The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra offers a head start on celebrating the New Year this coming Wednesday night

December 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post:

“Dear friends,

“The mostly amateur and critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below) has a fun and entertaining evening planned for this coming Wednesday night, Dec. 20.

“Think of it as an early New Year’s Eve concert.

“The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

“The program features:

Johann Strauss            Overture to Die Fledermaus (The Bat)

Johannes Brahms            Hungarian Dances 5, 6, 7 

Antonin Dvorak         Slavonic Dances Op. 46, Nos. 6, 7

Peter Tchaikovsky (below)   Selections from the Swan Lake               Suite; Opening Scene, Little Swans, Czardas, Dance Russe with Naha Greenholtz, violin

Johann Strauss            Persian March

Maurice Ravel             Tzigane, Naha Greenholtz, violin

Johann Strauss        Emperor Waltz (see the YouTube video below)

“The MCO is having a great time preparing this concert with our regular guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top) and our violin soloist, Naha Greenholtz (below bottom), who many of you know as the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The two musicians are also married.

“Tickets are $15 and are available at the door or in advance at the Willy Street Coop West. Students are FREE.

“The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Doors open at 7p.m.

“A meet-and-greet reception (below) follows the concert.

“For information, call (608) 212-8690.

Hope to see you there.”

Mindy Taranto and Larry Bevic, co-founders of the Middleton Community Orchestra

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Classical music: Grammy winners Takacs Quartet and pianist Garrick Ohlsson perform a MUST-HEAR concert of Mozart, Brahms and Shostakovich this Sunday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Plus, you can hear a FREE performance of string music by Johan Halvorsen and Philip Glass this Friday at noon

November 30, 2017
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features the Passcaglia Duo of Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen and String Quartet No. 5 by American contemporary composer Philip Glass.

Performers are violinists Kaleigh Acord, Elspeth Stalter and Ela Mowinski; violist Shannon Farley; and cellist Morgan Walsh. The concert, which runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m., will be streamed live on the Facebook page of Noon Musicales.

By Jacob Stockinger

Separately and together, The Ear loves piano and strings.

So you can imagine the appeal of a concert that will take place this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

That’s when the veteran and venerable Takacs Quartet (below) and acclaimed pianist Garrick Ohlsson will join forces in a terrific all-masterpiece program.

The concert has all the makings of a MUST-HEAR event for chamber music fans.

The award-winning Takacs Quartet, founded 42 years ago in Hungary and widely recorded and honored, will play two string quartets.

The late String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below), is the first of the composer’s three so-called “Prussian” quartets.

Known for a more relaxed style than the earlier “Haydn” quartets by Mozart, the Prussian quartets were composed for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II (below), who was a talented amateur cellist.

The Takacs will also perform the seven-movement String Quartet No. 11 in F minor by Dmitri Shostakovich (below). It is one of The Ear’s very favorite of the 16 quartets written by the Russian composer who endured the torments and treacheries of the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union.

Then Garrick Ohlsson (below) will join in for the Piano Quintet in F Minor by Johannes Brahms. It is one of the four or five crowning quintets for piano and string quartet.

The Ear loves the playing of both artists and the program should be deeply interesting and moving. The Takacs possesses a mastery of many styles and has recorded numerous quartets by Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Smetana, Janacek and, more recently, by Dvorak as well as a terrific complete cycle of the 16 Beethoven quartets.

But the Takacs has recorded little Mozart (two string quintets) and little Shostakovich (one quartet and a piano quintet), so The Ear looks forward to hearing the quartet’s take on those composers.

The Takacs has recorded the Brahms Piano Quintet, but with British pianist Stephen Hough and Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, but that work too should be a memorable performance with Ohlsson, the only American ever to win the International Chopin Piano Competition. (You can hear the energetic and lyrical opening movement from the Takacs-Hough recording in the YouTube video at the bottom, which has an intriguing and colorful bar graph to emphasize the structure.)

Tickets are $10-$47. For more information about purchasing tickets plus a video and more background about the artists, go to:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/takacs-quartet-with-garrick-ohlsson/


Classical music: Charismatic Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead at 55

November 24, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The charismatic Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below, in a 2006 photo by Richard Termine of The New York Times) had it all.

