The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra triumphs with all-American Copland and sexy Wagner, while Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” is a long-winded “Bolero.” Plus, the memorial concert for Ilona Kombrink memorial is set Oct. 20. | October 2, 2013

ALERT: In Memoriam: A University of Wisconsin-Madison Emeritus Professor of voice, soprano Ilona Kombrink (below) died on Friday, August 9, 2013 in Stoughton, Wisconsin, at the age of 80. A Memorial Concert and celebration of her life will be held on Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 3 p.m. in the Grand Hall at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, Madison. A reception will follow. No word on the program yet, but you can be sure that it will be memorable since it is being organized by Edgewood College voice teacher mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson, who was a student of Kombrink.

Ilona Kombrink color

By Jacob Stockinger

So, someone seated nearby asked, what did The Ear’s think of the season-opening concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below in a photo by Greg Anderson)?

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Here we it is.

By and large, I completely agree with the local critics (links are below) who raved about the MSO’s concert to mark the 20th anniversary season of MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad).

John W. Barker in Isthmus:

Greg Hettmansberger in Madison Magazine:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

But here are some other impressions I took away from the Sunday afternoon performance, which seemed well attended by an enthusiastic audience.

There can be no disagreement with the critical assessment of how professional the entire orchestra sounded and how masterly the conducting and interpreting by John DeMain proved.

Especially noteworthy was the enthralling and rapturous violin playing by concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson) as well as the new principal clarinet Joseph Morris (below bottom) and such veterans as trumpeter John Aley and oboist Marc Fink.

Naha Greenholtz playing CR Greg Anderson

Joseph Morris principal clarinet MSO

Still, I found the special all-orchestral program a bit clunky in practice if not design.

So here are the three main points I took away:


I am convinced that Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring, which opened the concert, is The Great American Symphony, just as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is The Great American Novel.  So fret no longer, American composers. The summit has been scaled. Just do what you want.

In its harmonies, rhythms, themes and use of folk elements and indigenous music like the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” (at bottom in a popular YouTube video that features photographs by another great American artist,  Ansel Adams), the dance score by Copland can’t be anything but American.

It is a gorgeous work and received a beautiful, even inspired reading from the America-born and America-trained DeMain and his players.

aaron copland


I came away confirmed in my opinion that Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod” or “Love Death” from “Tristan und Isolde” is the sexist music ever written. It reminds me of the legend that the ancient Greek prophet Tiresias was allowed by the gods to make love as both a man and a woman. Then, when asked who had the better deal and received more pleasure, he was unequivocal: Women.

Indeed, this music by Wagner (below) music shows the composer’s rich imagination and makes him seem like the soul and libido of a woman dressed as a man.

It also supported my long-held contention – which other are free to disagree with — that Wagner’s orchestral writing is superior, in most cases, to his vocal writing. I, at least, generally find his instrumental music more singing and songful than his singers.

Richard Wagner


Finally came Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” It is, all agree, a war-horse that every youngster has heard, one of the great “starter” pieces in the classical Romantic repertoire. It is a showcase that we all supposedly love by a master orchestrator and master colorist (below) who taught Igor Stravinsky. And it did bring the audience to a prolonged standing ovation.

But quasi-dissenter that I am, I have to file a minority report.

I found “Scherherazade” a bloated, repetitious and ultimately unsatisfying work. It is the Tolstoy novel of tone poems- the long-winded Russian equivalent of Ravel’s “Bolero” in its etude-like construction designed to showcase various sections of the orchestra.

The players and conductor did indeed shine and did so brilliantly. It certainly seemed a work that is more fun to conduct and perform than it is to listen to. True, the work did have memorable moments of drama and lyricism. But too often the 40 minutes of music — well, it is based on the 1,001 Nights — grew downright tedious. At least in live performance, I find the Ravel more exciting, catchy and fun, and also more easily instructive for sonic comparisons of different instruments and what they add to the score.

Oh, I found myself daydreaming, if only the first half of the MSO concert had been followed by a really great symphony by especially Brahms, or perhaps Beethoven, Dvorak or Tchaikovsky – something with substance as well as style. “Scheherazade” was sonically splashy, but compared to the Copland and Wagner it is superficial.


So there it is: What The Ear Heard at the MSO Opener.

What did you hear?

And what do you think of what The Ear heard? And how he heard it?

The Ears wants to hear.


