Loving tribute to John Barker goes to the heart of music making
When you get right down to it, people play music because they love it; audiences come to hear it for the same reasons. Believe it or not, critics love it, too; most of them were (and sometimes are) performers themselves. It is easy though to lose sight of this simple truth at the heart of the matter when we think about major performing institutions and players, and the critics who tell us what they heard.
But we learned on the first Friday of this past September that there was one group of musicians who understood the big picture, and given a chance for a rare gesture, they took full advantage. When John Barker (pictured above, courtesy history.wisc.edu) announced in early July that he would no longer be reviewing concerts for Isthmus or as a guest blogger on Jacob Stockinger’s The Well-Tempered Ear, the Middleton Community Orchestra decided to bring the music to him.
For any who aren’t aware, Barker is Emeritus Professor of the UW-Madison history department, hosted a radio show on WORT for 20 years (from which he is now also retired), served on the board of the Madison Early Music Festival for 15 years, and authored several books, most recently a 100-year history of the Pro Arte Quartet. Oh, and he contributed reviews of LPs and their descendants for the American Record Guide for over 60 years…
On the cusp of their 10th season, the MCO has enjoyed a special relationship with Barker; from their inception he seemed to root for the mostly amateur, passion-filled ensemble led by Steve Kurr. In introducing the event at the Capitol Lakes residence, co-founder Mindy Taranto invited the audience (100+ packed into one of the lower meeting rooms of the facility, as remodeling had taken over the usual venue) to browse the 45 reviews and feature articles Barker had penned about them over the last nine years.
The program was simple, shorter than a full concert, but could not have been sweeter: the lone work was the Serenade No. 1 of Brahms, one of more substantial works by the composer before he braved the rigors of a full symphony. The six movements bubbled and surged under the steady and encouraging baton of Kyle Knox, who has regularly guest conducted the group for a number of years.
Of course at the end, Barker was encouraged to say a few words, and he asked the obvious: Has any orchestra ever honored a critic in such a way? The answer is “unlikely.” But more to the point, Barker emphasized how the MCO not only has “put Middleton on the Madison map” artistically speaking, but has continued to grow in their depth of interpretation and the repertoire they tackle. It has not been unusual over the years that the orchestra has bitten off more than they can chew (or at least digest, shall we say), yet Barker always found an encouraging word, and indeed, that trait of pluckiness has become one of their strengths.
I had been blessed that my work schedule was clear and I was able to attend; I wanted at least one more chance to tell Barker myself what he has meant to me as a colleague. We first met when I was invited to be a part of the Pro Arte Quartet centennial activities; there was a committee that met nearly every month from sometime in 2010 (I joined in early 2011), through the two-year plus celebrations of world premieres and special events. Barker was deep into his book about the group, I eventually wrote a lengthy magazine feature and of course reviewed and previewed in various outlets.
From the start Barker treated me as an accepted colleague, no credentials required , no questions asked; I have been a published critic since 1988 at The Los Angeles Times—but when I learned that Barker’s first American Record Guide appeared while I was literally still in diapers, I couldn’t help but feel deferential to this elder statesman.
When I summarized that for him last month, he gave me the expected “But of course you are my colleague!” Nevertheless, as I had the chance to read Barker’s work over the last nine years, I was astonished again and again at the depth of his knowledge and his ability to express it succinctly. Still the best case in point goes back to when Madison Opera performed Handel’s Acis and Galatea. It has taken me until late in my musical pursuits to have even a basic knowledge of Baroque opera, but when I read Barker’s review I quickly realized that this was a very special case indeed. I ran into him not long afterwards at a Madison Symphony concert, and when I told him what I had gleaned from his review, he immediately launched into an extended mini-history/musicology lesson.
Again I recounted this to him at Capitol Lakes and finished by saying, “I had no idea how little I knew about the work.” “Neither did the director!” Barker exclaimed with a sly grin. “There’s our critic!” I said, and the others gathered round shared a warm laugh.
It is beside the point to say that John Barker will be missed; we can only be grateful that his gifts were so well lavished on a city’s arts groups that he so loves—and that his work will live on.
As for the MCO, it is worth noting that for their usual concerts they rehearse once a week for nine weeks; they pulled off the Brahms in just two rehearsals. Now we can hear them officially launch their 10th season this Wednesday (October 9), as usual in the beautiful Performing Arts Center at Middleton High School. The program includes a new work by Kurr, Dvorak’s beloved “New World” Symphony, and our favorite local clarinetist, JJ Koh. The MSO principal clarinetist does most of his playing in Milwaukee, as he is now in his second year as the Milwaukee Symphony’s associate principal clarinetist. Anyone who attended the opening MSO concerts last weekend had those tantalizing tastes of Koh’s talents, with his solo work in Wagner, Debussy and Dvorak. Now we can hear him front and center as soloist in the greatest of all clarinet concertos, the one by Mozart. See you there…