The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra brings its fifth season to an impressively brassy close

June 4, 2016
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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 for 12 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. He also took the performance photos.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) finished its fifth season with a concert on Wednesday night that was a kind of brass sandwich—that is, a brass filling between two noisy slices of bread.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

The opener was the popular “Carnival” Overture by Antonin Dvorak, the closest this composer ever came to producing a cheap crowd-pleaser.

(I wish that the enterprising conductor Steve Kurr (below), had chosen instead one of the other two overtures in Dvorak’s trilogy of “Nature, Life and Love,” which are much more substantial.)

The orchestra gave the overture a lusty performance, revealing some interesting wind details that one does not often hear.

Steve Kurr.

There were two sandwich fillers.

The first was a concerto for tuba, dating from 2015. The composer, local musician and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music alumnus Pat Doty (below), was also the soloist.

Of its three movements, the first was clearly in the idiom of music for marching band, in which Doty has had long UW experience. The second movement was an attempt at a waltz, while the finale had Latin American odors and featured a prominent part for marimba. What to say? The program bio made the sensible point that Doty’s music “never takes itself too seriously.”

Pat Doty playing CR JWB

A more substantial score was the other filling, the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, Op. 91, by Russian late-Romantic Reinhold Glière, also in three movements. (Sadly, the program booklet failed to list the movements for each concerto.)

While this score may not be really great music, it is a splendid, if difficult, vehicle for the soloist.

Another UW-Madison grad, Paul Litterio (below), a player in many area orchestras including both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (and with a sideline in handbells), was the soloist. Playing with perfect technique, an elegant style and just a touch of teasing vibrato, Litterio gave a fascinating demonstration of his instrument in a solo capacity that we do not often hear.

Paul Litterio playing CR JWB

The closing bread for the sandwich was another example of near-vulgar bombast by one of its masters: Tchaikovsky (below). If that was the kind of music to be written, he was the one to do it, and still make you admire him.

Tchaikovsky 1

The Capriccio Italien, Op. 40, was the composer’s reaction to a visit to Rome. He evoked his neighborhood and, above all, the riotous sounds and songs of a Roman Carnival. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tchaikovsky’s capacity for making bombast sound like fun creates a really delightful score, and the Middleton players poured all their energies into it.

(An interesting footnote: Tchaikovsky’s other musical product of his visits to Italy is a very different work, the gorgeous string sextet Souvenir de Florence (Memory of Florence), which is less about Italy itself and more a picture of the composer’s homesickness. As it happens, that masterpiece will be played on July 8 by the Willy Street Chamber Players.)


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra closes its fifth season with a lively concert that featured fiery Marquez, subtle Brahms, lyrical Bruch and thrilling Tchaikovsky.

June 5, 2015
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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 for 12 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

Spring is officially over now, for the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) has given the fourth and last concert of its fifth season — as usual, on a Wednesday night and before a sizable crowd at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

The opening work was a rarity from the little-known Mexican composer Arturo Marquez (b.1950, below), called Danzon 2. It is a piece that starts with promise of melodic expression, but soon slips into a piling up of the usual hard-driven Latin dance rhythms, for a large orchestra, playing very loudly. A kind of musical refried beans.

arturo marquez 3 USE

More substantial was the early orchestral masterpiece, the “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” by Johannes Brahms (below).

This is a very thickly scored piece, placing particular emphasis on the winds. I found myself, as I listened, appreciating more than ever how cunningly Brahms designed the seams and sutures among the instruments, taxing the skills of the players for subtlety. Fortunately, the Middleton musicians faced the challenges bravely and brought off a very sturdy and convincing performance.

brahms3

After the intermission, it was concerto time.

First, as MCO maestro Steve Kurr (below top) has regularly done, the young concertmaster was given a chance to tackle a solo assignment. Valerie Sanders (below bottom), a new graduate from the UW-Madison School of Music, took on the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Max Bruch, though only its slow movement. She played this lovely music quite sweetly, and one was tempted to wonder how she would have fared in taking on the two bolder wing movements, in the full concerto.

