Season is dedicated to John Barker, recently retired critic emeritus
Of course if you are one of my regular readers, you know that the Middleton Community Orchestra was about to commence on their tenth season of adding a unique experience to the greater Madison music scene. I finally got around to blogging about their special performance for John Barker last month, which you can find here.
My first review in Madison was of a Token Creek Chamber Music Festival concert in August 2010; about a month later the MCO gave its first performance. They weren’t on my radar for a few years…but they were on John Barker’s from day one, and his loyal, honest and affirming reviews of their journey is what prompted co-founders Mindy Taranto and Larry Bevic to bring 30+ players to Barker at his Capitol Lakes residence, and to further honor him by dedicating the season to him.
Indeed, he was present Wednesday night (October 9) at the wonderful Middleton Performing Arts Center (funny how a guy who has “retired” keeps showing up lately; he was also at last Friday’s Salon Piano Series event—their two opening concerts had also been dedicated to him). Happy to report that, while he no longer has pen in hand, he is in good spirits and still quick with a quip.
Barker’s deserving recognition aside, the MCO’s accomplishments would do any community proud, and the mayor of Middleton, Gurdip Brar, was on hand to read the city’s official declaration to honor the MCO. Taranto and Bevic had made opening remarks as well, and then the season’s music began with…a world premiere.
Steve Kurr, who is in his 20th year teaching orchestra and music history at Middleton High School, is the founding conductor of the group, and composed a special work to mark their tenth season. As Middleton is known as “The Good Neighbor City,” Kurr penned a five-movement suite, “Good Neighbors.” Played without pause, the movements pleasantly evoke first the congenial liveliness of the smaller community joined geographically at the hip to Madison, conjures images of the water and land that characterize the city, and closes with a finale that brings back some of the earlier themes.
No matter what season it occurred in, the appearance of Madison Symphony principal clarinetist JJ Koh (pictured above) would make the night a highlight. He was the soloist for Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K. 622; as Taranto had mentioned earlier, not just clarinetists, but many others, argue it is one of the greatest of all concertos.
And therein lay the first pitfall of the evening. While the orchestra was suitably reduced from 90+ for the Kurr to about 30+, primarily strings, Mozart’s music sounds deceptively simple to the ear—but that very simplicity and the transparency of the writing will quickly expose the slightest error on intonation, articulation/attack, or balance. I have often recalled the chance to talk with members of the famed Guarneri Quartet back in my college days in the 1970s. I asked what was the hardest music to play—fully expecting to hear “late Beethoven” or perhaps “Bartok”—only to be told that it was Mozart, because “there is no place to hide.”
And so the MCO strings opened the Mozart with some fleeting but audibly questionable intonation and attacks. Of course, when Koh entered, it was hard to even notice anything other than his fluid, pure tone and immaculate control. But then came the Adagio…and we were treated to a stretch of music that any ensemble and soloist would be hard pressed to match. On more than one occasion, Koh spun a phrase so soft that it seemed improbable at best that the ensemble would not cover him up, no matter how hard they tried. Yet Kurr and his plucky players matched Koh’s high-wire-without-a-net display, and created the kind of memory that keeps audiences coming, and critics admitting that something very special keeps happening in this volunteer group.
The finale was Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, and while we had to admit that musically speaking there are still “new worlds” for the MCO to tame, there were far more that genuinely thrilled. Of course we were treated to a sincere solo from English horn player Valree Casey in the famous “Goin’ Home” solo in the slow movement. Throughout the evening concertmaster Beth Larson was a delight, and Taranto shone as well in solo work in the Dvorak. Overall, the brass section really earned their kudos, both from strong horn playing and collectively, led by the trumpets.
The 900-seat theater was nearly filled, not surprisingly—which means that tickets might be tight for the December 18 Holiday Concert. As a special treat, the MCO will perform that night at the new Hamel Music Center, with its main hall of about 660 seats. With guest conductor Kyle Knox, and Madison Symphony concertmaster Naha Greenholz returning, it could be an SRO event. One other new wrinkly is being added this season: just like the “big” orchestras, MCO will now have its own Youth Concerto Competition, who will appear on the April 8 event.
If you need any more convincing, I live in Sun Prairie…and the drive to Middleton is more than worth it! Hope to see at MCO soon.