The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music education: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) excels in its inspiring performances of Mozart, Barber and Shostakovich –- and gives us hope at a time when we really need it.

August 25, 2014

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 for many years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves 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

Hope for humanity is not always easy to conjure up these days. But last Friday night at Music Hall, on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, brought me a genuine dollop of it, thanks to the concert by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below. Performance photos are by The Ear.)

MAYCO Aug. 2014 1

That came, in fact, despite the frustration of an infuriating schedule conflict with the debut performance by the new early music chamber choir Summer Voices the same evening. Even in summer, we have these train wrecks now — and always on weekends! Have we reached the point of such musical riches here that no one person can really catch all the worthy musical events any more?

MAYCO was founded in 2010 by Mikko Utevsky (below) as a “summer training orchestra” for local high school and college students — and, at the same time, as a kind of training program for himself in conducting (while just moving from high school to college himself).

Mikko Utevsky with baton

What he has accomplished over four seasons is little short of a miracle. Here are young musicians, looking like confident kids, but playing with adult skill and intensity. And Utevsky’s enterprise has prompted him to take on challenging examples of orchestral literature, with convincing success.

The program this time was a very engaging one.

It began with the beloved Overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, itself a musical miracle, and wrought by a precocious young musician at the end of his scant 36 years. It took a few measures for security to settle in, but the performance was spirited, well-gauged and thoroughly satisfying.

For this concert, the student orchestra had a vocal soloist. She was soprano Caitlin Ruby Miller (below left), herself a recent product of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music voice program, and currently studies with former UW-Madison professor soprano Julia Faulkner, who now teaches in the Ryan Center program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Miller and Utevsky discovered a shared love for Samuel Barber’s solo cantata, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and arranged to have her perform it.

MAYCO 2014 Caitlin Ruby Miller and Mikko Uevsky

A gem of period nostalgia and childhood memories, contained in a text by James Agee, this work is one of the masterpieces of American vocal writing.

It proved ideal for Miller, whose full, ripe, beautiful soprano voice has been trained in careful diction, allowing her to escape a lot of the word-swallowing that afflicts the soprano range. The full text was printed in the program, but it was almost unnecessary, thanks to the very clear projection of the words by Miller (below). She was supported, in a slightly reduced chamber version of the orchestral score, with a very sensitive accompaniment, marked by truly beautiful woodwind playing.

MAYCO Aug. 2014 Caitlin Ruby Miller singing

As a treat, Miller sang an encore, the beguiling song “Early in the Morning of a Lovely Summer Day” by the 90-year-old contemporary American composer Ned Rorem (below, in a photo by Christian Steiner) in an orchestrated version — made by Utevsky himself. (You can hear the original version for voice and piano with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in a YouTube video at the bottom. Talk about diction!)

Ned Rorem CR christian steiner

After the intermission came perhaps the most demanding test for the orchestra players: the Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major by Dmitri Shostakovich (below). Composed in the aftermath of World War II, this is a piece of whimsy and of defiance to Soviet expectations — it brought the composer a raft of trouble and danger.

dmitri shostakovich

But its relatively brief five movements add up to a gem of Shostakovichian satire and sarcasm. It is full of theatrical suggestions, and its texture is as much that of chamber music as orchestral writing, with intimate interaction of sections and soloists.

The MAYCO players brought it off with real flair, under Utevsky’s amazingly expert direction. (And, by the way, he is a splendid writer as well, as his notes for the program booklet demonstrated.)

MAYCO Sug. 2014 violins

MAYCO Aug. 2014 cellos

MAYCO Aug. 2014 Shostakovich 9

Considering the fact that there could only be four or five rehearsals for each concert, it is astounding what this group of 42 gifted youngsters (only 19 of them string players) could bring off in the way of effective orchestral ensemble—even allowing for some rare blips and less than ultimate string polish.

MAYCO Aug. 2014 audience applauds

That our area alone could produce such talent is what has stirred my hope for humanity. Assuming, of course, that our country, in its currently muddled cultural condition, can find for these youngsters, as they mature, the jobs in which to make the careers they so richly deserve.