Steve Kurr conducting

MCO Valerie Sanders plays Bruch

The Big Event was, of course, local pianist Thomas Kasdorf playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This is a very warhorse of the warhorses, a work that some will be surprised to learn that predates Van Cliburn, whose recording of it was the first classical album to sell one million copies. (Vladimir Horowitz was once the exponent automatically brought to mind.)

It is a colossally demanding piece, technically, and a summit of virtuosic display — as you can see and hear in the popular YouTube video at the bottom.

Kasdorf (below), a locally born, raised and educated pianist and a well-established young Madison fixture of enormous talent and virtuosity, made this his latest entry into the warhorse corral.

MCO Thomas Kasdorf plays Tchaikovsky

Yes, he had the chops to bring it off, in an undeniably exciting performance. But I had the sense that his heart was really in the quieter passages, where he had some ideas of his own.

In the prevailingly bravura writing, by contrast, he was battling for survival. He certainly won the battle, on technical points alone. But this is not a work he has fully made his own—he played from score, rather than memory. It is an interpretation in progress, rather than one securely controlled.

And I hope this is not a career effort in progress. He is too fine a musician to be just a barn-storming, roof-raising virtuoso. He should pursue rather the great variety of roles he as developed, in which he has so much more that is personal and nuanced to offer.

The orchestra, with fewer perils to face than in the Brahms, sounded confident and full-voiced.

All in all, it was a lively and stimulating concert, as we have come to expect from Steve Kurr and his remarkable Middletonians.

 


Classical music: Even as the school year winds down, there are several noteworthy events and concerts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music this weekend.

April 23, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even as the school year winds down, there are several noteworthy events and concerts at the University of Wisconsin this weekend.

FRIDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble will perform a FREE concert under director Scott Teeple.

The Wind Ensemble is the premier wind/percussion ensemble in the UW-Madison School of Music. Repertoire varies from classical wind compositions to contemporary works.

The Wind Ensemble actively commissions new works from world-renowned composers, often performing with internationally acclaimed soloists and guest conductors.

Jacob Klingbeil will assist as graduate student guest conductor.

YOUniversity Band will be side-by-side with community musicians

The program includes:

Gvorkna Fanfare by Jack Stamp

Baron Cimetieres Mambo by Donald Grantham

Irish Tune from County Derry by Percy Grainger

Starwars Trilogy, by John Williams/arr. Donald Hunsberger

UW Wind Ensemble performance

SATURDAY

At 1:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, a FREE Doctoral Recital: Russian Literature and the Music Salon. It is a multimedia concert with narration.

This doctoral project, organized by pianist Oxana Khramova, involves several students and faculty members from various departments.

It will be devoted to writers and composers who were connected to St. Petersburg in their lives and works: Nikolai V. Gogol, Anna A. Akhmatova, Joseph A. Brodsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Alfred Schnittke.

Listeners will experience their masterpieces through the prism of Russian music, language and visual images. By attempting to combine literature, music and art. participants hope to recreate the atmosphere of St. Petersburg’s culture (as recreated in the museum photo below).

Participants include:

Oxana Khramova, piano, DMA candidate, School of Music, where she is a student of Christopher Taylor

with

Yana Groves, piano, DMA candidate, School of Music

Nicole Heinen, soprano, MM candidate, School of Music

Ilona Sotnikova, visual images and literature, PhD candidate, Department of Slavic Languages and Literature

Conor Ryan, narrator, Undergraduate Student, Department of Slavic Languages and Literature

Russia salon in Saint Petersburg

At 4 p.m., in Mills Hall, the All-University String Orchestra will give a FREE concert under the baton of director Janet Jensen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). Sorry, no word on the program.

Janet Jensen Katrin Talbot

From 4 to 6 p.m. the Wingra Woodwind Quintet will hold its 50th Anniversary Party at the University Club (below), 803 State St., next to the Humanities Building.

university club uw in winter

Embodying the Wisconsin Idea and serving as role models to our students, the Wingra Quintet has a rich tradition and will honor current and former members.