Most importantly, the great opera singer, concert singer and recitalist possessed a superb voice with wonderful tone and breath control that allowed him to even beat out Bryn Terfel to win Singer of the World at a competition in Cardiff, Wales.

But he also had handsome face and fit beefcake body that made him a believable actor in so many roles and proved a pleasure to watch on stage.

And what about that fabulous mane of prematurely white hair that became his signature?

But on Wednesday, the acclaimed Siberian singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky — who was well on his way to becoming a superstar — lost a two-year bout with brain cancer.

He died at 55 – but not after winning plaudits for unexpected appearances at the Metropolitan Opera (below) and Carnegie Hall even while he was ill.

Here are two obituaries.

The first comes from the Deceptive Cadence blog of National Public Radio (NPR) and features three samples of his singing as well as some memorable interview quotes, including the renowned singer’s unapologetic take on his own sex appeal (below) that landed him in People magazine:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/11/22/565450465/dmitri-hvorostovsky-renowned-baritone-dies-at-55

And here is a longer obituary, also with samples, from The New York Times. It includes a lot of background about the singer’s early life and career:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/arts/music/dmitri-hvorostovsky-dead.html

Did you ever see or hear Dmitri Hvorostovsky in person or perhaps in “Live From the Met in HD” broadcasts? (He sings two folk songs in the YouTube memorial video at the bottom.)

And for those of you can judge singers better than The Ear can, what was your opinion of the Russian baritone?

Did you have a favorite role or aria you liked him in?

The Ear wants to know.


Classical music: Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev returns to Madison to give a master class and to perform a solo recital of Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Gershwin at Farley’s House of Pianos this Sunday afternoon

November 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you recall the name of Ilya Yakushev (below), it is no doubt from the two impressive concerto appearances by the Russian virtuoso with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and conductor Andrew Sewell.


Madison audiences will finally have a chance to hear Yakushev, who directs the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College of Music in Manhattan, in a solo recital.

It will be held this coming Sunday afternoon, Nov. 12, at 4 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on the city’s far west side near the West Towne Mall. The concert is part of the Salon Concert Series, and a reception will follow the performance.

Tickets are $45, $10 for students. You can call (608) 271-2626 or go online (see below).

The program includes: Sonata in D Major by Franz Joseph Haydn; the Sentimental Waltz by Peter Tchaikovsky; “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in the original solo piano version, by Modest Mussorgsky; and a solo piano version of “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin.  (You can hear Yakushev play the opening part of the Mussorgsky in the YouTube video at the bottom)

On this Saturday, Nov. 11, at 4 p.m. Ilya Yakushev will also teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos. Yakushev will instruct three pianists, all of whom are on the piano faculty at Farley’s House of Pianos. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe.

The Master Class program includes: Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata (1924) – First movement, performed by Jason Kutz; Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109 “Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo,” performed by Kangwoo Jin; and Ravel’s “Miroirs” (Mirrors) – Third movement “Une barque sur l’ocean” (A Boat on the Ocean) performed by Jonathan Thornton.

For more information about the artist, the program, the master class. other concerts and tickets, go to:

http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html


Classical music: Piano sensation Daniil Trifonov plays the “Fantaisie-Impromptu” by Chopin and makes it his own

October 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Take a world-class young pianist who is a global sensation and on his way to being a superstar who specializes in Chopin – Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov (below).

Add in one of the best-known, most popular works by Frederic Chopin – his “Fantaisie-Impromptu.”

Blend in a warehouse loft and a ghostly, pop-like video with a dance-like narrative, all designed to promote Trifonov’s new CD – a budget double-disc set called “Chopin Evocations” (below).

The recording also features both piano concertos with some new orchestral touches by Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev as well as Chopin-influenced solo pieces by Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Samuel Barber, Peter Tchaikovsky and Federico Mompou.

The result may well be the most original, individual and persuasive versions of the famous piece you have ever heard of the almost clichéd piece.

Here is a link to the performance with the video, along with some fine background material from Tom Huizenga who writes the “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR (National Public Radio):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/10/04/555327012/a-young-lion-tamed-by-chopin-s-fantasy

What do you think of Trifonov’s playing in this and other works?

