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: Tucson celebrates the Leonard Bernstein centennial. Why not Madison?

February 17, 2018

Editor’s note: Larry Wells, better known as The Opera Guy who writes for this blog, recently spent time in Tucson, Arizona, where he attended many events celebrating the Leonard Bernstein centennial.

Tucson isn’t alone. This fall has seen many similar celebrations, including those in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee. But curiously there has been little in Madison.

Perhaps that will change next season. At least this week will see a FREE concert by the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble this Wednesday night, Feb. 21, in Mills Hall. The mixed program with other composers features “Profanation” from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1.

Here is a link with more information and the program:

And here are observations about the Tucson celebration:

By Larry Wells

I recently spent a few weeks in Tucson. Part of that time happily coincided with the annual Tucson Desert Song Festival which this year commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell).

I was able to attend 13 of the performances and was struck by the consistently intelligent programming, large audiences, and high performance standards.

Many of the events were held at the Fred Fox School of Music at the University of Arizona. Some of these involved talented student and faculty singers performing Bernstein’s Broadway songs as well as his more serious vocal works. The venue also hosted outstanding recitals by Metropolitan Opera veterans Jennifer Johnson Cano (below top) and Lisette Oropesa (below bottom).

One of the highlights was a recital by dual pianists Steven Bleier (below top, on right) and Michael Barrett (below top, on left), founders of the New York Festival of Song. Their program included Bernstein’s final song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles” featuring the very talented Joshua Jeremiah (below middle) and Rebecca Jo Loeb (below bottom).

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra (below), under the direction of its new conductor José Luis Gomez,  filled the cavernous Tucson Music Hall for two performances of Bernstein’s underperformed Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish.” Joined by the symphony’s outstanding chorus, the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, and soprano Kelley Nassief this monumental work was electrifying. The many percussionists were given a good aerobic workout, and the audience seemed hypnotized.

The only flaw was the narration rewritten and delivered by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. The original narration by the composer is a monologue between a man and his god. Ms. Bernstein’s narration changed the tone to that of a daughter speaking about her father.

For someone familiar with the work, I felt somewhat cheated that I was not hearing the work as it had been composed. Still it was a total delight to hear a live performance of a work that should be heard far more often than it is.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra offered a second program which featured a sparkling performance of Bernstein’s opera “Trouble in Tahiti” with the widely-praised, and rightly so, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (below in a photo by Dario Acosta).

Ballet Tucson offered a somewhat strange program featuring Bernstein songs beautifully performed by Cadie Jordan (below top) and David Margulis (below bottom, in a photo by Kristin Hoebermann). Sometimes they were accompanied by dancers and sometimes not.

Then, after a number of these songs, a recording came on of portions of the suite from Bernstein’s score for the film “On the Waterfront” with dancers performing a sort of “Romeo and Juliet” narrative. It didn’t seem to make any cohesive sense, but it was fun to watch and the quality of the music never faltered.

Two other large events were the Arizona Opera’s “Candide” and Tucson’s resident chorus True Concord’s MASS.

I attended the premiere of “Candide” (below) which was also performed in the vast Tucson Music Hall. I had only seen it performed once before, and that was the charming, witty, and intimate Harold Prince version. The Tucson version was one of the overlong operatic versions that featured additional musical numbers, which was a good thing, but wordy spoken dialogue that was unfortunately under-amplified. Therefore, unless someone was very familiar with the work, the production was a long string of seemingly unrelated musical numbers linked by incomprehensible spoken dialogue.

The dialogues themselves are very witty, but since they were not accompanied by supertitles as was the singing, the performance was seriously flawed. Still the singing was excellent, with special praise for Katrina Galka’s Cunegonde, and the staging was colorful and often amusing. Hopefully the sound issues were rectified for the following four performances. (You can hear the famous Overture to “Candide”– conducted by the composer —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

MASS (poster with scenes is below) was performed in what is termed as the ‘Chamber Version.’ I was apprehensive that somehow the musical content would be diminished, but my worries turned out to be unfounded and the performance was uniformly dynamic and engaging. True Concord is an outstanding choral group, and its leader Eric Holtan led a thoroughly engaging and moving performance of this monumental work. I was so taken by the first performance that I attended the second as well. Both performances filled the huge Centennial Hall.

Besides the orchestra and chorus the work features a celebrant, in this case the appropriately named Jubilant Sykes, an ensemble of vocal soloists, a boys chorus and dancers. The choreographers decided to add an additional layer of complexity to an already complex work by having some of the dancers portray Rose, Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy as well as what I think was supposed to be the spirit of JFK. This was not part of the original work, and I felt it was superfluous to an already multifaceted work. But the audience loved it all, and it turns out that Madison is not the only city that seems to give everything a standing ovation.

The takeaway moment of the festival occurred during a discussion involving composer Dan Asia, the festival director and conductor George Hanson, and Jamie Bernstein. When asked how younger audiences can be lured into concert halls, all three of them immediately concurred that the answer is to program 20th-century music. They claim that any time 20th-century music is programmed, ticket sales increase. My experience at this festival was that large venues were consistently filled with audiences of all ages.

This is something for Madison to think about.

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