The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is it au revoir — or adieu? The UW Chamber Orchestra will play a FREE concert this Sunday night, but then will be axed and fall silent next season. | April 29, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear hears: The UW Chamber Orchestra (below) will NOT exist next school year.

uw chamber orchestra USE

But not before it performs its final concert of the current season -– FREE and open to the public — this coming Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. Under the baton of acclaimed longtime conductor James Smith (below), the chamber orchestra will perform what seems a fitting final program.


What could be a better farewell than a program that features two homages: One to Francois Couperin (Dance Suite) by Richard Strauss (below top) and one to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by French composer Jacques Ibert (below bottom). And then comes the true Mozart in a true masterpiece: the Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major.

richard strauss

Jacques Ibert

The UW-Madison has not released any specific information yet about the reasons involved in canceling the UW Chamber Orchestra, which, together with the UW Symphony Orchestra, makes up the orchestra program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

But from what The Ear hears, the decision has to do with several factors.

Because there are fewer scholarships, there are fewer students coming into the school and therefore entering the performance groups.

There are also fewer students because some major professors who attract a loyal following from afar are retiring. They include tuba player John Stevens, University Opera director William Farlow and pianist Todd Welbourne.

Other full-time faculty are leaving the UW-Madison School of Music (violinist Felicia Moye, below, to McGill University, soprano Julia Faulkner to the Lyric Opera of Chicago school) and have been replaced with one-year appointments (oboist Kostas Tiliakos, singer Elizabeth Hagedorn, violinists Eugene Purdue of Madison and Leslie Shank of the Twin Cities, below, tubist Tom Curry and University Opera director David Ronis from CUNY’s Aaron Copland School of Music in New York City). And short-term instructors simply do not attract as many loyal students, especially those whose talent is on a superior or professional level.

Felicia Moye color

Leslie Shank

Here are some links to stories about the new incoming academic staff from the terrific blog Fanfare:

Plus, there have been some financial problems, which have also caused the UW-Madison School of Music to scale back the new performing space it is seeking to build, and to substitute one-year appointments for tenure-track professorships.

All in all, the UW-Madison School of Music, which has traditionally enjoyed a fine reputation and a high ranking among public music schools, faces some serious challenges.

The only large instrumental classical ensemble that will continue to exist will be the UW Symphony Orchestra, but all the musicians I have talked to say the two groups offer very different playing experiences.

And The Ear finds it ironic that the smaller-scale chamber orchestras generally seem to be thriving around the country far more than the larger, more ambitious and more expensive symphony orchestras and opera companies, many of which face serious financial challenges. (Below is the famed St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, in which violinist Leslie Shank plays.)

St Paul Chamber Orchestra

I have not heard reactions about axing the UW Chamber Orchestra from staff or students -– perhaps because they have not yet heard the news — but I would welcome hearing some in the COMMENTS sections of this blog. I also think that members of the public and listeners should chime in with their reactions.

To The Ear, the demise of the UW Chamber Orchestra is a sad shame. After all, the question seems to ask itself: How does a major public School of Music maintain its status without providing the experience and repertoire of the smaller orchestra?

We will see.

In the meantime, I suggest that the performance this Sunday night is a MUST-HEAR concert. (Below is the UW Chamber Orchestra rehearsing with conductor James Smith.)

UW Chamber Orchestra rehearsing under James Smith

We really don’t know yet whether this is an au revoir or an adieu -– a temporary good-bye or a permanent farewell, no matter what the initial intent is.

But The Ear knows this much: In almost any organization, it is a lot easier to get rid of something than to revive it or bring it into being. Inertia is a powerful institutional force. So I would like to see a public groundswell or reaction to either keep  the UW Chamber Orchestra active next academic year or to bring back the UW Chamber Orchestra after a one-year sabbatical — if that sabbatical really is necessary.

The Ear has many wonderful memories of the UW Chamber Orchestra, in both solo concerts but also in collaborating with the UW Choral Union (below) and the UW Concert Choir.

