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.
By John W. Barker
It was a short program — lasting under an hour — but an outstanding one, that the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave on Wednesday evening.
There were only two works, but profoundly challenging ones, and associate conductor Kyle Knox (below) really put his amateur players’ feet to the fire.
That creates a uniquely etherial sound, but one that takes great effort to bring off. The MSO has been developing a surprisingly fine string band. Its violinists met the demands of tone and balance beautifully, producing a performance of transcendent beauty.
The other, longer, work was a symphony heard far too rarely. This was the Symphony No. 3 of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (below).
I say quite frankly that it is my favorite among the symphonies of Sibelius. After the post-Tchaikovsky bombast of the First and Second, it was in this Third that the composer first found his own orchestral voice, establishing how to make his instruments and their ensembles work in ways that were totally his.
In its use of variations, and especially of thematic evolution, the Third also drafted the blueprint for the Fifth Symphony, which conductors and audiences adore, but to the cruel eclipse of the Third.
This Third– which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom– is not an easy work to bring off. Its orchestral textures are full of tricky intricacies. No surprise that, here and there, one might hear quick moments in which the tension slackened. But Knox drew the players through a performance of beauty and power, finely honed and sonorously rendered.
The players clearly relish working under Knox. (The orchestra’s founding father, Steve Kurr, was sitting modestly in the viola section for this concert.) Knox’s own growth as a conductor is paired with his guiding of the orchestra to higher and higher achievements. Just for programming the Sibelius Third, I award him strong praise, but for bringing it off so well I must multiply my accolades.
I take this as a landmark event for the MCO—a genuine achievement. It is sad that the audience was not larger. Madison music-lovers, where are you when music and artistry like this is available to you?
I anticipate ranking this as my “concert of the year” when the final returns are in!
By Jacob Stockinger
Just a reminder today from Mindy Taranto and Larry Bevic, co-founders and co-directors of the Middleton Community Orchestra, which has provided The Ear with many more memorable musical moments than he would have ever expected from a mostly amateur group.
On this coming Wednesday night, April 13, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below top) will present an early Spring Concert.
It features our regular guest conductor, UW-Madison graduate student Kyle Knox (below bottom) in a performance of the Prelude to Act 1 of the opera “Lohengrin” by Richard Wagner and the too rarely heard Symphony No. 3 by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, whose centennial was last year.
(You can hear the Wagner overture, performed by conductor Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in a YouTube video at the bottom. The Ear generally loves Wagner’s orchestral writing — so shimmering and so sensual — much more than his vocal writing, which often seems likes protracted shouting. Is The Ear alone in that?)
This music is gorgeous, and we promise you a short and very sweet evening–great music with a reception (below) to follow.
The concert is at 7:30 p.m. at the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below) that is attached to Middleton High School at 2100 Bristol Street.
General admission is $10. Advance tickets can be bought at the Willy St. Coop West.
All students are admitted free of charge.
The box office opens at 7 p.m.
For more information about the rest of its season and about how to support or join the Middleton Community Orchestra, visit:
By Jacob Stockinger
We have just come through Christmas and the holiday season where the instrument of choice – quite appropriately – is the human voice, both solo and in choruses.
Do you sing?
Can you sing?
She also explains why you should: Singing, she says, is healthy for your body and mind.
She may be 69, but Norman, who was born in Georgia but now lives in France, is not retiring from singing, even if she is cutting down on professional appearances. She is following her own advice and so continues to sing, as she recently did on The David Letterman Show in New York City.
The interview traces her career from her earliest years in Augusta, Georgia, through training at the famed Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It has samples of her fabulous voice, and also her remembrances of great voices she has admired in others, such as the great history-making African American contralto Marian Anderson (below, during her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial).
She also names some favorite orchestral music and instrumental music, including a prelude from the opera “Lohengrin” by Richard Wagner, as conducted by James Levine (below top) of the Metropolitan Opera; a cello sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma (below middle); and a Beethoven piano concertos performed by pianist Alfred Brendel (below bottom) and the conductor Simon Rattle along with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Norman also singles out American jazz composer Duke Ellington (below) for praise.
And the NPR interview includes some fine music audio samples.
Here is a link:
And here is one of my favorite and landmark or legendary performances by Jessye Norman: “Im Abendrot.” It is one of the “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss that was recently used in the movie “The Trip to Italy” to such great and repeated effect:
By Jacob Stockinger
This year is the bicentennial of the birth of composer Richard Wagner.
Just about everything about Richard Wagner (below) is epic and titanic, dramatic and revolutionary.
Little wonder, then, that he is known especially for “The Ring of the Nibelung,” that 16–hour, four-opera mythological cycle that challenges the most resourceful singers, actors, stage directors, orchestras, conductors and opera companies. It took many complications and until the 1960s for conductor Sir Georg Solti to make the first complete recording of “The Ring” for Decca — and it still holds up to the best complete recordings since then.
Stop and think and consider this: In the time it usually takes to hear “The Ring” you could listen to all the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, or all his string quartets and most of his piano trios.
True, some of Wagner’s vocal music is quite stirring and enthralling.
But only some of it — at least to my ears.
I share some of the sentiments of his detractors, who included some pretty good artists and discriminating musicians.
Take the composer Gioachino Rossini, who quipped “Wagner’s music has great moments but dull quarter hours.”
The American writer and humorist Mark Twain observed that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”
The comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen remarked: “Every time I listen Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”
If you like those, here is a link to some more quips about Wagner, including some by French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire and French composer Claude Debussy:
I am probably a dissenter, but I think Wagner generally wrote better for instruments than he did for the voice. At least I generally find his orchestral music tighter and more enjoyable to listen to.
Indeed, I would like to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra do one of the various versions of “The Ring Without Words,” perhaps the orchestral anthology of highlights from “The Ring” and other operas that famed conductor George Szell (below) arranged and conducted with the Cleveland Orchestra (in a YouTube video at the bottom).
I love the overtures and preludes, and I don’t think they get programmed often enough these days. Same for the charming “Siegfried Idyll.”
I remember an old vinyl LP recording with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. How I loved, and found endlessly thrilling the Overture to “Tannhauser,” the “Prelude and Liebestod” to “Tristan und Isolde,” the Overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” preludes from “Lohengrin,” and the magically static and haunting Prelude to “Parsifal.” They are terrific curtain-raisers.
I also love “best moment” anthologies so it is also good to see choices like the new recording by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann – a great choice since Kaufmann (below) seems a perfect Wagner singer who has a huge but subtle voice, stamina and the handsome good looks for the parts.
Anyway, here is a link to the Wagner discography in The New York Times:
What is your favorite Wagner recording? What piece and what performer?
And do you favor his vocal or instrumental music?
The Ear wants to hear.