The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra announces an ambitious 2020-21 season with new guest soloists and conductors, but with no Middleton venue

March 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Amid all the concert cancellations due to COVID-19 comes good news.

The mostly amateur and critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (MCO, below) — which has canceled and postponed concerts for the remainder of this season — has announced its five-concert line-up for the 2020-21 season.

It is undeniably ambitious on several counts.

But unfortunately it usual venue — the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School — will be undergoing renovations.

That means that the MCO will be using other venues besides its home base (below) for its 11th season.

The new venues include the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall (below) in the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., at the UW-Madison, which will host three of the concerts.

Also included for the other two concerts are the brand new McFarland Performing Arts Center (below)  – where the MCO will give the center’s inaugural public concert on Oct. 7 — and Madison Memorial High School.

Concert dates and times are usually Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. They are Oct. 7, Dec. 16, Feb. 17, April 2 (Friday) and May 26. Admission will remain $15 with free admission for students. And, as usual, post-concert meet-and-greet receptions will be held at all performances.

The ambitious new season includes some familiar faces but also some new names.

On Oct. 7, pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below) will open the season by performing the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff; and then, on May 26, he will close the season with the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven as the first installment of a complete cycle of Beethoven piano concertos.

On Oct. 7, UW professor and Pro Arte Quartet first violinist David Perry (below top) will make his MCO debut in the Violin Concerto No. 4 by Mozart; and on Dec. 16, Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below bottom) will return to play the Violin Concerto by Brahms.

On April 2, the Festival Choir of Madison (below), under its director Sergei Pavlov, will makes its MCO debut in the movie-score cantata “Alexander Nevsky” by Prokofiev.

And the teenage winners of the second Youth Concerto Competition, to be held next December, will perform with the orchestra on Feb. 17.

The conductor for three concerts will be Kyle Knox, the music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) and associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO).

A frequent MCO guest conductor, Knox has also agreed to become the ensemble’s new principal conductor and artistic adviser. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Kyle Knox conducting the MCO last December in Wagner’s Overture to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” (The Master Singers of Nuremberg) at the UW’s Hamel Music Center.)

Two guest conductors will be making their MCO debuts: UW-Whitewater professor Christopher Ramaekers (below top) on Oct. 7 and Edgewood College professor Sergei Pavlov (below bottom) on April 2.

Some repertoire still hasn’t been decided. For up-to-date information, as well as information about how to audition for the MCO, how to subscribe to its email newsletter and how to support it, go to the newly redesigned website at: https://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

“We will also try to schedule the concert with this year’s Youth Concerto Competition winners for this summer, even if it means going to an outdoor venue,” says MCO co-founder and co-artistic director Mindy Taranto. The winners are: violinists Ava Kenny and Dexter Mott, and cellist Andrew Siehr.

Adds Taranto: “We are really excited about the lineup of guest soloists and new conductors, and are especially grateful to Kyle Knox for his continued association with us. We’re going to have a fantastic year.”

 


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Classical music: The Madison Opera, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Middleton Community Orchestra, Festival Choir, Oakwood Chamber Players and First Unitarian Society cancel concerts because of the coronavirus

March 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The state health emergency declared by Gov. Tony Evers has now become a national emergency declared by President Trump.

Six more local groups have cancelled concerts as the pandemic of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads exponentially and threatens the health of both the public and the performers:

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) has cancelled its concert TONIGHT of Yiddish music at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) has cancelled and postponed all concerts through March. They include the “Beethoven Lives Next Door” Family Series concerts THIS MORNING at the Goodman Community Center and on March 29 in Brookfield; and the third Masterworks Concert in Madison with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis on March 27 in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Says Joe Loehnis, CEO of the WCO: “We ask for your patience as we work to determine all of the options we will be able to offer to ticket holders. We are deeply grateful for your understanding.

“We’ll also keep you informed of the status of all our upcoming performances as we continue to monitor the situation closely over the coming days and weeks.