UW Choral Union and Chamber orchestra full view 12-2011

Here, at the bottom in a YouTube video is one of those moments: from several years ago, the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony:





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  1. I am shocked and saddened at the apparent demise of the UW chamber orchestra another casualty of the UWs lack of funding in many areas particularly in retention of faculty.
    Is there no way to conduct a last ditch salvage operation?

    Comment by efpizer — April 29, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

  2. I wonder how the focus on STEM in our public schools (and our society), which has had serious detrimental effects on the humanities and arts, is contributing to the problem?

    Comment by slfiore — April 29, 2014 @ 9:00 am

    • Good question.
      STEM, by the way, stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
      And those subjects are indeed being empathized more these days/.
      Kind of like the science gap and Advanced placement courses after Sputnik in the1950s and 1960s.
      The bad economy over the past several years has also taken its toll on all schooling but especially on the arts and humanities, which tend to be seen as more frivolous and liberal artsy, and just not as useful for the job market.
      But one can’t be sure of that as a cause for the School of Music’s problems.
      For example, I also hear that the state Legislature is preventing many other departments at the UW-Madison from hiring tenure-track faculty to replace retiring faculty members.
      I don’t know more details, but I do know that a lot of the UW is feeling pretty besieged these days and is feeling that somehow the current governing parties want state money to go to business rather than education, which is a solid foundation for business.
      Does anyone else care to chime in with an opinion or some facts?

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 29, 2014 @ 9:16 am

      • A few things:

        – The School of Music is indeed not permitted to make tenure-track hires right now because of budget constraints, but it will be able to make a few faculty searches next year for full professorships.
        – The chamber orchestra will be back potentially as soon as next Spring as a string orchestra (I hear Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is planned…), and is planned to return as always in Fall 2015. The hiatus is due to enrollment concerns, but new faculty hires next year should alleviate some of those.
        – I do have to question the reasoning behind posing this question publicly rather than contacting the school of music office, Professor Smith, or another involved party to solicit the hard facts first.


        Comment by Mikko Utevsky — April 29, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

      • Hi Mikko,
        Because of confidentiality and journalistic ethics, I really can’t and shouldn’t talk about sources or contacts or where I heard things.
        Besides, what I have said isn’t wrong. I don’t think you contradict or disprove anything I have written. What “hard facts” that you refer to have been overlooked or misstated?
        As to motive: I posted it because no one was talking about it publicly — even though the UW-Madison is a public university and the public should know about its own public investments.
        You are free to question anything. But I don’t think you should attribute some dark motive to my posting what I knew and then wrote. It was simply to raise the issues and make people aware of what was going on right now — not just what is promised or planned.
        I would add: A FEW tenure-track positions is not all of them. Two of the one-year appointments form this academic year have now been renewed — but for only one more year.
        I am pleased to hear about the plans for the return of the chamber orchestra — but plans are plans and facts are facts. “Will” and Should” are not “Is.”
        As I said I in the post, I too am guardedly hopeful or optimistic about the future. But I also have seen the power of institutional inertia, and I know how hard it can be to restore what has already been cut.
        Plans remain potential, but I and many others hope what you hear is right and that the hiatus is as short as possible.
        Finally, what disservice has been done? If anything, I expect the post will generate sympathy and support for the School of Music and the UW Chamber Orchestra.
        As always, thank you for reading and replying so thoughtfully.

        Comment by welltemperedear — April 29, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

  3. It’s temporary.

    Comment by Baroque musicians — April 29, 2014 @ 12:07 am

    • Thank you for reading and replying.
      One certain hopes it is temporary.
      But, as I note in the post, temporary fixes often have a way of becoming permanent despite the original intent and of having unintended consequences.
      For now, I will accept your assessment and reassurance, which apparently is based on insider knowledge.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 29, 2014 @ 5:42 am

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