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: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, closes its eighth season impressively by shining new light on music by Schumann and Brahms

June 2, 2018
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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.

By John W. Barker

The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its eighth season with another program of mainstream works. Maestro Steve Kurr clearly likes to challenge his players not only with demanding music, but also with works so familiar that audience expectations are extra high.

Of the two works presented, the first was the beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. He wrote it for his wife, born Clara Wieck and an acclaimed pianist, to show off her talents. The soloist was the ubiquitous Thomas Kasdorf (below), a Middleton native and UW-Madison graduate who finds the MCO a wonderful platform in which he can have experience with a range of concertos.

Kasdorf is clearly working to make this concerto his own. He strove to integrate the polarities of melodiousness and showiness in the first movement, and seemed to have settled nicely into the extravagance of the final movement.

But it was the middle movement that intrigued me. (You can hear that movement, played by Sviatoslav Richter, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Usually treated as a simplistic interval between the other movements, it emerged here as music of true delicacy, much of it a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. I daresay Kasdorf (below) will be able to make even more of this work as he grows in it, but he is off to a persuasive start.

The other warhorse — if you will — on the program was the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. Kurr was the more daring in tackling it since the Madison Symphony Orchestra had already performed it just this past February. It is a deliberately monumental work, an ostentatious demonstration by Brahms that he had truly arrived as symphonist. Consequently, the composer made his players work hard to bring this off.

Though it sounds unfair, my initial grading would be an “incomplete”: a performance in the making. This was true certainly in the first movement, which did not yet have full coordination and coherence.

A major problem was the orchestra’s horn section. Brahms certainly wrote strong music for them in this work, but these players were occasionally inaccurate and, most damaging, far too loud and out of balance with the full ensemble. That distorted or undercut the performance all the way.

On the other hand, the string choir (below) continues to mature, and it delivered a very satisfying sound in the passages featuring it.

Most important of all, however, was Kurr’s interpretative approach, particularly in the second and third movements. These are usually presented as bits of superficial repose between the big flanking movements. But Kurr almost made them the genuine center of the work.

Taking much slower tempos than we usually hear, Kurr (below) turned the slow movement into a flow of beautiful sound, the third movement a subtly clever piece of whimsy. And the introduction to the finale, again taken more slowly than usual, unfolded with a powerful eloquence of its own, the more to pave the way for the Big Tune in the remaining body of the movement.

I am not sure I would advocate always treating Brahms’s First this way. But I salute Kurr for making me think anew about a score I had assumed I already knew well. He was able to lead his players, despite any shortcomings, in a performance of genuine artistic perceptions—an achievement in which this orchestra can take great pride.

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