The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear offers cheers and jeers for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s remodeled Shannon Hall. | October 1, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Friday night, The Ear got his first look and listen at the remodeled concert hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, a wonderful landmark structure that I revere and usually refer to as “the Carnegie Hall of Madison” because of its long and distinguished history of bringing the best performing artists to Madison.

Shannon Hall UW-Madison

The event on Friday night was the fantastic concert by the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, with guest clarinetist Charles Neidich. It was the first classical music event in the new building.

They all turned in a wonderful finale to the quartet’s six centennial commissions. This final program featured the world premiere of the Clarinet Quintet by American composer Pierre Jalbert, who based the work on the poem “Howl” by the Beat writer Allen Ginsberg. The string quartet also performed the String Quartet No. 2 by Juan Crisostomo Arriaga and the glorious, sublime Clarinet Quintet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

But I will offer more comments about the concert and the music tomorrow.

Right now, I want to offer my take on the new hall, which was part of a two-year renovation that cost over $50 million, all privately raised. The remodeling project was completed just in time to mark the 75th anniversary of the historical theater, which opened its doors in 1939 and was inaugurated by the original Pro Arte String Quartet.

I will be anxious to hear your own take on the new hall, as well as the music and performance,  in the COMMENTS section.

Here is mine:

WHAT I LIKE and WHAT I DISLIKE

I like the generosity and intent of University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni Michael Shannon (Class of 1980) and his wife Mary Sue Shannon (Class of 1981, both below), who donated something like $8 million to restore and remodel the hall, to reconfigure the Langdon Street entrance and provided a “sunset lounge” for receptions, study and relaxing.

That is why you can hear the “Consecration of the House” Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven, conducted by Chicago Symphony Orchestra maestro Riccardo Muti, at the bottom in a YouTube video.

So The Ear offers kudos, a big and hearty THANKS to the Shannons.

Michael and Mary Sue Shannon

BUT:

Why can’t rich people show some respect for the very history they seek to honor and preserve as well as some good taste and modesty?

Do we really need this well-known and historic hall, which is so respected by the world-renowned performers who appear there and are pleased when they see the list of their predecessors, to be renamed?

And do we really need the new name embedded in big metal letters in the handsome terrazzo stone floor of the theater? Wouldn’t a big bronze wall plaque with a bas-relief portrait and some kind words of thanks and praise, perhaps along with a paragraph of background, details and even a quote, have done the job and preserved the continuity of history?

Shannon Hall name in floor WUT

Why can’t we continue to use the names of public buildings and spaces to honor public service rather than money and wealth? Do the arts also have to remind us of the ever-widening wealth gap in the U.S., which already is now the biggest in the world?

Is that the message we want a public building to send?

Could someone rich enough today buy the entire university and rename the UW to the University of Walmart, now that state support has dropped below 20 percent? Could that path to privatizing public education really be the way we want to go?

As I have said in another column: If you can afford to buy naming rights, you aren’t being taxed enough. Governor Walker, are we open for business? Or are we getting the business? What about the importance of tradition, history and public service?

Well, enough of a rant. (Below are the happy Shannons hand-in-hand on the Memorial Union waterfront.)

shannons on wut waterfront

ON TO OTHER THINGS: THE REMODELED BUILDING ITSELF

I like the new bigger and 3-inch wider seats, although they reduce the seating capacity from 1,300 to 1,139. I also like the new upholstery. But I heard someone complain that there was no padding on the armrests. And I still find too little knee room, even though I am only a bit over 6 feet tall. It feels like flying economy class, which, these days, is not good. But that can’t be helped, short of destroying the original concrete raking and seat beds.

WUT new seats and walls

I also very much like the acoustics and sound -– try the terrific lower balcony (below) sometime to see that closer isn’t always better — especially with the new shell (below, the on-stage background). But I hear that you can’t do multimedia because the shell simply won’t allow for a screen to drop down for films, videos, slide shows and Power Point presentations. That design mistake should be fixed in view of the importance of high technology.

WUT from Shannon Hall lower balcony

The wall color (take another look at the first photo above), which was apparently chosen and approved by the Wisconsin Historical Society, is NOT the same as before and I don’t find it attractive except to the degree it is evenly applied and not water-stained.

But it doesn’t feel authentically period or Deco. The color seems darker and shinier than in photos, more dark peach than salmon. Some may find it handsome. I find it awfully close to pukey brown. And I believe the rule of thumb is that paint only darkens with age. Lighter, one suspects, would have been better both now and especially in the long run.

