The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Being a professional classical musician takes more than having talent, good stage nerves and the ability to play the right notes. | March 26, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Spring break has begun at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at most public schools in and around Madison.

That means that the active concert life at the UW and other local presenters has taken a short break or intermission.

And that, in turn, means that I can catch up on some things – comments, reviews, non-local stories – that got pushed aside to make way for the ever busier schedule of live classical music events in the Madison area.

One of the things that I meant to blog about earlier is the lesson that I received from a couple of outstanding local events: The lesson that it takes more than talent, good stage nerves and playing the right notes to make a professional career in music.

One similar expression of that came recently from a blog by pianist Stephen Hough (below), who has performed several time sin Madison, from his comments about his life between concerts and from comments by his readers. Here is a link:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100068438/solitude-among-the-phantom-nuances/

Hough_Stephen_color16

And you can Google to find other stories about life behind the scenes for concert musicians. That was one reason the recent movies “A Late Quartet” (below) and “Quartet” were so enjoyable.

A Late Quartet frontal

I also posted about this when the acclaimed pianist Jeremy Denk. (Denk, below) returns to Madison on April 11 to perform Bartok, Liszt, Bach and Beethoven in a Mills Hall recital for the Wisconsin Union Theater series.)

Denk came here and lectured at the UW School of Music, gave a blog panel, and performed a massive recital of Charles Ives and J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations at the Wisconsin Union Theater two seasons ago. He performed this despite having his computer, with many notes for his acclaimed blog (“Think Denk”) and terrific lectures, stolen from backstage.

But Denk gamely went on as of nothing happened and delivered the goods in spades. I don’t know if I could have summoned that kind of concentration after that kind of upsetment. In fact, I am almost certain I could NOT have.

Jeremy Denk playing 2

This semester I can think of two other examples, although I am sure there are more I don’t know about.

On Feb. 9 the acclaimed and unconventional Brooklyn-based freelance chamber orchestra The Knights (below) and pipa virtuoso Wu Man played an outstanding concert (below) marking the Chinese New Year in Mills Hall for the Wisconsin Union Theater, which is closed for renovation.

the knights 1

Yet they arrived only 70 minutes before they went on stage.

They had unexpectedly caught a last-minute flight out of New York, despite a snowstorm (or snow “event” as TV weather forecasters have taken to calling it) and went to Milwaukee, where a chartered bus picked them up and brought them to Madison.

But it all happened so fast and unpredictably. So unsure were things that even the presenters were making contingency plans for cancelling the event.

But they all arrived and went on stage where they stood to play Debussy, Stravinsky and Milhaud as well as a pipa concerto by American composer Lou Harrison and a pipa work composed by Wu Man. Via cell phone, the players en route had asked that cookies and milk be provided after the concert for them (they hadn’t eaten or had a chance to rest) and for the rest of the audience.

That happened, and the music combined with the socializing make for an unforgettable event.

That kind of devotion, of going with flow no matter how discouraging, is what being a professional musician is all about. No excuses were made. The Knights and Wu Man just kept their composure, put the music first and played their hearts out – and the audience, including The Ear, was most grateful and appreciative.

The Knights and Wu Man in Mills Hall Feb. 9 2013

Also in February, the distinguished German cellist Alban Gerhardt performed a terrific and terrifically difficult Prokofiev piece (the “Sinfonia Concertante”) with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain, who himself turned in a terrifically vital performance of Beethoven’s rarely heard Symphony No. 4.

But Gerhardt (below) too faced obstacles that turned out to be a demonstration of his cool professionalism.

alban gerhardt

Normally, he said, it takes about 12 hours to get from his home in Berlin, Germany to Madison. But he was rerouted due to airplane difficulties, and it took him twice as long –- about 24 hours – as normal.

In fact, he was late for his won first rehearsal. But he came directly from the airport and wandered into Overture Hall and picked up where someone else had started on his place. That was on Thursday night. Then came the actual performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday -– and he performed up to the level we all expected and that had been advertised by the symphony.

Alban Gerhardt playing 2

But travel and fatigue weren’t the only problems.

Add in some personal heartbreak. The Transportation Security Authorities at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C broke his $20,000 cello bow (below) in some careless manner while they inspected and then closed his cello case. He later discovered they had also damaged his cello.

The incident even made national and international news. Here are links:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2013/feb/12/cellists-bow-damaged/

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2013/02/a-second-shock-for-alban-gerhardt-airport-security-broke-my-cello-too.html

http://www.thestrad.com/article.asp?articleid=2524

http://www.opposingviews.com/i/entertainment/tsa-damages-cellist-alban-gerhardts-20000-bow

Alban Gerhardt broken cello bow

That kind of  unexpected loss has to hurt, especially when so much of the life of a touring musician is based on routine and things going as planned.

But neither the travel delay nor the broken bow – he borrowed one from a symphony cellist – interfered with his absolutely first-rate performance.

Talk about remaining cool, calm and collected!

Anyway, both concerts were wonderful events that I did not review because space was needed for other previews. (Each would have received a rave.) But I did want to praise not only the performances, but the sheer perseverance of great and thoroughly professional musicians who are anything but temperamental divas.

And then this past week, the up-and-coming New York-based pianist Shai Wosner (below) stepped in a again — the second time in three years — to substitute for Anne-Marie McDermott as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. He got the call Tuesday afternoon and by Friday night was in Madison, had rehearsed the scheduled work (Mozart’s great Piano Concerto in C Minor) and delivered a first-rate performance.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

Do you know of similar stories to share with readers and non-musicians or especially amateur musicians who might reassess whether they really ever wished to be professional touring concert artists?

The Ear wants to hear.


6 Comments »

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  3. Thank you for The Well-Tempered Ear. While we aren’t able to take in many concerts in Madison, we do appreciate the occasional ones we can get to. Your comments and reviews are interesting and helpful to us. I especially appreciated today’s. I’m a retired pastor but occasionally get opportunity to preach. I’m saving today’s “Ear” to quote in the event that I get opportunity to preach on trouble or difficulty in life. Thank you!

    Comment by Paul and Denise Green — March 26, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

  4. Ah the trials of the touring classical musician. I think what helps me and other classical musicians perform is that we cultivate this ability to go to a different place – a place of security and comfort – when we practice and perform. Speaking from my own personal experience, I feel nervous or jittery before most gigs, but as soon as the downbeat hits I’m totally absorbed in the moment and in the sensation of playing, no matter my mental preoccupation or physical state.

    Comment by Rose — March 26, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

  5. I have had only one student whom I really believe has the musical and pianistic makings of a concert artist. While he was under my tutelage, I tried to impress upon him some of these hidden elements to life as a traveling minstrel. The enforced solitude, and the necessary meet-and-greet, the constant travel, the need for the piano to be your best friend, if not your love-interest, and yet having pianos be variable and unconstant, so unlike our loved ones.
    His mother wants him to have a business or science career. I want him to know that, if he chooses Music, it will be a choice, not an obligation. If he feels he will not be happy without Music as his life’s work, he needs to know that as soon as possible, to insure his chance at having such a life.
    As I have been a local gigger all my life, playing electronic instruments or nightclub pianos, my prospective concert-pianist-student will have a different, and higher-level set of problems to cope with than I have. But, he’ll revel in every moment onstage, where the Artist really lives.
    MBB

    Comment by Michael BB — March 26, 2013 @ 8:58 am

  6. I do indeed know of a similar story concerning a certain young man I know who surmounted considerable obstacles to win third place in the Minnesota Orchestra Concerto Competition a few years ago. I can never forget that experience.

    Comment by Katherine Esposito — March 26, 2013 @ 8:56 am


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