Bartsch's violin solo was elegant and beautifully direct.
There were two works in the program of concerto character. Opening the concert was Grieg's Piano Concerto, a war horse if ever there was one. The hope for making it live again was placed in the hands of the greatly talented young Madison pianist Thomas Kasdorf. The audience loved him, but I could not share the enthusiasm.
Kasdorf has all the notes in his fingers, no mean achievement. And his proud moment was the grand cadenza at the end of the first movement, which could show off his formidable technique. For the rest, in the concerted writing, it seemed to my ears that his phrasing was stiff and inflexible, lacking in dynamic nuance. Grieg's writing style in this work makes constant use of grupetti, successive repetitions or variants of the same figure of a few notes. It seemed to me that Kasdorf could not bring shape either within such figures or between them, failing to give a sense of lyric flow much of the time.
It is clear that Kasdorf is deeply committed to this work, and at this early point in his career he has time to bring more musicality to his treatment of it. The orchestra gave robust, if rather unsubtle, support.
The other concerted work, a much shorter and quite different piece, was Dvorák's Romance for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 11, the composer's arrangement of a movement from his String Quartet Op. 5. This was played after the intermission by Alice Bartsch, who is finishing out her stint as the Middleton Community Orchestra's concertmaster. Her playing was elegant and, above all, beautifully direct. It helped me to recognize for the first time that the piece was cut from the same cloth as the now-familiar "Song to the Moon," the heroine's aria in Dvorák's opera Rusalka. This lovely music was a perfect sendoff for a young musician who is clearly going on to a splendid career.
The orchestra itself had plenty of its own glory to display. Rounding out the first half was nothing less than Edward Elgar's expansive Enigma Variations. A good half-hour long, this is a large-scale and very demanding work. Conductor Steve Kurr had clearly worked long and hard with his players to a produce a polished and richly satisfying performance.
The other orchestral vehicle, ending the concert, was a suite of three dances from Manuel de Falla's Three-Cornered Hat ballet. This glitzy, showy music, ostentatiously Spanish and frankly theatrical, also places heavy demands on the players. I did feel that the first two of the dances were taken at slightly slower tempos than I would have thought desirable. But the orchestra met all the challenges in a quite brilliant rendition.
After four seasons, it is more clear than ever that Steve Kurr has created an orchestra that is much more than just a fringe ensemble, peripheral to the area's musical life. I was particularly impressed by the growing maturity of the string section; it might be interesting to hear it in a work by itself sometime. The woodwinds constitute some really excellent players. The brass can still sound raw and need further work as a section, but have much promise. This is, in all, an orchestra whose concerts are a pleasure to listen to and worthy of committed attendance.
The four concerts of the 2014-15 season are already blocked out. They deserve to be supported by more than just Middletonians -- who can be proud about what their community makes available in this organization.