“To learn more about our contingency planning, please visit our website at http://bit.ly/2wSMCbe.

“If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call us at (608) 257-0638, or email, wco@wcoconcerts.org.

“Thank you for your patronage and support.”

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) have cancelled their concerts on Saturday and Sunday, March 21 and 22, at Oakwood Village University Woods on the far west side.

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below, below in a photo by Brian Ruppert) has cancelled its upcoming concert of teenage concerto winners with guest conductor Kyle Knox on Wednesday, April 8, and postponed it until large gatherings become safe again.

The FREE Friday Noon Musicale series at the First Unitarian Society of Madison will be live-streamed without an audience. Says music director Drew Collins:

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the First Unitarian Society of Madison will alter the schedule for its Friday Noon Musicale recital series.

Beginning March 20, 2020…

* No audience members will be permitted.

* Outside doors will be locked.

* In cases where the performers are not able or willing to play, notification will be made via https://nam11.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=www.fusmadison.org%2Fmusicale&data=02%7C01%7C%7Cce899e33b3124e28489608d7c70cdac6%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C637196730328671160&sdata=069CmBdvgPRWjGi%2BiCEUdeD%2Fth2zVBJlzJowWcnH%2BFc%3D&reserved=0and no live-stream will be broadcast.

“Stay tuned for the upcoming launch of our SoundCloud channel, curated by Rich Samuels, where you will be able to listen to highlights from the Musicales.

In related news, the Madison Symphony Orchestra announced Friday that it will make a decision about upcoming concerts next week. But since the Overture Center later announced it is closing its doors until April 13 and cancelling all performances, it would seem that the MSO performances of the Dvorak Requiem on April 3, 4 and 5 will be cancelled. But that has not yet been officially confirmed by the MSO.

In addition, the Madison Opera has cancelled its production of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” on April 17 and 19.


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Classical music: On Wednesday at noon, Just Bach turns to C.P.E. Bach. At night, the Middleton Community Orchestra, with soloist Paran Amirinazari, plays the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Bruch plus works by Janacek and Sibelius.

February 17, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Wednesday, Feb. 19, features two noteworthy concerts, one by Just Bach at noon and the other by the Middleton Community Orchestra at 7:30 p.m.

Here are details:

JUST BACH

For this month’s FREE one-hour Just Bach concert (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) on this Wednesday at noon in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, attention will turn from father to son.

The concert features music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (below), the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The concert opens with a movement from the Sonata in A Minor, Wq. 70/4, H. 85, performed by organist Mark Brampton Smith.

The program continues with a recently rediscovered Cantata, “Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Stande” (I Am Content with My Station), featuring bass-baritone Professor Paul Rowe, and the Just Bach period-instrument players led by Kangwon Kim.

Just Bach co-founder and soprano Sarah Brailey (below) will lead the chorale sing-along, a beloved audience-participation feature of these programs.

The program concludes with eight selections from the “Geistliche Oden und Lieder ‘Gellert Lieder’” (Sacred Odes and Songs ‘Gellert Songs’), performed by students of Paul Rowe (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson), accompanied by organist Mark Brampton Smith.

This will also be the first concert with a mother and daughter performing, with violinist Leanne League in the Just Bach players, and soprano Cecilia League in the Paul Rowe studio.

Performers are: Sarah Brailey, soprano; Paul Rowe, baritone; Kangwon Kim, violin 1 (below); Leanne League, violin 2; Katrin Talbot, viola; Anton TenWolde, cello; Mark Brampton Smith, organ; Allyson Mills, Cecilia League, Carly Ochoa and Ella Anderson, sopranos; and Jack Innes, Jake Elfner, Nick Schinner and Chase Kozak, baritones.

The concert is free and open to the public, with a goodwill offering collected.

Other Just Bach concerts this spring, all Wednesdays at noon are on: March 25, April 15 and May 20.

MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA

At 7:30 p.m., the mostly amateur and critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform its winter concert as part of its 10th anniversary season.

