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.


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Classical music: Is this the minority report of a dissenter? The Ear offers some thoughts and after-thoughts from recent concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Pro Arte String Quartet, the Middleton Community Orchestra and pianist Christopher Taylor. Plus, here are links to rave reviews of this afternoon’s final all-Beethoven concert by pianist Yefim Bronfman and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

March 9, 2014
1 Comment

ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center is the final performance of the all-Beethoven concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain. It features pianist Yefim Bronfman (below) in TWO piano concertos (Nos. 2 and 5 “The Emperor”) plus the Symphony No. 1 and “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture. Here are links to two rave reviews of the concert by Madison Magazine critic and blogger Greg Hettmansberger and by Isthmus critic John W. Barker, who also guest blogs for The Ear. It sure sounds like a NOT-TO-BE-MISSED concert. See you there!

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2014/A-Piano-Concerto-Doubleheader-and-Beethoven-to-the-Max/

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42237

Yefim Bronfman portrait

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a very busy time musically in Madison, with a lot of previews to post, which often supplant reviews since The Ear thinks previews are more useful than reviews to most listeners and performers. And this coming week and weekend are even worse. So much music, and so little space!

But here are some “outdated” capsule reviews, impressions really, with accompanying afterthoughts that come to The Ear as he listened and later thought about what he had heard:

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND TRUMPETER TINE THING HELSETH

It seemed a curious, even odd theme for a Valentine’s Day program. But BRASS – not romantic love — marked the Valentine’s Day weekend performances by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), although ending with the “Rosenkavalier” suite by Richard Strauss did indeed prove an inspired choice to combine brass and love. Plus by all accounts, the concert sold very well. It sure got standing ovations. In short, it may have seemed odd, but it worked.

MSO playing

The “Doctor Atomic” Symphony by the contemporary American composer John Adams (below), who put the instrumental work together from his own opera score, was powerful, and also fit the brass bill, with great solos by MSO trumpeter John Aley, and was impressive to hear –- though also hardly romantic.

John Adams

Given conductor John DeMain (below) and his stupendous taste and talent for choosing great singers who are also affordable, I kept thinking: How I would like to have heard some great singers perform familiar and unknown love arias from operas by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Saint-Saens, even Wagner. Now those would be symphony tickets to throw in with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses. But The Ear has been informed that such concerts often do not sell well and might also be seen as competing with the local opera company.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

All that said, I thought that the guest soloist, Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth (below), proved an inspired, if unexpected, choice. She showed an uncanny power for playing softly. Brass instruments are not easy to control with little breath and with soft tone. But she did both beautifully in two concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn and Alexander Arutiunian. She clearly has the lung power to blow down the Walls of Jericho. But what impressed and seduced me was her quietness, which nonetheless possessed rich tone and unwavering pitch. That is a rare talent, and one to be cherished — and brought back to Madison!

Tine Thing Helseth big profile

WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Maestro Andrew Sewell (below) has a never-failing knack of finding terrific music that has been overlooked but is actually very good, if not revolutionary or pioneering.

Sure, at his last concert I too, like the rest of the audience, loved what he did with the Jupiter Symphony of Mozart –- not too hectic, clear voicing, propulsive energy even with all the repeats. And the talented and congenial soloist Joshua Roman proved an irresistible highlight in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major.

Andrew Sewell BW

But the real surprise of the night was the 20th-century Concerto Grosso by Vittorio Giannini (below), who taught composition at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music and then established the North Carolina School of the Arts. What a discovery! I want to hear more by this guy.

Vittorio Giannini

And Sewell will soon unwrap another surprise this week –- and I expect, as usual, that it will be modern music that is accessible and tuneful, not R&D Music (that’s short research and development) that sounds like jet noise or broken plumbing.  Could that help explain why he gets full houses?

Sewell and the WCO will probably do so again THIS COMING FRIDAY NIGHT at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. That is when he and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra combine the famous famously listenable and lovely Violin Concerto (with guest soloist Karina Canellakis) by Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony (Symphony No. 101 of his 104 symphonies) with “Elements” by American composer Michael McLean (below, and with a sample of  “Elements” in a YouTube video at the bottom). Sounds like another MUST-HEAR concert  to The Ear.

