The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Here are the winners of the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition held Friday night before a record audience

June 9, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Co-founders Orange and Dean Schroeder have sent the following announcement about the winners of the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition that was held Friday night in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music:

The seventh annual Handel Aria Competition was a joyous evening of arias! We had a record audience — we don’t have the final numbers yet, but we ran out of 240 printed ballots and figure there were 250 to 300 people present — despite a widespread power outage on the near west side and severe parking challenges.

The winners, accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, were: Australian soprano Morgan Balfour, first prize (below center, in a photo by Tom Miller); soprano Emily Yocum Black, second prize (below right); and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody, third prize and audience favorite (below left).

We are excited to know that Morgan will be singing in St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, next spring thanks to the London Handel Festival. In addition, she will receive $1,500 in cash and – like all finalists — $500 toward travel costs for competing. Other awards were $1,000 for second place, $750 for third place and $500 for Audience Favorite.

Here are the arias, from opera and oratorios, sung by the three winners:

Morgan Balfour: “Spietati, io vi giurai” from “Rodelinda” and “Mean as he was, he is my brother now … Author of Peace” from “Saul”

Emily Yocum Black: “Art thou not Zaphnath? … Prophetic raptures swell my breast” from “Joseph and His Brethren” and “Credete al mio dolore” from “Alcina.”

Jonathan Woody: “Oh memory, still bitter to my soul! … Opprest with never-ceasing grief” from “Belshazzar” and “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” from “Messiah.”

Schroeder says: “The seven finalists (below in a photo by Tom Miller) were all excellent, presenting a real challenge for audience members picking their favorite as well as for the judges.” (For names and more biographical information about the finalists and judges, go to https://handelariacompetition.com

Adds Schroeder: “The caliber of applicants gets better and better every year. This year everybody was amazing and one of the judges said he was blown away by the quality of the competition. Yet we still try to make the sure that the competition is friendly and most collegial, not cutthroat.”

All the performances from all the finalists as well as the winners were video recorded and, after they are processed, will be posted on YouTube in about a month. (The Ear will let you know when they are available.)

You can also see and hear most of the finalists from the past six years on YouTube now; and more information about the past six years of the competition is on its home website at https://handelariacompetition.com/past-competitions

Did you go to the competition?

Did you agree with the judges about the winners and the Audience Award?

What did you think of the annual competition?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The 7th annual Handel Aria Competition, which has grown in international stature and ties, will take place this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. Here are the 7 finalists and more information

June 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The final round of the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition will be held on this Friday night, June 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. (Below is soprano Suzanne Karpov, the winner last year. You can hear her prize-winning performance in the YouTube video at the bottom. To whet your appetite, you can also find many other outstanding competition performances from past years on YouTube.)

As in recent years, the accompaniment will be provided by the Madison Bach Musicians (below), a period instrument Baroque music ensemble under the direction of harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson that uses historically informed performance practices.

Tickets will be $15 each for general admission, and will be available at the door.

The seven finalists were chosen from a field of 100 singers from five countries.

Three prizes are awarded by the guest judges, and the audience also gets to award its own prize — which doesn’t always agree with the judges.

The finalists are (below, from the upper left):

  • Emily Yocum Black, soprano
  • Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone
  • Katherine Cecelia Peck, soprano
  • Scott J. Brunscheen, tenor
  • Sarah Moyer, soprano
  • Morgan Balfour, soprano
  • Ryne Cherry, baritone

To read extensive biographies about each of these singers, go to the competition’s home website.

There is other important news to announce. The competition has a new director, Wisconsin native Sarah Brailey (below), a soprano who is pursuing graduate work at the UW-Madison while maintaining a busy concert schedule and blossoming career. She is also a co-founder of the free monthly Just Bach midday concerts that started this past season.

Read her biography and be impressed: https://sarahbrailey.com/about/

This year also saw the competition foster music education with its first showcase concert by high school singers performing Handel arias at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Community near the Capitol Square.

Finally, an international link has been established.

There is a new cooperative initiative with the esteemed London Handel Festival! The first prize winner of this year’s Handel Aria Competition will be invited to give a lunchtime recital in London at Handel’s own parish church, St. George’s in Hanover Square, next spring. (It is contingent, of course, on being able to coordinate the singer’s schedule with that of the London Handel Festival.)

The winner will receive a travel grant of up to $750, and the London Handel Festival will provide a home stay, professional accompaniment and even a small stipend.

The Handel Festival in London, now in its 18th year, was one of the inspirations in starting the Handel Aria Competition in the U.S.


Posted in Classical music
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