The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Is this “au revoir” or “adieu” for classical music at the Wisconsin Union Theater, The Ear asks after pianist Peter Serkin performs Beethoven and new music to bring down to the curtain?

May 11, 2012
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night’s piano recital by Peter Serkin (below) at the Wisconsin Union Theater was certainly timely.

It was a perfect event for bringing down the curtain for the next two seasons at the Union Theater as the Memorial Union undergoes a major renovation in time to reopen for the theater’s 75th anniversary season in September of 2014.

The question is: Does this mean “au revoir” or “adieu” – that is, “until next time” or “farewell” – to classical music at the Wisconsin Union Theater after 73 seasons?

(NOTE: A Curtain Down Party and Open House will be held — free and open to the public — from 2 to 6 p.m. this Saturday. For details, see http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/curtaindown/

I speak as someone who sincerely hopes the answer is “Au revoir.” After all, I have often referred to the Wisconsin Union Theater as “The Carnegie Hall of Madison.” It is where The Great Ones have played – and continue to play — as you will see shortly in my review of Peter Serkin’s Beethoven, which was done on the same legendary stage where I heard his famous father Rudolf Serkin (below) also perform Beethoven 40 years ago. Now that is tradition and legacy! History and longevity!

But I also know that classical music has been a tough sell for the past several seasons at the Wisconsin Union Theater. The audiences are dwindling, due, I am sure, to competing events, to tough economic times and to shifting priorities in how young people – or older people, for that matter – choose to spend their discretionary money and leisure time.

While the jazz festival and world music series continue to draw large crowds or even sold-out houses, the classical concerts usually sell under half a house.

How long, one has to ask, can that go on?

True, next season, the Union Theater’s four classical concerts will largely take place in Mills Hall, the same hall in the UW School of Music where pianist Jeffrey Siegel (who will mark his 25th anniversary performing “Keyboard Conversations” in Madison) and the UW faculty and the school’s guest artists now perform. It has about 750 seats compared to the Union Theater’s 1,200 seats.

In addition, the classical series is holding down ticket prices and is trying out scheduling mini-concerts at non-traditional times in non-traditional venues — at lunchtime at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, for example — to generate interest and audience.

Plus, there is clearly a decision to mix in some of the appeal of world music by booking groups like the Grammy-winning Imani Winds (below, below in a photo by Jeff Fisano) and The Knights chamber orchestra (below middle) with the pippa player Wu Man (below bottom) in a Silk Road Ensemble-type event .

More traditional classical bookings include cellist Joshua Roman (below top, in a photo by Tina Su), who will do a solo recital and also play a concerto with the UW Symphony Orchestra; and up-and-coming pianist Jeremy Denk (below bottom), who first appeared there as an accompanist for violinist Joshua Bell and last season played a fabulous and monumental recital of J.S. Bach and Ives and who offered a master class and blogging workshop as well as a lecture on Chopin at the UW School of Music.

For details, visit: http://uniontheater.wisc.edu/materials/theater_b_T503_SeasonSeries_12_1046_OF.pdf

You have to believe that cultural arts director Ralph Russo (below, in a photo by Jeff Miller of UW-Madison) and the student directors whom he works with are doing their very best to make the classical concert series succeed. But I already have heard several veteran subscribers who say they will pass on subscription tickets next season and wait to see what else is happening that week or day.

That doesn’t bode well –- though I could be, and hope that I am, wrong.

Time will tell, as they say. Maybe larger new audiences will indeed replace lost audiences. Something has to happen, that is for sure.

Whatever it takes for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s classical series to succeed and become popular again, I hope that is what happens. But I do fear for the worst – which is that it will continue to wind down to the point of disappearing. That would be a shame. We just can’t let that happen.

AS FOR PETER SERKIN (below): It was a memorable concert that featured Serkin’s specialties.

The first half was devoted to contemporary music by British composer Oliver Knussen, Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu and American composer Charles Wourinen.

Of them all, I preferred the “Adagio” by Wuorinen (below), which had a great sense of spaciousness and placidness while so much contemporary music seems abusively aggressive.

But I also have to confess that largely atonal new music is not my thing and that I find the music just can’t get traction, as they say, on my being.

I think I need more melody or tunes in the music, more obvious sense-making or structure and emotional directness with less cerebral puzzle-solving, for new music to reach me and seem like something other than R&D – or research and development. I seek emotional resonance.

I think you could play a sampling from any one of the pieces and almost no one could tell you which composer or which piece it was.

I also think it says something that even someone as experienced with those works as Peter Serkin – who commissioned the Wuorinen and Knussen and continues to champion them in performance – had to use scores to play them. On the other hand, the hour-long, late-life magnum opus “Diabelli” Variations by Beethoven (below) proved no challenge technically, musically or memory-wise. For players or listener, the Diabellis stick, so to speak, while the other works do not.

Playing without a score, Serkin turned it a fabulous interpretation that treated each of the 33 virtuosic and encyclopedic variations on an insipid  simple waltz by Beethoven’s publisher Anton Diabelli (below) as a discreet composition unto itself.

Even for someone like me – who finds any number of Beethoven’s piano sonatas to be much more rewarding music than these often pedantic as well as inspired variations – found many memorable moments, like the subtle fugue, where the music and the performer (who has recorded the Diabellis twice) all came together. 

But it is the kind of program where opinion can vary widely. So here are some others.

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and its blog Classically Speaking:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/May-2012/Serkin-Gives-Union-Theater-Its-Last-for-now-Curtain-Call/index.php

And here is a review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal by Lindsay Christians:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/serkin-brings-exceptional-performance-to-union-theater/article_4a230040-9787-11e1-9e91-001a4bcf887a.html

What did you think of Peter Serkin’s recital?

And what do you think about the future of the Wisconsin Union Theater and about its next season?


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