The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS: Samuel Barber’s “Canzonetta” for Oboe and String Orchestra. Plus a FREE one-hour hymn sing in Overture Hall is this Saturday morning at 11 a.m. | March 5, 2015

ALERT: A FREE one-hour community Hymn Sing will take place this Saturday morning at 11 a.m. in Overture Hall with the Overture Concert Organ played by guest Joe Chrisman. The event is put on jointly by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Overture Center for the Arts.

Overture Concert Organ overview

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s YOU MUST HEAR THIS comes from a recent concert that I attended.

I first heard this work — the Canzonetta for Oboe and String Orchestra by the 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber (below top) — at the concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below bottom) on Wednesday night a week ago.

barber 1

Kyle Knox conducts MCO

So far as The Ear knows, the piece has never been programmed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra or, more appropriately, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

Not that it is too late. It could stand being programmed again and having a wider hearing. I think it would even be welcome at Concerts on the Square.

I also can’t recall ever hearing it at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, although it seems a perfect choice and could well have been part of a student recital with a piano instead of the orchestra.

In any case, the Canzonetta for Oboe and String Orchestra was a last work -– the middle movement on an unfinished oboe concerto, much like British composer Gerald Finzi’s beautiful “Eclogue” was the middle movement of an uncompleted piano concerto.

The piece has all the hallmarks of Barber, who is best known for his Adagio for Strings. It is neo-Romantic, melodic, tonal and wholly accessible while being unmistakably modern. It is poignant and bittersweet, like many moments in the gorgeous and widely performed Violin Concerto that Barber composed.

In fact, some of the harmonies in the Canzonetta remind The Ear of the sublime and moving “Nimrod” Variation in Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations.

I am not alone in being introduced to this work for the first time. A few very seasoned musicians and music fans in the audience I spoke to had never heard it either.

But it was given a splendid performance by the MCO under conductor Kyle Knox and guest oboist Andy Olson (below), who was trained at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin, and who now works at Epic Systems near Madison.

Andy Olson oboe

Here is a link to a rave review that John W. Barker (below), who normally writes for Isthmus, did for this blog:

John Barker

So here is a link to a YouTube video of the piece itself — the seven-minute “canzonetta” or little song, as the title announces. It is sadly telling of the work’s fate that you cannot find a version with either a well-known oboist or well-known string orchestra.

Enjoy and let us know what you think of it.

The Ear wants to hear.



  1. Agree that the Barber “Canzonetta” is a lovely piece and that it should be performed more often. There is a YouTube of the Marin Alsop conducted Scottish Chamber Orchestra performance of this piece (she is now Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony) with Stephane Rancourt on oboe here:

    I would second a piece of music that is modern and I believe as lovely as the far more famous Barber. Indeed, it was was written by someone who was born in Wisconsin, and who is female. Marga Richter’s “Poetic Images Beyond Poetry”. It was brilliantly recorded by G. Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The first piece, “Out of Shadows and Solitude” (which was inspired by the flight of a condor over shrouded mountains) reminds me of the music of Alain Hovhaness and especially his “Mysterious Mountain”. There is a lovely YouTube recording of this Richter piece by Maestro Schwarz at

    Alan Hovhaness, by the way, is another American composer who should be performed more than he is.


    Comment by fflambeau — March 5, 2015 @ 11:40 pm

  2. iTunes lists 2 recordings right now: Stephane Rancourt with the Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish Nat’l Orchestra and the other by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Jose Sebrier. The latter lists itself in 1990 as the world premiere recording of the work, but strangely names no soloist on the album cover.

    It seems sad that many major orchestras neglect shorter solo works. I imagine money is the big factor: why pay a big name a big salary to come in for 8 minutes. But that leaves a rather large repertoire of these works that rarely see the light of day.


    Comment by Steve Kurr — March 5, 2015 @ 11:37 am

    • “It seems sad that many major orchestras neglect shorter solo works. I imagine money is the big factor: why pay a big name a big salary to come in for 8 minutes. But that leaves a rather large repertoire of these works that rarely see the light of day.” Perceptive comments.

      Maybe, the way to get around this is to have the “big name” perform a string of smaller pieces, say 2 or 3 of them? There really are a lot of smaller pieces that have wonderful music (by a variety of composers not often on the Top 40 classical list) that deserve more playing.


      Comment by fflambeau — March 6, 2015 @ 7:29 pm

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