Former members who plan to attend are Robert Cole, flute, Marc Fink, oboe, Glenn Bowen, clarinet, Richard Lottridge, bassoon, Douglas Hill, horn, and Nancy Becknell, horn. (Below are photos from 1990 and 2010.)

A short program of 20 minutes is planned and then we will celebrate with hors d’oeuvres and beverages catered by the University Club. Everyone is invited to enjoy the food, music, and good company of current and former members of the Wingra Quintet.

Please RSVP to news@music.wisc.edu

Learn about the rich history of the WWQ here: http://www.music.wisc.edu/wingra-woodwind-quintet/

Wingra 1990 2010

SUNDAY

At 1 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Women’s Chorus (below) and University Chorus will give a FREE concert. Anna Volodarskaya and Sarah Guttenberg will conduct.

This event is FREE.  Registration is encouraged, but not required.

No program has been announced.

UW Women's Chorus


Classical music: Research shows that the brains of musicians work in a different and good way. Plus, the wind quintet Black Marigold performs a FREE concert this Saturday at noon at Grace Episcopal Church.

December 11, 2014
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ALERT: The local wind quintet Black Marigold (below) will give a FREE concert on this Saturday, Dec. 13, from noon to about 1 p.m. downtown at Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, on the Capitol Square. The program includes: Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as arranged by David M. Carp; the Wind Quintet by Paul Taffanel (the opening is at the bottom in a YouTube video); “Eight” by Kenn McSperitt; and “La Nouvelle Orleans” by Lalo Schifrin. The concert is part of the Grace Presents series.

Black Marigold 2

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is something in the way of a holiday gift or bonus from scientific researchers to all kinds of musicians — professional, amateur and students.

It has to do with how the human brain functions while listening and especially while making music. It is not a new topic, as the YouTube video below shows.

Human brain

I won’t say more except to offer a link to the story that appeared on NPR (National Public Radio):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/11/20/365461587/musicians-brains-really-do-work-differently-in-a-good-way


Classical music: What has the UK’s Scotland contributed to classical music -– besides bagpipes? Plus, this afternoon is the last performance of the season-opening program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

September 21, 2014
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ALERT: The final performance of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening program of Richard Strauss “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (with the organ theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”), Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments and Camille Saint-Saens (Symphony No. 3 “Organ”) will be given today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center. Here is a link to a previous post about the concert as well as links to several very positive reviews:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/classical-music-qa-maestro-john-demain-discusses-this-weekends-opening-concerts-of-the-madison-symphony-orchestras-89th-season-music-by-richard-strauss-frank-martin-and-camil/

Here is a link to a review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus: 

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=43634

John Barker

Here is a link to the review by Gregg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine’s blog “Classically Speaking”:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/September-2014/New-Season-New-Decades/

greg hettmansberger mug

And here is a link to Lindsay Christians’ review for The Capital Times and 77 Square:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/review-madison-symphony-packs-the-stage-to-celebrate-years-in/article_7599b67a-407b-11e4-ad07-33fa1206b9d0.html

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

By Jacob Stockinger

All right, then.

The Big Vote is over.

By a wider-than-predicted margin of 55 to 45 percent, Scotland has chosen to remain a member of the United Kingdom.

The outcome surprised The Ear since so many of the arguments offered by Great Britain seemed similar to the ones that were probably made about why the United States should remain a colony of England.

But now the question is answered for at least another generation.

So, in the traditional of newsy arts coverage, the Deceptive Cadence blog of National Public Radio (NPR) asked: What has Scottish culture contributed to classical music?

You’d be surprised. I was.

One obvious, and, for many, noisily unpleasant, answer is the bagpipes. We’re not talking about Scotland-inspired music such as Felix Mendelssohn‘s justly famous “Hebrides” Overture (at bottom in a popular YouTube video featuring Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, though it sure does seem to capture the dark North Sea atmosphere of Scotland.)

scotland bagpipes

But there are other answers too, and some of them may surprise you.

Be sure to listen to some of the sound samples provided on the NPR website posting. Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/09/19/349564530/if-its-not-scottish-classical-contributions-of-the-scots

Also be sure to check out the readers’ comments. They are a hoot, or whatever the equivalent saying is in Scotland.

