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
10 Comments

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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.


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Classical music: Master pianist Richard Goode performs music by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Alban Berg in a MUST-HEAR recital this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

November 1, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

He may not have the instant worldwide name recognition and box-office appeal of, say, Lang-Lang or Martha Argerich.

But in The Ear’s book American pianist Richard Goode (below) is nonetheless a superstar.

That is because Goode is a chameleon in the best sense.

Whatever he plays — live or on recordings — feels as if someone with a deep understanding and a natural affinity for the unique qualities of that specific composer and work is at the keyboard.

His Bach always sounds so Bachian. His Mozart always sounds so Mozartean. His Beethoven always sounds so Beethovenian. His Schubert always sounds so Schubertian. And his Brahms – for which he won a Grammy – always sounds so Brahmsian. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Goode discuss how he deliberately chooses a selective repertoire that he can return to again and again.)

Whenever you hear Goode, you come away thinking, “Now that is  how the composer meant his music to sound.” Goode just disappears into the music.

Goode, who co-directed the venerable summertime Marlboro Music Festival for 14 years until 2013, always puts himself at the service of the music, never the other way around as so many other firebrand virtuosos do.

Goode, a shy man who collects books and fine art, is not given to flamboyance or theatrics. His interpretations always seem exactly right, never exaggerated and weird but both beautiful and emotionally convincing. He is, in short, a complete musician — recitalist, soloist in concertos and chamber music partner — and not just a great pianist. His is a quiet, self-effacing virtuosity.

You get the idea.

And you can sample such superlative musicianship for yourself this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. when Goode returns to perform a varied recital in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This is a performer and a program that no serious fan of the piano – professional or amateur, teacher or student — should miss.

On the program of music from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, are: a selection of Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, by Johann Sebastian Bach; Alban Berg’s Sonata No. 1; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101, which Goode, who has recorded all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, says is his favorite; the Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1, and the Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No. 3, by Chopin.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below) will deliver a free pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m.

Tickets run from $20 to $47.

Here is a link to more background and information about obtaining tickets:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/richard-goode-piano/


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