And what do you think about the video, which The Ear finds a bit over-the-top, both precious and schmaltzy, not at all in keeping with Chopin’s more austere and classical kind of Romanticism.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: American music is in the spotlight this weekend as pianist Olga Kern returns in a concerto by Samuel Barber and the Madison Symphony Orchestra performs Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony

October 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Peter Rodgers), with music director John DeMain conducting, will present its second concert of the season, featuring music “From the New World.”

“From the New World” features the return of soloist Olga Kern in her take on an American classic — Samuel Barber’s only Piano Concerto — for her fourth appearance with the MSO. This piece is accompanied by Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and is followed after intermission by Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, know as the “New World Symphony,” inspired by the prairies of America.

The concerts take place in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 22, at 2:30 p.m.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was originally written as a suite of “Five Children’s Pieces for Piano Four Hands” and was later orchestrated by the composer and expanded into a ballet in 1911. The piece by Ravel (below) is comprised of 11 sections, many of which are based on five fairy tales of Charles Perrault, most specifically those of his Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose Tales).

The Piano Concerto was written in Samuel Barber’s mature years, and is characterized by a gain in depth of expression and technical mastery from his earlier lyrical style. The piece was met with great critical acclaim and led to Barber (below) winning his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963 and a Music Critics Circle Award in 1964. (You can hear the second and third movements in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

                                                

Russian-American Pianist Olga Kern (below) is recognized as one of her generation’s great pianists. She jumpstarted her U.S. career with her historic Gold Medal win at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas as the first woman to do so in more than 30 years.

Winner of the first prize at the Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition she was 17, Kern is a laureate of many international competitions. In 2016, she served as jury chairman of both the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition and first Olga Kern International Piano Competition, where she also holds the title of artistic director.

Kern has performed in famed concert halls throughout the world including Carnegie Hall, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. She has appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra three times — in 2009, 2010 and 2014.

Composed in 1895 while Dvorak (below) was living in New York City, his Symphony No. 9 (often referred to as the “New World Symphony”) is said to have been inspired by the American “wide open spaces” of the prairies that he visited during a trip to Iowa in the summer of 1893.

The “New World Symphony” is considered to be one of the most popular symphonies ever written, and was even taken to the moon with Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

One hour before each performance, Anders Yocom (below, in a  photo by James Gill), Wisconsin Public Radio host of “Sunday Brunch,” will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen (below), at:

http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/2.Oct17.html

The Madison Symphony Orchestra recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert Prelude Discussion (free for all ticket-holders) one hour before the performance.

The October concerts also coincide with UW-Madison’s Homecoming Weekend celebration — another reason that MSO patrons are advised to arrive early for the concerts this weekend, especially on Friday.

Single Tickets are $18-$90 and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, got to: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets.

You can find more information at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

The first “Club 201 Concert and After-Party” of the season takes place on Friday, Oct. 20. The $35 ticket price includes one concert ticket ($68-$90 value), plus the after-party with hors d’oeuvres, cash bar, and one drink ticket. Club 201 Events are an opportunity for music enthusiasts 21 and over to connect with each other, and meet MSO musicians, Maestro John DeMain, and special guests.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Here is a direct link to find more information and to purchase tickets online: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/kern


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Classical music: Which well-known composers or works can’t you stand and consider overrated?

August 5, 2017
21 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

We all have them: Composers and well-known works we just don’t like and consider highly overrated.

Composers whose musical works are deemed masterpieces by some but just don’t speak to others.

The Ear recently saw a blog post on the Internet in which a musically sophisticated British listener ranted against Johannes Brahms (below) – the epitome for so many of carefully crafted, soulful late Romanticism — and about how unlistenable and overwritten Brahms’ music is.

The Ear also knows several people who think that the music of the Classical pioneer Franz Joseph Haydn (below) is boring beyond bearable, that his music is thoroughly second-rate or forgettable – even though the great contemporary American composer John Harbison calls Haydn the most undervalued and underplayed of the great composers.

The 12-tone, serial and atonal composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alan Berg – also come in for more than their fair share of dismissal.

For The Ear, one of those composers who divide the world in two – into those who love him and those who hate him – is Alexander Scriabin (below), the late Russian Romantic (1872-1915).

Oh, some of the early piano preludes and etudes are OK, largely thanks to the obvious influence of Chopin.

But even though Scriabin died young, he developed his own mature style, including the use of a mystical chord and a taste for apocalyptic and visionary frenzy .

