The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) gives an impressive display of how it continues to grow and develop.

June 24, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also took performance photos. 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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.


By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Mikko Rankin Utevsky led his Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) in the first of this year’s two summer concerts. More than ever, it showed Utevsky in new degrees of bravery and enterprise.

MAYCO in MIlls June 2015 JWB

The program was organized around the idea of the Baroque concerto grosso, in various later transformations.

To begin, there was one of the “Morning, Noon, and Night” trilogy of Haydn’s symphonies, No. 6 in D, Le Matin. Haydn used the first of his symphonies composed for his new Esterhazy employer to show off the solo skills of his players.

The young MAYCO counterparts did themselves proud in both ensemble and solo playing, with particular flair displayed by first violinist Valerie Clare Sanders (below) in her virtuosic solos. And Utevsky’s care in have his string players totally avoid vibrato gave a good demonstration of 18th-century instrumental sound.

Valerie Sanders MCO 2015

The second work, by recent UW-Madison School of Music graduate in composition, Jonathan Posthuma (below), more explicitly recreated the old configuration in his Concerto Grosso No. 1 in E minor.

Jonathan Posthuma USE 2015

It presents indeed the proper concertino of two violins and cello, against a ripieno string orchestra. In place of the traditional continuo, however, Posthuma brought in four percussionists and a pianist. The percussionists are members of the local ensemble Clocks in Motion (below), currently making a name for itself as an avant-garde group.

Clocks in Motion Group Collage Spring 2015

The idea was fascinating, but in two of the three movements the results were confusing. In the first, the string orchestra was overwhelmed by floods of color worthy of a Busby Berkeley Hollywood spectacular, while the second movement was a long procession of pops and moans. All color and hardly any real musical ideas.

The third movement, on the other hand, was a lusty fugue, given forth at first by only the strings, with the percussionists then integrated into a quite well-balanced texture. This is stated as the first in what will be a full set of 12 concertos, to make up a typical Baroque dozen.

It will be interesting to see how such a project unfolds. But one must credit Utevsky (below) for giving this first venture its world premiere performance.

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

Another premiere followed the intermission. Utevsky was able to secure from the contemporary British composer Cecilia McDowall (below) the rights to the first American performance of her piece for chamber orchestra, Rain, Steam, and Speed, inspired by J.M.W. Turner’s powerful painting of the same title, with its subtitle of The Great Western Railway.

Less literally conceived than Arthur Honegger’s famous railroad evocation, Pacific 231, this piece is an effort to suggest the kaleidoscopic contents of the painting, in what might be called a British neo-Impressionist style. A challenging work for the orchestra, which they brought off very effectively.

Cecilia McDowall 2

Finally came not a concerto grosso, but a Romantic solo concerto, the one for Cello and Orchestra by Robert Schumann. Not as often heard as it should be, it is a handsome and enjoyable work.

The soloist was Parry Karp (below), of the UW-Madison School of Music faculty, of the Pro Arte Quartet, and of so much else. He approached the piece not in bravura pretentiousness but with a kind of affectionate warmth that suited it admirably, while also allowing Utevsky the chance to give his players experience in collegial ensemble interaction with a soloist.


What these gifted young players of high school and college ages are able to do is really amazing. Utevsky grows better and better in giving them — and himself — marvellous training opportunity. Watch for the second concert, with music by Ernest Bloch, George Frideric Handel and Haydn (the famed “Surprise” Symphony) with piano soloist Jason Kutz, at 7:30 pm. on Friday, August 21, location to be announced.

You can find more information here:

Classical music review: “Cinderella” goes to Hollywood as the Madison Opera shows how Rossini got rich by writing the TV sitcoms and romantic comedies of his day.

May 1, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

So, there I was, heading off to the opera, wondering about two things:

What did ordinary  people do before movies and television for entertainment? Surely it wasn’t all reading books or playing music at home, since as amusement they probably didn’t have a sufficiently high quota of triviality, lightness and laughs.

And: What accounted for such commercial success that the 19th-century opera composer Rossini (below) could retire for the rest of his life into Parisian decadence and self-indulgence at age 37.

I found my answers — it turns out they are related to each other — Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall.

