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!


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: More chamber music should be performed at the Goodman Community Center on the east side. Are there other underused venues?

July 21, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday morning, The Ear headed off to the Goodman Community Center (below), on the near east side just off Atwood Avenue.

The reason was to hear a noontime concert by one of his favorite chamber music groups: The Willy Street Chamber Players.

The summer concert was part of the new and FREE Community Connect series by The Willys. And the terrific performances of works by Caroline Shaw, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Astor Piazzolla and Johannes Brahms seemed to draw in a good-sized crowd that was younger and even included some children.

Clearly, The Willys have indeed connected to the community in a different part of town than where they usually perform.

But another of the great things about The Willys is that they also explore new venues.

For the past two winters, they have performed a season preview concert in “A Place to Be” on Williamson Street.

What struck The Ear this time, however, was the Evjue Community Room (below) at the Goodman Center.

The handsomely rehabbed room sure seems an ideal venue for chamber music.

Why, The Ear wondered, was it the first time he was there for a concert?

The room seats about 100, making it ideal for intimate music.

It has lots of natural light, which the players (below) said they really like for reading music.

And the acoustics were superb, no doubt the result of the cream-colored brick, the dark wood, the glass windows and the metal ductwork – all hard surfaces that made for clarity and sufficient volume, even in the back rows. It is, as they say in the biz, a “live” space.

Take a look:

The Ear sure hopes the Goodman Center will see the return of The Willys.

More to the point, he also hopes that other chamber music groups will also use the center. It would be a wonderful spot for recitals and small groups of all kinds.

What do you think of the Goodman Center as a venue for classical music and other kinds of music?

Do you know of other underused performance spaces around the Madison area that you would recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.


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