The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The new concert season features many world premieres in opera, orchestral music and chamber music. So, why not here in Madison? | September 20, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Who says classical music is dying?

You wouldn’t know it from some of the many world premieres of new music that will take place across the U.S. this season. Such events add a lot of excitement to the new concert season. And many critics and observers think they draw in new and younger audiences.

Quite a few of the premieres feature performers and composers familiar to Madison audiences. They include cellist Alisa Weilerstein (below top, in a photo by Harold Hoffmann for Decca Records), pianist Emanuel Ax (below second), composer Kevin Puts (below third) and composer Jake Heggie (below bottom).


Emanuel Ax portrait 2016

Kevin Puts pulitzer

Jake Heggie

Here is a round-up of the national scene by Tom Huizenga, who writes the Deceptive Cadence blog for National Public Radio or NPR.

It makes one wonder: What about the local scene here in Madison?

True, several seasons ago, the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison commissioned and premiered six new works to mark its centennial. They included four string quartets, one piano quintet and one clarinet quintet, all of which are now available in terrific recordings from Albany Records.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

This summer the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society featured bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below) in the world premiere of a song cycle it commissioned from American composer Kevin Puts, who is mentioned in the NPR story, to mark its 25th anniversary.

Timothy Jones posed portrait

And this fall, at its annual Labor Day concert the Karp family premiered a new work by Joel Hoffman for piano and cello, based on the life of the late pianist and former UW professor Howard Karp and performed by his sons pianist Christopher Karp and cellist Parry Karp (below).


This winter the Madison Opera will stage the new jazz-inspired opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” although Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera will do a world premiere of a work it commissioned. Could the Madison Opera commission again its own new work, such as it did years ago with Daron Hagen‘s opera “Shining Brow” about Frank Lloyd Wright?

And there are other commissions and premieres by smaller groups, such as the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion.

But what is the problem with getting new commissions and world premieres at bigger ensembles such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the UW Symphony Orchestra, which does perform a student work each year? Lack of money? Lack of will? Lack of audience interest?

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Hi, Jake! In answer to your query, I would respond — why not all three? Madison, it seems to me, has a very rich core of Classical Music devotees, but the focus appears to me predominantly that of the fabulously extensive tried-and-true past, particularly in Choral and Instrumental literature, with Early Music as a specific subset. I have not sensed much appetite for Contemporary works, nor is there any well-heeled/well-connected advocate to promote new commissions of orchestral works. Frankly, this doesn’t much bother me; I think both DeMain and Sewell have done yeoman’s work in providing TWO bang-up good orchestras, and Sewell has been quite good at programming seldom-heard literature, if not specifically new commissions. Not a major concern, IMO.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — September 21, 2016 @ 8:37 am

    • I disagree. New commissions and new approaches to music are a major way of expanding the classical music audience (I really do think that much of Madison’s “interest” in classical music is mere snobbish/elitism and that is why there really is so little innovation in the Madison classical music scene).

      Have a look at this marvelous video and story about Lara St. Jean, violinist, and her pianist, Matt Hersowitz, from their new album, “Shiksa”. It features a very nice, dancy piano and violin duet based on the Hungarian Rhapsody #2 but something that the young can relate to. It is a commissioned work from composer Martin Kennedy. “The Czardashian Rhapsody.” And note how contemporary her videos are! She can relate to the young, her music can and we need more of that in classical music, not more of the standard fare.

      Here’s the link (click on the videos within the story):

      Comment by fflambeau — September 22, 2016 @ 10:00 pm

  2. Here’s another Youtube with lovely interplay between the Hungarian melodies played by violin and piano. Note how much fun the players are having here. I want to thank John Zeck for playing this on the radio and then emailing me the info on it.

    It’s marvelous. Modern, fast, fun, and melodic.

    Comment by fflambeau — September 20, 2016 @ 11:28 pm

    • Sorry, Not on Youtube but a marvelous video there.

      Comment by fflambeau — September 20, 2016 @ 11:29 pm

  3. For the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra;s 50th anniversary season each orchestra and the percussion ensemble premiered a piece at Overture in February! FIVE commissions!! Unedited recording of entire event here:

