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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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.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) perform their annual Winterfest concerts this Saturday afternoon — with guest clarinetist Amitai Vardi — and on Saturday, March 2

February 15, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO, below is the Youth Orchestra) will present the Diane Ballweg Winterfest Concerts this Saturday, Feb. 16, and Saturday, March 2, in Mills Concert Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park Street in Madison, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

WYSO orchestras will perform pieces by Carl Maria von Weber, Antonin Dvorak, Georges Bizet, Sergei Prokofiev, Richard Wagner, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Manuel DeFalla, Johann Strauss, Modest Mussorgsky  and others.  For a complete program listing, go to: https://www.wysomusic.org/diane-ballweg-winterfest-2019-repertoire/

“These are wonderful works and the orchestras are progressing beautifully in rehearsal,” said WYSO music director Kyle Knox (below). “It looks to be a memorable concert series.”

Guest clarinetist Amitai Vardi (below) will perform Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 26,  with the Youth Orchestra during their Feb. 16 concert. (You can hear Weber’s Concertino in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Amitai Vardi — his father Uri Vardi teaches cello at the UW-Madison — is a WYSO alumnus who grew up in Madison. He performs regularly with the Cleveland Orchestra and is currently a professor at Kent State University in Ohio.

“WYSO was the first orchestra I ever played in,” Vardi said. “The experience developed my listening skills, knowledge about ensemble playing, love for orchestral music, and taught me how to be a well-rounded musician.”

Concert tickets are available 45 minutes prior to each concert, and are $10 for adults and $5 for youth 18 and under.

Visit www.wysomusic.org to learn more about the various orchestras and about the WYSO program.

WYSO students travel from communities throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois each weekend throughout the concert season to rehearse on the UW-Madison campus.

Each orchestra performs three concerts per season, with additional performance opportunities available to students, including ensembles and chamber groups.

Diane Ballweg Winterfest Concerts

Saturday, Feb. 16 in Mills Hall
4 p.m. Youth Orchestra
With guest artist Amitai Vardi, clarinet

Saturday, March 2, 2019, Mills Hall
11:30 a.m. Opus One and Sinfonietta
1:30 p.m. Concert Orchestra
4 p.m. Philharmonia Orchestra and Harp Ensemble


Posted in Classical music
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