The Well-Tempered Ear

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
7 Comments

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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: The reviews are in — and they are all raves. This afternoon is your last chance to hear the season-opening concert by maestro John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist Emanuel Ax

September 30, 2018
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

Are you still undecided about whether to attend the season-opening concert — this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall — by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), with world-famous piano soloist Emanuel Ax (below bottom, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)?

Perhaps the following rave reviews — which all agree on quality of the program and the performances that start DeMain’s 25th anniversary season and the MSO’s 93rd season — will help you to make up your mind.

The program is certainly an attractive one. It features the curtain-raising  “Fanfare Ritmico” by the living American composer Jennifer Higdon (below); Sergei Prokofiev’s dramatic and appealing score to the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” in a suite specially put together by DeMain; and the monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83, by Johannes Brahms.

Here is a link to a longer background story with details about the program, the performers and tickets, which run $18-$93:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/classical-music-this-weekend-pianist-emanuel-ax-helps-conductor-john-demain-opens-his-25th-season-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra/

Here is a review written by Matt Ambrosio (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, for The Capital Times:

https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/music/madison-symphony-orchestra-gets-its-season-off-to-a-strong/article_3b90302e-b354-5e95-817c-23a0dffe6950.html

And here is the lengthy review — with many discerning details about the background and the actual performance — from the veteran and very knowledgeable reviewer Greg Hettmansberger (below) from his blog “What Greg Says”:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/09/29/john-demain-launches-his-25th-madison-symphony-season/

Unfortunately, The Ear could not find an opening-night  review by John W. Barker, who usually covers the MSO for Isthmus.

Of course, you can be a critic too. If you already have heard the MSO concert, either on Friday or Saturday night, please leave your own remarks – positive or negative – in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: You Must Hear This: Violinist Hilary Hahn plays “Mercy” by Max Richter

March 26, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the gems in the 27 encores that violinist Hilary Hahn commissioned from 27 different composers a couple of years ago is “Mercy” by the German-born British composer Max Richter.

Hahn has played here several times, mostly at the Wisconsin Union Theater but also with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Although Max Richter’s Minimalist music has not been played in Madison as far as The Ear remembers, you might already know his name from the popular recording of his take on Vivaldi in “The Four Seasons Recomposed” or his more ambitious and most current project “Sleep,” which provides music for eight and a half hours of sleeping.

But The Ear confesses he had not heard this moving miniature called “Mercy” until recently, even though Hahn recorded it along with the other 26 encores with pianist Cory Smithe.

He likes it.

And so apparently do a lot of other listeners.

So it is something that is well worth using five minutes of your time to sample.

Write your comments, positive or negative, below.

The Ear wants to hear.


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