The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra impresses in a concert of “non-holiday” music for the holidays. Plus, what music is best to greet the Winter Solstice today?

December 21, 2018
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ALERT: Today we turn a  corner when the Winter Solstice arrives at 4:23 p.m. Days will start getting longer. What music would you celebrate it with? Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” section of “The Four Seasons”? Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey”? Let The Ear know in the COMMENT section with a YouTube link if possible. Here comes the sun!

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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) proudly presented an alternative Christmas program of music, none of which had any connection whatsoever with that otherwise inescapable holiday.

It was a program of great variety, full of novelties.

It began soberly with Gustav Mahler’s early song cycle, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). This venture into German orchestral song (with a folk song background) provided symphonic inspiration for his First Symphony, the so-called “Titan,” so it unites many strains in the composer’s work.

Baritone Paul Rowe (below), of the UW-Madison’s music faculty, sang these songs. Rowe has a strong feeling for German, and he used clear diction to capture the dramatic meanings of the four song texts.

A contrast then, and a particular novelty, was the appearance of Matthew Coley (below), of the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion, playing the cimbalom, the intensely Hungarian version of the hammered dulcimer. 

He was joined by the orchestra for a fancy arrangement of the Hungarian dance, the popular Czardas by Vittorio Monti. (You can hear Matthew Coley play the same piece on the cimbalom in the YouTube video at the bottom.) He followed this with an encore, a hand-me-down arrangement of a movement from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suites.

More contrast came with the mini-ballet score by Darius Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) of 1919. This was one of the French composer’s trailblazing introductions of American jazz styles into European music.

It really works best with a small orchestra, so Middleton’s was a bit overblown for the assignment. But the elaborate solo role for violin was taken by Naha Greenholtz — concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and wife of the evening’s guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. There are some fiendish passages in the solo work, and Greenholtz brought them off with unfailing flair.

The final part of the program was devoted to the orchestral suite that Zoltan Kodaly derived from his Singspiel of 1926, Hary Janos, in which a comic Hungarian soldier upstages even Napoleon.

This is a satiric and highly colorful assemblage that offers wonderful opportunities for all of the instruments and sections to show off. And Coley was back with his cimbalom for Hungarian spice. The players clearly were having a great frolic, and conductor Knox drew the best out of them in a bravura performance.

Ah yes! Christmas without “Christmas” music. A wonderful idea to refresh the ears in December!


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Classical music: Conductor Steve Kurr talks about the all-Beethoven program that the Middleton Community Orchestra performs this Friday night with pianist Thomas Kasdorf and the Madison Symphony Chorus.

December 14, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is definitely not your typical program at holiday time.

But it sure is appealing — and timely too, given the birthday on this Wednesday, Dec. 16, of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

This Friday night – NOT the usual Wednesday night concert time — the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform a big and ambitious all-Beethoven program.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, the exterior and interior) that is attached to Middleton High School.

Middleton PAC2

Middleton PAC1

The program features the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major “Eroica” and the Choral Fantasy. Guest artists include the Madison Symphony Chorus and returning pianist Thomas Kasdorf.

Admission is $10; free for students. Advance tickets are available at a variety of outlets. The box office opens at 7 p.m. and the theater opens at 7:30 p.m.

As always, there will be an informal meet-and-greet reception for musicians and the audience after the performance.

Middleton Community Orchestra reception

For more information about the Madison Community Orchestra, including its spring concerts and how to join it or support it, visit:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Conductor Steve Kurr took time out from his busy schedule of teaching and rehearsing to discuss the program via email with The Ear.

Steve Kurr.

The “Eroica” is one of Beethoven’s biggest, most famous and most popular symphonies. Why did you program it for an amateur orchestra?

I think you answered your own question. Our musicians and our audience are interested in experiencing a titanic work like the “Eroica.” We are having a spectacular time as we prepare the work–learning the ins and outs of this symphony and getting to know more about Beethoven and his compositional processes. And it has opportunities for each instrument to shine, so it is fun to play.

What kind of technical and interpretative challenges will the “Eroica” pose to you and to the players in the Middleton Community Orchestra?

One of the toughest parts of the “Eroica” is its size. Clocking in at around 50 minutes, this work can be taxing for players both physically and mentally.

In addition, there are some overarching ideas that Beethoven begins in the opening movement that are not resolved until the finale and we have to keep those in mind over the length of the whole symphony.

There are also some typical Beethoven gestures that add to this mix–such as the crescendo leading to a sudden piano–that shows up all over the place in the “Eroica.”

Middleton Community Orchestra Steve Kurr conducting

What special things should the public listen for in the “Eroica”?

  • The connection of this symphony to Napoleon is well documented.  Beethoven (below top) dedicated the work to the French leader, but was so incensed when Napoleon (below bottom) declared himself emperor that he scratched the dedication out on the cover page. But the original idea of the piece being “heroic” remains.
  • The work was composed around the same time as his ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus” and includes some similar thematic material.  Think about Prometheus as you listen.
  • The premier coup d’archet (“opening stroke of the bow”) at the very start calls the audience to sit up and pay attention–a very exciting way to start.
  • Tovey’s Cloud: The odd resolution to the opening phrase (heard in the cello just seconds into the first movement) was identified by musicologist Donald Francis Tovey back in the first half of the 20th Century as a cloud that hung over the work and is not resolved until much later in the work.
  • The accents throughout the opening movement obscure the meter and propel the movement forward, and there are some exquisite dissonances in the first movement that increase a tension that does not truly resolve until the finale. It is almost as if the Romantic Period is struggling, as we listen in, to emerge from the composer’s pen.
  • Right before we return to the opening material in the first movement, the strings become as quiet as they have ever been and the horn barges in with an “accidental” statement of the first theme. Publishers and conductors at first thought it was a mistake in the parts, but the sketches for the piece included that little gag from the very beginning.
  • For the first time, the dance movement (the minuet in earlier symphonies, the scherzo by this work) has taken on a scope and weight equal to the rest of the piece.
  • The da capo or repeat of the scherzo movement is completely written out (a major use of ink in his day) so that he could insert just a few measures of duple meter in one spot–definitely a curious and charming moment.
  • The theme upon which the finale is based is one of those Prometheus melodies, but it also shows up in a set of piano variations and in a contredanse.  Overall, the finale has a definite feeling of dance to it.
  • The finale combines the idea of a set of variations and the sonata form concept.

Beethoven big

Napoleon

What did you program the Choral Fantasy with the Eroica Symphony?

Pairing Beethoven works together has benefits. It puts us in a Beethoven frame of mind, which helps the musicians focus on the style.  And with the length of the “Eroica,” the “Choral Fantasy” fits so well into a concert program. It is also nice to pair a lesser-known work with the familiar “Eroica.”

Who will perform the choral part in the Choral Fantasy? And what should we listen for in the work?

We are extremely excited to be joining with the Madison Symphony Chorus (below in a photo by Greg Anderson) for this endeavor.  It will be one of our first times working with a chorus, and we are all looking forward to the chance to collaborate with this first-rate ensemble.

The piece is an unusual one: it begins with a large piano solo section followed by a section that trades back and forth between the soloist and the orchestra.

It ends with the piano, orchestra and chorus joining together for a rousing finish that foreshadows the last movement (“Ode to Joy”) of the Ninth Symphony.

The piece was premiered on Dec. 22, 1808 (with the composer at the keyboard) at a concert that also included the Fifth and Sixth (“Pastoral”)  Symphonies. Listen for the improvisatory quality of the opening piano solo and for the text, written by Christoph Kuffner, which extols music and its great powers. (NOTE: In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it performed live at the BBC Proms by Norwegian pianist and conductor Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Singers.) 

