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: The Madison Choral Project features a world premiere when it performs a “timeless” program this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

February 9, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Choral Project (below) bills itself as Madison’s only professional and paid choir, and judging by the results, the a cappella group has succeeded,  creating many loyal fans. (You can hear a sample performance — of a world premiere, no less — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Such success is in large part thanks to the efforts of its founder, director and conductor Albert Pinsonneault (below). Originally a music professor at Edgewood College, Pinsonneault now works at Northwestern University.

He commutes from his home in Madison where he continues his work with the Madison Choral Project.

You can sample his and the choir’s impressive music-making this weekend at two performances in two different venues of a concert called “Drown’d in One Endlesse Day.”

Here are details:

“Drown’d in One Endlesse Day” features a world premiere of Wisconsin composer Eric William Barnum (below).

The Madison Choral Project champions new music. But also on the eclectic program are new and old pieces exploring the transformational moments when “time seems to stop.”

Featured composers and compositions include: the motet Komm, Jesu, Komm by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Crucifixus” by Antonio Lotti (below top); There is an Old Belief by the British composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (below second); Credo by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (below third, in photo by Getty Images); I Live in Pain and Last Spring by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer David Lang (below fourth); and Entreat Me Not to Leave You by Dan Forrest (below bottom).

PERFORMANCES:

On Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.: CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, 944 East Gorham Street in Madison on the near east side

On Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.: St. ANDREW’S EPISCOPAL,
1833 Regent Street in Madison on the near west side

Tickets are $40 for preferred seating; $24 for general admission; and $10 for students.

To buy tickets online (they are also available at the door) as well as to see more background, reviews, information and several videos of MCP performances, go to:

http://themcp.org


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