And the reader comments contain one of the all-time best puns, based on The Rolling Stones song “Hey You, Get Off of My Cloud.” Of course, someone says it isn’t funny! Which makes it only funnier to The Ear.

 


Classical music education: The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) is expanding its chamber music program to non-WYSO string and wind players. The program also seeks non-WYSO pianists.

September 4, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is the news I have heard from cellist Karl Lavine, who heads the expanding chamber music program (below) for the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras. It is good news for many reasons, but especially to pianists who often remain stuck as soloists and never experience the joy of collaborative work in chamber music. (Below is a piano quartet from a WYSO chamber music concert last spring in Morphy Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.)

WYSO DSC_8972

Karl Lavine (below top) is as congenial and cooperative as he is accomplished, and that is saying something. He is the principal cellist with both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and he also plays in the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet (below bottom).

Karl Lavine, principal cello of WCO

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

Writes Karl:

“We are interested in having pianists for the WYSO Chamber Music Program. We have not had any formal auditions to date as most of the pianists have previously come from WYSO or they have been students of Karen Boe (below), who is the WYSO Chamber Music Program piano ensemble coach.

Karen Boe

“We also have only had two or three pianists — all advanced musicians capable of learning and performing chamber works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven or Johannes Brahms  — per semester working with our groups. (At bottom is a YouTube video of violinist Kyung-Wha Chung playing one of The Ear’s favorite chamber works, the piano part of which he wishes he himself could play with a violinist: Mozart’s dramatic and tuneful Violin Sonata No. 21 in E minor, K. 304.)

“The history so far has been one that involved our more advanced players, mostly string players, with these pianists. However, we have had wind players join us as well. Doing both their main instrument and the piano can stretch them pretty thin.

WYSO DSC_8944

“We have not opened collaboration with pianists up to our younger string and wind players primarily because the level of technique and experience necessary make it very difficult to assign repertoire.

“I am not opposed to considering younger WYSO instrumentalists to collaborate with pianists, but it creates a whole new set of parameters for coaching and rehearsing.

“Frankly, it is tough enough to get the more experienced pianists up to speed on the standard chamber repertoire — even though they might be very accomplished as soloists — given we only have 10 coaching sessions per semester. Many of the pianists that have participated in the program have never worked in this type of collaboration before.

“We are open to the idea of having an audition of prospective pianists. In addition, a letter of reference from their private teachers would be required. We would also limit applicants to pianists who have advanced to the Wisconsin School Music Association State Level with the “A” list repertoire, or participated in Wisconsin Music Teachers Association or Federation competition in piano.

Farley's House of PIanos MMM 20141

Here is another tidbit for the blog: We are opening up participation in the WYSO Chamber Program to string and wind players who are NOT a part of WYSO. We have a separate brochure/application for these folks. This is a pilot project this year and we will see what our numbers turn out to be.

So, It would be most helpful if you could write about WYSO’s Chamber Music Program offering openings for those instrumentalists who are not current members, orchestral musicians (string and wind Players) AND pianists:

“1. Membership is open to those between the ages of 10 and 18 and currently in Middle School or High School.

“2. For pianists, a letter from your current private teacher recommending you for the program.

“3. A WYSO Chamber Music Program Brochure can be obtained from the WYSO office. You can find information about the coaching sessions and performance possibilities offered as well as expectations.

“4. For more information, contact the WSYO office: (608) 263-3320, OR send an email to wyso@wyso.music.wisc.edu   OR by contacting Program Director, Karl Lavine at (608) 239-4131; email is karllavine@gmail.com

The WYSO Chamber Music Program offers 10 coaching sessions a semester and public recitals in December and May.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Classical music: Chamber music group Con Vivo lives up to its lively name as guest conductor John DeMain opens the season with an ambitious and gloriously performed program of Wagner and Mozart.

November 11, 2013
3 Comments

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 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

Con Vivo!, the plucky band of chamber musicians (below) based at the First Congregational Church, launched its season with perhaps its most ambitious offerings yet.