  1. Certainly not bloated! Certainly not Bolero! It may be somewhat “repetitious” but the repetition and venturing are delight, it is drama, it is high stirring feeling, that propels the listener into fairy-tale. It is not Bolero, with its prolonged drumming. This is Rimsky-Korsakov displaying his talent for stories. And he certainly displayed masterful themes. It was not, as you say, “bloated”. And it did make for a wonderful showcase of the MSO.

    However, I do agree with you on the last count, Jake. We have brilliant players here in Madison, but the MSO has a goal for listeners to hear international soloists. And Mikko, I think there is reason they will not play a Mozart cycle. Mozart, being down-right classical, is generally not a crowd attractor – it certainly displays how good control one has, but it is not a crowd thriller. And again, there is an understanding that though musicians play for the music, they must earn money as well. It is a sad fact, but yes. I do not think the MSO would make as much off Mozart cycle than Tchaikovsky No. 1 Piano Concerto with an international pianist. The audience is your money-earner, hence you must please the audience. If you looked in the Wisconsin State Journal on Sep.22, you will see it quotes: “DeMain’s job…requires developing the orchestra musically but also selecting the right balance of pieces that will attract both longtime concertgoers and people new to classical music.” That is not to say that it is always my ideal, there have been particular moments I wish the MSO had done differently. But it is a fact of life.

    I will admit to your comment on a surplus of pianists. This season, we have two pianists (not five!), one violinist, and one trumpeter. I have scarce seen a wind or brass player, or a percussionist, or a violist. It would also be nice to have new soloists; I have noticed a repetition of soloists in the past few years.

    Another comment on last week’s performance: I had the great unfortunancy to be seated by a young couple who apparently had no respect for John DeMain or the orchestra. They showed no guilt as they made out and kissed and whispered (can you believe it!?) throughout the Copland and Wagner (sexy music, indeed), they showed no sign of stopping as a couple audience members grew annoyed. Finally during intermission I told them to knock it off, and both looked absolutely astounded as to what they were doing was considered disrespectful and distracting. I also heard two cell phone rings and the unmistakable sound of unwrapping a cough drop earlier in the concert.

    Fine audience members indeed – and at the 20th anniversary concert!

    Comment by Isabella Wu — October 4, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

  2. Sexy music? Have a listen to the “Spartacus” ballet score.

    Comment by LC — October 3, 2013 @ 8:37 am

  3. What a piquant, thought-provoking blog, Jake. “The sexiest music” could be a discussion topic all by itself.

    The words I associate with the orchestral line of the “Liebestod” are sinuous, sensuous, serpentine, and reptilian — the oboe as the snake in the Garden. The female aria is voluptuous. She comes to a climax of cries and heavy breathing, making the music practically programmatic.

    For innocent young sexiness, I’d pick the love songs of John Dowland, such as “Come Again” (no pun there). For Oedipal sex I’d nominate the Brahms “Alto Rhapsody,” with the torchy contralto singing in motherly tones with a male chorus.

    Oddly enough, some of the most heated, delirious and ardent, over-the-top lyrics are in the Bach cantatas — overwrought love songs to Jesus.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — October 2, 2013 @ 10:12 am

    • Hi Ron,
      Thanks for the praise.
      What an interesting analysis and comparison you offer.
      But especially what other interesting candidates for “sexy” music.
      I particularly like the “love songs to Jesus.”
      Keep listening and writing.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 2, 2013 @ 10:31 am

  4. Morning, Jake! I was at the Friday night concert — few reactions:

    1 The rendition of Appalaichan Spring was really wonderful — predominantly because of the rhythmic vitality and pulse was evident throughout. Briefly put, Demain treats this as a dance score — which, of course, was the original intention. I’ve always thought Demain quite especially understands American classical music, and brings its unique palette of sonorities and rhythms to the fore.

    2 I was also very impressed with the clarity of the Wagner presentation — and (I hate to admit it) Wagner’s expert orchestration in realizing the sense of voluptuous ecstasy. Just really convincing, and deeply satisfying.

    3 I’m afraid I have to disagree with you on the Scheherezade, and the all-orchestral program being somewhat “clunky” because of that choice. Even at 40 minutes, I do find enough contrasting sections in the narrative flow to sustain my interest, and its particular emphasis on highlighting various orchestral instruments throughout the score makes it an unusually appropriate vehicle in support of the all-orchestral concept. I admit that it’s not a great piece, but for me it is a charming and effective one, even at 40 minutes of length.

