (below) conducted the orchestra in a finely shaded performance – never overpowering and always supportive.

There were many other excellent performances and memorable moments. Suffice it to say that altogether cast, crew, artistic and production staff created a show that I enjoyed on two consecutive evenings. In fact I was completely entranced both times.

Postscript: The first evening I sat in front of a person who coughed more or less continually the entire first act.  Mercifully she left at the intermission. Next to me was a woman who alternated between audibly clearing her throat and blowing her nose — when she wasn’t applying moisturizer to her hands — throughout the entire show. Stay home if you’re sick. And remember that you are not at home watching your television.  You are in a theater.


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