The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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Classical music: Mozart’s music requires the rhythms of both speech and dance, says maestro Gary Thor Wedow, who will also restore lost libretto text when he conducts two performances of “The Magic Flute” this weekend for the Madison Opera. Here is Part 2 of his interview with The Ear.

April 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute this Friday night, April 21, at 8 p.m. and this Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera from which the Madison Opera got the sets and costumes for its production.)

Yesterday’s post was the first of two parts. It has a plot synopsis and links to more information about the cast and production.

Here is a link to Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/04/18/classical-music-mozart-masterfully-melds-the-sensual-and-the-cerebral-says-maestro-gary-thor-wedow-who-will-conduct-two-performances-of-the-magic-flute-this-weekend-for-the-madiso/

The opera runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18 to $130.

“The Magic Flute” will be sung in German with English supertitles.

For more about the production and cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/

And also go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/cast/

Here is Part 2 of The Ear’s recent email interview with conductor Gary Thor Wedow (below, conducting in an orchestra pit):

Are there certain “tricks” or “secrets” that you try to bring to conducting Mozart? Have you conducted “The Magic Flute” before? Do Mozart’s operas in general and this opera in specific present challenges? Where do you place the opera musically, both compared to other operas in general and in regard to its place in Mozart’s work?

I feel keenly that Mozart and all 18th-century music (probably continuing to this day) is either based on a rhetorical idea or a dance form; that music is either speaking or dancing. This style of music is “pre-French Revolution,” so No Two Notes are Created Equally! The lilt of language or the buoyancy of the dance has to infuse every moment; hierarchy and shape prevail.

I’ve been fortunate to have conducted The Magic Flute frequently, in many varied productions; it’s always been a part of my musical life. Because it’s a fairy tale, it lends itself to inventive and imaginative productions. Stage director Dan Rigazzi’s production (below) for Madison Opera is a whimsical one, influenced by the surrealist painter Magritte, steampunk and more, all rolled into one beautiful show.

Mozart was fascinated with German Singspiel, as it was opera in the language of the people. The Magic Flute is his masterpiece in this genre, though there are earlier works. There is the early Zaide – incomplete, but filled with gorgeous, innovative music –and also the more mature, sumptuous and comic The Abduction from the Seraglio; they are both rich and entertaining pieces.

The Magic Flute, I feel, has a special place in the opera repertoire for several reasons: its Masonic connections that were very important to Mozart, the drama, and its central themes that trace themselves back to ancient Egypt.

It also is a brilliant combination of comedy and deep spiritual drama in the guise of a heroic rescue tale. It uses an incredibly wide range of the most beautiful music written in every major genre: sacred music, opera seria, bel canto, folk song and complex Baroque counterpoint.

What would you like listeners to pay special attention to in the music of “The Magic Flute”?

I would say “Hang on!” Whatever style of music we are in, we are going to switch gears in a fairly short time. It’s a roller coaster, an Ed Sullivan Show, American Idol, and the Barnum and Bailey Circus all rolled into one.

This is your third time conducting at Madison Opera. Do you have an opinion about Madison musicians and audiences?

My previous two experiences in Madison have been the Opera in the Park concerts in 2012 and 2016 (below). These have been among the most sublimely satisfying moments of my musical life: a cornucopia of music played by this brilliant symphony orchestra with great singers.

The audiences have been magically focused and involved; the players are magnificent, dedicated musicians, and the community is very supportive of Madison Opera. It’s electric.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the music or this performance?

Magic Flute devotees might be startled to hear some new text in these performances, particularly in Tamino, Pamina and Sarastro’s arias and the duet with Pamina and Papageno. “Bei Männern” is now “Der Liebe.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Let me explain by telling you a mystery story. After Mozart died, Constanze was desperate for money. Mozart’s Flute manuscript conducting score belonged to Schikaneder, the librettist and producer, but it seems that Constanze had another original score: the first original manuscript, which she then sold to a nobleman who eventually allowed it to be published.

This must have been a “composing score” that Mozart wrote first, before making the conducting score with the help of his assistant. The text deviates in several sections in notable ways. Probably Schikaneder, perhaps assisted by his Masonic brothers, “improved” the text, but Mozart had already shaped his music to the first text.

In most sections the differences are minimal and the new text was indeed an improvement. But in some cases I feel the original text was what inspired Mozart to write and orchestrate the way he did. Our marvelous singers have generously agreed to make the changes and I think we will all see how it fits the music so much better.

Sadly, Constanze’s manuscript was lost in the wars, but many scholars had already seen it and considered it to be genuine. I love how it shows how fluid the creative process is and how it spurs us to look anew at Mozart’s creative process.

On with the show!


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