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.


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Classical music: Thursday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra closes its season with duo-pianists in music by Mozart and Saint-Saens, and the latter’s “Organ” Symphony. Wednesday is the last Just Bach concert of the season 

May 28, 2019
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ALERT: This Wednesday, May 29, at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, is the last FREE Just Bach concert of the season. The one-hour early music program includes: the cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (Praise Ye God in All Lands), BWV 51; Duetto II in F Major, BWV 803; and the cantata “Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!” (Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!), BWV 70. For more information, go online to the home website: https://justbach.org

By Jacob Stockinger

This Thursday night, May 30, the largely amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Rupert) will close its ninth season with a special family-friendly concert.

The concert, under the baton of conductor Steve Kurr (below), takes place at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Guest artists are University of Wisconsin-Madison students and duo-pianists Satoko Hayami (below top) and Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom). They will perform the witty and entertaining “Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and then the Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below) will be the narrator in “The Carnival of the Animals.” (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the opening Introduction and Royal March of the Lion, with the late Sir Roger Moore — aka James Bond or 007 — as the narrator plus an all-star cast of musicians and some very cool animal videos in back-and-white.) 

The concert concludes with the always impressive, ambitious and popular Symphony No. 3  — the famous “Organ” Symphony – by Saint-Saens (below, seated at the piano in 1900).

Adds MCO co-founder Mindy Taranto: “We are really excited to share a special concert with the community as we celebrate the end of MCO’s ninth season.

“It took a village to make this concert possible. Farley’s House of Pianos is donating the use of an 1890 Steinway to match the Steinway at the hall. WPR radio host Norman Gilliland is generously volunteering to narrate the ‘Carnival of the Animals’ and Full Compass is offering us a discount on the sound equipment we need to play the “Organ” Symphony. Our very own recording engineer, Alex Ford, is playing the organ.

“Please bring your kids and share this information to invite all students free of charge to hear this concert.”

Admission is $15 for adults; all students get in for free. Tickets are available at the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium opens at 7 p.m.

As usual, after the concert there will be a free meet-and-greet reception for musicians and the public.

For more information about this concert, and about how to join or support the Middleton Community Orchestra, call 608 212-8690 or go online to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo trumpeter Jessica Jensen score big with an unusual program

March 2, 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 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 concert by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) on Wednesday night presented a novel program at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

In the relatively brief first part, it presented two unusual items.

The first was by Nebojsa “Neb” Macura (b. 1982, below right with conductor Steve Kurr), a local musician of Serbian background, who has been particularly identified with Russian folk music and ensembles. But he also plays viola in the MCO, which gave him this opportunity in the spotlight.

His piece, Polar Night, is quite brief, but in this version for full orchestra (with piano), it is grounded with secure melodic flow, and it unfolds into a tonal picture full of beautiful colors. My only reservation was that I wanted more of it — either more music in this piece or other sections around it.

Macura is obviously talented, and he has a confident sense of orchestral writing. I really look forward to hearing more of him. Indeed, the MCO might well serve as exactly the laboratory in which he can develop new creations.

The second item was only a bit longer, a Trumpet Concerto by Russian composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (b. 1929, below). Her long career has involved her in jazz, and also in extensive scoring for films. But she has a feeling for Russian traditional song, and that could be heard in this concerto.

It is cast in only a single movement, but it proceeds episodically.  There is certainly much flashy writing for the solo instrument, and local trumpeter Jessica Jensen (below) brought off her role dashingly.

The longer second part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” by Robert Schumann. This splendid work was inspired by observation of life along the Rhine River.

It is unusual in being written in five movements, not the conventional four. (Oddly, their individual markings were not printed in the program, but conductor Steve Kurr (below) gave a clever spoken introduction that outlined the score for the audience.)

This is a very extroverted work, calling for a lot of orchestral sonority. I suspect that a little more rehearsal time would have helped the avoidance of some blemishes: rapid passages, especially in the first movement, were roughly articulated, and there were some tiny gaffes all along.

But the players were devoted in responding to maestro Kurr’s rather propulsive tempos. This score gives a lot to do particularly to the horn section, which played with ardent splendor.

As always, then, the MCO earned further laurels for presenting this very adventurous program.


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Classical music: This Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra will perform a Russian trumpet concert and a new work by an orchestra member along with a famous Schumann symphony

February 24, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Brian Ruppert) to post:

“For our winter concert, we are excited to welcome trumpeter Jessica Jensen back to the stage on this Wednesday night, Feb. 27, at 7:30 p.m. to perform the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra by Aleksandra Pakhmutova with the musicians of the Middleton Community Orchestra led by conductor Steve Kurr (below).

