The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music poll: How can the Wisconsin Union Theater bring in audiences to its classical music season? Here’s your chance to sound off, to offer advice

December 11, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

Just a week ago, the young American pianist Simone Dinnerstein (below) made her Madison debut at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Only 432 people showed up, according to the Union’s cultural arts director Ralph Russo, who spoke this week to The Ear.

That’s less than half a house – about one-third a house, really — in a historic theater that seats close to 1,300.

And that’s even less than Russo needs just to break even, despite the lower fee of a less well-known performer.

“Want me to ask readers why they didn’t come?” I asked Russo.

Yes, he said, any enlightenment he could get would help.

After all, he said, he had advertised. He had tried to keep tickets prices down. He had lined up co-presenters including the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Madison Area Piano Teachers Association.

He even offered a special $12 ticket for young people, hoping to attract young piano students. “But we sold very few of those,” Russo lamented.

So why didn’t more people turn out?

After all, the Wisconsin Union Theater is the Carnegie Hall of Madison and has a great reputation.

For 90 seasons, it has presented the greatest touring musicians of the day. Pianists Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin and Vladimir Ashkenazy played there; so did violinists Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein and Itzhak Perlman; so did cellists Janos Starker and Yo-Yo Ma; and so did singers Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and Frederica von Stade.

But it has been a long time since the Wisconsin Union Theater sold out a classical concert, Russo says.  Maybe the last times were when pianists Murray Perahia and Alfred Brendel played here many years ago, or when violinist Joshua Bell played here several years ago.

Now Russo – who is looking at events for next season — says he would like to book the big names if he knew they would sell since their fees are higher and therefore ticket prices would be correspondingly higher.

But, adds Russo, “We also have an obligation to bring in younger unknown artists.” Indeed, I remember buying a $1 ticket on the Debut Series in 1975 to see a young pianist named Emanuel Ax perform there.

But last week the young name didn’t work out, either.

And the toll keeps mounting. For many years, the series used to be held back-to-back on Friday and Saturday nights.

For many years, the concert series offered nine events per season. Last year and this year, it has been cut to five events.

And there are only two seasons left before the Union Theater has to close down for two years, starting in May of 2012, while the Memorial Union undergoes renovation.

That could mean concerts in Mills Hall or the Overture Center.

Or maybe no concerts at all – with the Wisconsin Union Theater’s classical series dying out.

There is an endowment fund to draw from, Russo points out, but you can only go there so often for only so much.

That’s why Russo wants to know what happened last Friday night with Dinnerstein?

Was it the recession and bad economy?

Was it her lack of fame or celebrity? Is her name not well-known enough?

Was the program — which featured Copland, Webern and Lasser as well as Schubert and Bach – not appealing enough?

Was there too much competition in town, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s holiday concert taking place the same night to say nothing of an African dance concert at Overture or the UW hockey game?

Were tickets prices ($30 and down) too high?

Was Friday night not appealing since it marks the end of the busy work week?

Here’s a chance to help Russo and his student committee line up artists and programs for next season.

Tell him why you didn’t go – or why you think others didn’t go – to Simone Dinnerstein and other concerts.

Would you like to see the Wisconsin Union Theater classical series survive?

What artists and music would get you to go to the series?

The Ear wants to hear – and so do Russo and a lot of others.

Posted in Classical music

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