The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Critic John W. Barker of Isthmus responds to The Ear’s review of Midori and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. | November 17, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Music critic John W. Barker (below), who frequently contributes to this blog, usually writes for Isthmus. He is an intelligent, tasteful and highly informed critic, so I take his comments and reviews seriously – and so should you.

When he responded on Tuesday to criticism I made about his comments concerning Haydn, among other things, in my review on Tuesday of the concert last Sunday afternoon by the violinist Midori and the Madison Symphony Orchestra (link is below), I took notice.

John always makes good points, even if we disagree. 

Because of that, I asked him if he would consider letting me post his comments for the public, and he agreed  — as long, he said, as it wasn’t set up as some kind of personal attack against me or him. Which it isn’t. It is an educational disagreement among close friends who respect each other and their different opinions about art and music.

So we both offer it in this spirit: It is healthy for people who listen to music to realize that different critics have different perceptions of the same performance. Art, after all, is subjective in the end and much a matter of personal preference.

So here is John Barker’s “dissent,” if you will, because it is smart and revealing, well written and enjoyable.

Dear Jake,

Reading your posting for Tuesday, I was saddened by what seemed to be serious misunderstandings over my Isthmus review — and not just differences of opinion.

I did not criticize the performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 104London” by John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) for the reason that it was played by a large orchestra. (You could hardly call it “reduced” when the string sections were still massive as against the poor winds.)  Your representation of what are plainly meant to be my views (without my name) ends up making me seem a pedantic minimalist.

I plainly said in my review that I made no objection to a full-scale symphony orchestra playing Haydn, of itself. The issue is not really size, but STYLE. I made reference to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s music director Andrew Sewell (below) precisely because he understands the Haydn style, not just because he uses a chamber orchestra.

I have no quarrel with the fine playing of the MSO in this work. What I found objectionable was DeMain’s evidence of no stylistic sympathy with the music. Now, of course, we heard two different performances, you and I, but I really rather doubt that DeMain shifted his interpretation between them, least of all because of my comments.

I am quite content to hear a large orchestra play Haydn, or Mozart — or, of course, Schubert (how did he get into this?). But I will not be content with an interpretation that is hard and inflexible, lacking in 18th-century warmth and geniality. I think of Toscanini (below), who could beat the living daylights out of Haydn symphonies in the cause of clarity and precision.

As for trying to make Haydn sound like Beethoven a-borning, sure, I know that Beethoven studied with Haydn — if only after Haydn returned from London. But does that mean, accordingly, that we should play Beethoven (below) like Haydn? They are two very different composers. A conductor should be able to convey such difference.

As for the Ravel’s “La Valse,” I was alarmed to hear that DeMain seemed to be reverting to imbalance problems that plagued Overture Hall from its inception, when percussion and brass, their backs to the organ wall, were allowed to blast and bang out of all proportion to the rest of the orchestral sound.

DeMain told me he was aware of the problem and that he was working back then to make adjustments. But here it was all over again, allowing DeMain to produce a bizarre distortion of Ravel (below) to turn it into something to deafen the audience into delirium.  Ravel was portraying the collapse of phony Hapsburg gemütlichkeit in the crisis of World War I, and not the bombing of Hiroshima.  I’m sorry, but the overloaded Ravel DeMain gave us was a vulgar, cheapened distortion of Ravel. It’s a matter of STYLE once again.

I agree with your dismissal of the idea that programs should have “connections.” Hardly any do nowadays. But then you turn around and try to make a case for such here, on the argument that the three composers were inferior tunesmiths.

Egad! Haydn churned out more good tunes in a decade than Beethoven did in his lifetime. As for Shostakovich (below), all you have to do is listen to his film scores (obviously produced as his low-grade, earn-a-safe-living output) to realize how readily he could come up with fine ditties.

He was less openly chipper in his “serious” works. But I don’t see how you can call the Violin Concerto No. 1 “tuneless.” It is a magnificent achievement on various terms, and I think the MSO audiences responded with understanding, not expecting the usual brain-dead concerto.

The fact that the Shostakovich concerto has not been performed in Madison before can be explained in many ways (such as the absence of soloists with the courage and capacity to carry it with them in their touring), other than its supposed unapproachability.  A lot of great music has not been performed in Madison for reasons other than its quality.  Shall we talk about Bruckner?

Oh well, at least we agreed about Midori (below).

Nasdravia! (A Russian toast like Prosit!)


Readers: What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. […] articlesBournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Lighthouse, Poole, review ( music: Critic John W. Barker of Isthmus responds to The Ear’s review of Midori and t… ( jQuery(document).ready(function(){ function initialize() { var map = […]

    Pingback by Paducah Symphony Orchestra Announces Return of Young Artist Concerto Competition – The Southern Illinois Events Calendar — November 23, 2011 @ 7:35 am

  2. Thank you, Prof. Barker. I cannot agree more with you.

    Comment by Irmgard Bittar — November 17, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    • Hi Irmgard,
      Thank you so much for adding your reaction to the discussion.
      I did like the sharpness and clarity of the Haydn and the brashness in parts of the Ravel.
      But I think it is also a more contemporary style of playing the music.
      Which goes to John’s indisputable point about style — whether you agree or disagree with our individual preferences for different performance styles.
      But I know you have discerning ears and I respect your judgments.
      I also know the Shostakovich is unearthly beautiful, just as John says. But I sure can’t hum a tune from it, can you?

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 17, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

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