The Well-Tempered Ear

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.


Classical music: Here are the Top 20 classical recordings of 2017 as chosen by famed radio station WQXR

December 14, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

As he has done in previous years, this year The Ear is offering various compendiums of the best classical recordings from the past year.

Such lists are, of course, subjective.

But many of the “judges” have a vast experience with classical music and are worth listening to and at least considering.

The lists can give you an idea of new artists and trends as well as of new releases of famous artists and tried-and-true repertoire.

So far, The Ear has offered the nominees for Grammy Awards. But that list is chosen by the industry.

Here is a link to that Grammy list:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/classical-music-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-2018-grammy-awards-they-make-a-great-holiday-gift-list-of-gives-and-gets/

The famed New York City radio station WQXR seems more objective and less commercial, although you will find well known veteran artists such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Evgeny Kissin mixed in with newcomers such as pianist Beatrice Rana (below).

The genres and periods are quite mixed too, going from early music to new music, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Philip Glass and Osvaldo Golijov.

Similarly, the list has familiar labels and small, relatively unknown labels.

The list could serve as a guide to what you want to give as a gift or what you want to receive as a gift.

But you can also take the list just as more information about the classical music scene, which is under-reported in the mainstream media.

In addition, each of the 20 selections features the CD album cover and a sound sample of the recording and a compact explanation of what makes the performance exceptional or outstanding.

Here is a link:

http://www.wqxr.org/story/best-classical-recordings-2017/

Hope you enjoy it.

Use the COMMENT section to let us know what you think and whether you agree or disagree with the choices.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble celebrates its 20th anniversary with concerts this Friday night in Milwaukee and Sunday afternoon in Madison

November 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here, as elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world, the period instrument movement has become more and more mainstream over the years.

The instruments and the historically informed performance practices have expanded.

The repertoire has also grown, extending both back to Medieval and early Baroque music and forward to the Classical, Romantic and even more modern periods.

Historical research into early music, along with performances and recordings, has influenced even modern music groups such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, which now sound lighter, clearer and faster when they play Handel operas, Bach concertos and Beethoven symphonies.

Twenty years ago, the Madison Bach Musicians did not exist. Neither did the Madison Early Music Festival or the fully developed early music program at the UW-Madison.

But the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) was there, having grown out of other period instrument ensembles and performers who pioneered the long-lived and now very successful early music revival.

And the WBE, with changes in personnel, continues strong.

This coming Sunday you can help celebrate the ensemble’s 20th anniversary by attending a concert of mixed baroque chamber music.

The concert is on this Sunday, Nov. 26, at 2 p.m. in Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below), at 1833 Regent Street on Madison’s near west side. (The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble will also perform the same program in Milwaukee this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Charles Allis Museum. See the WBE website, below, for details)

Performers are Brett Lipshutz, traverse flute; Eric Miller, viola da gamba; Sigrun Paust, recorder, Consuelo Sañudo, mezzo-soprano; Monica Steger; traverse flute and harpsichord; Anton TenWolde, baroque cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

Tickets at the door are $20, $10 for students.

A free reception will be held after the concert at 2422 Kendall Ave., second floor.

The program is:

Luigi Rossi – “Io lo vedo, o luci belle” (I see, O beautiful lights)

Georg Philipp Telemann – Trio Sonata for two recorders and basso continuo, TWV 42:F7 (The two opening movements can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Marin Marais – Pièces de viole, movements from Book 2  (viol pieces)

Jacopo Peri – “Solitario augellino”(lonely little bird) “O miei giorni fugaci”(O my fleeting days)

Alexander Munro – Bony Jeane, from A Collection of the Best Scots Tunes Fited to the German Flute  (1732)

INTERMISSION

Benedetto Marcello – Sonata for recorder and basso continuo, Op. 2, No. 1

Michel Pignolet de Montéclair – “Les Syrenes” (The Sirenes)

Jakob Friedrich Kleinknecht – Sonata in G major for two flutes and basso continuo

Francisco de Santiago – “Ay, como flecha la Niña Rayos” (Like Arrows, the Girl Rays)

For more information, call (608) 238-5126 or email info@wisconsinbaroque.org, or visit www.wisconsinbaroque.org


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