The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Let us celebrate Brit Grit after the Manchester terrorist attack with Elgar’s Symphony No. 1

May 24, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

First came the unforgettable.

Then came the unforgivable.

In the first case, I am talking about the woefully under-attended performance on Sunday afternoon at the Wisconsin Union Theater by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (below) under its outgoing maestro Edo de Waart.

The MSO played the Overture to the opera “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Schelomo: A Hebraic Rhapsody” by Ernest Bloch, with principal cellist Susan Babini as soloist; and the Symphony No. 1 by Sir Edward Elgar.

In each case, all sections of the orchestra performed stunningly well and the caliber of performance made you wonder: “Why don’t we hear this group more often?”

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra used to tour to Madison every year or so. It should do so again.

Then not long after the concert came word of the deadly terrorist attack by a suicide bomber at a pop concert in Manchester, England.

Sure, sometimes these things just happen. But coincidences can have power.

The Ear can’t think of a more stately and forceful statement of British fortitude and stoicism – the same grit that saw Britain through the Nazi blitz — than the poignant march-like opening of the first movement of Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1.

Chances are you don’t know the symphony.

Chances are you know Elgar from his “Pomp and Circumstance” Marches, from his “Enigma Variations” for orchestra, from his Cello Concerto, from his Violin Concerto, from the violin miniature “Salut d’amour.”

But this is grand and great Elgar (below) who, like Brahms, turned to writing symphonies only late in his life.

We don’t hear Elgar’s first symphony often enough.

And this just happens to be the right time, both because of the world-class performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and because the symphony was premiered in 1908 — in Manchester — and then went on to be popular enough to have some 100 performances in its first year.

But it has fallen out of favor. The last time the Ear heard it live was years ago when the UW Symphony Orchestra played it under the baton of guest conductor and UW-Madison alumnus Kenneth Woods (below), who now leads the English Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Mahler Festival.

So here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is a complete recording from the BBC Proms in 2012. Perhaps you will only listen to the opening movement, or even just the opening of the opening movement, with its moving theme that recurs throughout and then returns at the end.

But however much you listen to — and you shouldn’t miss the glorious slow movement – it seems a fitting choice to share today.

After all, as Leonard Bernstein once said: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

If you have another choice of music to listen to on this deadly occasion, leave word and a YouTube link in the COMMENT section.

Solidarity through music!

Classical music review: The Middleton Community Orchestra again shows itself to be a valuable but under-appreciated resource in an area rich with great music-making.

March 5, 2012

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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Once again, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by William Ballhorn)) has reminded me of what genuine musical riches are to be found in the less-publicized areas of our cultural life.

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the MCO delivered the third of its four concerts this season. It was a short but intense program of three 20th-century works.

The first item was Aaron Copland‘s “Railroad Ballad for Orchestra” on the traditional song “John Henry,” about the railroading hero. This served as a lively, even noisy opener, but one rather too simplistic in its textures to foretell what lay ahead.

Ernest Bloch‘s “Hebraic Rhapsody” Schelomo is at once a symphonic poem and a miniature concerto for cello.

Featured as soloist was Jordan Allen (below), an example of the kind of talent that can so readily be harvested from hereabouts. Wisconsin-born Allen, already a veteran of the Eastman School of Music, is currently a fellowship graduate student at the UW School of Music Boyishly young and charming, he has the makings of a fine artist. He is already skilled as a chamber musician, but he gives the impression of still working his way into solo concertizing.

Playing from the score, he appeared to be still working to master Bloch’s solo demands. He produced a genuinely warm and winning tone, note-perfect, but nevertheless not fulfilling Bloch’s vision of the Biblical Solomon as a powerful king and a pillar of wisdom.

The orchestra worked intensely at Bloch’s dense tapestry of colors, conveying it with conviction, though conductor Steve Kurr could not quite bring its swirling climaxes to fullest realization.

The third work in the intermission-less concert was the 1919 Suite from Stravinsky’s great ballet, L’oiseau de feu or “The Firebird.” Conductor and orchestra clearly had put a lot of devoted work into preparing the performance.

Kurr (below) made no attempt at a flamboyant “interpretation,” but he guided the players with care and clarity through the intricate patterns of instrumental color that the score contains. Particularly impressive was the work of the splendid team of woodwind players with which the MCO is blessed. The sum total was a performance of satisfying vivacity and strength.

Kurr and his MCO players are a brave bunch, working near-miracles in their very restricted rehearsal time. The Madison area can be proud to have them among its musical resources.

Delighting in facing challenges, they have posed a real set of them for their final concert of this season, to be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 30: Suppe’s “Jolly Robbers” Overture; Samuel Barber‘s First Essay for Orchestra; Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488, with soloist Thomas Kasdorf; and the Brahms Fourth Symphony. I, for one, am really looking forward to it.

Here is a link to the Middleton Community Orchestra’s website for more information about how to join it plus background stories, reviews and photos::

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