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!


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Classical music: New York Polyphony opens the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival with a perfectly rendered composite portrait of Elizabethan sacred music. Plus, the winners of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition are announced

July 11, 2016
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ALERT: In case you haven’t yet heard, the winners (below) of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition, held on Friday night in Mills Hall and accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, have been announced.

Eric Jurenas (center), countertenor, won First Prize; Christina Kay (right), soprano, won Second Prize; and Nola Richardson (left), soprano, won Third Prize and Audience Favorite.

Handel Aria winners 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear left the concert hall thinking: Well, this will be an easy review to write.

Just give it an A-plus.

An easy A-plus.

On Saturday night, the acclaimed a cappella quartet New York Polyphony (below) opened the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) with a flawless performance.

new york polyphony

This year, the MEMF is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of poet and playwright William Shakespeare (below top) and the 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I (below bottom), who oversaw the English Renaissance.

shakespeare BW

Queen Elizabeth I

And the program – performed before a large house of perhaps 450 or 500 enthusiastic listeners — was perfectly in keeping with the festival’s theme. It used sacred music rather than stage music or secular music, which will be featured later in this week of concerts, workshops and pre-concert lectures.

In fact, the program of New York Polyphony was based on two of the group’s best-selling CDs for BIS Records and AVIE Records: “Tudor City” and “Times Goes by Turns.” It was roughly divided into two masses, one on each half. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Adding to the variety was that each Anglican or Roman Catholic-based mass was a composite, with various sections made up like movements written by different composers. Thrown in for good measure were two separate short pieces, the “Ave Maria Mater Dei” by William Cornysh and the “Ave verum corpus” of William Byrd.

The Mass on the first half featured music by Byrd, John Dunstable, Walter Lambe and Thomas Tallis. The second half featured works music by Tallis, John Pyamour, John Plummer and excerpts from the Worcester Fragments. The section were typical: the Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

There was nothing fancy about this concert, which marked the Wisconsin debut of New York Polyphony and which spotlighted superbly quiet virtuosity. The four dark-suited men, who occasionally split up, just stood on stage and opened their mouths and sang flawlessly with unerring pitch and superb diction.

New York Polyphony MEMF 2016

A cappella or unaccompanied singing is hard work, but the four men made it seem easy. The countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass each showed confidence and talent plus the ability to project clarity while not overshadowing each other. This was first-class singing.

The beautiful polyphony of the lines was wondrous to behold even, if like The Ear, sacred music from this era – with its chant-like rather than melodic qualities – is not your favorite fare.

New York Polyphony provided a good harbinger of the treats that will come this week at the MEMF from groups like the Newberry Consort of Chicago with soprano Ellen Hargis (below top) and the Baltimore Consort (below bottom) as well as from the faculty and workshop participants. On Friday night is an appealing program that focuses on Shakespeare’s sonnets and music.

MEMF newberry consort

Baltimore Consort

And on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m., will be the All-Festival concert. That is always a must-hear great sampler of what you perhaps couldn’t get to earlier in the week. This year, it will feature the music as used in a typical Elizabethan day.

Here is a link to the MEMF website:

https://artsinstitute.wisc.edu/memf/

And here is a link the website of New York Polyphony if you want to hear more:

http://www.newyorkpolyphony.com


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