    4 Demain really IS a good conductor, isn’t he? (I’m basing this on 3 – 4 years of listening here in Madison).
    I love especially his no-nonsense tempi, the sustained vitality, and attention to various orchestral as required for each composition. I know that I am going to get a solid, informed rendition of any piece he chooses to program — and that I think is why the attendance and subscription level continue to grow.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — October 2, 2013 @ 8:47 am

    • Hi Tim,
      I think we agree on just about everything except the final piece, the closer so to speak.
      I find it a backhanded compliment to say that “Scheherazade” is NOT a great piece — my only point — but is charming enough.
      I still wish the MSO, with its great sound and its gifted conductor (on those points we agree), had ended with something deeper and more meaningful — even Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which also highlights various sections and to me is much more musical.
      But once again, my criticism was of the music, not the musicians or their playing.
      And I also admire the straight-ahead non-nonsesne approach of John DeMain. I love the lack of mannerisms.
      Thanks for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 2, 2013 @ 9:54 am

  5. “The Tolstoy novel of tone poems”… I love than analogy. Once again, Ear, well thought, well argued and well played. I am sorry I missed the concert but I will certainly look at all three composers in a new light.

    Comment by Michael Muckian — October 2, 2013 @ 6:00 am

  6. I will have to dissent from your dissent here, Jake. I thought Scheherezade was easily the highlight of the concert. Yes, DeMain and the orchestra drew forth impressive power and tension from the Wagner, and clarity and lyricism from Copland in two performances more than worth the price of admission. But it was in the second half that their capacity for high drama was let loose, and I found their reading of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work propulsive and stirring, with miraculous solo violin playing to boot. I have to confess myself fairly offended at your comparison to Bolero, a work with no redeeming musical value whatsoever.

    Beyond that, however, I want to put in a word defending the all-orchestra program, which you called “clunky.” I would submit that the MSO brings in too many soloists, and a particularly outrageous number of pianists. A concert reminding us that the stars of the show here in town are the section players, the principals, the concertmaster – that is exactly what the season needs.

    Moreover, it seems to me the orchestra could stand to feature those players (the principal winds, in particular – our brilliant new principal clarinet, or our stalwart bassoonists…) more prominently, giving them actual soloist billing once in a while like Naha Greenholtz with Mendelssohn last season. If nothing else, let them play the Mozart concerti – make a cycle of it! We bring in so many soloists from the outside: why not show off the ones we have? (UW faculty members seem like another promising source…)

    As much as Madison needs to fully recognize the Symphony as the invaluable institution that it is for us, so too should the Symphony recognize the city of Madison and its artistic community.

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — October 2, 2013 @ 12:59 am

    • Hi Mikko,
      I welcome your dissent. You write well, are always articulate and remain well informed in your opinions.
      But I think point on this we will have to agree to disagree.
      I know some listeners agree with me; I suspect, that some others, maybe many or even most, agree with you. That is what makes up a lot of art: personal taste.
      I wasn’t criticizing the performance, just the music. The Rimsky-Korsakov does NOT belong to that kind of music that the acclaimed pianist Artur Schnabel was referring to when he once said something to the effect that truly great music can never be performed as great as it is.
      And my remark about clunkiness does not refer to the all-orchestral and no-soloist program, which I in fact welcome as much as you.
      I only meant that that lightweight finale was a let-down for me compared to the stirring profundity and emotional depth of the first half with the Copland and Wagner. Give me a Brahms symphony, I wanted to say, or even something like “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which also showcases various sections and is better music. There is a reason why Ravel wanted to orchestrate it and did so so effectively.
      (By the way, I share your assessment of “Bolero” as music. I would never put it on my CD player. But I love it for its flair and flash — I like WATCHING in LIVE performance just for the spark and kick of it. The great conductor Arturo Toscanini thought the same, even though Ravel said about his own composition that he didn’t know why it was so popular since it didn’t have any music.
      I appreciate your remarks about using local l soloists, but the fact is that I think part of the mission of a group like the MSO is to allow listeners to hear major new and established talents for themselves by importing them as soloists. That way, we in Madison remain part of the larger classical music scene. In fact, I sometime wish that the MSO booked more soloists and more varied soloists who seem to be making headlines or at least deserve to.
      The fact is that the MSO shows its respect for local musicians by the amount of local players it includes in its ranks. But you are right: It could use principals as more soloists: on that score, I agree. Maybe they will.
      Thanks again for reading and replying so thoughtfully.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 2, 2013 @ 10:12 am

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