The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in its holiday concert of great non-holiday music and shows why it is attracting bigger audiences

December 26, 2016
1 Comment

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 89.9 FM. For many years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Last Wednesday night, in the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave what was billed as its “Holiday 2016 Concert.” Fortunately, it had no seasonal connection whatsoever—just a lot of good music.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Opening the program was a sequence of three Slavonic Dances (Nos. 1,4 and 8) by Antonin Dvorak.  (You can hear the zesty and energetic first Slavonic Dance, performed by Seiji Ozawa and the Vienna Philharmonic, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The conductor this time, UW-Madison graduate student Kyle Knox (below), was able to point up lots of instrumental details that could be easily lost, and the orchestra played with a lusty vigor appropriate to the folk flavor of this music.

kyle-knox-2016

After that, Knox’s wife, Naha Greenholtz (below) — who happens to be the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, among other things—joined the MCO in Felix Mendelssohn’s beautiful and very popular Violin Concerto in E minor.

naha

Greenholtz played from the score, and some occasional technical blurrings suggested that she does not yet have the piece securely in her fingers.

Still, she clearly understands the work’s shape and contours, and I particularly appreciated her flowing tempo for the middle movement, not as slow as we too often hear it. Her overall effect with this concerto was handsome and colorful.

naha-greennholtz-and-kyle-knox-with-middleton-community-orchestra

The main work was the Second Symphony by Brahms, which you can hear n the YouTube video at the bottom. This is a challenging work, especially when the important exposition repeat in the long first movement is honored, as Knox did.

Knox showed a thorough grasp of the score, and brought out its structures superbly. I found myself appreciating anew the wondrous way the composer is able to make his themes evolve to reveal unexpected beauties.

Well done, this is a richly satisfying work, and Knox drew out of his players (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) a truly satisfying performance.

Middleton Community Orchestra strings CR Brian Ruppert

The Middleton Community Orchestra continues to develop and progress. Just now, it is rather violin-heavy with 14 firsts and 18 seconds against only 9 violas and 13 cellos. These fiddlers need to blend better, and experience in working together will doubtless move them in that direction.

In general, the orchestra sounded quite healthy, fully supportive in the concerto and really accomplished in the symphony. All that is clearly the result of hard work, and Knox deserves a good deal of the credit for it.

Notable also was the large audience turnout. Middletonians can clearly be proud of their orchestra, and more and more of the Madison public is learning that a trip to the west side can be most rewarding.

MIddleton Community Orchestra audience

The MCO is by now, in its seventh season, a valuable and appreciated component of our area’s musical life.


Classical music: Why didn’t Beverly Taylor get to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mozart’s Requiem last weekend and fill in for maestro John DeMain? Was it sexism or something more innocent? You can hear Taylor tonight conduct the University of Wisconsin Concert Choir and the UW Chamber Orchestra in J.S. Bach’s “St. John Passion” and then on Saturday night, April 26, when she conducts the UW Choral Union in Rachmaninoff’s a cappella “Vespers.”

April 12, 2014
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

There I was last Sunday afternoon, sitting in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, deeply engaged in and enjoying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s glorious and poignant Requiem, incomplete as the original score is.

Now, I have my own personal reasons why the performance and music proved especially moving to me.

But suffice it to say that during the outstanding performance that was turned in by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), the Madison Symphony Chorus (below bottom, in a photo by Greg Anderson), guest soloists including UW graduate soprano Emily Birsan and guest conductor Julian Wachner, from the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City, I kept wondering:

Why isn’t Beverly Taylor conducting this program?

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

You may recall that Beverly Taylor has headed the choral department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music for 19 years. Before that, she was at Harvard. Plus, she regularly tours and does guest stints.

And if you are like The Ear, Beverly Taylor (below) has probably brought you more memorable moments of great choral music than any other musician in town since Robert Fountain, especially through her almost two decades at the UW-Madison during which she has directed the main community and campus group, the UW Choral Union, as well as various other UW groups, including the Concert Choir.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

She has also conducted world premieres and Midwest premieres, and she has worked with some pretty big names, singers and instrumentalists (cellist Matt Haimovitz) as well as composers such as Robert Kyr (below top) and John Harbison (below bottom).

robert kyr

JohnHarbisonatpiano

So then I started thinking:

When have I heard Beverly Taylor conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra -– of which she is the assistant conductor, the same kind of post that launched the meteoric career of Leonard Bernstein (below) when he was the assistant conductor to Bruno Walter at the New York Philharmonic? Assistants often get to fill in when the principal conductor is ill or out-of-town. Same thing happened to assistant conductor Seiji Ozawa when Bernstein was ill disposed.

bernstein-new-york-city-nightlife-rmc-image-1001-bw

Perhaps memory fails me, but I could not think of a single time when I heard Taylor conduct the MSO in a regular season subscription concert.

Can it be true that she is good enough to keep her post, but not good enough to perform its duties when the occasion arises. And if it is true, is it right? Would that happen to a man?