The concert takes place in the comfortable and acoustically pleasing  Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

The program, under conductor-composer Steve Kurr, includes the “Lachian Dances” by Leos Janacek; “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius; and the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor by Max Bruch with guest soloist Paran Amirinazari (below). (You can hear the finale of the violin concerto, played by Sarah Chang, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tickets are $15 for adults. Students are admitted free.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and auditorium doors open at 7 p.m.

There will be a meet-and-greet reception (below) with the orchestra players and audience members after the concert.

For more information about upcoming concerts, how to join the orchestra and how to support it, call (608) 212-8690 or go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

 


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Classical music: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise?

January 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and violinist Naha Greenholtz perform this Wednesday night in the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison. At noon, the FREE Just Bach concert celebrates Christmas

December 17, 2019
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ALERT 1: This Wednesday, Dec. 18, at noon in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, Just Bach wraps up its FREE one-hour period-instrument concerts for this semester. The program features “joyous selections” from the Christmas Oratorio, the Magnificat, and the Advent Cantata 36. For more information about the program and the performers, go to: https://justbach.org

ALERT 2: The Madison Symphony Orchestra, which just gave three sold-out performances of its Christmas concert, is holding its annual holiday ticket sale. It started Monday and runs through Dec. 31. You can save up to 50 percent on tickets to the remaining concerts of the season. For more information and to order, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/holidaysale/

By Jacob Stockinger

Looking for a break from holiday music?

This Wednesday night, Dec. 18, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison – NOT at its usual venue, the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School.

The appealing program under guest conductor Kyle Knox starts at 7:30 p.m. It features the dramatic Overture to “Die Meistersinger” (The Master Singers) by Richard Wagner (you can hear the Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom); the popular and virtuosic Symphonie Espagnole (Spanish Symphony) by French composer Edouard Lalo, with violin soloist Naha Greenholtz; and the lovely Suite from the opera “Der Rosenkavalier” by Richard Strauss.

There will be a post-concert reception in the lobby.

Admission is $15; free for students. Tickets are available at the door – student tickets are available at the door only — and at the Willy Street Coop West. The hall is at 740 University Avenue with parking in the nearby Lake Street Ramp. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and doors to the hall open at 7 p.m.

The Ear asked the co-founders and co-directors of the group – Mindy Taranto and Larry Bevic — why they chose to play in the Hamel Music Center this time. He recieved the following reply:

“We decided to rent the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall (below top, in photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) in the Hamel Music Center (below bottom) for several reasons.

“This is our 10th anniversary season and we wanted to give our musicians a really special experience. Many of us are curious about the new hall and are really excited to be playing there.

“Also, Kyle Knox (below) – a UW-Madison graduate and the music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras — is a phenomenal conductor and this program is exceptionally difficult and beautiful.

“It is an honor to get to perform at the UW-Madison with Kyle conducting such a beautiful program. He has brought this orchestra along so far, and for that we are incredibly grateful. He is a brilliant musician and our work with him has improved the orchestra so remarkably over the eight years he has been regularly working with us.

“We also thought that so many of our patrons enjoy our concerts when violinist Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Chris Hynes) – the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — is our soloist, and with the MSO connection, holding the concert at Hamel will hopefully boost attendance at the concert.

Naha sounds amazing and if you could see how much our musicians enjoy her annual appearance with MCO, you’d know why we want to play with her every year.

“As we conclude the first half of our 10th season, we are grateful to the musicians in MCO and to the community that supports us.

“We are probably one of the few organizations on the Madison arts scene that puts literally every dollar into music. As the two co-founders, we run the organization on a volunteer basis and we don’t spend any money on advertising.

“All of our resources go to hiring astonishing local musicians, renting performance space, and buying music to provide meaningful musical experiences for our musicians and our patrons.”

For information about how to join the orchestra, how to support it and what its remaining concerts are this season, go online to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org or call 608-212-8690.