Something unfortunate happened between the idea and the execution. It happens to me too — and to many others — when I tried to match a dry paint chip to a whole wall. But you’d think the experts would have the collective experience to get it right, if only by trial and error.

Overall, the walls and paint remind The Ear of a face with too much heavy foundation makeup on an oily skin. The wall paint -– maybe it’s a semi-gloss? — is just not flat enough and exudes a light sheen in the right lighting. It makes you want to blot the wall with cotton gauze balls.

I like the new carpet color and pattern (below), but I already saw staining — see the one below? —  within the first month or two. I wonder: Couldn’t it be easier to clean? How long will it last and wear well?

WUT new carpeting

I like the new sunset lounge, with its airiness and its great view of Lake Mendota. It made for a great post-concert dessert reception.

And I really like the new entrance lobby off Langdon Street. It feels much less like the theater is hidden away. You don’t have to seek it out. That part especially seems more populist and in keeping with The Wisconsin Idea.

The quieter heating and air conditioning system also seem much improved and make for a far more comfortable concert experience.

I like the historical feel fostered by keeping turquoise water fountains (“bubblers”), but I also like the eco-friendly greener restrooms with automatic light switches that save on electricity.

All in all, I give the remodeling a B, though given all the money and know-how I would have thought an A-plus was a certainty.

To help you decide for yourself, you should really attend an event there.

But for more background and details, here are some links:

To a story and photos by Eric Tadsen in Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=43040

http://www.isthmus.com/isthmus/article.php?article=43007

To a story in the UW-Madison student newspaper The Daily Cardinal:

http://host.madison.com/daily-cardinal/union-theater-returns-to-campus-life/article_f739c49e-37e9-11e4-b83e-001a4bcf887a.html

To the official press release from the UW-Madison:

http://www.news.wisc.edu/22998

 

 

 

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8 Comments »

  1. You have done a great job of expressing my reaction to the renovation, especially your comments about the color of the walls. Very disappointing that the original coloring has not been “restored.”

    Comment by Barbara Furstenberg — October 1, 2014 @ 11:26 am

  2. Get off it, y’all! Who Cares what is it called, except for the Ego-Trippers, and those whose egos get bruised in the re-naming. If it looks like a concert hall, and sounds like a concert hall, and is as reasonably comfortable as a concert hall, it’s a Concert Hall. Patrons of the Ahts (misspelling intentional) have been doing this since Time Began. Let it go. Or do a Mozart, and flash your behind at the Archbishop, or his economic equivalent, next time you see them. At least it is named after an actual person, and not a Corporate Person. Looks nice to me, and I like the inlay on the floor, it matches the other decorations in the floors in other parts of the building, as I recall.
    If it sounded bad, looked bad, or was uncomfortable, THEN we’d have something to talk about. Otherwise, look the other way when the Gift Horse passes by.
    MBB

    Comment by 88melter — October 1, 2014 @ 10:29 am

  3. Since I still grieve the loss of the Elvehjem, honoring Conrad Elvehjem’s support of the arts, you might guess where my vote falls on this one.

    It is a sad day when naming rights are so supported by recipient organizations. I wonder what the choices are?

    But, on a different tack, the Shannons or Chazens or others have chosen to make a gift to the arts world. They didn’t have to, they chose to, and we are the recipients of their largesse. The could have given chunks of money to causes we decry or they could have bought a mega yacht or two, but they didn’t. We are indeed lucky.

    Comment by martha phillips — October 1, 2014 @ 10:20 am

  4. Couldn’t agree with you more on all of your observations, especially the name change (hope it wasn’t part of the current anti-union sentiment.) The Overture and Discovery Center buildings certainly indicate their true nature.

    Comment by Rolf & Judith — October 1, 2014 @ 8:03 am

  5. Cannot agree more with you. Such ego trips. !! I also give credit to the Frautschis for not leaving their name on the steps of Overture Center.

    Comment by Irmgard Bittar — October 1, 2014 @ 7:55 am

  6. Totally agree re naming ‘rights.’ They’re all about ego: posterity projects. I’ll give the Frautschis credit for not naming the Overture Center after themselves. No big building project is without flaws; the important thing here is the acoustics..

    Comment by slfiore — October 1, 2014 @ 7:35 am


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