Madison Symphony Chorus women CR Greg Anderson

Thomas Kasdorf, a talented Middleton native and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, is the piano soloist in the Choral Fantasy. He has done a number of concertos by other composers such as Edvard Grieg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky with you. Will he become a regular with the MCO? Might you do a cycle of Beethoven piano concertos with him?

We always enjoy having Mr. Kasdorf as our soloist. He is an excellent musician and he is what I might call a low-maintenance soloist–working with him is effortless. I sincerely hope to continue our collaborations, but I hesitate to speculate on any future repertoire. But the Fourth Piano Concerto of Beethoven is a favorite of mine, so Thomas and I may have to chat.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

Is there anything else you would like to say?

It is such an honor to work with these marvelous people in the Middleton Community Orchestra.  This is our sixth season and we continue to enjoy spending our Wednesday evenings making music together.

 


Classical music: How did Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which celebrates Russia’s victory over Napoleon, became a staple of Fourth of July celebrations in America?

July 4, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is our national holiday: The Fourth of July  — America’s annual Independence Day, which celebrates when the new nation’s Declaration of Independence (below) from Great Britain was issued in 1776.

Every summer, even as they are cheering and applauding the music and fireworks, a lot of Americans ask the same question: How did Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” – complete with ringing bells and booming cannons – become such an integral part of Fourth of July celebrations?

And an integral part of July 4 and Independence Day it certainly is, as you can hear in almost all celebrations and fireworks displays. nJust listen to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s second Concert of the Square tonight, starting at 7 p.m.

For more information the WCO’s “Star-Spangled Spectacular” concert tonight, visit:

http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square/38/event-info/

This summer, where the dangerously dry weather doesn’t force officials to cancel fireworks, Fourth of July celebrations and fireworks shows will begin this weekend and go through the week, with some celebrations postponed until August or even September.

And chances are good that most or even all of these will feature the “1812 Overture.”

It was commissioned by the Czar and written by Tchaikovsky (below) to mark Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s invasion. So how did it become such a part of American lore? Even the people who love hearing the music can’t really answer that question. But the answer is easier and makes more sense and is more recent than you might think.

But recently musicologist Jan Swafford recently answered that question on NPR. It was the best and most comprehensive answer that The Ear has ever heard. It eve has a section-by-section analysis of the music with samples.

It is worth reading and especially listening to if you want to know, once and for all, how the famously loud overture was transplanted to the American celebration of Independence Day.

Here is a link complete with musical examples and analysis as well as the historical and artistic context both here and in Russia:

http://www.npr.org/2012/06/24/155597979/the-co-opting-of-tchaikovskys-1812-overture


Classical music: How would Beethoven like America? And why did America love Beethoven? Ask Michael Broyles.

April 3, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It is a well-established fact that Beethoven was a liberal for his day a defender of democracy who dedicated his “Eroica” Symphony to Napoleon and then crossed out the dedication when Napoleon declared himself emperor.

Of course, Beethoven (below) also had close ties to the aristocracy, which provided him with patrons for his work.

But he was suspicious of royalty and generally favored populism.

So how would Beethoven have liked America?

And how did Beethoven end up being an icon of classical music, the very embodiment of classical music, in America? (And what did rocker Chuck Berry have to do with it?)

These are intriguing questions. You think they would have been explored at length before.

But scholar Michael Broyles has written “Beethoven in America,” a book-length study of these questions, and the book has generally been very well received.

Read all about it – via these links to reviews:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/books/beethoven-in-america-by-michael-broyles-review.html?_r=1

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/beethoven-in-america-by-michael-broyles/2011/10/18/gIQAdNEqDP_story.html

And here is an interview with Michael Broyles (below, right with a Beethoven “doll”), the writer:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/articles/wqxr-features/2011/nov/09/how-beethoven-became-american-icon/

What do you think of Broyles’ argument?

If you read the book, what do you think of it?

And why do you think Beethoven is so popular in America – ad whether Beethoven would have liked America in hid=s lifetime?

The Ear wants to hear.


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