Classical music: Local students form a new chamber orchestra that adds excitement to Madison’s music scene.

June 21, 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

I am always amazed at Madison’s musical life–not only for its expanse and richness, but for the new groups that constantly spring up nowadays, and, above all, for the contributions made to them by local students.

Only in its second season is the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO). It is very much the creation of its conductor, a remarkably gifted young musician, Mikko Utevsky.

A talented violist, Utevsky has soloed with his high school orchestra and has been section principal in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras’ leading ensemble. He has already become a member of the UW Symphony Orchestra, a year before his admission to the UW Music School this fall, where he will begin undergraduate studies in conducting, which he intends to make his career.

Last year, Utevsky assembled a group of mostly high school students to form an ad-hoc small orchestra, and gave a concert.

This year, he has assembled a new group, of up to 40 players of high school and college age. He has planned a summer season of no less than two concerts: one given on Friday, June 15; the other to be held on Saturday, August 18, both at 7 p.m.  (NOT 7:30, as erroneously posted at first) in Music Hall (NOT Mills Hall, as previously listed here) on the UW-Madison campus.

Unfortunately, my schedule denies me the pleasure of attending (much less reviewing) either or both of those concerts. I did, however, spend the morning of June 15 at the orchestra’s final rehearsal.

Much as I missed attending the actual concert, I did not feel that the rehearsal was scanty compensation. In their own way, rehearsals can be as rewarding as the concerts themselves–indeed, rehearsals can reveal a great deal about the ensemble and the conductor that the concerts do not.

The student players are a remarkable lot. Utevsky selects them all himself, essentially from personal knowledge of them. He does the administrative as well as musical chores, and he uses the good offices of WYSO to secure performing arrangements at Mills Hall. As long as he is studying at the UW, the orchestra will continue as a summer activity.

His players already combine veterans of last year with newcomers, and he likes the possibilities of continuing such a combination. He sees the group as an opportunity–surely much-needed–for fledgling musicians to have that much more experience in playing orchestrally, and even to have a crack at rotating sectional principal chairs.

It is obviously Utevsky’s blossoming skill as a conductor that gives MAYCO its artistic impetus. He is low-keyed, amiable and quietly self-assured. But he demonstrated at this rehearsal that he knows musical literature, that he can bring well-informed interpretational individuality to his leadership, and that he can use rehearsal time to identify points of difficulty or rough spots and correct them.

Utevsky (below, conducting, in a photo by Steve Rankin) has a string band of about 16 players and already has them sounding like a surprisingly mature group, while the other players can work up to advanced standards, even with only a week’s rehearsal time.

I was able to hear work done on all four of the contrasting pieces prepared for the June 15 concert. With the players spread around spatially, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” was quite magnificent. Utevsky lavished particular affection on the beguiling but sadly neglected “Masques et Bergamasques” by Gabriel Fauré, while bringing both gusto and insight to Haydn’s beloved Symphony No. 104.

In addition, soprano Shannon Prickett(below) contributed three solo arias: the wonderful aria with which Amelia opens Act I of Verdi’s magnificent opera “Simon Boccanegra; and two of Mimi’s arias from Puccini’s “La Bohème,” in which Prickett sang the role for the UW Opera’s production this past season. She again proved the power and fullness of her fine voice, but it was also interesting to observe Utevsky working with her to resolve performance details. Clearly, Utevsky is already a conductor who can accompany as well as his own interpreter.

The August concert will make an interesting combination of Ravel’s glittering “Mother Goose” Suite, and Schubert’s Haydnesque Fifth Symphony. Madison’s music lovers should watch for that — especially in the year’s thinnest musical time — and for future MAYCO activities. (Below, MAYCO in Mills Hall in photo by Steve Rankin.)

There is no pretense that this is already a polished, professional ensemble, but in it we are allowed to hear talented young players working their way to that level. Its concerts are more than just show-off benefits for proud family and friends. These are true musicians in the making – both players and conductor — and for my part I consider it an honor to listen to what they can do.

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