To The Ear, those late works seem way too over-the-top and out-of-control, lacking in discernible structure and significance.

Not long ago, Wisconsin Public Radio played Scriabin’s symphonic tone poem “The Poem of Ecstasy.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Is The Ear the only person who finds it more like “The Poem of Agony”?

And then there are the late, virtuosic and pretentious piano sonatas called “White Mass” and “Black Mass” – favorites of the great Russian piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below) who, as a child played for Scriabin.

When it comes to the Russian school, The Ear far prefers the emotion in the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and even Peter Tchaikovsky.

Well, what can you do? Such is taste.

So today, The Ear wants to know: Are there famous composers or famous works that you just can’t stand and consider highly overrated?

Leave the name and the reason you hate it so much in the COMMENT section.

Here’s hoping for some interesting and surprising responses.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This Saturday night the Ancora String Quartet will perform a program that features works by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Niels Gade

July 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

As it has often done over its 16-year history, the Madison-based Ancora String Quartet (ASQ) will mix a relatively unknown work by a neglected composer into a program of more established chamber music by more well-known composers.

The program it will perform this coming weekend — and then again at “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” on Sunday, Aug. 6 — is no exception.

The program features: the String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, by Dmitri Shostakovich; the String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 63, by Danish composer Niels Wilhelm Gade; and the String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can hear the melodious opening of the quartet by Niels Gade in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Members of the Ancora String Quartet (below, from left, in a photo by Barry Lewis) are violinists Wes Luke and Robin Ryan; violist Marika Fischer Hoyt; and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb.

Various members the Ancora String Quartet perform with such professional groups as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Bach Musicians;  members also teach both privately and publicly, including at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The first performance takes place this coming Saturday night (NOT Friday night, as mistakenly listed earlier in a erroneous headline),  July 29, at 7:30 p.m., at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent St., on Madison’s near west side. There will be a FREE champagne reception after the concert

Tickets will be available at the door, and are for general seating. Ticket prices are $15 for the general public; $12 for seniors and students; and $6 for children under 12.

NOTE: The Ancora String Quartet will perform the same program on “Sunday Afternoon Live From The Chazen” in Brittingham Gallery No. 3  at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, Aug. 6, starting at 12:30 p.m. It will be live-streamed that day from the museum’s website,  and then re-broadcast two weeks later at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 20, on WVMO, 98.7 FM, the “Voice of Monona.”

Here is a description of the program from the quartet:

“The ASQ offers a summer program of music from Europe’s northern, eastern and western corners. The Danish composer Niels Gade (below) reveals influences of Mendelssohn and Schumann in his lyrical and dreamy quartet. Seemingly from another planet, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7 is a masterpiece of ambivalent modernist paranoia, telling his story with brevity and wit.

“Last on the program is Beethoven’s first published string quartet, written on the cusp of the 18th century. It combines Haydn’s witty Classicism, and Mozart’s lyricism,​ with a vigor, brilliance and expansive vision that is Beethoven’s own. The second movement Adagio depicts in stark terms the tragic tomb scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet,” while the other movements are distinguished by confidence, contrast, and contrapuntal complexity. ”

For more information about the performance and the quartet, including detailed biographies, go to:

http://ancoraquartet.com


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opens its 26th season with a bang worthy of its name. Plus, TONIGHT the Willy Street Chamber Players open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum in Spring Green

June 12, 2017
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A REMINDER: Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green, six members of the Willy Street Chamber Players will open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum. The program features works by Johannes Brahms, American composer Charles Ives, and Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. A free-will donation will be requested. The Hillside Theater is located at 6604 County Highway 23, Spring Green. For more information about the Rural Musicians Forum, go to: http://ruralmusiciansforum.org/home

By Jacob Stockinger

This guest review is by a new contributor, Kyle Johnson (below). As a pianist since elementary school, Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season — themed “Alphabet Soup” for 26 letters — began on Friday evening at the historic Stoughton Opera House (below bottom) with a program of underprogrammed French, German and Russian works.

BDDS is led by artistic directors (below) Stephanie Jutt, UW-Madison’s newly-retired flute professor and principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and Jeffrey Sykes, pianist of the San Francisco Piano Trio who studied at the UW-Madison. The two musicians assembled a “dynamite” group of musicians for their opening concert.

