The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: German cellist Alban Gerhardt talks about the sophisticated music scene in Madison, where he will perform Prokofiev with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend; about educating young people; and about attract new adult audiences. Part 2 of 2.

February 6, 2013
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UPDATES and ALERTS: The Madison Symphony Orchestra is offering a two-day two-for-the-price-of-one ticket sale for this weekend’s concerts if you mention the promotional code word CELLO either in person or on the phone at the Overture Center box office or use it on-line. The two-day sale started on Tuesday and ends at midnight tonight. Also, on Thursday, tomorrow, at noon, on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “The Midday” with host Norman Gilliland (88.7 FM in the Madison area), cellist Alban Gerhardt will be the guest.

By Jacob Stockinger

There are many things that appeal about this weekend’s concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with its music director and conductor John DeMain. 

In deep winter, it will be welcome to feel the scented warm air of Spain as evoked in Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole.”

And then there is the chance to hear a rarely heard Beethoven symphony – the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, the last movement of which was recently named an ideal piece of classical music for an exercise workout. This symphony usually falls in the shadows of its predecessor (No. 3 “Eroica”) and successor (No. 5). But it is great music nonetheless.

Yet perhaps the biggest draw remains something of a curiosity –- Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante (or Cello Symphony), which is not often heard in live performance or recordings.

Also appealing is the cello soloist: the German cellist Alban Gerhardt (below), who has played in Madison several times.

Gerhardt is outstanding and is known not only for his exceptional tone and musicianship, but also for his emotionally direct  and outgoing playing that connects with audiences.

He is, in short, an unabashed and unapologetic extrovert, as he demonstrated in the email Q&A he recently gave to The Ear and which he wrote on the road between concert stops in Saarbrucken and Brussels.

alban gerhardt

The concerts are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16.50-$78.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, visit:

For very informative but accessible program notes by MSO trombonist and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen, visit:

And here is a link to Gerhart’s own well-organized and illuminating website about his biography, concert dates, repertoire, photos, music in schools and other activities (it is also available in German):

Here is the email Q&A with cellist Alban Gerhardt in two parts. Yesterday he discussed his huge repertoire and his hectic life as a professional cellist on the road and in the recording studio as well as his view of the Prokofiev. Today, he discusses how he came to the cello, what he thinks of Madison and his views about the best ways to educate young people about music and to involve new audiences of adults.

Alban Gerhardt with Cello

You have played several times in Madison, dating back to a Debut Series when you were starting out, I believe. Do you have an impression of the symphony, Madison audiences and the classical music scene in Madison, and what are they?

That’s true, I have been to Madison a couple of times, first with Rina Dokshitsky, my Israeli pianist back then, and I remember how loved the intellectual feeling with the university right in the center.

Somehow it felt rather European with all the benefits of a US city – and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that the Madison Symphony (below) is the one daring to schedule the Prokofiev as they have a wonderfully trained audience that knows a lot about music and won’t be scared away from a piece it might not have heard of before!


When you were young, was there for you an Aha! Moment – perhaps a certain piece or performer – when you knew you wanted to become a professional musician and a cellist?

Actually I always knew I wanted to be a musician and didn’t know there was any other profession, as my parents were both musicians, and their friends were. For the longest time, I didn’t meet any non-musicians.

Maybe it was New Year’s 1980-81, me just having played the cello (below) for two years, when I was allowed to play with my father, my teacher and some of his colleagues of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the Schubert Quintet (for two cellos, two violins and viola). It was such a strong sensation that since that day I have been disappointed by all the following New Year’s parties, because nothing has ever come close. To experience chamber music of such quality (I am talking about the piece, not our performance) made me believe that music was indeed my religion and my vocation.

Cello and bow

Do you have your ideas about how music education should be done today and about how to attract younger audiences?

Since there is so much more distraction for not only young people, we do need to think of a way to keep the appeal of classical music alive. It’s hard to compete with all these cleverly thought up video and computer games, play stations, TV, the Internet. Even for people who love classical music, it can be tough to get them into a concert as they can see everything online these days — for free!

We musicians have to make a point of how much more fulfilling a live concert experience is than just a recording or a video of a concert. But we also must make sure that we do create in the moment we are playing, and not just going through the motions while avoiding any kind of risk.

The most beautiful review I ever received was in San Diego. The journalist wrote that he felt I was playing with an urgency as if some terrorists had put the gun to my head to play for my life.

While I despise any kind of insincerity on stage, any kind of empty “show-gesture”, there is a need to bring real and true emotion onto the stage – there needs to be real heart-blood, not just the image of it.

Daniel Müller-Schott

Also musicians need to enjoy what they are doing. Sometimes I look into the faces while attending a concert and musicians often look so serious, sometimes even bored or empty, and this easily translates into the audience. We have to show why music written 100, sometimes 200 years ago, is still relevant — but we also have to play music written today and make a strong case for why today’s music is for everybody and not for only a few chosen ones.

I learned in the US the importance of going into schools and introduce my cello, what I do with it and what it means for me. Music classes in the schools are essential, should be seen as important as learning science, math, history or languages.

It is also very important for young people (below) to experience the beauty of an acoustic instrument, a real live performance, possibly from somebody who can draw their attention and who can also talk to them in their language, not just a speech over their heads. I love doing this, never stopped and want to intensify efforts in that direction. (Below is a photo of a violinist in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.)


Also, I love to perform at public places for free, to bring music to people who have maybe always thought that classical music stinks and who might be pleasantly surprised that it is quite a magic thing.

When I played all Bach suites (an excerpt from Suite No. 6 with Alban Gerhardt is below in a YouTube video)  at the main train station in Berlin (slightly amplified), one lady told me that she had never listened so intensely to any kind of music as she needed to concentrate so much to block out all the other noises. This way the public space in which I performed became like a concert hall, created by the concentration of the 200-plus people listening with all their concentration. Quite an experience!

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