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: Here are the performers, programs and schedule for Saturday’s concerts by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras

March 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras to post:

Join us for our second concert series of the season, the Diane Ballweg Winterfest Concerts on this Saturday, March 10, in Mills Concert Hall, 455 North Park Street, on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Programmed pieces include works from Brian Balmages, Ludwig van Beethoven, Ralph Matesky, Gustav Holst, Samuel Barber, and more.

For the full concert repertoire, go to: https://www.wysomusic.org/2018-winterfest-repertoire/

“Every one of these concerts is jam-packed with great music—the kind of classics that have endured,” said interim WYSO artistic director Randal Swiggum (below).

“These concerts will inspire audiences, guaranteed, not just with masterworks like Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ from The Planets, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, but with the energy and freshness that young musicians bring to this music.” (You can hear the dramatic and well-known opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with an engaging graphic display of its structure, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Additional highlights from the concerts include an Opus One collaboration with the WYSO Music Makers Honors Ensemble on the traditional piece Goin’ To Boston; a guest appearance from NBC-15 TV News Anchor/Reporter John Stofflet (below top) who will narrate Sinfonietta’s performance of Lincoln at Gettysburg; and concerto performances from the 2017-2018 Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition winners, violist Maureen Sheehan (below middle) of Middleton and violinist Dexter Mott (below bottom) of Madison.

“Both Maureen with the Walton Viola Concerto, and Dexter with the Sibelius Violin Concerto, have tackled mature pieces that demand not just technical prowess, but thoughtful, nuanced interpretation,” Swiggum said. “I know audiences will be truly moved by their playing.”

Tickets are available at the door the day of the concerts, and are $10 for adults and $5 for youth 18 and under.

               Diane Ballweg Winterfest Concerts Schedule

11:30 a.m. – Opus One with WYSO Music Makers (below, playing at the Wisconsin Union Theater) and Sinfonietta with NBC-15 News Anchor/Reporter John Stofflet narrating Lincoln at Gettysburg.

1:30 p.m. – Harp Ensemble (below) and Concert Orchestra.

4:00 p.m. – Philharmonia Orchestra (below), with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, and Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets.

7:00 p.m. – Youth Orchestra, with performances from the 2017-2018 Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition winners, Dexter Mott and Maureen Sheehan.


Classical music: Singer-scholar Emery Stephens HAS CANCELLED his return to coach students about and to perform a FREE recital of African-American songs and spirituals on Tuesday night at UW

March 13, 2017
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ALERT: Please IGNORE the posted dates and times below. Professor Emery Stephens has CANCELLED his appearances this week at the UW-Madison due to illness. According to the UW-Madison,  Stephens will try to reschedule his master classes and recital layer this spring. The Ear apologies for any misunderstanding or inconvenience, but he just heard about the cancellation.

By Jacob Stockinger

The last time Professor Emery Stephens (below) visited the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, it was in 2015 and he lectured about “African-American Voices in Classical Music.”

(You can hear Emery Stephens narrate “The Passion of John Brown” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Now this week – today and Tuesday – the acclaimed scholar and baritone singer returns to the UW.

This time he will spend Monday coaching UW voice and piano students.

Then on Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, Stephens plus the voice and piano students and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer will perform a FREE recital of African-American songs and spirituals. Also included are some solo piano works by African-American composer Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949, below).

Here is a link not only to more information about Stephens’ recital, including the program, but also to information about his last visit and about a performance on Wednesday from 1:20 to 3 p.m. in the Memorial Union by the Black Music Ensemble.

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/emery-stephens-returns-african-american-songs-and-spirituals/2017-03-13/


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