Con Vivo core musicians

Augmenting its ranks appropriately, it set a program titled “Baker’s Dozen,” the point being that each of the two major works offered called for 13 musicians (if not always the same ones).

Each work is too large to fit into the usual “chamber” boundaries, and yet is too small to belong in the orchestral realm. Accordingly, they are rarities, and the Con Vivo! opportunity to hear them was particularly welcome.

It was the more welcome because, indeed, there were two performances of the program. After only two full rehearsals, as a kind of “dress rehearsal”, the ensembles presented the program on Thursday evening, November 8, at the auditorium of Capital Lakes Retirement Center, followed by the official performance the next evening at First Congregational (below).  (That the Capital Lakes performance was something of a dress rehearsal was testified to by one stop for a corrected replay.)  I took advantage of the circumstance to attend both performances, a fascinating experience.

Con Vivo Octet

The two major works are quite contrasted.

Richard Wagner’s so-called “Siegfried Idyll was a chamber piece written as a birthday present for his wife Cosima after the birth of their son, Siegfried.  Wagner (below) was at work on his opera Siegfried at the time, and quotations or references in the piece were filled with personal meanings for the composer and his family.  Often this score is played by orchestra, with the five string parts spread out for a full string section, but the intimacy of the original is much more appropriate.

Richard Wagner

The other major work was Mozart’s Gran Partita, K. 361. (You can hear it in its entirety at bottom in a popular YouTube video with the late conductor and acclaimed Mozart interpreter Sir Charles Mackerras.) Despite its length of about 45 minutes, it is never too much, but rather a feast of Mozart’s astounding facility and imagination in his varied combinations of the reed instruments against solid chordal foundations by the four horns.

No other composer has been able to match Mozart (below) in his wonderful writing for wind ensemble, and this is his crowning achievement by far in this medium.  This score is pure bliss.  For me, the chance to hear it two evenings in succession was as if I had been able to visit heaven not once but twice!

mozart big

That double exposure proved particularly fascinating to me, and I had my own reactions to the differences between the two performances.  I was able, too, to discuss with a number of the players, and compare notes on how they responded to both the performances and the two venues, and both pro and con.

First off, it must be mentioned that Con Vivo! made the wise decision to invite a conductor to preside, and in this case no less than John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad), the lignite music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.  I had the feeling that the Wagner went a bit too slowly the first evening, but achieved more coherent ensemble and a more flowing, even caressing quality the second evening.  In the Mozart, I found one tempo choice questionable, but this was resolved handsomely the second time around.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Obviously, the difference between the drier acoustics of the Capital Lakes hall (below) and the richer ones at First Congregational had some effects on these judgments, as did also the fact that the players felt more confidence in the final performance.  And, without question, DeMain’s subtle and supple leadership contributed greatly to the sum total.

Capitol Lakes Hall

Here I confess to a secret hankering. The Mozart work has long been identified as a “Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments.”  That was taken to mean that the bass line should be played by a contrabassoon.

On the other hand, in recent years notice has been made of the fact that the part has directions to play pizzicato in three passages in the work: in the second Trio of the second Minuet, in the sixth variation in the penultimate movement, and in one episode in the rondo finale.

Now, it is rather difficult for reed instruments, of any size, to play pizzicati, so a string bass has been the working solution nowadays.  But the string bass has a light and somehow incompatible sound against the winds. The contrabassoon would provide greater strength, as well as better congruity with the other reeds.

Well, maybe the solution is to divide the part between contrabassoon and string bass as appropriate.

It should not be forgotten that the program had its bonus features.  Between the two major works, violinist Olga Pomolova (below left) of the Madison Symphony Orchestra joined with DeMain, now acting as pianist, in an arrangement for violin and piano of a highly romantic early (and quite un-Wagnerian) piano piece by Wagner, an “Albumblatt” (Album Page).  And, at the Friday performance, Pomolova also played a brief and beloved tidbit by Fritz Kreisler that represented deeply personal inspiration to her.

Con Vivo Olga Pomolova and Kathryn Taylor

The final results of all this constituted a magnificent treat of truly rare and absolutely glorious chamber music. And really done con vivo, “with life”!


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