The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS –- American composer Tobias Picker’s 1986 orchestral work “Old and Lost Rivers.” | June 8, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Regular readers of this blog know that The Ear is extremely choosy when it comes to new and contemporary classical music.

But actually I am also that way with older classical music – and often find attempts to revive so-called “neglected” works and composers an exercise is saving the second-rate.

Anyway, I want to give a shout-out to Lori Skelton, the radio host for Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” (now over for the season) and for The Afternoon Concert that normally runs from 1:05 p.m. to 3 p.m. on WERN FM 88.7 in the Madison area.

In her programming and playlists, Skelton (below, seen in a WPR studio) often seems to emphasize unknown works and unknown composers, often ignoring just plain old beautiful masterpieces that are much better known.

Lori Skelton in studio

Now, I appreciate being exposed to and learning more about music I don’t already  know and that didn’t really survive into mainstream history. But often I am even more hungry for beauty than I am for novelty.

So imagine my delight when last Monday afternoon Lori Skelton programmed and played a relatively contemporary work (from 1986) by the living American composer Tobias Picker (below), who was born in 1954 and is probably better known for his operas.

Tobias Picker

It is a relatively short (about six minutes) and uncomplicated orchestral work called ”Old and Lost Rivers,” and it is simply beautiful, very listener-friendly and accessible. It reminds me a lot of vintage Aaron Copland with the open harmonies and flowing melodies that for me express a wistful and Midwestern blend of the modern and the nostalgic.

Picker wrote it on commission for the Houston Symphony Orchestra, which performs it in a YouTube video recording at the bottom under its former music director and conductor Christoph Eschenbach (below), who commissioned it and led the world premiere.

Christoph Eschenbach

I find it a haunting and contemplative piece, a work that is a balm at a time when so much contemporary music tries to be provocative and unsettling, music that tries to rile you up, to disturb and to challenge you.

So here it is and you really must hear it and listen to it –- NOT the same things.

The biggest puzzle for me is why I haven’t heard this lovely work sooner in live performances or even in recordings. If you read the intelligent listeners’ comments on YouTube, you will see you well received and how appreciated the work it.

Tobias Picker’s “Old and Lost Rivers” could become a very popular contemporary work if given a chance, both for professional music groups like the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (even at Concert on the Square) as well for student groups like the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra, the UW Chamber Orchestra and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO).

So listen to it, and then leave your own impressions in the COMMENTS section of this blog.

Be sure to read the listeners’ comments.

So thank you, Tobias Picker.

And thank you, Lori Skelton.


  1. I am a big fan of Adult Contemporary music and the only radio station that plays a wide range of this music is 97.9 WRMF. I am also kept updated on the station’s latest promotions and community events. Visit their website for live streaming at .

    Comment by Sarah Moore — June 20, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

  2. One main reason you don’t hear that work, or many of its fellow contemporary works, is that it is only available for rent, not for purchase.

    It is a business model that has locked smaller ensembles with lower budgets out of playing about 100 years’ worth of repertoire.For me to program that work or others similar to it, it costs about $50 per minute, and you only get the parts for a few weeks of rehearsal, and you have to worry about whether or not you’ll get the parts turned back in on time and in good shape.

    It is unfortunate, because there is so much excellent music that I would love to program with my high school ensembles and the Middleton Community Orchestra that is simply too expensive.

    Comment by Steve Kurr — June 8, 2013 @ 9:38 am

    • Hi Steve,
      THank you.
      You make excellent points about unfortunate truths.
      I think the same thing applied to the fabulously beautiful Eclogue for piano and orchestra by Gerald Finzi.
      You would think publishers and composers themselves would do more to ensure the widest possible distribution and performance of new musical works.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 8, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  3. This is music to “soothe the savage breast,” and at this time when we never know what fresh hell will be in the morning news, it’s a reminder that good music and old rivers endure a lot, but flow on.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — June 8, 2013 @ 8:26 am

  4. Probably a better fit for the MSO – with 6 horns, not exactly chamber orchestra material, and the string writing is probably too high for WYSO (though the UW could do it – it doesn’t strike me as something Mr. Smith would program, though).

    That said, I can’t say I hear anything in it that sets it apart from some nice Copland, apart from the lack of variety. If you took the beginning and end of “Our Town” and pasted them together, or added the beginning of “Appalachian Spring,” you’d get something similar, but more memorable. And since many ensembles already own parts for those, shelling out a few hundred to rent this doesn’t seem worthwhile.

    Yes, it’s pretty. If you want inoffensive contemporary music that lies down and lets you drift off, great. This is great for showing audiences that modern music doesn’t have to be hard to listen to. But unless I was trying to sell that idea to ticketholders, there’s plenty of music that will do just as well, and leave you with something to hum afterwards besides. Higdon’s “blue cathedral” from last season has a bit more meat on it, for example – or you could just do Copland.

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — June 8, 2013 @ 12:59 am

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