“I am beyond thrilled to be playing Aleksandra Pakhmutova’s Trumpet Concerto with the Middleton Community Orchestra,” says Jensen (below).

“After completing her concerto in 1955, Pakhmutova (below) — who is still actively composing and performing today at the age of 89 — cultivated a legendary career as one of Russia’s top film and popular music composers.

“Her future cinematic success was foreshadowed in her trumpet concerto as parts of it sound as though they could have been taken directly out of the score to a 1950s film. Week after week the MCO adds a new electricity to the work. I cannot wait to share this rarely performed fiery, dramatic piece with everyone.”

The program will open with “Polar Nights,” a piece composed by MCO violist Nebojsa Macura (below), who says: “‘Polar Nights’ uses a variety of instrumental colors to conjure up images of winter above the Arctic Circle. I’m tremendously honored to perform my own piece as a member of such a dedicated orchestra.”

The program will conclude with the famous Symphony No. 3 “Rhenish” by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the lyrical second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The concert is at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, which is attached to Middleton High School at 2100 Bristol Street.

General admission is $15.  All students are admitted free of charge. Tickets are available at the door and at Willy St. Coop West.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the concert hall doors open at 7 p.m.

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


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo flutist Iva Ugrcic turn in polished performances of a fun program to kick off the new season

October 12, 2018
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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 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 photo.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert on Wednesday night by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below top), under the baton of Steve Kurr (below bottom), was a relatively brief but pithy one, with only three short works on the program.

The opener was Autumn, the most frequently played section of the ballet The Seasons, Op. 67 (1899), by Alexander Glazunov (below) and one of the composer’s most frequently heard pieces. It is a rondo-like sequence of varied dance movements, full of lyricism and bright colors. The Middleton players dug into it with gusto.

Second came the Flute Concerto in D Major, Op. 283, by the prolific 19th-century German composer Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, below). He was conservative as a teacher and as a prolific composer.

Among his concertos, this one was his last, written just two years before his death. It is an engaging work, not notable for great ideas, but amiable, with a good virtuosic workout for the soloist.

The soloist was the Serbian-born flutist Iva Ugrcic, an absolute whiz of a player, and, among other things, a product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music doctoral program.  She played with super-precision and confidence, giving her instrument great personality.

Without intermission, the concert ended with the Symphony No. 100, known as the “Military,” by Franz Joseph Haydn (below). It was first played in 1794 among the composer’s “London” Symphonies during his second visit to England. But it may well have been begun while he was in Vienna, for it reflects a particular fad popular there.

This was the use in orchestral writing of an adaptation of the sounds of the Turkish Janissary band. In the second movement, whose tune was taken from an earlier chamber work of his, Haydn introduced recurrently the “Turkish” instruments (two clarinets, triangle, cymbals, bass drums) with startling effect.

At the movement’s end, a trumpet call brings these novelties back for a crashing conclusion. And then, in the fourth movement’s ending, the “Janissary” instruments return for another razzle-dazzle finish. (You can hear the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It’s all great fun, and the orchestra players seemed to find their own enjoyment in it.

The MCO continues its steady growth as a polished and reliable ensemble — all 98 players!


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra opens its new season this Wednesday night with local flutist Iva Urgcic as soloist in a program of Reinecke, Glazunov and Haydn

October 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The mostly amateur, highly acclaimed and very popular Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its new season this Wednesday night, Oct. 10, at 7:30 p.m.

As usual, the concert will take place in the comfortable Middleton Performing Arts Center (below) that is adjacent to Middleton High School at 210 Bristol Street. Parking is plentiful and free.

Tickets are $15 general admission, but students and children are admitted free. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium opens at 7 p.m. Advance tickets can be purchased at Willy St. Coop West. Student tickets are available only at the door.

The season includes the “Autumn” section from “The Seasons: by the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov; the Symphony No. 100 by Franz Joseph Haydn; and the rarely heard Flute Concerto in D Major, Op. 283, by Carl Reinecke (1824-1910). (You can hear James Galway playing the first movement of the Reinecke Concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is the Wikipedia entry for Reinecke (below, in a photograph from 1890): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Reinecke

The conductor of this concert is Steve Kurr (below), the MCO’s resident conductor:

The flute soloist is the distinguished and very busy Iva Urgcic (below), who this past year also co-founded the award-winning LunART Festival, a series of new music from all-women composers with all-women performers and poets; and who took over this year as director of the Rural Musicians Forum in Spring Green. She did her graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music where she was a winner in the annual concerto competition.

Also as usual, there will be am informal meet-and-greet reception after the concert.

