The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and UW duo-pianists showcase the remarkable music of Camille Saint-Saens and Mozart in the popular concert that closes its season

June 1, 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. 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 mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Margaret Barker) closed its season Thursday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center with a promising and well-received program.

The centerpiece featured two graduate student soloists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, pianists Thomas Kasdorf (below right) and Satoko Hayami (below left), who joined in Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 365, for two pianos and orchestra. The two soloists were alert and polished collaborators. (You can hear the energetic and catchy final movement, used in the Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Conductor Steve Kurr (below) set a bouncy pace but a rather fast and overpowering one, and with an orchestra — especially strings — quite overblown by the standards of Mozart’s day.

The MCO was blessed by the loan of a very special model of a Model B Steinway instrument, now owned and lovingly restored by Farley’s House of Pianos. This was paired against a Steinway of much later vintage, owned by the hall. But nowhere was there identification about which piano was which as they sat onstage, much less which pianist was playing which piano (and they switched between the two works utilizing them.) This was disappointing for it prevented making an informed comparison of the two instruments.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below) is backhandedly treated as being on the margins of composer greatness. But his scope was remarkable, as witnessed by the two works that were the program’s bookends.

The opener was his humorous Suite, “Carnival of the Animals.” This set of 14 short pieces was written for one private performance, in chamber terms, one player per part. So the orchestra that was used — of 87 listed musicians, 60 of them were string players — became a crushing distortion. The two pianists were a bit formal, but ideally facile.

Saint-Saens made no provision for any kind of spoken text, certainly not in French. In the middle of the last century, the American poet of high-spirited doggerel, Ogden Nash, wrote wickedly funny verses with offbeat rhymes and puns to go with each movement.

It was these Nash verses that Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below), who was only identified as the “narrator,” read with a good bit of tongue-in-cheek. Nowhere are these at all identified or credited in the bumbling program booklet.  (Many in the audience might have just thought that they were written by Gilliland himself.)

In many of the suite’s movements, Saint-Saens quoted or alluded to hit tunes by earlier composers, for parodistic purposes. Unfortunately, there are no program notes in the booklet, so these tidbits would easily go unnoticed by many listeners.

Saint-Saens composed, among his numerous orchestral works, a total of five symphonies, only three of which are numbered. I had originally been given to expect No. 2, a charming work I love, as the program closer. All but the last of them are early works in a graceful post-Classical style.

But No. 3 was composed much later in his life, and in a more expansive style. This is a frequently performed spectacle, unconventional in plan and in scoring. It adds the two pianists and an organ — hence the nickname the “Organ Symphony.”

Unfortunately, the hall has no organ of its own, so the substitute was a rig of electronic organ with its own booming speakers and exaggerated pedal notes. Again totally unmentioned is that this contraption was played by MCO sound technician Alex Ford (below, with the portable electronic organ keyboard from Austria with its computer-screen stops).

This kind of organ could never be integrated into the full orchestral texture and served only to allow the orchestra to play this grandiose score. Such ambition was backed by really splendid and well-balanced orchestral playing.

As intended, the large local audience, with many children and families, was wildly enthusiastic.


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Classical music: Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” meets “The Sopranos” when an all-female mob gets even in Fresco Opera Theatre’s new show this Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights

March 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information about what promised to be another unusual take, perfect for the age of the MeToo movement, on the standard opera repertoire from Fresco Opera Theatre.

The show takes place on this coming Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in Promenade Hall of the Overture Center. Dinner table seats are $50 and other seats are $35.

We are doing a production called the “The Sopranos: Don Giovanni’s Demise,” which is our re-imagining of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

We feature an all female-mob, who put a hit on “The Don.” And who can blame them? “The Sopranos” is the story of a score settled, and a scoundrel silenced. Don Giovanni is a rat, who has pushed the family too far. And the family has put out a hit on him.

“This is a fun production, which retains the music of “Giovanni,” but with a slightly different take using 20th-century Mafia imagery. (You can hear the dark and ominous Overture to the “Don  Giovanni” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“We have a strong cast, featuring Ryan White as Don Giovanni, Erin Sura as Donna Elvira, Katie Anderson as Donna Anna, Ashley McHugh as Zerlina and Diana Eiler as Leporello. We are excited to have Vincent Fuh as our piano accompanist, and Melanie Cain will be directing.

“We will have limited seating on stage, which will be tables on which meals will be served, adding to the ambiance. Fresco is very excited to present our interpretation of this classic tale, including the timeless music.”

Adds director Melanie Cain:

“I’ve always been intrigued with the way Mozart portrayed female characters in his operas. They are daring, courageous and bold. He also was not afraid to give the women who were from the non-privileged classes, such as his spunky maids, the task of fixing all their bosses messes and oftentimes saving the day.

“Don Giovanni” resonates so well in today’s social landscape. The idea of women uniting to take down the males who take advantage, suffocate and demoralize the female gender runs through the core of this opera.

“What better way to portray a bunch of strong women than to have them run the male dominant world of the mob? As I was thinking about the look of this show, I came across the art of Tamara de Lempicka, a painter of the Art Deco era, best known for her portraits of powerful women. She was a brave, strong-willed openly bisexual artist who wasn’t afraid to be herself at a time that wasn’t accepted.

“Not only will you hear some vivacious female singers, you will see many of Lempicka’s works displayed throughout the production, which really resonates not only with this show, but in the way I like to create opera: “I live life in the margins of society and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe.””

For tickets and a plot summary, here is the link to Overture Center:

https://www.overture.org/events/sopranos?fbclid=IwAR280iCL1zZLagO31ke0AUXYrYtrDHlr2cMyRaPzksrg8HaL4cK3FEg-mQ8

And for more information about Fresco Opera Theatre, here is link to its home page:

http://www.frescooperatheatre.com/?fbclid=IwAR0_Oq62sQ2I41z79HMYlnm7XDmMFqZKKiButDW5OmWa4kUX5oOH02SJ6Ws


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