Now, it is true that Taylor’s many duties include preparing the MSO Chorus. And she performed that important duty in a fine manner for the Mozart Requiem, which was acknowledged both in critics’ reviews and in the loud applause when she came on stage to take a bow. One suspects she herself has conducted Mozart’s Requiem several times in her long career.

Not that guest conductor Julian Wachner (below top) was in any way a failure or proved unsatisfactory. He conducted just fine, even if the program was somewhat odd because it opened with a single Slavonic Dance by Antonin Dvorak, which is usually an encore instead of a curtain-raiser; and because it featured Joseph Jongen’s “Symphonie Concertante” for Organ and Orchestra with guest organist, and a real real virtuoso, Nathan Laube (below).

The Jongen is a work that wasn’t performed here at all until the Overture Center opened with its custom-built, million-dollar Klais concert organ; and now we have heard it twice in 10 years. I think I can go another 10 or 20 years without hearing this second-tier work again. It has its moments, but they are not very many and they are not very long.

Julian Wachner conducting

Nathan Laube at console

Anyway, just to be sure, I checked the biographies of Julian Wacher and Beverly Taylor. I compared and decided that Taylor’s holds up just fine. See for yourself:

http://www.julianwachner.com/press/biography/

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/btaylor

http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/bio?faculty_id=54

You will notice that Taylor, who has a good training pedigree, is not only the chorus preparer for the MSO, but also the Assistant Conductor -– the one who helps the main maestro and music director John DeMain help balance the orchestra during rehearsals and who consults with him on other occasions for other reasons.

And Beverly Taylor has certainly conducted her share of major chorus and orchestra masterworks with the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Chamber Orchestra: Requiems by Giuseppe Verdi and Johannes Brahms as well as Mozart; Benjamin Britten’s “War” Requiem’; Antonin Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater”; and many other works including Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and B Minor Mass, Mozart’s great C Minor Mass, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” (below); Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” George Frideric Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” (at bottom in a YouTube video performance by the UW Choral Union under the baton of Taylor), Franz Joseph Haydn’s “ Lord Nelson” Mass, the “Symphony of Psalms” by Igor Stravinsky and other works by Gabriel Faure,  Anton Bruckner, Leonard Bernstein and Francis Poulenc.

Missa Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra

In fact, you can hear Beverly Taylor in action TONIGHT at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, when she conducts the UW Concert Choir and the UW Chamber Orchestra in Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” (tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for seniors and students); and again on Saturday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, when she will conduct the UW Choral Union in the large-scale a cappella “Vespers” by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) for one performance only.  Admission for the “Vespers” is $10 for the public, free for seniors and students. 

rachmaninoffyoung

So I am again left with the question: Why didn’t Beverly Taylor get to fill in on the podium for MSO conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), who is also the artistic director of the Madison Opera and who was off in Virginia guest conducting Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” It sure seemed like her kind of program.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

I want to give the MSO the benefit of the doubt and not jump to the conclusion that Taylor didn’t get the podium to herself because of sexism, especially since the MSO has booked guest women conductors, including the Finnish firecracker Anu Tali (below top), and hired a woman concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz (below bottom), whom it has often highlighted as a soloist.

Anu Tali

Naha Greenholtz profile

But then I also remembered that the MSO used Taylor’s colleague at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, instrumental conductor James Smith, for this year’s “Final Forte” Bolz Young Artist Competition concert and broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.

And I also read a New York Times story about how even the great and high-profile Metropolitan Opera has had only three -– yes, count them, three -– women conductors  (below top is Anne Manson leading the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra) in its entire history, even during the time when women conductors like Marin Alsop (below middle) and JoAnn Falletta (below bottom) are much in the news. Here is a link to that story:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/22/arts/music/female-conductors-search-for-equality-at-highest-level.html?_r=0

women conductors NY Tmes Anne Manson leading the Manitoba Chamber orchestra

Marin Alsop 2

conducting_joann_falletta

So what about our own hometown woman conductor? Maybe it really is a question of sexism, perhaps the unconscious or subconscious kind, or the kind that is camouflaged under other concerns like incompetence and low public appeal. Or maybe it is just a question of the orchestra’s history, habit and tradition in action.  Or perhaps it is something as simple and innocent as a schedule conflict or an overbooked schedule. But it looks suspiciously like the old vicious circle: She is inexperienced, so we can’t give her the experience.

I raise the question more than I claim to I have the answer. But I also want to know if I am alone in my curiosity and concern.

I want to hear what other readers and musicians in the area and elsewhere have to say, even though they may be reluctant to speak up using their real names to question or criticize such a major player as the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

But Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) is a major player in Madison too. And she deserves a chance to move from behind-the-scenes and once in a while have her talents place in the public spotlight for the same organization that she has served so well for so long.

Beverly Taylor Katrin Talbot

Who knows, she might even have saved the MSO some money in booking fees and her local fans might even have helped filled some of the empty seats I saw last Sunday afternoon.

So The Ear says: Come on, MSO, give Beverly Taylor the chance she has earned to stand alone and conduct by herself after almost 20 years of being a team player. Please shine the spotlight on her when the chance next presents itself.

What do readers and audience members think?

Don’t be shy.

The Ear wants to hear.

 

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