The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music education: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra ends as it began — with an impressive display of young talent in both classic and contemporary music

August 23, 2016
3 Comments

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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

On Friday evening, the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below in a photo by John W. Barker) gave, in the Atrium Auditorium at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, the concert that concluded its sixth season.

MAYCO Finale 2016 JWB

Founded in 2011, it has been a remarkable venture that has given student musicians of high-school level the chance to enjoy full-scale orchestral experience.

But the group’s founder and director, the versatile and multi-talented Madison native Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below), is apparently irreplaceable in this effort; and he has found that he must move on in his career. So, this latest and 10th concert was also the orchestra’s last.

Mikko Utevsky with baton

To mark the occasion, Utevsky, who just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, is an enthusiastic champion of new music, and the orchestra commissioned a new composition, which then received its world premiere on Friday night.

The composer is the 25-year-old, Minneapolis-based avant-garde musician Ben Davis (below) who created a work with the not very helpful title of “is a is a is b is.” (I’m not making that up!) It is scored for a full ensemble of strings, winds and percussion plus an electronic screeching machine.

ben davis

It is, in truth, not a piece of music at all, but a 20-minute experiment in the kinds of unusual — and not particularly pleasant — sounds that a group of orchestral players can make with their instruments. There are passages of repeated unison notes (the same one over and over) at goodly volume. And the last three minutes or so is an unaccompanied solo for the screeching machine on a single, piercing tone.

Whether this made a worthy valedictory salute to MAYCO’s audience and supporters is, I suppose, a matter of taste.

Fortunately, this new work was cushioned on either side by much more familiar material.

Opening the program was the beloved Overture to the opera The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini. This was brought off with full-steam-ahead momentum by the players under Utevsky’s enthusiastic leadership.

And then, to conclude, came the same work that Utevsky included in the very first MAYCO program: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The players were clearly quite fired up at the chance to tackle this score and did themselves genuine credit. Utevsky provided fast and forceful leadership that stressed the dramatic power of this music—which was, in its day, as surprising and shocking as a lot of “new” music today, we must remember.

The audience shared with the performers a rousing experience.

Among his other functions, Utevsky also wrote admirably illuminating program notes for the Rossini and Beethoven works—contrasting with those contributed by Davis, which were as nose-thumbing as his composition.

It is sad to think that MAYCO is now a thing of the past. What a wonderful idea it has been, something that testifies to the remarkable quantity and quality of young musical talent here.

If his orchestra is now gone, we must certainly keep our eyes and ears open for what the gifted Utevsky moves on to next.


Classical music: The “Eroica” Symphony gets a heroic reading from the amateur Middleton Community Orchestra in a popular all-Beethoven program that also featured an outstanding performance of the “Choral Fantasy.”

December 22, 2015
1 Comment

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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Happily avoiding all the holiday falderal this month, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave Ludwig Beethoven a slightly delayed birthday tribute in the form of an unusual concert program on last Friday night that drew a full house.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Led by the bold and enterprising conductor Steve Kurr (below center), the orchestra plunged straightway into no less than Beethoven’s epochal Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.”

NOTE: For more background, here is a link to The Ear’s interview with Steve Kurr about this program: 

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/classical-music-conductor-steve-kurr-talks-about-the-all-beethoven-program-that-the-middleton-community-orchestra-performs-this-friday-night-with-pianist-thomas-kasdorf-and-the-madison-symphony-choru/

MCO Beethoven Kurr and orchestra

The 50-minute long “Eroica” is a work that transformed the symphonic genre, and it continues to challenge performers. Provocative sounds, passages of complex counterpoint and assertions of tonal power—all these call for a disciplined and confident performance.

Kurr brought that off handsomely, to his and his players’ great credit. I had the feeling that he asked of these players more than they had first thought they could give, and he drew it out of them, to their obvious pride and satisfaction.

To be sure, there were some occasional smudges here and there, but the ensemble standards were otherwise consistently high. I am always interested to hear, in an orchestra that does not have overwhelming strings, the more balanced audibility of the winds, especially the woodwinds.

Here it was the brass (complete with four horns) that offered particular heroics. At times Kurr perhaps allowed them too much freedom when only filling out chords; but where they deserved prominence they sounded magnificent—notably in the scherzo’s trio section. In all, the overall mix really brought out the daring  use by Beethoven (below) of pungent dissonances and harmonic shocks.

Beethoven big

Kurr took the opening movement at a particularly brisk speed, while the second movement, the profound funeral march, was paced much more slowly than most conductors would take it — but to truly eloquent effect. (You can hear the astonishing Funeral March movement performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

I found the symphony’s finale sometimes was given a rather foursquare quality, but the enthusiasm maintained momentum.

It was a difficult act to follow. But the choice of the other item on the program was a brilliant one, bringing us a remarkable Beethoven work that is rarely ever heard in concerts.

How often can an orchestra afford to assemble a brilliant pianist, six vocal soloists and a chorus — all for one 25-minute work? But those are the demands of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” a product of a time when concerts often brought together a whole circus of performers.

In a special way, this novelty made a perfect pairing with the “Eroica.” In the two works, we catch Beethoven in his two great instances of self-borrowing to the end of evolving perfection.

The finale of the “Eroica” was the fourth and final destination for a set of variations on a contradance tune. In its turn, the Fantasy, after opening with an improvisatory exercise for the pianist, turns into a concerto-like set of variations on a tune, which is finally taken up by solo vocalists and then the chorus.

That tune represents the second of three stages in what eventually became the triumphant “Ode to Joy” melody of the famous finale of the Ninth Symphony.

The brilliant and versatile Thomas Kasdorf (below), a familiar soloist around these parts who was raised in Middleton and studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — was the energetic pianist.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

Six young singers were the solo battery, and a corporal’s guard from the Madison Symphony Chorus (below top and bottom) provided the brief but telling final justification for calling this a “Choral Fantasy.”

MCO Beethoven MSO Chorus left

MCO Beethoven MSO Chorus right

(The singers, below but not in order, were sopranos Allison Vollinger and Kirsten Larson; alto Jessica Lee Kasinski; tenor Richard Statz; baritone Gavon Waid; and bass Robert Dindorff.)

MCO Beethoven 3 women singers

MCO Beethoven 3 male singers

The orchestra played its role with gusto, and it’s wonderful how, by the end, it almost sounds as if we are moving into the Ninth Symphony.

This was an exhilarating concert, and a wonderful achievement for all involved.

 


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