The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: More programming should follow Con Vivo’s example — Start small and intimate, then build towards bigger and more complex | June 2, 2011

A reminder:  Ensemble SDG will perform a  recital of early music on period instruments (with baroque violinist Edith Hines, below) this Friday, June 3, at 7:30 p.m. at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent St. The program is entitled “Play It Again, Johann: Variations and Revisions in Music of Germany, 1660–1730.”  Repertoire will include an anonymous sonata from a late 17th-century Viennese manuscript collection; the second sonata from J. H. Schmelzer’s “Sonatae unarum fidium”; Buxtehude’s Passacaglia in D minor; J. S. Bach‘s Fugue in G minor (BWV 1026) for violin and basso continuo and  Sonata in G (BWV 1019) in an early version for violin and organ.  Admission is $15 general, $10 students/seniors; under 16 is admitted free.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here’s another catch-up post.

Two weeks ago, on Friday, May 20, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, I heard the last concert of the season by Con Vivo (“with life”), a local chamber music group that is made up of talented local musicians who usually perform with larger groups – the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in an all-Schubert program.

When it comes to the quality of the performance, I have to agree with John W. Barker, who reviewed the concert for this blog and praised it highly. It was a memorable performance of memorable music – some of Schubert’s best, including his very last work, “The Shepherd in the Rock.” And music doesn’t come greater than great Schubert (below).

But I also found something appealing at the concert that he didn’t discuss: Namely, how to build a program.

The way the Con Vivo works, kind of like a musical co-op, it seems to me, makes it like a miniature conservatory to my mind. Variety is one of its major strengths.

So the all-Schubert program started relatively small and quietly with two short solo piano pieces, played very warmly (below). Then it proceeded to the trio of soprano, clarinet and piano for the Shepherd on the Rock. And then, after intermission, came the full ensemble (minus the pianist) for the Octet, an ambitious work that recalls Schubert “Great” Symphony No. 9 to my ears.

Now I like short or small works. I particularly found that the small-scale opening set a nicely intimate tone. It served to welcome people and to get listeners in the mood. As an introduction, it took you into The Schubert Zone, so to speak.

It struck me as similar to the way one of the legendary Schubertiades (depicted below in a drawing by Moritz Schwind) – those informal concerts in private homes where Schubert played and premiered his own works with friends – might have proceeded.

By the end of the two “Moments Musicaux” (the military march-like No. 3 and the song-like lament of No. 6) , you were ready for a something a little more ambitious. And so along came the more extroverted Shepherd and his rock in a trio. (I suspect Schubert loved yodeling, don’t you think?)

And they in turn, prepared you for the big and ambitious six-movement Octet, complete with winds and brass as well as strings.

At post-concert snacks provided by Trader Joe’s (thank you TJ, for supporting the local arts), I told Robert Taylor (below), the clarinetist founder and director of Con Vivo, that I really liked the progression of the program and he said the way I thought of it hadn’t really occurred to him. I added that I thought it was a great model or template to follow in the future: Start with a small, even solo piece – maybe a single song like Schubert’s “An Die Musik” (To Music) or a Faure romance or maybe Renaissance love song by Stradella; or maybe one or two Chopin preludes or Bach Preludes and Fugues from “The Well-Tempered Clavier”; and then move on to a duo sonata (violin or cello and piano) or a trio.

Then. after intermission, conclude with a bigger, more complex or ambitious piece with more players.

Why does it work that way?

I’m not sure. It just feels right to me, the same way that Baroque music often  feels right in the morning and Romantic music often feels right at night.

It may have to do with the large number of people who take piano lessons or wish they played the piano. (Symphony orchestra marketers tell me that piano concertos almost always guarantee bigger audiences that just plain symphonies or concertos for violin or cello).

And it goes back to that old saying “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Or, in other words, the history of the individual relives the history of the group.

So maybe a solo work should come first because we first learn to play by ourselves, and so it seems natural to permute the increases and additions gradually.

In any case, I think music ensembles looking for bigger audiences – and these days which one isn’t? — should seriously consider such organic and progressive or incremental programing that includes small and short works as well as big and long works.

Carefully choosing and then sequencing musical works can be very inviting.

Say it was an all-Mozart concert. Maybe it would open with a single Mozart song, or one of his fantasies or rondos for piano.

Then maybe you would put one of the rarely heard duets for violin and viola, or maybe a violin sonata or a piano trio.

