A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Feb 28, 2013
10:46 PM
Classically Speaking

Middleton Community Orchestra: “Rising Stars” (and High Aspirations)

Middleton Community Orchestra: “Rising Stars” (and High Aspirations)

No one could be blamed for calling Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto crazy (at least, a little) back in 2010 when they decided to start another orchestra, namely the Middleton Community Orchestra. It begs the question: with the Madison Symphony, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the UW Symphony Orchestra offering more than many local music lovers can keep up with, why?

I suppose the truest answer is because 65 or so “high-quality amateur musicians” wanted to make music—and they weren’t going to play in any of those aforementioned ensembles. Furthermore, they had Steve Kurr, who was equally avid to lead them, and a fine performing venue in their backyard, the Middleton Performing Arts Center. Ok, so they play, but the prospective audience still needs to ask itself, why should we go?

I went on Wednesday night to hear their "Rising Stars" offering because the group is nearing the end of its third season—and they’ve been getting decent reviews and good word of mouth. They’re smart to perform on a mid-week night. They offered an attractive and smartly planned program and an apparently exciting and local young soloist. Of course, I picked the night of the spitting storm that wouldn’t quit and drove all the way from Sun Prairie—and it was worth it.

Kurr structured the evening around the latest batch of BIG round numbers: the centennial of the birth of Benjamin Britten and the bicentennials of those operatic pillars, Verdi and Wagner. From the first bars of the Overture to Verdi’s Nabucco, the MCO promised good balance, blended low brass and collective articulations that tended to be tentative only at the start of more delicate phrases.

But then Kurr took a leap of faith and pulled his charges along with him—no safe choice here to celebrate Wagner, but one of the mightiest excerpts from that gargantuan epic of four music dramas known in shorthand as “The Ring Cycle.” The selection was none other than “Siegfried’s Funeral Music, “ a ten or twelve minute stretch that is a comfortable neighborhood only for the likes of the Chicago Symphony; frankly, it is a challenge for many a “better” orchestra. So what are we to say in the wake of a game, but intermittently spotty effort? Thanks for not playing it safe, for giving us a handful of moments that reflect the work’s greatness, for reminding us how hard this stuff really is—and for not being afraid to show us your growing pains.

The sustained musical highlight of the evening came in the person of violinist Alice Bartsch, an undergraduate here at the University, and a member of the Madison Symphony (among other ensembles). On this occasion she took the spotlight in the Violin Concerto No. 3 of Saint-Saens, a delightful and generally exciting work that is too often passed over in favor of Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, et al.

From the outset, Bartsch exhibited a dusky, almost smoky quality to her low register, not only attractive in and of itself, but one that seemed to also offset any potential shrillness in the upper range. Save for just a passing moment or two, she was in technical command, and in her best moments, played with a freedom that allowed the lyricism of the work to blossom. Bartsch appeared to be innately confident that the orchestra would be where they needed to be, rhythmically and in its phrasing. The slow movement was a model of delicate expression from all concerned.

Since the program was given without intermission, I thought they might pause to re-tune before continuing. They didn’t, and “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Wagner’s Lohengrin suffered because of it. But then they tuned, and Kurr spent a minute elucidating the scheme of the program overall, and the significance of the last work, the “Matinees Musicales” of Britten—this was not purely original Britten, but arranged from Rossini. The orchestra captured most of the wit, and indeed produced their most relaxed and attractive big sounds. In the “Scales and Trills” finale, they just plain had fun. So did we all…it made the drive home in the remnants of our lovely weather much warmer.

Photo of Alice Bartsch courtesy of Middleton Community Orchestra. 

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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