 


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Classical music: A public memorial for critic John W. Barker is this Sunday afternoon. You can also help honor him with a named chair at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center

December 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that John W. Barker (below, in a photo by Mark Golbach) — a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history and  a longtime, well respected music critic, lecturer and radio host for WORT —  died at 86 on Oct. 24.

His wife Margaret writes:

Dear Friends,

There will be a gathering to remember John at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center, 333 West Main Street – downtown and two blocks off the Capitol Square — this Sunday afternoon, Dec. 15, at 3:30 p.m. Please join us for memories and music. And please pass the word.

Barker wrote frequently for this blog as well as for Isthmus, The Capital Times and the American Record Review. He had a long, full life with distinguished careers in both history and music.

For a complete obituary, go to: https://madison.com/news/local/obituaries/barker-john-walton/article_04261147-4317-5cf2-9b6a-4098f3ffca06.html

Barker has already been honored by a special performance for him and then by the current season being dedicated to him by Middleton Community Orchestra; and by the Madison Early Music Festival, in which he was very active for many years, naming its annual concert lecture series after him.

Another way to honor Barker is to contribute to a project that is headed by local businesspeople Orange and Dean Schroeder, who founded the annual Handel Aria Competition, of which Barker was a founding board member who also served as a judge. The Schroeders write:

“Members of the Madison musical community have decided to honor John W. Barker by dedicating a seat in his memory in the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison. The cost is $1,500 of which $950 has already been raised. If you would like to join us, please click on this link and specify that you are making the gift in his memory: https://secure.supportuw.org/give/?id=515d53cf-e8ff-4caa-9260-c7885c66b309

John W. Barker sang in choirs and loved choral music, like the last movement, “In Paradise,” of the Requiem by Gabriel Faure that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Thank you, John. Rest in peace.


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Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication

September 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


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Classical music: Is a local Dvorak revival in the making? This Friday night, Christopher Taylor joins the Willy Street Chamber Players to perform the famed Piano Quintet

July 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is a major local revival of music by Antonin Dvorak (below) in the making?

Many signs point to: Yes!

At the end of the past season, maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which has also performed the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” announced that he was on board as a fan when he told the audiences about the upcoming season, which features the MSO performing Dvorak’s dramatic Symphony No. 7 in D Minor and the large-scale Requiem.

In recent seasons, we have also seen the Madison Opera stage the opera “Rusalka”; the Middleton Community Orchestra perform the Symphony No. 6; the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet and the Ancora String Quartet perform the miniatures “Cypresses”; the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra play some “Slavonic Dances”; and more.

What’s not to like about Dvorak? He was one of music’s greatest melodists, something that Johannes Brahms envied and a reason why Brahms helped promote his music. And his use of folk music – Czech, Native American and African-American – is captivating as well as multicultural.

Here is a link to more about Dvorak in his Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton%C3%ADn_Dvořák

As audience responses prove, there is so much Dvorak to be fond of.

But one of the greatest works will be performed this Friday night, July 26, at 6 p.m. in the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

That is when the Willy Street Chamber Players, in the final concert of their fifth summer series, will perform the famed Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 (1887). (You can hear the engaging opening movement, played by pianist Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Willys will team up with the acclaimed UW-Madison virtuoso pianist and Van Cliburn Competition bronze medalist Christopher Taylor, who is a gifted chamber musician as well as a superb soloist.

Filling out the program are Three Nocturnes (1924) by Ernest Bloch and “Voodoo Dolls” (2008) by Jessie Montgomery.

Admission is $15 with a reception afterwards.

Dvorak, who has never fallen out of favor but who seems to have sparked a new enthusiasm, composed a lot.

In addition to the nine symphonies, the string serenade and the piano quintet, there is a lot of chamber music, including string quartets, piano trios, piano quartets; concertos for the violin, cello and piano; and many miniatures, including the lovely “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” There is also some solo piano music that has largely been neglected.

Do you love Dvorak’s music?

What about it do you especially like?

Do you have a favorite Dvorak work?

Let us know what it is, with a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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