The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with superb playing, hypnotizing space photos by NASA and close to three full houses | September 28, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Several years ago, artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) decided to use the season-opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to spotlight the symphony and its first-chair players as soloists.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

No big-name imported guest soloists were to be booked.

In addition, this year Maestro DeMain chose to open the season with a multimedia show that combined Jumbotron-like space images from NASA (below is Jupiter) with Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” 


Such multimedia events increasingly seem to work as a way to build audiences and boost attendance by new people and young people. After all, a music director has to sell tickets and fill seats as well as wave a baton.

And it seems that, on both counts, DeMain’s strategy proved  spectacularly successful.

All sections of the orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) — strings, brass, winds, percussion — played with energy, precision and subtlety. The MSO proved a very tight ensemble. Each year, you can hear how the MSO improves and grows increasingly impressive after 23 years of DeMain’s direction.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The public seemed to agree. It came very close to filling the 2,200-seat Overture Hall for all three performances with more than 6,100 audience members, according to Peter Rodgers, the new marketing director for the MSO. Especially noteworthy, he said, was the number of children, students and young people who attended.

In fact, so many students showed up for student rush tickets on Friday night that the performance was delayed by around 10 minutes – because of long lines at the box office, NOT because of the new security measures at the Overture Center, which Rodgers said worked smoothly and quickly.

But not everything was ideal, at least not for The Ear.

On the first half, the playing largely outweighed the music.

True,  the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 by a very young George Enescu (below) received a sizzling and infectious performance. With its catchy folk tunes, dance rhythms and Gypsy harmonies, the fun work proved an irresistible opener – much like a starting with an encore, which is rather like eating a rich and tasty dessert before tackling the more nutritious but less snazzy main course.

The music itself is captivating and frequently played – although this was its surprising premiere performance by the MSO. Little wonder the Enescu got a rousing standing ovation. Still, it is hardly great music.

george enescu

Then came the Chaconne for violin and orchestra by the American composer John Corigliano (below), who based the work on his Oscar-winning film score for “The Red Violin.”

John Corigliano

Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) impressed The Ear and most others with her mastery of what appeared to be a very difficult score. The ovation was for her, not for the music.

Naha Greenholtz playing CR Greg Anderson

That music also has some fine moments. But overall it seems a dull and tedious work, an exercise in virtuosity with some of the same flaws you find in certain overblown piano etudes by Franz Liszt. Once again the playing trumped the music.

Then came The Big Event: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” coupled with clear, high-definition photos of the planets taken by NASA that were projected on a huge screen above the orchestra. Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s and Venus’ clouds and Mars’ landscape (below) have never looked so impressive.


The orchestra again struck one with its exotic and “spacey” sound effects and with what must have been the difficulty of timing simultaneously the music and the images.

Yet ultimately Holst’s work became a sound track — music accompanying images rather than images accompanying the music. The Ear heard several listeners compare the admittedly impressive result to the movies “Fantasia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That says something.

At some moments the sound and images really matched and reinforced each other, especially in the dramatic opening section, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Holst’s score also succeeds nicely with “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and to a lesser degree with “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.”

But overall “The Planets” reminds The Ear of colorful and dramatic  programmatic showpieces such as Ottorino Respighi‘s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome.” (Earth, curiously, is not included in “The Planets.” Makes you wonder: What would Earth bring?) Enjoyable music, to be sure, but not profound fare.

The Ear’s extensive library of CDs has none of the three works on the program. And it will probably remain that way.

While Holst’s work does have great moments, it grows long, repetitive and finally uninteresting as it ends not with a bang but with an underwhelming whimper – which was beautifully enhanced by the atmospheric singing of the MSO Women’s Chorus. There are just too many planets!

Listen to the YouTube video at the bottom, played by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you will see: Mars rules!


Add it all up and despite three standing ovations, in the end The Ear found the concert less than fully satisfying. The music, however likable and appealing, was not, for the most part,  great music. Moreover, it was mostly trumped first by the performances and then by the visuals.

So on a personal note, here is The Ear’s request to the MSO, which scored an undeniably brilliant success with this program: Keep the same all-orchestra and first-chair format for season-openers and use multimedia shows whenever appropriate. But please also include at least one really first-rate piece of music with more substance.

Is that asking for too much?

Is The Ear alone and unfair in his assessment? 

Other critics had their own takes and some strongly disagree with The Ear.

Here is a link to three other reviews:

By John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:


By Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

And by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who writes for WISC-TV Channel 3 and his Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine, and on his own blog, What Greg Says:

greg hettmansberger mug

What did you think of the music, the performances and the visual show?

How well did they mix?

