The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: UW Symphony Orchestra concert spotlights conductor James Smith and the talent of student players | October 4, 2010

By John W. Barker

Editor’s note: Today’s posting is a review of the Sunday afternoon concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra under conductor James Smith. It is written by guest critic John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known and highly respected classical music critic who writes for Isthmus in Madison and the American Record Guide.

I find I have to keep reminding myself that, in addition to the very lively musical life of Madison in general, there is a whole other world of it on the UW campus. Student and faculty recitals, ensemble performances – all make for a great range of events, inevitably of varying interest and attractions.

But some are events that the musical community at large should not ignore.

Among these are concerts by the University orchestras. Their conductor, James Smith (below), is proving to be a major musician on the Madison scene, even if active only on the campus. My memory goes back decades, to the years when Otto Werner-Mueller revitalized the orchestral program at the UW School of Music.

The levels have wavered since his time, but Smith has brought a new strength and excitement to that program now.

These thoughts were prompted by the concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra and Smith (below) on Sunday afternoon. An orchestra of 92 players was crammed onto the stage of Mills Hall, plainly ready to give Smith all he wanted, in three contrasting works, all from the 20th century.

The opening piece, “Les offrandes oubliées” (The Forgotten Offerings) is an early orchestral score by Olivier Messiaen (below). I have never really been able to make sense of this composer, whose pretentious blobbiness in the service of vacuous religiosity just puts me off. (I guess I’m due now for expulsion from the critics’ union and lots of fights in the back alley.)

So I am not unbiased commentator at least on the Messiaen’s music. But it did serve to demonstrate Smith’s ability to draw from his students tightly disciplined playing in this mixture of complex bluster and quiet naivety.

More of a test was Debussy’s masterpiece, “La Mer” (The Sea). The three movements of this score are full of traps that can reduce it to a series of disjointed episodes. It was very much to Smith’s credit that he kept the music by Debussy (below) consistently integrated and flowing naturally like great tides of mighty waters.

There were moments of rough string ensemble, and Smith could not invest his orchestra with all that special sheen and nuance of French groups. But he and his players produced a genuinely musical and greatly satisfying rendition of this wonderful music.

You can hear it for yourself in this recording of Part 1 of 3, where the audio is better than the visuals:

Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, composed amid the horrors of World War I and seething with the struggle of the affirmative force of life against negativism, is one of the great symphonies of the century just past. Our Madison Symphony Orchestra has yet to tackle it, but Smith has made it something of a specialty in his work with student orchestras.

Nielsen (below) places great demands on the players, as well as on the conductor, in its dynamic conflicts and resolutions. It was amazing how thoroughly in command of their parts were the student musicians in this large ensemble.

The battles raged, the affirmations held firm, and the triumphant key theme (and destined tonality) rode majestically through the fearsome duel of two sets of timpani in the finale. Smith displayed a thorough mastery of both the overall structure of the music and the message of transcendent human values that it serves.

The brash and raw acoustics of Mills Hall gave the concert very much of an “in your face” feeling, but one came away with a renewed sense of the power of a full-scale orchestra, and the brilliance that student players can achieve. They deserved the standing ovation they received from the half-house of 350 or so.

A concert like this is one not to be ignored.

Posted in Classical music


  1. I’ve only attended one of the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra’s concerts [that last year in which they did the Brahms Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s 10th.) I knew they were an exemplary ensemble, but they were better than I expected. Truly world-class musicians of the first order. In particular, the oboe and French horn sections in the Shostakovich were just spectacular. I hope to hear them again soon.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — October 4, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    • Hi Larry,
      Good memory!
      Those were both great concerts. You’re absolutely right about the quality of the students.
      I also loved UW violin professor Felicia Moye as the soloist in the Brahms, and the German conductor Patrick Struve then returned to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra because John DeMain was so impressed with the same concert.
      You should go hear more of the symphony and chamber orchestras as well as the faculty and guest artists series. We’re lucky. Having the UW is like living in a city within the city.
      As always, thanks for reading and taking the time to reply.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 4, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

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