    Comment by Libby Bestul — September 20, 2016 @ 8:46 pm

  4. Hello Jacob, My wife and I moved from Oshkosh to Mineral Point in April. I heard about your blog and immediately signed up. I very much enjoy seeing what you come up with each day, and your blog is a nice connection to the classical music world that has been my professional life. Thank you for what is an extraordinary effort! Mineral Point, as you know, is a very arts oriented community, as long as “arts” is limited to the visual arts. Nancy and I would like to promote classical music in a community pretty much bereft. We are working through the organization Arts Mineral Point. We made presentations to the board of AMP last Thursday, to enthusiastic response. Nancy’s proposal is to collect a list of classical musicians in the immediate area, to form chamber music performance groups. My proposal is to establish a Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival. The festival will occur in late April or early June 2017, and include three concerts in the Mineral Point Opera House. The performers will be advanced (probably graduate) ensembles from universities and conservatories. This is where I need your help. Do you know of an email list or blog shared among directors of schools of music? What about contacting advanced student ensembles through an established email list or blog that is specific enough to the needs of such ensembles? I plan to contact school of music directors with a short list of questions regarding contacting chamber ensembles at their schools and what they think reasonable to pay per performer. It would be most helpful to have a list of names and email addresses. As things progress and we have a selection of three ensembles (through CD recording and a list of repertoire), I will ask your advice about informing chamber music lovers of our venture. Ticket prices will be low, to allow local listeners to attend, and Mineral Point is a very attractive destination for a weekend for listeners from further afield. Another goal of the festival is to provide a fine performing experience for pre-professional players. We will house and feed the students without charge, and they will have rehearsal time in the Opera House prior to concert time. Do you have any suggestions for identifying classical performers in the Mineral Point area for Nancy’s project? It would be great to get together with you sometime. We make the trip to Madison at least once a month, and would also be happy to have you come to Mineral Point for a meal sometime. Cooking is one of my passions. Thank you for your consideration of the above questions. Any help you can lend will further the cause of classical music in southwest Wisconsin. Peter Schmalz

    Comment by Peter Schmalz — September 20, 2016 @ 6:40 pm

  5. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has a commissioned a work by Thomas Cabaniss for two solo pianos and orchestra. It will be a premiered by Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn on April 28th, 2017.

    Comment by Carl — September 20, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    • Thank you for correcting my embarrassing oversight and omission. I apologize to the WCO for the error and look forward to hearing the new work.

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 20, 2016 @ 10:56 pm

  6. IMHOP, many of these new works are pretty hard to listen to, at least for many of us. I try to listen to them with an open mind but sometimes it feels more like work than pleasure. I think many listeners want melody, which is often lacking in many of the newest works.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — September 20, 2016 @ 7:35 am

    • I somewhat agree with you but there are many modern composers out there who have eschewed the dissonance that beset so much of the new music and which we tend to associate with “new music”. The trouble is, most concert organizers seem to be sold on the Pierre Boulez dissonant music which most concert goers intensely dislike.

      For melody, for instance, try Alan Hovhaness (see his lovely piece for Harp and Orchestra) and Aram Khachaturian (and his lovely ballet, “Spartacus”). Even some of the minimalists have some exhilarating if different, melodies, like Philip Glass and his music for “The Hours”. Or try Eric Wolfgang Korngold’s melodic violin concerto which until recently, was dismissed as too Hollywood. That the public likes it is clear from the reception to many of the new recordings of it (like that of Daniel Hope).

      Here’s a Youtube with a very nice rendition of the Korngold Violin Concerto by Stefan Jackiw (more than 120,000 hits on Youtube):

      Comment by fflambeau — September 20, 2016 @ 8:59 pm

  7. It seems to me, and I may be mistaken, that the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in the past commissioned many new works but not so much under the current maestro. The programming seems pretty much built around symphonic standards (how about the Brahms’ Requiem for the 3rd year running, Maestro?).

    So I would guess it is lack of will and perhaps also fear of adverse financial repercussions plus fear of failure.

    Contrast the following (discussing the MSO under Roland Johnson) with the present:

    “Premieres were nothing new in the history of the orchestra, but works by Sigfrid Prager, Sybil Hanks, Oskar Hagen and others premiered by the orchestra through the 1950s were hardly pieces of the avant garde. Johnson actively sought out commissions, and premiered some eighteen works with MCMA’s groups, culminating with the Madison Opera’s performance of Shining Brow. [Click here to see a complete list of MSO premieres during Johnson’s tenure.] The orchestra also gave first performances of works by Lee Hoiby, Robert Crane, Stephen Chatman, Alec Wilder, Gunnar Johansen, John Harbison, Crawford Gates, and Michael Torke. Boston-based Gunther Schuller had a particularly close relationship with the MCMA, founded on a long-standing friendship with Johnson. The orchestra premiered three of his works and gave early performances to three others. Johnson’s final commission for the orchestra and chorus was Daron Hagen’s Joyful Music, performed at the holiday concert in 1993, and revived again for this season’s “Holiday Spectacular.”

    Comment by fflambeau — September 20, 2016 @ 4:47 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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 1,259 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,316,320 hits
%d bloggers like this: