Arts 2012: Isthmus critics rate the year in Madison culture

By John W. Barker
Originally published in Isthmus, 12/27/2012

Surveying a full year of Madison’s classical musical life is impossible in this small space. Best just to recall some memorable moments.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra had some outstanding soloists: violinists Augustin Hadelich in Prokofiev (January) and James Ehnes in Bartók (October), and pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Tchaikovsky (September). The orchestra itself blazed in Strauss’ massive Ein Heldenleben (March) and shone inspiringly in two great symphonies, Brahms’s Fourth (October) and Schubert’s Ninth (November).

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra impressively took on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (April). Call it the minor leagues, but Steve Kurr’s spunky Middleton Community Orchestra did itself proud with Holst (November), as well as works by Brahms and Mozart (May), the latter featuring local pianist Thomas Kasdorf.

After the novelty of Philip Glass’ Galileo Galilei (January), Madison Opera’s travesty of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (April) was redeemed by a superlative production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (October). University Opera managed a high-quality Don Giovanni (March) but undercut a bravely able cast of student singers with a needlessly silly setting in Cherubini’s Medea (November).

The Madison Savoyards delivered The Pirates of Penzance (July), one of their best Gilbert and Sullivan presentations in years. Meanwhile, Codrut Birsan’s brave mini-productions with his Candid Concert Opera brought us some fine young Chicago singers.

The Pro Arte Quartet premiered new works composed for the ensemble, in celebrating a centennial. The feisty Ancora String Quartet did justice to quartets by Beethoven and Schumann (September). Previously, after offering Prokofiev’s First Quartet, it joined the Rhapsodie String Quartet for a rousing rendition of the youthful Mendelssohn’s dazzling Octet (May). The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s June concerts featured intense performances of Tchaikovsky’s A-minor Piano Trio and Schubert’s C-major Quintet.

The Madison Early Music Festival, despite its 2012 theme of Colonial North American music, offered public concerts mainly of 19th-century folk music that proved highly popular (July).

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and the Madison Bach Musicians continued to present programs of early music, admirably performed. And the amazingly versatile Jerry Hui, after premiering his own first opera, Wired for Love (January), organized his vocal-instrumental consort, Eliza’s Toyes, for several performances of a revealing program, “The Three Sch’s”: 17th-century music by Schütz, Scheidt and Schein (May and November).

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