That maybe you would end with one of the scaled down chamber versions of the piano concertos or maybe the gorgeous Quintet for Piano and Winds Quintet.

However, it works out, I thought Con Vivo’s program, to say nothing of its talent, struck a sympathetic and engaging note right form the start.  One person told me it was either that largest crowd they had drawn of the second largest. I suspect the program played a part, as did the all-one composer choice of Schubert, who is so very listenable.

I hope I see more such programs from Con Vivo as it enters its 10th anniversary year next season. I also hope to see such programs from other groups, especially from the UW School of Music – which should see a lot more different departments cooperating for joint mixed recitals – piano, voice, strings, winds and brass.

One other thing: I really liked Con Vivo’s approach to accessible ticket prices and categories of ticket sales (below) of allowing listeners themselves to determine if they are students or seniors. Especially in this difficult economy, I have had enough of IDs and enforcement from the arts police. I like relying on trust, which I think buys a lot of good will from the public – at a time when arts groups need all the public good will they can get.

What do you think about progressive or incremental programming?

Would you like to hear more small and short works? 

What do you think about allowing listeners to pay what they can afford or think they should pay?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. Jacob, I think your programming idea, essentially from solo or small to intermediate or eventually large makes a great deal of musical sense. For years I didn’t share your love of Schubert’s works but in 2003, I wound up playing 2nd trombone in the Palos Verde Peninsula (CA) symphony programming one of Schubert’s symphonies, perhaps the Great. I have volumes of trombone orchestral excerpt books, but I’d never been exposed to the trombone parts in that composition.

    At the time, the principal trombonist was employed by the movie company Industrial Light and Magic and a fine player. As if that wasn’t enough, the bass trombone player was a fellow librarian who had played in Barnum and Bailey’s circus band and was a superb performer. We had one sectional and, especially on the Schubert, we were zoning. I so wish that concert had been recorded. It was almost the best I’ve ever played.

    As much as I love Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, I guess what had previously turned me off about him was the little music history I’ve read dealing with him portrayed him as something of an inebriate. My father was an alcoholic and the best negative object lesson I’ve ever had. So until that exposure to the Schubert symphony in Palos Verde, I wasn’t all that enamored about Schubert. I made enough money in the two concerts I played with that group to buy a new tuxedo. And what really was the frosting on the cake was the fact that my son was playing in the second violin section.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — June 2, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    • Hi Larry,
      Thanks for replying — and for agreeing!
      I like your story about getting to like Schubert.
      I also came to Schubert later in life, even though I played some of his piano works in my teens.
      But then I think as youngsters we generally go for more lushly Romantic and emotional works. Schubert’s restrained emotion and compassion require a certain maturity and experience of loss and living in the world.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 2, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

  2. HI, Jake-

    I agree with you that programming of the sort that Con Vivo did a couple of weeks ago can work to make “classical” music more inviting and enjoyable to a wider audience. This is something I talk about all the time with my students at UW and the faculty is always looking for ways to combine programs for us as well as for students. This combination of variety (performers, instruments, etc) unified either by a single composer or some other connection makes for a fun evening.

    Creating programs that maneuver the audience through some kind of emotional arc is something many of us think about when creating a recital or other kind of program. The traditional idea of using a chronological order seems to be still popular especially for student recitals where there are academic goals and requirements that need to be fulfilled first. With concerts for public consumption, I believe it is important to find a balance between entertainment and intensity. It is possible to control the emotions of the audience as well. Usually this is achieved by creating a sequence that can run from light to dark and then back to light emotions or subjects or follow some trajectory (as in the Winterreise journey down a dark tunnel).

    My own preference is to start a program with something that the audience can find easily accessible then progress to some kind of more and more intense music and then finish with some kind of flourish or final statement that would hopefully sum up the ideas or message of the program. The endless possibilities are what keeps this life in music fresh and exciting.

    Comment by Paul Rowe — June 2, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    • Hi Paul,
      I completely agree with you and your ideas, hope you have success with your colleagues at the UW School of Music.
      We all need classical concerts to be more fun.
      I remember something similar when UW tenor James Doing performed songs he has students learn. It was terrific — accessible and informative with great contrast and range.
      Why can’t the piano department, for example, do a recital with different pieces by different faculty and students? Then the burden doesn’t fall just on one individual.
      Or what about an evening of Beethoven sonatas — for solo piano, violin and cello?
      The possibilities for creativity and originality are endless, no?
      As always, thanks for reading and replying so thoughtfully.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 2, 2011 @ 11:44 am

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