Michael McLean 1 REAL not mormon

PRO ARTE QUARTET

Well, the headlines and chit-chat went rightfully to the world premiere of Belgian composer Benoit Mernier’s commissioned String Quartet No. 3, which sounded fiendishly difficult and seemed based largely on technical stuff like trills, tremolos and glissandos instead of themes and infectious rhythms. And the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music since 1940 and celebration its centennial, played it with impressive aplomb and apparent ease.

Pro Arte Quartet in Haydn at Mernier

“Do you like the music?” someone asked me right after the performance.

I think the better question is: “Does the music like me?”

Think about it: What is the composer’s responsibility to you the listener, and what is your responsibility to the composer (Mernier, below), especially if he seems to ignore you?

Benoit Mernier 1

I also loved the rarely heard and beautifully performed viola quintet by Anton Bruckner and particularly the contrasts between Sally Chisholm’s viola and Samuel Rhodes’ viola (the two are below side-by-side). If you liked the combination –- and what is not to like with the darker hued voice of the viola –- be sure to try the viola quintets by Mozart and Brahms, which I would also like to hear the Pro Arte do more of.

Sally Chisholm and Samuel Rhodes in Bruckner Quintet

But for old-fashioned me, the star of the evening was the Haydn Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4. It just cleaned out your ears and was proof again that, at its best, the genre is indeed still as it was described by Haydn himself when pretty much invented in the 18th century: A conversation of equals. And did the Pro Arte ever play it with accuracy, clarity and texture. It sparkled like a diamond. The string quartet may have evolved, changed or morphed over the centuries, but it has simply not gotten any better than Haydn.

So: Is there any chance that we night get of a multi-year Haydn cycle by the Pro Arte, which decades ago in another avatar or configuration of players started to record the complete Haydn quartets in the famous Abbey Road studio in London for RCA. They have done Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles. What about Papa Haydn? And if not a complete cycle of the 68 or so quartets, how about a fairly comprehensive survey or at least a very large sampler of Haydn’s early, middle and late styles?

Haydn

PIANIST CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR

What more can you say about the award-winning, audience-approved star talent pianist Christopher Taylor (below) who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and concertizes around the world, and his stunning solo recital this year?

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

I loved the “War” Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, a great piece that he performed greatly with both riveting energy and heartbreaking lyricism. I also loved the encore — Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag” –- as a contrast and change of pace.

But I have to be honest: I have heard enough of the Liszt piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies. Trust the genuine original! Accept no substitutes!

The next day I listened to a recording of the same work by a real orchestra — the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig under conductor Riccardo Chailly. What a difference when the “Eroica” is played with real brass countering, with jarring dissonance, real strings; when it is real tympani drumbeats rather than bass tremolos on the piano. Ludwig (below) simply had more of IT – whatever musical genius is — than Franz.

Beethoven big

The real “Eroica” Symphony doesn’t — and shouldn’t — sound so much like a Hungarian Rhapsody or a Transcendental Etude. In their day, these transcriptions served a purpose and they stretched the resources of the piano, or at least, of pianists. Now, they strike The Ear as precious, more of a sideshow of amazing and ingenious pianism and not much little else aside from some strokes of minor genius here and there by the Paganini of the Piano.

Liszt photo by Pierre Petit

From one of those transcriptions I learned something and I enjoyed it. But now that makes three down (symphonies numbers 3, 4 and 5) for Taylor. I, for one, sure hope we don’t have the other six to go. How much more I would have preferred to hear this supremely talented pianist and gifted musician in some serious and original piano repertoire –- maybe a late Schubert sonata, or a Bach partita, or a Chopin ballade, or a Schumann cycle. I want to hear Christopher Taylor in something that puts depth over display, substance over style.

Am I alone in that wish?

MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA

Guest reviewer John W. Barker covered this recent concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below), which featured music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Johannes Brahms and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, thoughtfully and thoroughly for this blog.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

All I would add is a lesson that every teacher knows: Students with lesser abilities rise to meet high expectations. That is why symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras should book the best soloists they can get and afford: The Ear is convinced that the level of playing and performing usually rises to match the soloist and fosters cohesion.