What did you like most and least?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. I enjoyed the opening, although my ears were ringing after! The Corigliano was interesting, but I couldn’t always hear the violinist.
    Watching the planet visuals was in a way a distraction for me. When you have 2 sets of typani, a ladder with long chimes, etc., it’s fun to watch the work of the players. I was thinking that I hoped that the younger audience members could be thrilled with the music itself without the need for more stimulation. I wonder if the newbies will return?

    Comment by Eva Wright — September 28, 2016 @ 8:00 am

  2. In an interesting review, Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director, Ludovic Morlot (replacement to G. Schwarz), talked about a program he conducted in Sydney, Australia featuring Holst’s Planets (and NASA films) and another in Seattle in 2012.

    The concert in Seattle was such a success the symphony there added another night performance (3 nights total) by popular demand.

    Here is what Morlot said about using film/visuals during a performance of The Planets:

    “As for introducing visuals to traditional concert settings, he feels it works “if you don’t do it systematically.” In some cases, he suggests, it actually enhances the piece, letting you hear it with a different pair of ears. It also has the potential to bring in younger video-oriented audiences.

    “The Planets,” he argues, is a strong piece. But the visuals, he feels, make it even stronger, helping listeners lose themselves in the space that the music evokes.”

    And: “I’ve actually experienced being at the heart of it,” Morlot said in an interview last month, “which is really tremendously moving, I must say.”

    …”The Sydney Morning Herald, reviewing Morlot’s interpretation of “The Planets” last year, echoed those sentiments, calling the musical performance “rhythmically taut, colorful and subtly evocative of worlds and possibilities beyond our own.”


    Comment by fflambeau — September 28, 2016 @ 6:40 am

  3. “The music, however likable and appealing, was not, for the most part, great music.”

    Nonsense. By “great” you seem to imply that any music outside of a few select composers, like Haydn, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Brahms is not great music. This is doing a great disservice to your readers and to classical music in general because it is perpetuating a myth.

    First of all, as you pointed out, the audiences loved the concerts. And there are lots of people in the audience who know more about music than you do.

    More nonsense: “With its catchy folk tunes, dance rhythms and Gypsy harmonies, the fun work proved an irresistible opener – much like a starting with an encore, which is rather like eating a rich and tasty dessert before tackling the more nutritious but less snazzy main course.”

    It is true that Enescu falls outside the paradigm of composers you think of as great: mostly Austrians and Germans. He was born in Romania.

    Recall that Enescu was the teacher of Yehudi Menuhin. The latter said of Enescu: “He will remain for me the absoluteness through which I judge others. …Enescu gave me the light that has guided my entire existence.” He also considered Enescu “the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence” he had ever experienced.” That’s quite a compliment from one of the greatest violinists (and conductors) of all time. And he had other great students: Christian Ferras, Ivry Gitlis, Arthur Grumiaux, Serge Blanc, Ida Haendel, Uto Ughi and Joan Field, all were among his pupils.

    Another great, Pablo Casals called Enescu “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart”and “one of the greatest geniuses of modern music.” One of the greatest pianists ever, Alfred Cortot, said that Enescu, although mostly a violinist, was a better pianist than he was.

    Here’s what Wikipedia says about Enescu’s First Rhapsody (the one played by the MSO): “The two rhapsodies, and particularly the first, have long held a permanent place in the repertory of every major orchestra.”

    If you look over at Youtube, you will see numerous performances of this piece all by outstanding conductors and groups including the Berlin Philarmonic (Simon Rattle); the London Symphony Orchestra (A. Dorati); Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra(Sergiu Celibidache); Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Mariss Jansons); and George Enescu himself conducting the L’ Orchestre des Concerts Colonne (Paris); Detroit Symphony (A. Dorati). Even an arrangement by the Empire Brass. Over at Youtube I count roughly 8 pages full of various recordings and renditions of this work with hundreds of thousands of hits. People like this piece for a reason, it’s great music.

    As for “The Red Violin” that won an Oscar Award. Shouldn’t that tell you something? And many other awards too and moreover, it fits into the kind of “crossover” theme of the 2nd and 3rd selections. It was also a highly popular movie and score. Again, people love it.

    Ditto for The Planets.

    The Youtube of it below (Andre Previn, Conductor) has more than 2.5 million hits. And it has been recorded by the likes of Bernstein, Bolt, Dutoit, Levine, Steinberg, Von Karajan, Levi, Previn, Colin Davis, Stokowski, Solti, Gardiner, Mehta, Gibson, Handley, Fennell, Slatkin, amongst others. But what do these guys know about “great music”?

    Comment by fflambeau — September 28, 2016 @ 6:11 am

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