First on the program was Médailles antiques (Old Medals) for flute, violin and piano from 1916 by Philippe Gaubert (below). Like the weather throughout the day on Friday, the piece provided a sunny and spry start to the program in the centennial year of World War I.

At times, I wanted the ends of phrases to have a little more stretch and grace to them. However, the richness of sound from each musician, as well as the ensemble’s superb blend, made up for any small qualm I may have had.

The next piece, Gideon Klein’s String Trio (1944), featured three “apprentice” musicians from BDDS’s Dynamite Factory. Violinist Misha Vayman (below top), violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below middle) and cellist Trace Johnson (below bottom) are the program fellows for this year’s series.

Striking about the work was Klein’s musical optimism amid stark reality – the piece was written at the Auschwitz concentration camp just a few months before the death of the composer (below).

The Dynamite Factory artists gave a spirited rendition of the weighty work, which at times resembles the rollicking intensity of Bela Bartok’s folk dances.

Before the intermission, the audience was treated to Sergei Prokofiev’s chilling Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80, for violin and piano. Like the preceding piece, Prokofiev’s sonata was written during the strife of World War II. (You can hear the first movement, played by Maxim Vengerov, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Prokofiev labeled one passage at the end of the first movement as “wind passing through a graveyard”; the passage (a series of quick violin scales) returns at the close of the piece. Under the hands of violinist Carmit Zori (below top) and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below bottom), the sonata seemed both devastating and human.

A brief, unprogrammed presentation began the second half of the concert, which was a performance of “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from the oratorio Solomon by George Frideric Handel.

The work was lauded and produced by the Fourth Earl of Sandwich in the mid-1700s. Fittingly, during the music, characters clad in 18th-century attire roamed the Stoughton Opera House to hand out sandwiches.

Last on the program was Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26, played by violinist Zori; Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm (below top); Toronto Symphony principal cellist Joseph Johnson (below bottom); and pianist Sykes.

The quartet brimmed with musical swells and overlapping layers of sound. There are a number of memorable themes that allow the listener to simply ride the wave of sound throughout the 40-minute work.

All of the musicians were fully deserving of the ovation (below, in a photo by Kyle Johnson) they received in Stoughton, as all technical demands were met with superb musicality and passion.

Future BDDS concerts run through June 25 and are not to be missed! For more information about programs and about performers, performance dates, times and venues, go to www.bachdancing.org


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra, with solo violinist Paran Amirinazari, closes its seventh season with rousing and intense performances of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky

June 9, 2017
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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 FM. 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

On Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its seventh season with a rousing program offering three contrasting Russian works.

The opener was the Overture to Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, as realized by Alexander Glazunov. It served to show off the orchestra’s ever-developing string band, solid in tone, if still lacking a little in warmth.

A real gem was the second work, the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Prokofiev. By contrast with the composer’s first venture in that form — a taut, aggressive affair — this one is more relaxed and jovial, if no less demanding technically.

The soloist was Paran Amirinazari (below), stepping out of her usual concertmaster’s slot into the full spotlight. She handled admirably the great technical demands of her solo role, full of quirky and tricky writing.

But, amid all the spikiness she pointed up handsomely the real and almost neo-Romantic lyrical sweetness that Prokofiev infused into the showiness. (Just listen to the gorgeous second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is one of the truly great violin concertos, and Amirinazari — the brilliant artistic director of the fabulous Willy Street Chamber Players — demonstrated that adroitly.

The final work was a grand effort: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. This is, of course, one of those “warhorses” about which The Ear has been debating lately. It is thereby the more challenging for an orchestra to present to an audience likely to be familiar with it.

Its calculated lavishness has made it a masterpiece beloved by the public, but it is still fascinating to encounter with close listening. The composer pulled out all his tricks of dazzling orchestration and melodic invention, but in the service of a grand-scaled structure that skillfully manipulates cyclical and cross-referential transformation of themes through the score’s totality.

Maestro Steve Kurr (below) by now has nurtured remarkably solid resources for an orchestra of this kind. The potent brass choir is really well consolidated, backing fine-sounding woodwinds. Kurr made the most of these resources, in a well-rehearsed performance in which the stress on intensity of playing resulted in highly dramatic results, culminating in a truly noble ending.

This was a richly satisfying program, showcasing an ensemble of which Middleton should be button-burstingly proud.


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