For more information about how to join or support the Middleton Community Orchestra or to see the concerts and programs for the rest of the 2018-19 season, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, closes its eighth season impressively by shining new light on music by Schumann and Brahms

June 2, 2018
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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

The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its eighth season with another program of mainstream works. Maestro Steve Kurr clearly likes to challenge his players not only with demanding music, but also with works so familiar that audience expectations are extra high.

Of the two works presented, the first was the beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. He wrote it for his wife, born Clara Wieck and an acclaimed pianist, to show off her talents. The soloist was the ubiquitous Thomas Kasdorf (below), a Middleton native and UW-Madison graduate who finds the MCO a wonderful platform in which he can have experience with a range of concertos.

Kasdorf is clearly working to make this concerto his own. He strove to integrate the polarities of melodiousness and showiness in the first movement, and seemed to have settled nicely into the extravagance of the final movement.

But it was the middle movement that intrigued me. (You can hear that movement, played by Sviatoslav Richter, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Usually treated as a simplistic interval between the other movements, it emerged here as music of true delicacy, much of it a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. I daresay Kasdorf (below) will be able to make even more of this work as he grows in it, but he is off to a persuasive start.

The other warhorse — if you will — on the program was the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. Kurr was the more daring in tackling it since the Madison Symphony Orchestra had already performed it just this past February. It is a deliberately monumental work, an ostentatious demonstration by Brahms that he had truly arrived as symphonist. Consequently, the composer made his players work hard to bring this off.

Though it sounds unfair, my initial grading would be an “incomplete”: a performance in the making. This was true certainly in the first movement, which did not yet have full coordination and coherence.

A major problem was the orchestra’s horn section. Brahms certainly wrote strong music for them in this work, but these players were occasionally inaccurate and, most damaging, far too loud and out of balance with the full ensemble. That distorted or undercut the performance all the way.

On the other hand, the string choir (below) continues to mature, and it delivered a very satisfying sound in the passages featuring it.

Most important of all, however, was Kurr’s interpretative approach, particularly in the second and third movements. These are usually presented as bits of superficial repose between the big flanking movements. But Kurr almost made them the genuine center of the work.

Taking much slower tempos than we usually hear, Kurr (below) turned the slow movement into a flow of beautiful sound, the third movement a subtly clever piece of whimsy. And the introduction to the finale, again taken more slowly than usual, unfolded with a powerful eloquence of its own, the more to pave the way for the Big Tune in the remaining body of the movement.

I am not sure I would advocate always treating Brahms’s First this way. But I salute Kurr for making me think anew about a score I had assumed I already knew well. He was able to lead his players, despite any shortcomings, in a performance of genuine artistic perceptions—an achievement in which this orchestra can take great pride.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra ends its eighth season this coming THURSDAY night with an ambitious program featuring the piano concerto by Schumann and the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms

May 25, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

You have to hand it to the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below): They keep testing and pushing themselves towards bigger achievements and more difficult music.

This coming Thursday night, May 31 – NOT the usual Wednesday night  performance time — the MCP will close out its eighth season with an ambitious program.

As The Ear has said many times before, both in reviews and when he named the MCO “Musician of the Year” for 2014, there is so much to praise and enjoy about the MCO:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/classical-music-the-ear-names-the-middleton-community-orchestra-and-adult-amateur-music-makers-as-musicians-of-the-year-for-2014/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/classical-music-maybe-its-back-to-the-future-the-classical-music-scene-needs-more-groups-to-act-like-the-middleton-community-orchestra-and-break-down-barriers-between-performers-and-listene/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/classical-music-review-let-us-now-praise-amateur-music-makers-and-restoring-sociability-to-art-here-are-9-reasons-why-i-liked-and-you-should-attend-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

The all-Romantic, all-masterpiece program this time features a familiar soloist, pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below) in the supremely lyrical Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the poignant slow movement played by Maurizio Pollini and conductor Claudio Abbado in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Kasdorf graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where he is now doing graduate work in piano.

In addition, the MCO will close with the formidable Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. Sometimes called “Beethoven’s 10th,” it will be conducted by Steve Kurr (below), the usual and very able conductor of the MCO.

The concert is on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below), which is attached to Middleton High School at 2100 Bristol Street. It is a comfortable venue, and a good shelter from the hot weather and humidity that are predicted to overtake us for the next week or so.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium doors open at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $15, but students are admitted free of charge — a deal that is hard to beat.

Advance tickets can also be purchased at the Willy Street Coop West.

As always, there will be an informal meet-and-greet reception after the concert for the music-makers and the audience to mingle – the perfect way to end a season.

If you want to find out more about the MCO season or about how to join it or support it, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


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