The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS: Samuel Barber’s “Canzonetta” for Oboe and String Orchestra. Plus a FREE one-hour hymn sing in Overture Hall is this Saturday morning at 11 a.m.

March 5, 2015
3 Comments

ALERT: A FREE one-hour community Hymn Sing will take place this Saturday morning at 11 a.m. in Overture Hall with the Overture Concert Organ played by guest Joe Chrisman. The event is put on jointly by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Overture Center for the Arts.

Overture Concert Organ overview

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s YOU MUST HEAR THIS comes from a recent concert that I attended.

I first heard this work — the Canzonetta for Oboe and String Orchestra by the 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber (below top) — at the concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below bottom) on Wednesday night a week ago.

barber 1

Kyle Knox conducts MCO

So far as The Ear knows, the piece has never been programmed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra or, more appropriately, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

Not that it is too late. It could stand being programmed again and having a wider hearing. I think it would even be welcome at Concerts on the Square.

I also can’t recall ever hearing it at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, although it seems a perfect choice and could well have been part of a student recital with a piano instead of the orchestra.

In any case, the Canzonetta for Oboe and String Orchestra was a last work -– the middle movement on an unfinished oboe concerto, much like British composer Gerald Finzi’s beautiful “Eclogue” was the middle movement of an uncompleted piano concerto.

The piece has all the hallmarks of Barber, who is best known for his Adagio for Strings. It is neo-Romantic, melodic, tonal and wholly accessible while being unmistakably modern. It is poignant and bittersweet, like many moments in the gorgeous and widely performed Violin Concerto that Barber composed.

In fact, some of the harmonies in the Canzonetta remind The Ear of the sublime and moving “Nimrod” Variation in Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations.

I am not alone in being introduced to this work for the first time. A few very seasoned musicians and music fans in the audience I spoke to had never heard it either.

But it was given a splendid performance by the MCO under conductor Kyle Knox and guest oboist Andy Olson (below), who was trained at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin, and who now works at Epic Systems near Madison.

Andy Olson oboe

Here is a link to a rave review that John W. Barker (below), who normally writes for Isthmus, did for this blog:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/classical-music-the-middleton-community-orchestra-under-conductor-kyle-knox-turns-in-its-most-impressive-performance-so-far-the-brass-proves-especially-noteworthy/

John Barker

So here is a link to a YouTube video of the piece itself — the seven-minute “canzonetta” or little song, as the title announces. It is sadly telling of the work’s fate that you cannot find a version with either a well-known oboist or well-known string orchestra.

Enjoy and let us know what you think of it.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra, under conductor Kyle Knox, turns in its most impressive performance so far. The brass proves especially noteworthy.

February 28, 2015
5 Comments

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 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) on last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, at Middleton High School, drew an audience little deterred by snow and slow traffic, and greatly rewarded by the results.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

The orchestra appeared this time under a guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who has prior and future connections with it and who is currently both pursuing graduate studies and conducting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Knox (below) is a musician of very distinct talents: a knowing perspective on the works he conducts, a propensity for well-thought phrasing, and an ability to achieve definite rapport with his players.

Regular MCO conductor Steve Kerr was wise to give Knox an opportunity to hone the podium talents of this very promising conductor, and as a stimulus to this steadily maturing ensemble. (Kerr himself eventually turned up working the bass drum.)

Kyle Knox 2

The MCO delights in taking on compositions that are both challenging and quite familiar. In testing themselves thus, the orchestra invites its listeners to measure its progress against the orchestras that have set extremely high performing standards in concerts and recordings. So it is proper that we do just that, especially in the beloved music from the score for the Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Felix Mendelssohn.

The conventional five movements were played. In the fabled Overture, the strings had some struggles with their extremely demanding parts, but generally Knox achieved a well-integrated balancing of the elfin and the eerie.

Perhaps to avoid straining the players too much, Knox set a slightly slow tempo in the fairyland Scherzo, which sagged just a bit, but the Intermezzo was beautifully shaped.

Best was the evocative Nocturne, in which the French horn section demonstrated greatly improved tone and ensemble over recent showings, in a truly beautiful rendition. (You can hear the Nocturne in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Wedding March was also marked by a bit of ragged playing, but Knox paced it nicely and integrated it successfully. Overall, they get good marks for showing distinct progress in some very satisfying Mendelssohn.

Kyle Knox conducts MCO

The novelty of the program was the rarely played Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings by the 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber (below). This was a late work, the only completed movement of what was to be a full-length oboe concerto, and was published posthumously.

barber 1

It displays the familiar qualities of Barber as the pre-eminent American neo-Romantic, in music that is gentle, gracious and lyrically flowing. But it also highlights another feature of Barber: the composer’s identification with the human voice. A fine singer himself (he was a baritone), Barber was a master of song and vocal music, and the solo oboe part is, to a considerable degree, a kind of song — as the title says, a “canzonetta” or small song.

The oboe soloist, Andy Olson (below), with his own long affiliations with the MCO, clearly recognized this characteristic, and realized it in his beautiful playing.

Andy Olson plays at MCO

Andy Olson oboe

For the finale, the other super-familiar score, was the dazzling — and very tricky — orchestration by Maurice Ravel of the solo piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (below).

Modeste Mussorgsky color

At the very outset, in the opening “Promenade,” the brass section displayed a new level of power and ensemble. The saxophone solo in “The Old Castle” was truly compelling. The heavy cartwheels of “Byddlo” were inexorable, and “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” or “Baba-Yaga” (a sorceress) was truly ferocious.

The triumphant final movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev” was stunning. One feature of old Russian city portals was the inclusion of working chapels. I have never heard the hymn-like quality of the whole piece, with its interludes of liturgical chanting and tolling bells, so successfully evoked.

Overall, this performance was magnificent, and I have never heard this orchestra play so well.

It was a performance full of head and heart, with open-throttle devotion from the players. Knox obviously deserves much credit for this, but the players themselves made it clear that they owed no apologies for the results they could produce. (Below, conductor Kyle Knox singles out the brass for recognition by the audience.)

Kyle Knox applauds MCO brass

The MCO has proven itself to be, more than ever, a really extraordinary factor in the Madison area’s musical life. It is a non-, or semi-, or extra-professional ensemble whose music-making is truly inspirational. Its concerts should be supported and enjoyed by all our cultural community.


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