Enter the Madison Opera’s thoroughly enjoyable production of Rossini’s “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola), the first-ever production of this well-known classic work by the local opera company.

The first thing to know is that stage director Garnett Bruce (below) updated the work to Depression-era Hollywood in the 1930s and that the search for a princess became a search for a star – or was it a wife? Well, it WAS confusing in the opera. But then it also IS confusing in real life since many movie moguls end up marrying their Leading Ladies. Or make Leading Ladies of their wives.

Still, though people who know other productions of “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola) and opera purists may not approve of the re-working, the audience roared with laughter and gave the production a prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation.

Much of the production’s appeal came from the very colorful, glitzy Busby Berkeley-type sets (below in a photo by James Gill) and the witty, stage business including using rolled R’s and explosive T’s a repetitive sextet and props such as the clever juggling of hat and an umbrella. The traditional royal castle became a Hollywood studio, and the glass slipper became a diamond bracelet. This production inhabited a world of metaphorical equivalencies. It worked for me.

True, at times the stage business, sets and costumes seemed over-the-top. But then what is opera or Rossini all about if not going over the top — kind of like TV sitcoms and Hollywood blockbusters.

But make no mistake, despite all the updating much of the production’s appeal also came from the original score.

Members of the pit orchestra, recruited from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and playing under the able baton MSO conductor and Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below), turned in a solid and precise performance. At no time did the singers and orchestra seem out of synch or out of balance.

And they captured that bouncy, upbeat, major-key Rossini sunny cheerfulness – soo-o-o—Italian – you know, that playfulness that relies so much on toodling winds and melodic strings as well as repetition and  the endless looping of musical themes and words.

But the major credit, of course, goes to the singers.

Singing the title role, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (below, in a photo by James Gill) just soared above the rest of the cast. A standout, she possessed the whole package: tone, diction, range and power – astonishing Ethel Mermanesque power. Plus, her acting was very good, too. This was her Madison debut – not counting Opera in the Park — but The Ears says: Sign her again, the sooner the better. Bring her back.

Mack was well matched with tenor Gregory Schmidt (below, in a photo by James Gill) who played the Prince/Director of Palace Pictures’ Don Ramiro and who has sung three times with the Madison Opera. His strong voice was clear and his acting was convincing, if sometimes it seemed just a bit less than whole-hearted, as in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance steps. But all in all, he proved as reliable keeper, a real find who should also sing the title role if they ever do an opera called “Mr. Speaker: The John Boehner Story.”

Another well matched pair were Cinderella’s sisters, played by local favorites mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck  (below right, in a photo by James Gill) and by soprano Amy Mahoney (below, left). These two often stole the show with their sisterly bitchiness and outsized ambition to beat the plain, sincere and kind-hearted Cinderella to stardom. Brava! And Brava!

Much of the fun came especially the second act, much tighter and shorter than the first, in which the valet Daniel Belcher (below, center ) turns into some witty meteoritical or self-referential commentator on the script and production.

Cinderella’s ambitious father, baritone Steven Condy (below), stole quite a few scenes, less by his able singing that by his acting and stage business, and by his gift for projecting a comic and confused gruffness combined with endearment.

All in all, this opera production went down easily and smoothly, with the enjoyable, if forgettable or predictable, fun of a romantic comedy with, say, Julia Roberts or Cary Grant. Or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was, in short, a romp.

Opera started as a populist art form for the people, not for critics or scholars. And that is exactly how this production found its success: With ordinary people.

If you want to explore the deeper meaning of the fairy tale “Cinderella,” you might look at other productions or psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s study “The Uses of Enchantment.”

Me, I was happy just to flee a cloudy, cool and rainy Sunday afternoon and end up in such an enchanting, charming and escapist production.

I suspect Rossini enjoyed his retirement very much. And I suspect he would have loved the excesses of Hollywood every bit as much as he loved the depraved charms of Paris.

And here’s the secret that the composer knew: Cinderella was a man.

The real rags-to-riches Cinderella was none other than Rossini himself.

Here is what some others thought of the production.

Here is a link to the review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

Here is the review by Lindsay Christians and West High School student Elena Livorni for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and the blog “Classically Speaking”:

Here is Bill Wineke’s review for WISC-TV and

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