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.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 2018
6 Comments

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

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


Posted in Classical music
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