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.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” this Friday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater

December 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about performances this coming weekend by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) and the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra of what is, unfortunately and undeservedly, often considered, when compared to Handel’s “Messiah,”  “The Other Oratorio” for the holiday season:

There will be two performances of four parts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (1734). On Friday night, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave., in Madison; and on Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater, 930 Main Street, in Whitewater.

Advance tickets for the Friday night performance at Luther Memorial Church in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports (Madison) and Willy Street Coop (all three locations in Madison and Middleton).

Advance tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets

Of the six cantatas that make up the “Christmas Oratorio,” Part, 1, 2, 3 and 5 will be performed. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the brisk and energetic opening, performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.)

Parts 1 to 3 tell the Christmas story: Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and the angels. Part 5 introduces the magi from the East, traditionally known as the Three Kings.

The music offers a sampling of every style of music in the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) as a composer.

Massive, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares, booming timpani and virtuosic fugues highlight the full chorus.

Solo arias, duets and trios and even one instrumental movement provide a contemplative contrast with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes and the pastoral sounds of oboes and bassoons.

Featured vocal soloists include mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below top) and tenor J. Adam Shelton (below middle), both on the faculty of UW-Whitewater. Highly accomplished members of the choir, including baritone Bill Rosholt (below bottom, and a Madison Savoyards regular), will share the solo parts with these professionals.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra, under concertmaster Leanne League (below), are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Trumpet virtuoso John Aley (below top) and oboist Marc Fink (below bottom) will also perform.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios, a cappella choral works from various centuries, and world premieres.

Bach’s music has always occupied a special place in the choir’s repertory, with performances of the Christmas Oratorio (2002 and 2003), the Mass in B minor (2005), the St. John Passion (2010) and the Magnificat (2017).

Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below) has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.


Posted in Classical music
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