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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Light Freezing Drizzle Fog/Mist
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Middleton Community Orchestra avoids Christmas music, to good effect, in 2013 finale
The orchestra delivered a really scintillating and exciting performance.
Credit:Middleton Community Orchestra

The Middleton Community Orchestra concert on the night before Christmas Eve was marked by novelties and exceptionalities.

As is now its tradition, the December program studiously avoided any Christmas music, such a relief for seasonally battered ears. Also, as is now standard for the ensemble, the concert was set on a weekday evening, instead of adding stress to our overtaxed weekends. On the other hand, the format departed from what had become the orchestra's practice by actually having an intermission.

The orchestra framed the program by tackling two contrasting ensemble challenges. At one end was the short but brilliant overture that Mikhail Glinka composed for his opera Russlan and Ludmilla. It presents a wicked workout for the players, above all the strings, and especially the violins. The players had clearly worked hard with conductor Steve Kurr on this, and the results were strikingly successful -- a really scintillating and exciting performance.

At the end was a much more spacious challenge: Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the famous Pastoral. For one thing, it was a kind of comforting perversity to play this expansive tribute to the beauties and power of warm-weather nature while it was bitterly cold and snowy outside. Perhaps that was by way of consolation.

This is a score that requires discipline and intense care to make its seemingly easy but actually very tricking beauties work. As it happens, Kurr has some really good ideas about phrasing and inflections, ideas that could make for a very penetrating performance. The players tried hard, but the limits on their rehearsal time, and on continuity of ensemble playing together, at times worked against them: The need for further precision and cohesion is still evident. For all that, however, one had to admire the genuine dedication put into this caring performance. (The printed program should have listed the movements, though, so listeners new to this music could appreciate it more fully.)

With Glinka and Beethoven as the sandwich bread, the rest of the program offered a tasty filling. Soprano Emily Birsan was guest soloist, always a blessing for any concert. This talented young woman is surely on the brink of a major career breakthrough. I have followed her singing since her days as an MA student at the UW School of Music, and each time she has seemed to mature more and more as an artist.

Birsan's contribution was a group of three very different opera arias. For each one, she aimed not only for beauty of sound but for a projection of character and situation. She was appropriately sober and pensive in an aria from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito -- part of a role she will sing in full in the coming production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She was all flirtatious coquette in Adele's "laughing" song from Strauss's Die Fledermaus. Above all, in the long and demanding "mad scene" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, she not only poured out sounds of wonderful beauty and power, but captured the anguish of the demented heroine with moving pathos. What an impressive Madison product she is!

There was a brief orchestral interlude amid her solos, in the form of Rimsky-Korsakov's rowdy Dance of the Tumblers. At the end of that, as also in the Glinka, there were balance problems with the overbearing trombones, which need to be reined in at times.

Yet, for all the quibbles, this was a really enjoyable concert, one the orchestra can be proud of. The audience in the Middleton Performing Arts Center was the largest I have yet seen at one of the orchestra's concerts, and the ovations were enthusiastic.

A lovely musical kiss with which to end the year!

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