The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication

September 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Con Vivo concludes its 17th season Saturday night with chamber music by Prokofiev, Haydn, Medtner and Mozart. Children in Music Makers perform a FREE concert on Sunday afternoon

May 30, 2019
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ALERT: The final Music Makers concert is this Sunday, June 2, at 4 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Atrium Auditorium, 900 University Bay Drive. The concert is FREE and open to the public and will include performances by students from age 8 to 18 performing works by Shostakovich, Puccini and more.

Part of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, Music Makers aims to enrich and develop the music skills of children from all backgrounds in an inclusive and non-competitive environment. Music Makers provides the financial support for instruments, lessons and performance opportunities, making music education accessible for all children. Learn more at wysomusicmakers.org

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, the chamber music group Con Vivo (below) will close out its 17th season.

The concert, entitled “Overture to Summer,” will include music for violin and piano by Nikolai Medtner; the Overture on Hebrew Themes by Sergei Prokofiev; the Piano Trio in G Major “Gypsy Rondo” by Joseph Haydn; and the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (You can hear the Gypsy Rondo movement from Haydn’s piano trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The concert takes place on this Saturday night, June 1, at 7:30 p.m. in the intimate Chapel at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, across from Camp Randall Stadium.

Tickets can be purchased at the door for $18 for adults and $15 for seniors and students.

Audience members are invited to join the musicians after the concert for a free reception to discuss the concert.

About the concert, artistic director Robert Taylor says: “We conclude our 17th season with music evocative of warm summer days in the sun. The wonderful lush strains of Medtner’s violin music are contrasted by the bright music of Haydn in his Piano Trio in G Major nicknamed “Gypsy Rondo.” The evening continues with one of Con Vivo’s signature pieces, Overture on Hebrew Themes by Prokofiev. We conclude with the beautiful Quintet for Clarinet and Strings by Mozart. What could be a better way to ring in the warm sunny days of summer?”

Con Vivo is a professional chamber music ensemble comprised of Madison area musicians assembled from the ranks of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and various other performing groups familiar to Madison audiences.

For more information, go to the home website www.convivomusicwithlife.org


Posted in Classical music
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