The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Middleton Community Orchestra opens its new season with British music by Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams that highlights its remarkable talent and high quality.

November 17, 2012
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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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The season’s opening concert for the Middleton Community Orchestra (below), held last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, was something of a mixed bag.

The program title, “The British Are Coming” was a little strained. Of five composers represented, one was a German-born naturalized citizen and another a Belgian who never left home (except to concertize). At least the other three were undoubted Britons.

The printed program, too, omitted a lot of significant information. The opening number was not the complete “Royal Fireworks Music” by Georg Frederic Handel, but only its long overture. Played in the full-orchestra version (complete with repeat of the fast middle section), but with too big a group here, the music found the players sounding tentative and not fully comfortable with it, while the pacing by conductor Steve Kurr (below) was stiff and rigid.

Everyone was more at ease with the follow-up, Sir Edward Elgar‘s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 4, however at bottom).

Naha Greenholtz (below), concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, was soloist for the program. She began with the Second of six Sonatas for unaccompanied violin, by the Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931). Each in the set was dedicated to a great violinist of the day. This one honored Jacques Thibaud, and its four brief movements (not listed in the program) are “Obsession,” “Prelude” “Malinconia,” “Danse des ombres,” “Sarabande” and “Les furies.” This is extremely difficult and virtuosic music, and Greenholtz brought it off with aplomb.

Without a break, she then launched into Ralph Vaughan Williams’ lovely pastorale, “The Lark Ascending,” with accompaniment conducted by her husband, Kyle Knox (below), a clarinetist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The elaborate solo part–again performed with skillful precision–is backed by a modest accompaniment from a chamber orchestra, rich in evocation of the English folksong style Vaughan Williams (below) loved, all reminding us how desperately we need to hear more of that great composer’s music.

The real meat of the concert, though, was a partial serving of the blockbuster “Astrological Suite” by Gustav Holst (below). Of its seven movements, the MCO gave us four–if, again, without full identification in the program list. Indicating their number in the complete cycle, and restoring their important subtitles, we heard: 1. “Mars, The Bringer of War”; 2. “Venus, The Bringer of Peace”; 6. “Uranus, The Magician”; and 4.” Jupiter, The Bringer of Jolity.”  Omitted were “Mercury, The Winged Messenger”; “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age”; and “Neptune, The Mystic.” The last of those requires an offstage women’s chorus, not mustered here. On the other hand, the performance managed to bring off No. 6 without its chilling organ glissando at the climax.

For the full suite, a massive affair often performed and recorded, high playing standards are well established. Against those, maestro Kurr and his brave players made a fully credible showing. They clearly had worked very hard on this music, and displayed a palpable confidence. They roared out the grim menace of Mars with full-blooded power. There was particularly fine string sheen in Venus. The “big tunes” of Uranus and especially of Jupiter blared out with thoroughly British heartiness.

My only regret was that Kurr and his players had not gone whole-hog and tackled the entire seven movements.

Once again, we must marvel at what Steve Kurr has achieved in building so able an orchestra (below) out of a mix of local talents and limited rehearsal time.

Three more concerts lie ahead this season. For information about performances, how to join and how to support the MCO, visit:

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra opens its new season with an all-British program plus guest artists this Wednesday night.

November 12, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Middleton Community Orchestra (or MCO, below in a photo by William Ballhorn) will present “The British are Coming” at the Middleton Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. this Wednesday night, Nov. 14, when the MCO launches its 2012-13 season with a concert featuring great symphonic works by England’s most renowned composers.

The Middleton Performing Arts Center (below) adjoins Middleton High School. Tickets are $10.  All students are admitted free of charge.

And The Ear wants to add that the last time he went to an MCO concert, which was last spring, he had a terrific time first listening to the fine performances MSO and pianist Thomas Kasdorf of masterpieces by von Suppe, Mozart and Brahms, and then mingling with the musicians and other audience members amid generous free refreshments. Here is a link to the very positive review of that concert and experience, one that might make you want to attend this concert:

In addition to fiery excerpts (“Mars,” “Uranus,” “Venus” and “Jupiter”) from “The Planets” by English composer Gustav Holst, audiences will hear MCO Conductor Steve Kurr (below) lead the orchestra in live performances of works by George Frederic Handel (“The Royal Fireworks Music”) and Edward Elgar (“Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 4).

Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ beautiful violin masterpiece, “The Lark Ascending” (at bottom, Hilary Hahn plays the opening on a YouTube video) will add to an already outstanding program. It wil be performed by the new Madison Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below top) and with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Principal Clarinetist and MCO Guest Conductor, Kyle Knox (below bottom).

This powerhouse husband-and-wife team joins the Middleton Community Orchestra as part of our annual Rising Stars initiative, which brings extraordinary young musicians with strong ties to the Greater Middleton Area to perform as guest artists with the MCO.

For more information about attending concerts by the Middleton Community Orchestra; joining it; and supporting it, visit:

Classical music: Today is the Summer Solstice, and nobody wrote better summer music than Francis Poulenc. Can you name someone who did?

June 20, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Summer Solstice (below) – the beginning of the summer and the longest day and shortest night of the year. It happens at 6:09 p.m. CST.

For weeks, various critics on radio, TV and the interview have been offering their suggestions for summertime reading, summertime movies, summertime food, summertime trips.

But you hear very little about summertime music.

Oh, there are certain well-known pieces, from Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto in The Four Seasons to Ralph Vaughan Williams and “The Lark Ascending” and all those early 20th century British composers who do pastoral music so evocatively and beautifully.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Summer” from his oratorio “The Seasons” does the job nicely, as do his “Morning,” “Noon” and “Night” Symphonies Nos. 6, 7 and 8 as well as his “Sunrise” String Quartet.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”) his Piano Sonata In D Major, Op. 28 – also subtitled “Pastoral” — also capture the mood of the season. And you can find Franz Schubert songs that do the same very evocatively. And a lot of the music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is unbeatably sunny, lyrical and cheerful.

Mendelssohn’s “Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream” certainly captures the right mood, as does Shakespeare’s original play. And his sunny, upbeat “Italian” Symphony is also a pretty good bet.

Then there are also wonderfully warm and moody pieces by Debussy and Ravel that are full of water and sun and breezy wind, all with a kind of seasonal torpor and lassitude.

But for my money, no one has ever done a body of work that better expresses summer than the French composer Francis Poulenc (below). For me, his music goes down as easily as a dry French rose wine with a Salade Nicoise.

Although he could also be very serious and dark, Poulenc (1899-1963) has the great French gift of lightness – beautiful melodies, poignant harmonies, all tempered with the informality and good time quality of the music hall. His music is always graceful and kind.

I also love that the same Poulenc who was a devout Roman Catholic was also an unapologetic gay man who said, “If I wasn’t homosexual, I couldn’t compose music” or words to that effect.

We just don’t hear enough Poulenc during the usual concert season – so summer is an especially good time to revisit his work, which early on, during his days as the clown of Les Six composers in France, was grossly underestimated and underperformed. Listen for yourself:

Make no mistake: Poulenc is a modern master.

So here is my offering for the summer to mark the solstice. I hope you will look at some of the wonderful collection of Poulenc’s solo piano and chamber music that are out there and agree that when the weather s warm and the light is long, that’s the perfect time to take out something by Poulenc and put it on the CD player and listen to it – to bask it during the sunny days of summer, maybe even with some great summer food in front of you. He would like that.

But if you have other pieces or other composers who you think better capture summer, just let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

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