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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Classical music: This Sunday afternoon, the Pro Arte Quartet and the Hunt Quartet team up for chamber music masterpieces by Mendelssohn and Schubert at the Chazen Museum of Art. You can hear the FREE concert live or stream it

May 5, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art offers monthly Sunday chamber music concert with two masterworks featuring the ensemble-in-residence at the museum for more than 30 years: the Pro Arte Quartet.

The program is, in essence, a showcase for master and apprentice ensembles.

This weekend’s “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet in the last string quartet – No. 15 in G major, D. 887 — by Franz Schubert.

That’s the same quartet the opening of which was used so effectively by Woody Allen in the soundtrack of the great film “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” (You can hear the opening movement, played by the Juilliard String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more about the dramatic historical background of the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) — now the oldest surviving string quartet in history — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/pro-arte-quartet/

Then, after intermission, together with the graduate student Hunt Quartet, the Pro Arte Quartet will perform the wonderful Octet in E-Flat Major, Op. 20, by Felix Mendelssohn, who composed this masterpiece at 16.

The Hunt Quartet is the graduate string quartet for the Mead Witter School of Music. As project assistants within the School of Music, the quartet performs concerts at the School of Music, University events, as well as community outreach.

Members work closely with faculty, including the Pro Arte Quartet, and with cello Professor Uri Vardi as their principal coach. Other artists who have worked with the Hunt Quartet include violist Nobuko Imai, violist Lila Brown and members of the Takacs String Quartet.

The quartet is also the integral part of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s “Up Close and Musical” program, visiting area schools to teach students about fundamentals of music and the string quartet. This fall, the Hunt Quartet visited Lindbergh Elementary, Stoner Prairie Elementary, Blessed Sacrament School, Sauk Trail Elementary, Thoreau Elementary and Shorewood Hills Elementary.

The Hunt Quartet is sponsored by Kato Perlman and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

This year’s members (below, from left, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) are Kyle Price, cello; Vinicius “Vinny” Sant’Ana, violin; Blakeley Menghini, viola; Chang-En Lu, violin.

 

The concert starts at 12:30 p.m. CDT in Brittingham Gallery 3 and will runs until about 2 p.m. It is free and open to the public. You can attend in person. But you can also live-stream the concert.

Here is a web page with more information about the groups, the program, attendance and a link for streaming:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/about/news/in-the-news/sunday-afternoon-live-with-the-pro-arte-quartet-may-6/


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