The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are classical music fans getting too much of a good thing? April was a rich month for music in Madison -– too rich for even a conscientious critic and fan to catch it all. Is there any solution or compromise to help correct the unfairness to audiences and performers?

May 1, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is May Day – the globally recognized day for celebrating labor and work. And making art – specifically, making music — is work not just for the musicians but increasingly for Madison audiences. In that spirit, here is a special posting, a provocative essay meant to spark discussion that was written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

In his years in Paris, the great humorist Art Buchwald used to write an annual column describing an imaginary marathon he called something like the “One-Minute-Louvre.” This portrayed athletic tourists who could manage to visit, within a single minute, three of the greatest objects in that vast museum: the statues of Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory, plus the Mona Lisa painting — all within one minute, mind you.

That is what Madison’s musical life has come to seem like — a marathon of overlapping and conflicting events that pile up impossibly. It is like drowning in riches. The riches are undeniable, and fabulous, but it is drowning nevertheless.

And nowhere is this more true than in the weeks just past. “April is the cruelest month,” opined T. S. Eliot in his poem “The Wasteland,” and April this year has seemed to me the worst I have ever experienced for schedule train wrecks and mid-air collisions.  So many events deserve attention and reporting, but as both a critic and a music lover, I am sure that I share with many Madisonians a feeling of battle fatigue.  Let me just sketch out — still leaving out many smaller concerts — what I myself have tried to keep up with.

The weekend of April 19-21 began the mounting pressures.  I had to be out of town overnight on the 19th (my daughter made her theatrical debut in Wausau), which meant that I had to miss the first of the two Beethoven programs by Parry Karp and Eli Kalman (below top) at Farley’s House of Pianos. I returned on the 20th, but still had to miss the afternoon performance of the Perlman Piano Trio.  And, that evening, I had to sacrifice the student recital (at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center) of the wonderful young violist and budding conductor Mikko Utevsky (below bottom) — that so I could catch the first performance of the Madison Bach Musicians, which I reviewed for this blog.

Parry Karp and Eli Kalman

MAYCO Mikko Utevsky by Steve Rankin

Attending that performance, rather than the second one on the 21st, allowed me to catch the second and last of the Karp-Kalman Beethoven cycle at Farley’s (and it was wonderfully worthwhile!).  Before that, however, I made it to a program at Music Hall on the campus in the earlier afternoon in which three splendid products of the University of Wisconsin School of Music (Emily Birsan (below top), Jamie Van Eyck (below bottom) and John Arnold) showed their gratitude to the Paul Collins Fellowship. Of course, that meant sacrificing a production of Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” at Edgewood College that same afternoon.

Emily Birsan less tarty 2 NoCredit

Jamie Van Eyck

That weekend was stern preparation for the most recent one, April 26-28.  As a prelude I had to miss the UW Opera Scenes program on Wednesday evening, due to a prior commitment (giving a lecture for Continuing Studies).  Things moved into high gear with the first performance of the Madison Opera’s splendid production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (below, in a photo by James Gill) on the evening of the 26th (and there was John Arnold in the cast), which I reviewed for Isthmus.

madison opera don giovanni james gill No. 10

Most of the 27th was taken up with this season’s final HD transmission of the Metropolitan Opera, in this case a not-to-be-missed production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto.”  The evening offered a pair of equal options, programs each presented that date or the next.

So, postponing the UW Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra concert, I opted for the latest program organized by the energetic and versatile Jerry Hui with his Eliza’s Toyes ensemble (below), at the Gates of Heaven. His menu offered a range of Northern Italian madrigals mostly from the early 17th century, plus some dance pieces of the period.

These were interspersed with episodes from a slender playlet, delivered by the singers in Commedia dell’Arte improvisational style, about the dangers of gambling.  All that was pegged to the date 1638, when the first authorized casino (the Ridotto) was opened in Venice.  The idea of mixing music with theater is typical of Jerry Hui’s imaginative experimentation, but it must be said that the performers’ acting skills were at a much lower level than their musical ones.

Fortunately, the latter maintained the group’s splendid balance and discipline, and in music of genuine interest.  A lovely item by Monteverdi was familiar, but secular madrigals by Giovanni Gabrieli are not, and the other composers represented are little known today. The selections, in fact, included real gems, ones sadly neglected in our time by performers and recordings.  This program was, on that count, a true ear-opener.

