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: Madison native Ansel Norris returns to perform a FREE recital this Saturday night of songs transcribed for trumpet and piano

July 26, 2017
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CORRECTION: In some downloads of yesterday’s post, the performance by the Ancora String Quartet was mistakenly listed for Friday night. The performance is SATURDAY night. The Ear apologizes for the error. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/classical-music-the-ancora-string-quartet-will-give-two-performances-this-coming-weekend-one-is-free-of-a-program-that-features-works-by-beethoven-shostakovich-and-niels-gade/

By Jacob Stockinger

On this Saturday night, July 29, at 7 p.m., trumpeter Ansel Norris and pianist Beth Wilson will perform a FREE recital of vocal music in an unusual format — for solo trumpet and piano, with the poetry that inspired the music spoken in between each song.

“In music for voice and piano there lies a special intimacy, and the composers featured each captured something close to the essence of the form,” Norris (below) told The Ear. “I wanted to see what happened if I split the songs up into a poem, read it out loud, and then played a wordless melody to follow. The result was interesting and felt meaningful, so I’ve decided to give it another go.”

The recital, in the Grand Hall at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, downtown and three blocks off the Capitol Square.

The program includes: Richard Strauss, “Morgen”; Robert Schumann, “Liederkreis,” Op. 24, No. 5;” Richard Strauss, “Die Nacht”: Robert Schumann, “Liederkreis,” Op. 24, No. 1; Robert Schumann, “Liederkreis,” Op. 24, No. 9; Johannes Brahms, “Die Mainacht”; Franz Schubert, “Der Einsame”; Johannes Brahms, “Unbewegte laue Luft”; Robert Schumann, “Liederkreis,” Op. 24, No. 3; Richard Strauss, “Befreit”; and Peter Tchaikovsky, “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (“None but the Lonely Heart,” sung by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Admission is FREE and open to the public.

Ansel Norris grew up on the east side of Madison, and last set foot in Capitol Lakes (below) in the spring of 2010, for his graduation recital. In recent years, he has distinguished himself as a soloist, orchestral and chamber musician of enthusiasm and diverse taste.

Norris has won a number of prizes as a soloist, including first-prize twice in the National Trumpet Competition, and has drawn acclaim as an orchestral player, performing with the Chicago and Boston Symphonies and holding a fellowship with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida.

Norris has also worked in close relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at the Tanglewood Music Center, in the summers of 2014 and 2015.

He says he is fascinated with the relationship between music and storytelling, and is currently exploring interesting formats of solo recitals to draw new connections between them. In a sense, this recital is an experiment, but one conducted with great love, care and curiosity.

While in Madison, Ansel Norris said, he was lucky to participate in a number of the diverse opportunities available to young musicians. He was a three-year member of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Orchestra and a four-year, inaugural member of the Winds of Wisconsin.

He was also a participant in the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s “Final Forte” was a winner of the Neale-Silva Young Artist Competition held by Wisconsin Public Radio. He was a devoted student of the UW-Madison’s recently retired professor of trumpet, John Aley (below), who to this day is one of his greatest inspirations.

As he grows older, Norris says, he often reflects on what a special place Madison was to grow up in, and he looks forward to every chance he has to be home.

Beth Wilson (below) currently lives in Madison and is a freelance musician and professional pianist. She is a member of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, playing for the “Nutcracker Ballet” and “Concerts on the Square.” She also performs with Grupo Candela, a salsa band. Broadway touring shows contract her to play in the pit orchestra including the recent shows “Wicked,” “Book of Mormon,” “Sound of Music” and “Beautiful –The Carole King Musical.”

As an accompanist, Beth Wilson has collaborated with Bernhard Scully of the Canadian Brass; Diana Gannett of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; and Ansel Norris — with whom she is now reunited after seven years.


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