With the MCO, it was two lifelong friends and award-winning, UW-Madison trained string players -– violinist Eleanor Bartsch and violist Daniel Kim (below) who soloed and who seemed in complete synch, down to the timing of their trills, during Mozart’s sublime Sinfonia Concertante.

Their playing was superb, and the amateur orchestra rose to meet them and give them the beautiful support they deserved. And with Mozart there is no place to hide, so flaws or mistakes are quickly revealed.

Eleanor Bartsch and Daniel Kim MCO Mozart

Well, now it is on to another busy week of concerts.

Where, I wonder, will the music lead The Ear this time?

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Classical music: This Wednesday night, warm up to Spring with the Middleton Community Orchestra, which will perform music by Mozart, Brahms and Rimsky-Korsakov with guest violin and viola soloists and a guest conductor, who are all distinguished graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

February 23, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Is that an early Spring The Ear hears coming to Middleton, Wisconsin?

The very appealing and very accessible all-masterpiece Winter Concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) is this Wednesday night, Feb. 26, at 7:30 p.m. at the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Tickets are $10 and are available at the door and at the Willy St. Coop West. Students are free. You can get tickets at the door on the night of the show. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m,; doors open at 7 p.m. 

The concert  — which is guaranteed to increase your respect for and love of amateur music-making —  features three professional guest artists: guest conductor Kevin McMahon (below top), maestro of the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra; violinist Eleanor Bartsch (below middle); and violist Daniel Kim (below bottom). All three are distinguished graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where they received various scholarships, and won awards, prizes and honors.

Kevin McMahon

Eleanor Bartsch

Daniel Kim 2014

The MCO program of “great classical hits” includes: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s fetchingly lovely and dramatic Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola; the high-spirited “Capriccio Espagnol” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov; and the lyrical, pastoral-like Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Johannes Brahms, which is often compared to Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous and popular Symphony No. 6, the famous “Pastoral Symphony. (You can check out the opening movement of the Brahms, as performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, in a popular YouTube video at the bottom).

Plus, the atmosphere is casual and informal, and the seats are quite comfortable.

MIddleton Community Orchestra audience

Usually there is no intermission to the 90-minute or so MCO concert, but this time there WILL indeed be an intermission in the program, which runs Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov, Intermission and then Brahms. (I prefer no intermission. Once I get in The Zone, I like to stay there and not emerge and then try to re-enter it.) But there will be snacks, and time to meet and greet other audience members as well as the musicians.

Middleton Community Orchestra reception

In some ways, The Ear thinks such a community orchestra and its concert practices provide a model that professional organizations ought to consider adopting if they want to attract newer, younger audiences and cut down on the ticket prices by reducing rehearsal costs and rentals fees.

If you still need some motivation here is a link of a review I did in 2012 of one of the MCO concerts. You can also find very positive review by guest blogger John W. Barker by using the search engine on this blog.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/classical-music-review-let-us-now-praise-amateur-music-makers-and-restoring-sociability-to-art-here-are-9-reasons-why-i-liked-and-you-should-attend-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

I asked MCO co-founder and orchestra player Mindy Taranto why the usual conductor Steve Kurr (below) was not conducting: “MCO enjoyed guest conductors maestros John DeMain (of the Madison Symphony Orchestra) and David Becker (from UW-Madison and Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin) for one week readings last year, and we decided that it was a good artistic opportunity for the players to experience playing under different conductors,” she told The Ear.  “Kevin has been wonderful to work with and the orchestra has been very enthusiastic and inspired by his musical ideas and with the way he has engaged all of us during rehearsals for the last two months.  This will be a fantastic concert! The orchestra sounds very good!

Steve Kurr conducting

Sounds terrific. So, The Ear says let’s check it out.

And here is a link to the Middleton Community Orchestra’s website with more information about this and other upcoming concerts (the one on June 4, with Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations and Edvard Grieg’s beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor featuring soloist Thomas Kasdorf, sounds like a MUST-HEAR) as well as information about how to support it and even join it.

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org/home

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