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 education: The all-student Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) performs music by Mozart and Aaron Copland this coming Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

August 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below in a photo by Steve Rankin) performs “Interplay,” featuring music by Mozart, Copland and Grieg.

There will be two performances.

The first is on Saturday, Aug. 4, at 7:30 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church (below), 203 Wisconsin Avenue, off the Capitol Square.

Then on Sunday, Aug. 5, MAYCO will perform at 12:30 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery 3 at the UW-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art as part of the monthly “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen” series, which can be STREAMED LIVE by going to: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-8-5-18/

Admission for the Saturday performance is $10 at the door; students by donation. The Sunday performance is FREE, and reservations can be made by going to the above link.

For more information, visit www.mayco.org or www.facebook.com/madisonchamberorchestra.

ABOUT THE ORCHESTRA

MAYCO is a free summer festival ensemble dedicated to providing an intensive small orchestra experience for advanced high school and college musicians.

Founded in 2010 by music director Mikko Rankin Utevsky, the orchestra prepares a full program over the course of each one-week summer session, culminating in a public concert (below is a photo by Dennis Gotowksi of the concert this past June).

For The Ear, Utevsky (below top) and his general manager and concertmaster-wife Thalia Coombs (below bottom) answered some questions about the concerts:

WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE PROGRAM?

The orchestra will be joined by guest soloist Trevor Stephenson (below), who is the artistic director and keyboard player of the Madison Bach Musicians. On fortepiano, he will solo in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271, sometimes nicknamed the “Jeunehomme” Concerto. (You can hear the lively, tuneful and infectious last movement of the Mozart concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Stephenson has led workshops on historical performance practices with the orchestra in past seasons, and we’re delighted to work with him to bring one of Mozart’s weirdest and wildest youthful masterpieces to life.

The ballet suite from “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland (below) is one of the defining works of his classic American sound, juxtaposing the pastoral beauty of the countryside with his trademark rhythmic vitality. We are performing the original chamber version, in which the clarity of texture illuminates the intricate internal structure of the piece.

Two high school students from our Conducting Apprenticeship Program will lead Grieg’s affecting miniature, “Last Spring,” for string orchestra. Cellist Elizabeth Strauss and violinist Monona Suzuki (below, in 2013) are this year’s Apprentices.

WHY IS THE CONCERT CALLED “INTERPLAY”?

We wanted to highlight the sense of conversation and interaction present in the two major works on this program.

The Mozart concerto is remarkable for the degree of interplay between soloist and orchestra. From the opening bars they are constantly interrupting each other, finishing each other’s sentences. It’s what gives the piece its unique sense of drama.

There’s a truism that Mozart made everything he wrote into an opera, and it’s certainly evident here: the melodies could have been lifted straight out of “The Marriage of Figaro.”

In the Copland work, it’s more about the intricacy of texture and the sense of playfulness in the way the various parts interact.

This project is funded in part by a grant from the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board; and by Dane Arts, with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra draws its largest crowd yet as it rings in the New Year with Viennese waltzes, ethnic dances and violin showpieces

December 22, 2017
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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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below)  had the last word of the December holiday season with a distinctly non-Christmas program.

To be sure, it was not a typical concert devoted to a tiny handful of major works. Rather, conductor Kyle Knox (below) devised something a cut above simplistic “pops” programming, with a clutch of nearly a dozen short works, each one of charm and substance—more like what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call “lollipops.”

The opener was a group of three selections from Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet Swan Lake. There followed three of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms intermingled with two of the Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, in their orchestral versions.

The first half then closed with the first of two pieces featuring the conductor’s wife, violinist Naha Greenholtz (below), who is also the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. This was a kind of mini-concerto tidbit by Tchaikovsky, his Danse Russe.

The high point of the program’s second half was the second violin solo for Greenholz. Ravel’s Tzigane is a contemplation of Gypsy style. It begins with a wild unaccompanied solo for the violin, to which the orchestra then joins in a colorful set of variations. Here the playing by Greenholz was simply dazzling.

(You can hear Ravel’s virtuosic “Tzigane” — played by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Otherwise, the second half of the program was a bit of old Vienna, via Johann Strauss II, perhaps hinting at that city’s famous New Year’s Concert.

Setting the scene was the overture to Die Fledermaus. Knox’s direction throughout showed a lot of hard work to bring off all the selections with precision, but I often felt that he strove mainly for exuberance at the cost of subtleties. Notably in this overture, it seemed to me that the strings, especially the violins, sounded a bit coarse, certainly below their best ensemble polish.

But doubts were certainly dispelled with one Strauss miniature, the Persian March, followed by that noblest of the composer’s achievements, the Kaiserwalzer or Emperor Waltz.

All in all, this worked as a responsible seasonal treat. It seemed to me that it drew the largest audience that the Middleton Community Orchestra has yet had, and this audience simply loved everything.

So, if you will, Happy New Year!


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players and the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble open their new seasons this Saturday night

October 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s another busy week at the start of the new concert season, and two more groups are giving opening concerts this Saturday night:

MOSAIC CHAMBER PLAYERS

On this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., in the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, the Mosaic Chamber Players will open their new season.

The Madison-based group will perform an all-Beethoven program and complete its cycle of all the string sonatas. The program is the Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12, No. 2; the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96 (performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter in the YouTube video below); and the Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2.

The performers are Laura Burns (below top) and Wes Luke (below second), violins; Kyle Price, cello (below third); and Jess Salek, piano (below bottom).

Tickets are $15 for the public; $10 for seniors; and $5 for students. Check or cash only.

Adds artistic director Jess Salek: “We have been opening our seasons with the Beethoven string sonatas for five years now, so this really exciting for us!”

WISCONSIN BAROQUE ENSEMBLE

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) will give a concert of varied baroque vocal and instrumental chamber music on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street.

Members of the WBE are Mimmi Fulmer, soprano; Nathan Giglierano, baroque violin; Brett Lipshutz, traverse flute; Eric Miller, viola da gamba; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Monica Steger, traverse flute and harpsichord; Anton TenWolde, baroque cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

Tickets at the door only are $20, $10 for students.

For more information, got to www.wisconsinbaroque.org

A reception will be held after the concert at 2422 Kendall Ave, second floor

The program features:

Johann Philipp Kernberger – Sonata in C major for traverso and basso continuo

D’India – “Piangono al pianger mio” (I Shed Tears, As The Wild Animals Do)

Cipriano de Rore – “Ancor che col partire” (Although When I Part From You), arranged for viola da gamba by Riccardo Rognini

Francesca Caccini – “Io Veggio i Campi Verdeggiar Fecondi” (I See the Fertile Fields Turn Green); “Dov’io Credea de Mie Speranze” (Where I Thought My Hopes Were Real)

Georg Philipp Telemann (below) – Trio Sonata for alto recorder, violin and basso continuo TWV 42:d10 (heard in the YouTube video below)

INTERMISSION

Michel Pignolet de Montéclair – duet for two traversi without bass

Francesco Mancini – Sonata No. 1 in D Minor for recorder and basso continuo

Georg Friedrich Handel – “Süsse Stille” (Sweet Silence)

Jean-Philippe Rameau (below) – La Pantomime (The Pantomime), from Pièces de clavecin, 4th concert; “Les Surprises de l’Amour” (Love’s Surprises), selected movement from Act II, transcribed by Ludwig Christian Hesse


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