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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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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 weekend brings FREE concerts of viola music by Brahms; string quartets by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert from the Pro Arte Quartet; and electronic music by Varese

February 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend brings a wide variety of music from different periods and in different styles, all for FREE.

Today from 12:15 to 1 p.m., the weekly Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features violist Blakeley Menghini (below) and pianist Micah Behr playing music by Johannes Brahms and Nikolai Roslawez.

If you are looking for a Classical-style sampler of string quartets, you can’t beat the program by the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer) on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The program offers the String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 50, No. 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn; the late String Quartet in B-Flat Major, K. 589, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and the String Quartet in A Minor “Rosamunde”, D, 804, by Franz Schubert.

If more modern or contemporary music is your preference, Madison native and marimbist Nathaniel Bartlett (below) will perform his own works and the famous “Electronic Poem” by Edgard Varese (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The concert is on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. at the Overture Center, 201 State St., in Promenade Hall on the second-floor. For more information about free reservations and the complete program, go to:

http://www.overture.org/events/poeme-electronique


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players end the season with memorable performances of piano quintets by Faure and Brahms.

April 27, 2015
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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, who also provided 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.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

For its final concert of the season, the Mosaic Chamber Players (below) gave a program Saturday night at the First Unitarian Society of Madison. It combined two of the great quintets for piano and strings: the second of that type, in C minor, Op. 115, by Gabriel Fauré (1847-1924); and the only one if its kind, in F minor, Op. 34, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

Mosaic Chamber Players  Quintets 1 JWB

So close together, one would think, and yet, so far apart. Contrasts result from distinct differences between the two composers in both nationality and personality — between Gallic eloquence and German burliness.

The work by Fauré (below) was completed in 1921, by which time Debussy was dead and Ravel, who was Faure’s student, was in his prime. It  is one of a half-dozen chamber pieces with which the composer rounded out his final years — almost, one might think, as an extension of his long output of piano writing.

Its expansive four-movement format is conventional in scope and with a range of expression. But its heart is a long and rapturous slow movement that flows with the unfolding elegance of one of Fauré’s piano nocturnes. (You can hear the slow movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

faure

By contrast, the quintet by Brahms (below) is one of the masterpieces of his early chamber-music writing. It dates from 1862, when Richard Wagner was between the composition of “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.”

Starting as some ideas for a symphony, it exists also in Brahms’s own adaptation of it as a sonata for two pianos. Its four movements are more conventionally conceived than Fauré’s, combining masterful Classical craftsmanship with powerful Romantic urgency.

brahms3

The performances involved five players from the group. The two violinists alternated in the first chair: Laura Burns for the Fauré, Wes Luke for the Brahms. Micah Behr and Michael Allen played viola and cello, respectively, while pianist Jess Salek (below) was the anchor as pianist, just as he is as the group’s guiding spirit.

Jess Salek JWB

These players have worked together before, but not as a consistent ensemble, although they suggested a close collegiality that more established groups might envy. They fully captured the moods, nuances and strengths of the two works.

If there were problems, it had to do with some balances, above all disadvantaging the viola. Some of the explanation could be in the choice of the cavernous Atrium Hall (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) as performing venue, rather then the more intimate Landmark auditorium, the original meeting house of the First Unitarian Society, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Atrium’s highly reverberant acoustics overwhelmed the players’ sound, and, at the same time, prompted over-exertions in volume output, to the detriment of carefully calculated ensemble.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

The size of the hall also pointed up the painfully small size of the audience. There are always weekend competitions for attention, especially in the spring. Still, the Mosaic group is only beginning to develop sufficient promotion and publicity for its activities. Potential audience members need to be made aware of what the group offers.

Mosaic Chamber Players bow at Quintets JWB

What it does offer is one of the high-quality sources of chamber music performance in Madison’s very rich spectrum of events in that category.

The next Mosaic season should win the wider attention it greatly deserves.


Classical music: Happy Father’s Day! Music is filled with bad paternal role models and some good ones too. NPR discusses some bad fathers and praises good ones.

June 15, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today, June 15, 2014, is Father’s Day.

Classical music is filled with notable father figures and not all of them are fathers you would want to emulate.

Take the overbearing and ambitious Leopold Mozart (below top), who browbeat and exploited his young son Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below bottom).

Leopold Mozart colo

mozart big

And what about Ludwig van Beethoven’s father (below top) who used to come home drunk and threatened his young prodigy son with a beating to force him to practice the piano?

One has to wonder: Did such paternal abuse actually yield positive results on these two towering figures of classical music? Or did Mozart and Beethoven succeed despite their fathers’ bullying. Does an unhappy childhood benefit the art even when it hurts the artist?

beethoven's father BW

On the other hand, maybe some good parenting by Johann Sebastian Bach -– the “old wig” as  his more “modern” Classical-era sons called him –- led to such good achievements by his composer sons Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johann Christian Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

The same might be said for Baroque composers Alessandro Scarlatti (below top), best known for vocal music, and his son Domenico Scarlatti (below bottom), best known for his keyboard music.

Alessandron Scarlatti

Domenico Scarlatti muted

There are a lot of fictional fathers to mention on this holiday too.

Especially in opera.

Those fathers were discussed this past week on NPR by Miles Hoffman. Hoffman is himself both the father of two daughters and a professional musician, both a performer and a teacher. His interview, with musical samplings, covered works by Christoph Willibald Gluck, Mozart, Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi and, as a positive counterpoint, Giacomo Puccini.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/2014/06/13/321544999/just-in-time-for-father-s-day-bad-dads-in-opera

What real or fictional fathers -– good or bad — in classical music come to your mind?

The Ear would like to see the Father’s Day discussion of musical fathers expanded. So share good stories and bad stories about music and paternity — even if it is your own, because there are a lot of fathers who played a positive and encouraging role in music careers and musical stories.

The Ear wants to hear.

 

 

 


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