The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opens its new season Friday night with an appealing and typical mix of a young guest soloist, a standard masterpiece and unusual repertoire. | September 28, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday night, Oct. 2, at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) opens its new indoor season.

WCO lobby

Now in his 15th year with the WCO, music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below) continues to demonstrate his knack for creating appealing programs that are masterful in the way they combine the expected and the unpredictable.


This opening concert, like so many others, features a mix of a young or up-and-coming soloist, standard masterpieces and unusual repertoire. Tickets are $15 to $80.

A New Zealander who is now an American citizen, Sewell has programmed “Landfall in Unknown Seas” by his fellow Kiwi, composer Douglas Lilburn. The work was written in 1940 by Douglas Lilburn to mark the centenary of New Zealand. Sewell personally knew Lilburn during his formative training.

Douglas Lilburn 2

The work is for strings with a text that is read aloud by a narrator, who in this case will be actor James Ridge (below) of American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

James Ridge

Then comes the standard concerto with the non-standard soloist. It is the glorious Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven with the boyish-looking 25-year-old American violinist Ben Beilman (below), who has won critical acclaim as well as major prizes and awards, and who plays a violin built in 2004. He has been praised for his virtuosic technique and his strong, beautiful tone.

His honors include winning the Montreal International Violin Competition at age 20, with a searing performance of the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius;  receiving an Avery Fisher Career Grant; and being invited to perform with the prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. (You can hear him in a profile of Beilman in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information about Beilman (below), including a sound and video sample, and about the performance with a link to tickets, go to:

Ben Beilman portrait

and to:

Benjamin Beilman close up playing

Rounding out the program is the Symphony No. 2 by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below), a rarely heard work that is overshadowed by the Symphony No. 3, the “Organ” Symphony. Few people know that Saint-Saens was one of the great musical prodigies of all time, on a par with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn.

camille saint-saens younger

Recent scholarship suggests that Saint-Saens was a closeted gay man. For more about the life and personality of Saint-Saens, check out this site:

A revival of the orchestral works and chamber music by Saint-Saens has been under way in recent years.



  1. Stephen Hough is a thoughtful pianist and he has studied Saint-Saens carefully. He has written that the composer was “almost certainly gay.” See

    Homosexuality in the composer’s day would have been frowned on by most people, including many even in artistic circles. So it is no wonder that there is no outright proof of his sexuality, there is no “smoking gun” (pardon the image here) for good reasons so people like Mikko who demand such are going to be disappointed (and perhaps unconvinced).

    A few years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Handel House in London (highly recommended). I learned there that the composer was a life-long bachelor who was attached very much to his male servant, to the point where he left most of his estate to him. That sort of relationship back in those days (and even today in certain places) was necessary “camouflage” to protect people. That makes things very difficult for biographers and historians, of course, and one can never reach the “level of proof” that might be demanded, for instance, in a law court. But most people can read the signs and they are abundant for Handel and probably for Saint-Saens too (I know less about his personal life).

    However, unless a composer’s sexuality somehow spills over into his music (does it with Saint-Saens?), is it really important just from a musical perspective?

    Comment by fflambeau — September 28, 2015 @ 11:22 pm

    • The Handel case actually makes my point about sources and citations perfectly. There is a prominent book on Handel’s possible homosexuality, “Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas” by renowned Handel scholar and soprano Ellen T. Harris (formerly faculty at MIT). And, as is expected in scholarship, there are reviews, like the one cited below, by Thomas McGeary in “Early Music” (Nov. 2002).

      Comment by Mikko Utevsky — September 30, 2015 @ 12:43 am

  2. Rather than comment on a composer’s sexuality (what difference does it make anyway?), I would like to comment on the “unusual repertoire” in this opening program.

    Beethoven, and Saint-Saens: pretty much standard fare (but I agree the soloist is an exciting choice).

    So, I guess what makes it “unusual” is an unheard of piece by a New Zealand composer which could just as well have been titled “Unknown Piece for Well Charted Seas.” There’s no there there; and, after listening to it on YouTube, there’s a reason for it not being played much. Many contemporary composers deserve playing time ahead of Mr. Lilburn. I’ll even throw a name out: the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, who has written numerous pieces for small orchestras and whose work is far more exciting.

    Comment by fflambeau — September 28, 2015 @ 2:55 am

    • Thanks for reading and replying.
      And thank you for your observations about repertoire.
      As for a composer’s sexuality, reexamining the lives of famous historical figures hardly seems irrelevant.
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 28, 2015 @ 6:53 am

  3. Regarding Saint-Saens’ supposed homosexuality: the phrase “recent scholarship” implies that something more than suggestive conjecture is at play, and that the sources in question can be cited. Mitchell Morris and Benjamin Ivry have made such claims, but they are largely unsubstantiated. A quick Google search for “Saint-Saens sexuality” brings up the site you link to (which cites no sources), and more or less nothing else. A review by James Ross in Music and Letters of Stephen Studd’s biography (Cygnus Arts, 1999) refers to the issue briefly: “[w]e are spared prolonged speculation on the composer’s sexuality, which, on current evidence, mattered little to him.” (You can find the review on JSTOR here, if you desire:

    If you want to write a blog post speculating about his sexuality, I’ll certainly read it. But making that claim (or any other) requires some basic sort of scholarly evidence, which you have not provided. You’ve written as though you are casually passing on a fact that should be common knowledge, when nothing of the sort is the case. It’s simply irresponsible journalism.

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — September 28, 2015 @ 12:41 am

    • Hi Mikko,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      I take your point but respectfully disagree.
      I didn’t make a claim that Saint-Saens was gay. I used the verb “suggests” and provided a link to a site with a biography and quite a few specifics. (Pianist Stephen Hough, who recorded at of the concertos by Saint-Saens, has also blogged about this.)
      I didn’t speculate about his sexuality.
      I directed readers to other sources that do with the thought that it might interest readers who are free to weigh the facts and make up their own mind.
      The web site seemed like more that mere rumor to me, so I included it.
      That doesn’t seem irresponsible to me. And I don’t have to think for my readers. I trust them to think for themselves.

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 28, 2015 @ 6:50 am

      • Hi Jake –

        You also used the word “scholarship,” implying that there is some evidence or research backing up that ‘suggestion.’ None is evident in the source to which you linked. An anonymous blog entry is hardly a responsible citation.

        I don’t dispute that we the readers are capable of independent thought and analysis. But it seems a thoroughly reasonable standard to expect that you would examine your source to see if it had any intellectual substance before using it to back up such a claim. Nobody would take seriously an anonymous blog post claiming Dick Cheney was gay (nor would you link to it, I’m sure) – why should we apply a different standard here?

        If you had linked to Stephen Hough making the same claim, I wouldn’t have this problem to the same degree. Why? Not just because it’s a convenient argument from authority, although I can’t deny that it would be a factor. Because he’s attaching his name and stature to the claim: his audience knows who he is, and trusts him, and they can take it up with him in a public forum if they disagree. In this case, I’m only finding the single-sentence comment “fflambeau” linked to, which does not boost my confidence.

        Part of the nature of a blog is that there’s no peer review or minimum standard of evidence enforced by an outside agency. But it’s still worth having one.


        Comment by Mikko Utevsky — September 30, 2015 @ 12:26 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,268 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,373,581 hits
%d bloggers like this: