Russian program thrills an enthusiastic audience
Everyone roots for the underdog, it is said, all the more so when they’re the “home team.” But let’s state the whole context plainly, since it has been some time since I’ve checked in on the Middleton Community Orchestra: Why would someone attend one of MCO’s concerts, when one can hear the Madison Symphony or Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in their opulent halls at Overture Center?
In no particular order: the MCO has its own fabulous space, the Performing Arts Center at Middleton High School, free and convenient parking is no problem, tickets are affordable (students are free), and they perform on Wednesday nights, a nice way to celebrate getting over “hump day.”
Oh, and as they proved in wrapping up their seventh season, these folks can really play.
It has been at least two-plus years since I’ve heard the group, and I am delighted to report that in a program of Borodin, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky on Wednesday night, the MCO gushed with evidence that their strings have come a long way in catching up with their fine winds. This was the first and most obvious conclusion to draw from conductor Steve Kurr’s leading of Borodin’s Overture to Prince Igor.
The principal draw to attend the concert followed, with MCO concertmaster Paran Amirinazari (pictured above, courtesy of MCO) stepping in front of the orchestra as soloist in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. She plays regularly in the other area orchestras as well, but I never heard her “up close and personal” until last summer, when I finally caught up with her in a performance with the Willy Street Chamber Players. That memory was vivid enough to prioritize getting to hear her as soloist with the MCO.
From the opening movement, the work benefitted from Kurr and the orchestra giving Amirinazari plenty of sonic “space” to employ medium and softer dynamics, beautifully projected in the hall (which seats about 900). This approach continued in the second movement, and the emphasis of the softer end of the volumes did not preclude wonderfully expressive playing from both soloist ans orchestra. The finale is full of mixed meters, but we got a better sense of the “herky-jerky” unpredictability from Amirinazaria than from Kurr. He led the orchestra through the time signature thickets smoothly—perhaps too smoothly! In all it was a most satisfying and assured reading by all concerned, which is saying something for yours truly, as I have always been a bigger fan of the composer’s first concerto for violin. Soloist, conductor and ensemble all earned a quick standing ovation from the majority of the large audience.
The second half belonged to the tried and true, the Symphony No. 5 of Tchaikovsky. Memories of two previous MCO concerts (again, two or more years ago), might have given me pause as to whether the strings could do this still-wonderful heart-on-sleeve masterpiece justice. The opening “fate” motif, which returns in each movement, famously appears first in a pair of clarinets accompanied by the strings. On this occasion, the clarinet line seemed to be deliberately camouflaged among the strings—not buried, as in a misjudged dynamic, but as if to produce an effect of a ghostly, almost whispered warning.
In the main allegro section of the movement, Kurr proved something of a revelation. On the previous occasions I heard him conduct, I cannot recall anything specifically exciting that he brought. File last night’s performance under engaging and memorable. In a number of passages where frequently one hears some halting and tugging, Kurr favored pressing forward, and more often than not the results were convincing. His approach anything other than timid or cautious, Kurr inspired his players to play with abandon; the strings played with wonderfully rich and full sound, and intonation was rarely an issue (true of the whole concert).
In the oft-imitated slow movement (or just appropriated by film and commercial composers!), Dafydd Bevil unfurled the languid horn solo with control and deep expression. The mid-movement woodwind solos could have been more forward this time, but overall the movement kept one’s concentration focused. Isn’t that what is supposed to happen, especially in such a familiar work? After the catch-our-breath waltz of the third movement, the opening of the finale gave the massed brass choir a wonderful opportunity to display organ-like sonorities. Only a real sense of explosion into the main allegro was lacking from this final movement, with the music of the final pages blazing in excellence. Once more the audience rose for prolonged ovations…and who could blame them? The home team had scored a major victory.