The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music education: You can hear for yourself how University of Wisconsin music students have improved by going to the UW Chamber Orchestra’s FREE opening concert of Maxwell-Davies, Ravel and Schubert on Saturday night. | October 5, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

To those of us who have been in Madison a while, the difference is obvious to hear.

The University of Wisconsin student orchestras – the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Chamber Orchestra  – have always been good. But over the years they only seem to have gotten better. The same can be said, I think, for solo pianists, chamber musicians and singers.

It seems to The Ear that the UW is recruiting more accomplished musicians. Is that due to the reputation for the UW School of Music? To better teachers and teaching methods in the lower grades? To more appreciation for the performing arts at home, in school and in society? I honestly don’t know.

I suppose if I had access to academic transcripts and admission audition notes, I would know for sure.

But the most recent proof I had was last Sunday, when I heard the UW Symphony Orchestra (below) perform an outstanding program of Messiaen, Berg and Berlioz.

In the late “Smile for Orchestra” by Olivier Messiaen (below), they showed off their ability to create color, follow complex rhythms and follow abrupt  and extreme shifts in dynamics.

In the late Romantic (not atonal) “Seven Early Songs’ by Alban Berg (below) – which featured the outstanding faculty soprano Julia Faulkner as a soloist, although unfortunately she went unannounced in pre-concert publicity – the orchestra proved a fine accompanist.

True, some of the songs seemed unbalanced and the singer was a bit drowned out. Was that the resonant hall? The fact that Faulkner (below center), who possesses a big and beautiful voice, sang sitting down? The large size of the orchestra? It’s impossible for me to say, but I did want to hear more of the singing.

Then came the landmark “Symphonie Fantastique” — a long and difficult but seminal and programmatic Romantic work by Hector Berlioz (below) that is much like Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in that if puts the spotlight on all sections. In one, it was the percussion and brass; in another the winds and strings, and so forth. All passed with honors.

So congratulations to conductor James Smith (below) and his players.

If you missed that concert, you have another chance to hear Smith with student players tomorrow, on Saturday  night, when at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Chamber Orchestra (below) performs under James Smith its first concert of the 2012-13 season.

The concert is an appealing one; Smith always chooses an eclectic program. It features 19th and 20th century music: the “Ojai Festival Overture, J. 305” by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies; “Ma Mere L’Oye” (“Mother Goose” Suite) by Maurice Ravel; and Symphony No. 6 in C major, D. 589, by Franz Schubert (at bottom).

The concert is FREE.

Parking might be a problem, especially on a football day. But I have been told by the UW Parking Authority that there is some inevitable confusion because the UW system is moving to automated gates with pay machines rather than human cashiers.

The bottom line, they said, was that if the gate arm is open to let you in for nothing, you will be able to leave – and not be ticketed or towed. All day Sunday is FREE parking in nearby Grainger Hall, they said.

We will see.

Be sure to let The Ear know about your Adventures and Misadventures in UW Parking Land.



  1. Just a quick note to second, very strongly, your observation that UW student performances are both technically and musicially sophisticated. I’m comparing “improvement” to that in the mid ’60’s, when I was last here, and I can tell you that the students today are simply light-years ahead in understanding of Classical music than then. Certainly gives the lie to the assertion that Classical music is a dying entity. Some aspects of the musical tradition are indeed dying; but, as long as I hear performances with the degree of commitiment and sensitivity that I have heard in student performances, these people are going to find ways to keep it alive in the future.

    As to “why” this is — I agree with Susan that the people who DO care get better nurturing. I believe that we’ve learned that we can’t “convert” everybody — just those that have “ears to hear” — and there are still plenty of young people of that “ilk”.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — October 5, 2012 @ 9:06 am

  2. With grandchildren in three diverse states, (Wisconsin, California and Nevada), I can say with some confidence it’s not improved teaching in the lower grades. As a hostage to the ubiquitous pop culture than bombards us and which evidently most people prefer, I doubt it’s more exposure to and appreciation of the performing arts. I suspect it’s improved private teaching and more exposure and options in good high schools.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — October 5, 2012 @ 8:32 am

  3. Thanks for your report and thoughtful questions about why the quality of student work has improved. This information needs to be communicated more widely to enhance public and legislative support for the UW School of Music. Barbara Furstenberg

    Comment by Barbara Furstenberg — October 5, 2012 @ 7:40 am

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