The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo trumpeter Jessica Jensen score big with an unusual program

March 2, 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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The concert by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) on Wednesday night presented a novel program at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

In the relatively brief first part, it presented two unusual items.

The first was by Nebojsa “Neb” Macura (b. 1982, below right with conductor Steve Kurr), a local musician of Serbian background, who has been particularly identified with Russian folk music and ensembles. But he also plays viola in the MCO, which gave him this opportunity in the spotlight.

His piece, Polar Night, is quite brief, but in this version for full orchestra (with piano), it is grounded with secure melodic flow, and it unfolds into a tonal picture full of beautiful colors. My only reservation was that I wanted more of it — either more music in this piece or other sections around it.

Macura is obviously talented, and he has a confident sense of orchestral writing. I really look forward to hearing more of him. Indeed, the MCO might well serve as exactly the laboratory in which he can develop new creations.

The second item was only a bit longer, a Trumpet Concerto by Russian composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (b. 1929, below). Her long career has involved her in jazz, and also in extensive scoring for films. But she has a feeling for Russian traditional song, and that could be heard in this concerto.

It is cast in only a single movement, but it proceeds episodically.  There is certainly much flashy writing for the solo instrument, and local trumpeter Jessica Jensen (below) brought off her role dashingly.

The longer second part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” by Robert Schumann. This splendid work was inspired by observation of life along the Rhine River.

It is unusual in being written in five movements, not the conventional four. (Oddly, their individual markings were not printed in the program, but conductor Steve Kurr (below) gave a clever spoken introduction that outlined the score for the audience.)

This is a very extroverted work, calling for a lot of orchestral sonority. I suspect that a little more rehearsal time would have helped the avoidance of some blemishes: rapid passages, especially in the first movement, were roughly articulated, and there were some tiny gaffes all along.

But the players were devoted in responding to maestro Kurr’s rather propulsive tempos. This score gives a lot to do particularly to the horn section, which played with ardent splendor.

As always, then, the MCO earned further laurels for presenting this very adventurous program.


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Classical music: Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra return to a traditional Opening Gala concert with a guest soloist and big pieces, and move the all-orchestra concert to a later date?

October 28, 2017
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

You can’t blame longtime music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) for wanting to put the spotlight on the players of the Madison Symphony Orchestra that he has built up over nearly 25 years.

After all, the orchestra members play well and respond superbly to DeMain’s direction, no matter what you might think of his programming and interpretations. He is proud of them with good reason.

So The Ear can easily understand why for the past few years DeMain has chosen to use an all-orchestra concert, with its principals taking the place of guest soloists, to open the season.

Yet DeMain also likes to emphasize the challenges he faces in selling tickets, filling seats and keeping the MSO a commercially successful orchestra.

The Ear noticed that this year, the all-orchestra opening concert of works by Bach-Stokowski, Mendelssohn and Berlioz, with principal violist Christopher Dozoryst as soloist, seemed to draw a smaller and less enthusiastic audience than the second concert did last weekend.

That second concert included the “Mother Goose” Suite by Ravel, the surefire “New World” Symphony by Dvorak and the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber with guest pianist Olga Kern (below). The audience wildly cheered her and her flashy, virtuosic playing until it received an encore (the Prokofiev etude heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So the question came to The Ear:

Should the MSO return to a traditional Gala Opening, with a surefire program and a high-profile guest soloist, and leave the all-orchestra concert until the second concert of the season?

The Ear checked out what other orchestras do.

This year, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The Los Angeles Philharmonic opened with a gala program that featured pianists Yuja Wang and Jean-Yves Thibaudet teaming up in an all-Mozart program. The San Francisco Orchestra featured superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The Philadelphia Orchestra programmed pianist Emanuel Ax and the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial is being celebrated this season. The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened with Frederica von Stade, plus other singers, in an all-Bernstein program.

True, the Sheboygan Symphony also used the all-orchestra opener, and The Ear is sure there are many other orchestras, including some prominent ones, that do the same.

But it got The Ear to wondering. So he asked some other loyal MSO fans what they thought about returning to a traditional Gala Opening – one that announces to potential subscribers that great soloists will be featured during the season – and then moving the all-orchestra concert to a different date.

All the people he spoke to agreed that such a move would probably draw bigger audiences and capture the public’s attention better. One loyal patron even said that by going to the all-orchestra opening, the MSO (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) was “just being cheap.”

Plans are probably already being made for next season, so it is likely too late to make any changes that soon.

But what about the 2018-19 season?

What do you think?

Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra return to a traditional Gala Opening that features big-name soloists and well-known pieces?

Should it move the all-orchestra concert with principal soloists to, say, the second concert of the season?

Or should things stay the way they are?

Which way do you think would be more commercially successful and sell more seats for that concert and for the rest of the season?

And which way would be more artistically satisfying?

The Ear wants to hear.


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