Eliza's Toyes 2012 1

On to Sunday, the 28th.  Now it happens this year that this date inaugurates the Orthodox Christian Holy Week (as distinct from the Western Christian dating), and the Palm Sunday service is one of the most exhausting one of the liturgical year. I sing in the choir of the local Greek church here, and so I began the day with an initial burden of fatigue.  (That was a function not of Madison’s musical schedule, of course, but we all have various personal commitments, musical or otherwise, I think.)  In the early afternoon, I attended a program on American Players Theatre involving a dear faculty friend and colleague. Yes, a non-musical commitment, but again at a sacrifice, of attending a memorial program for another colleague, recently deceased.

Pant, pant!

And now it came to finale, the performance by the UW Choral Union and Chamber Orchestra (below) at Mills Hall that evening.  A fine finale it proved to be. It was devoted to a major choral work by the American composer Robert Kyr. His “Passion According to Four Evangelists” is a fascinating 20th-century contribution to a rather limited literature, aimed at modernizing the Baroque tradition of setting the Gospel accounts of Christ’s death.  Beverly Taylor, the Choral Union conductor, was instrumental in arranging the work’s commissioning back in her Boston days, and she has already brought it to Madison once before, so it is something she clearly knows and loves.

UW Choral Union and soloists w Taylor : KYR

Kyr created his own composite text, drawing not only on all four Gospel accounts (instead of using just one, as in past practice), but on other Scriptural texts (especially Psalms) and on literature beyond.  The four soloists represent not only the four Evangelists, but also characters in the action –UW tenor James Doing (below) was predictably outstanding as Luke and Jesus. 

Some of the solo writing is vocally awkward, and some imbalances from the orchestra need to be adjusted.  But Kyr is one of the few composers today who can write viable and idiomatic choral music.  He has made a point of having the chorus and the soloists interact musically to dramatic effect.  The Choral Union is big enough, but also well drilled enough to bring off splendidly Kyr’s moments of beauty, power and eloquence.  I would be cautious about calling this a great masterpiece, but it is certainly an important landmark in American and contemporary choral music.

Choral Union Kyr James Doing

Kyr himself (below) was on hand to give a pre-concert talk, which was genial and engaging, explaining his rationale in conceiving and constructing the work, at once in musical, spiritual, and humanistic terms.

robert kyr

That was a fine climax to an exhausting day.  And, for all my own individual hyperactive diversions, I wonder if other Madison music lovers might find parallels with my experience.

I am the first to praise the wonderful richness and variety of Madison’s musical life.  But is there a time — especially in these insanely over-scheduled Aprils — when abundance becomes overkill?

It is fabulous to have so many choices.  But when the choices become increasingly painful amid schedule conflicts, has the abundance become almost counter-productive?  Wonderful events have to sacrificed in favor of other wonderful events, all competing for the same audience.

I know it sounds ungrateful to want, sometimes, just a little pulling back from the over-scheduling.  And nobody would want to appoint some culture czar to blow whistles and regulate what can or cannot be scheduled, when and where.

Local organizations do, indeed, try to consult with each other, and make what adjustments or accommodations can be managed.  But each organization has its own compulsions, of individual schedules, and above all of access to facilities for which there is much competition.  Moreover, the academic year has an inevitable way of squeezing things further and further to its end.

I do not have any magic solution.  It does seem to me that “town” organizations might assume a certain deference to “gown” ones, in allowing some space to UW events and activities.  Some of the latter, too — ones less dependent on semester wind-up — could be spread out better.  Some non-UW events might be work towards earlier dates.

Well, that’s so much fantasy dreaming, up against harsh realities.  Yet among directors, performers and attendees, there ought to be a little thinking about how much overloading of the Madison musical audience is beneficial – or detrimental — to our cultural community.  Too much is simply unfair to both the audiences who want to attend concerts and to the musicians who work so hard to put them on and to attract audiences.

We should try to preserve the abundance, but be more careful about its equitable scheduling.

And, oh yes, I have a musical committee meeting Monday evening.  And then this weekend, two commitments (including the Ancora String Quartet, below top) prevent me from hearing performances with retiring UW violinist Tyrone Greive (below bottom, in a photo by Kathy Esposito)  with the UW Symphony Orchestra . . . to say nothing of this Saturday night when the Wisconsin Youth Orchestra’s (WYSO) “Art of Note” fundraising gala takes place as do concerts by the Ancora String Quartet and the Oakwood Chamber Players.

And so it goes, on and on and on …

Ancora FUS BIG John Devereux

Tyrone Greive 2013 by Kathy Esposito


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