The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Let us now praise University of Wisconsin conductor James Smith and the marvels he achieves with student orchestras. Plus, the UW Chamber Orchestra performs a FREE concert tonight of music by Schumann, Haydn and Wagner.

October 1, 2013

REMINDER: At 7:30 p.m. tonight in Mills Hall, the UW Chamber Orchestra (below) under conductor James Smith performs a FREE concert. The program features the “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale” by Robert Schumann; the Symphony No. 88 by Franz Joseph Haydn and the “Siegfried Idyll” by Richard Wagner.  

UW Chamber Orchestra low res

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review 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-FM 89.9. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.


By John W. Barker

Last weekend witnessed the acclaim justly given to John DeMain for what he has built the Madison Symphony Orchestra into during his 20 years with it.  But on Sunday evening, there was a demonstration of the debt we owe to another conductor and his orchestra.

James Smith (below) has built his orchestral programs for the UW School of Music into something quire remarkable in their own terms.  Evidence of this was on display at Sunday night’s concert in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.  A considerable, if hardly capacity audience, but an enthusiastic one, heard the 2013 season opening event for the UW Symphony Orchestra, in a really meaty program, to say the least.


To begin, Smith yielded the podium to Kyle Knox (below), a graduate student and conducting assistant, for Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture.  His was a young man’s projection of the familiar piece, not without nuances, but basically a propulsive and dramatic reading.  The orchestra sounded confident and secure under his baton.

Kyle Knox 2

Smith then took over for a work of special appeal for me: the Third Symphony of Jean Sibelius.

For most of the public, it is the First, Second, and Fifth of Sibelius’s seven Symphonies that are likely to be familiar.  Beyond those, some may know the austere Fourth, the enigmatic Sixth and the hyper-concise Seventh.  But the Third has been overlooked consistently, which is a great pity.

The symphonies by Sibelius (below) are each highly individual and different from each other–with the exception of the Third and the Fifth.  They are really two peas from the same pod, and, to be blunt, the Third is the fresher (and less hackneyed) of the two.

Its three-movement structure is for the most part a blueprint Sibelius then used for the Fifth.  But, following the blowsy Second, I find that the Third has the spontaneity of a new and revitalized start in the composer’s self-definition.  Quite frankly, it is my personal favorite among the Seven.

Smith seemed to find exactly that freshness in the work.  His body language showed that he put himself wholly into projecting this inventive and colorful score.  If only other conductors had his courage and gave this work more exposure!


The “biggie” of the concert was, of course, what followed the intermission.  We have been rediscovering this year just how provocative and shocking Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, or “The Rite of Spring,, can still be. When new, the work Stravnsky (below) was regarded by many musicians as unplayable.  Now, any orchestra worth its salt can take it on — even a “student” orchestra.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

But the UW Orchestra (below in a photo by John W. Barker) is no mere ”student” ensemble. James Smith has worked it up to a level of professionalism matching the standards and capabilities of ever so many big-city orchestras today.  Oh, sure, a few very trifling and inconsequential fluffs at odd instants here and there, what any orchestra might risk. But this group has become an instrument on which Smith could play miracles.  The players were totally with him, while his clear heat and precise cues gave them safe guidance.

UW Symhony Orchestra 2013 CR John W. Barker

Smith seemed to aim at an emphasis on rhythmic power, though he found passages to remind us of the work’s underlying Russian-ness amid all the “primitivism.”  In his careful preparation of the many climaxes, he had his orchestra pour out torrents of sound that were extraordinarily compelling.

There were many individual players one might single out.  For me, though, I found most fascinating the first of the two timpanists, a young woman who threw herself into her work with athletic abandon.

To sum up, this was a simply thrilling performance, within a totally wonderful concert.

It is a crying shame that the tightly limited attention paid by our journalistic establishment to Madison’s musical riches is so particularly restrictive in its recognition of the music-making available on campus. In any other place and circumstance, to have an orchestra and conductor such as the UW School of Music has blessed us with would be celebrated with due pride and attention.

But Madison’s audiences really should pay heed to what is being done on the UW campus.

Above all, it should give proper recognition to the wonderful work of the versatile James Smith (below in a photo by Jack Burns) with his various orchestra ensembles, which include the UW Symphony Orchestra, the UW Chamber Orchestra (which performs a FREE concert of Schumann, Haydn and Wagner tonight at 7:30 in Mills Hall) and the University Opera. (Smith is also the music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.)

James Smith cond Jack Burns

I recall an incident when a local politician sneered: “Why should a university have a symphony orchestra?”  To which the logical rejoinder might be: “Why should a university have a football team?”

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