The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra program more 20th-century music? | April 14, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

A friend and reviewer for this blog – his specialty is opera but he also is very experienced with the symphonic repertoire — sent in the following opinion piece.

It is being posted in the wake of the announcement by the Madison Symphony Orchestra of its 2017-18 season.

For reference, here is a link to the lineup of the next season’s concerts that was posted yesterday:

By Larry Wells

I received my subscription renewal package for the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Greg Anderson) a couple of weeks ago, and I was struck then by how conservative and prosaic most of the offerings are.

I’ve mentioned my feelings to acquaintances, and one of the prevailing arguments is that they have to fill the seats.

The assumption seems to be that the patrons will only tolerate music written before 1850.

I’m 70 and I grew up with Stravinsky. I can recall the world premieres of Shostakovich’s final three symphonies. I once eagerly awaited recordings of Britten’s latest works. And I heard the first performances of several works by John Adams (below) while living in San Francisco in the 1980s.

If the assumption is that most reliable patrons are in their 70s and 80s, this seems like a dead-end (pardon the pun). There will be no audience in 20 years.

I believe that audiences can tolerate music of the 20th century — look at the glowing reviews of and enthusiastic ovations for last week’s performances of Witold Lutoslawski’s “Concerto for Orchestra’’ — and attracting younger patrons with bolder musical choices seems an economic necessity.

How can the MSO not be commemorating the centenary of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell)? The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is performing several of his pieces in its upcoming season.

Why do we have to endure another Brahms symphony when we could hear Dmitri Shostakovich’s 11th or 15th or Jean Sibelius’ Fourth or Fifth or even Anton Bruckner’s 8th?

On a positive note, I was heartened to see that Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” is scheduled next season since that has been on my wish list for years. Likewise, Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass” is a nice surprise.

However, when will we hear Britten’s “War Requiem,” Bernstein’s “Mass” or “‘Songfest,” a symphony by Walter Piston (below top) or William Schuman (below middle) or Alan Hovhannes (below bottom)?

I’m really tired of going to concerts where only one of the works is of interest to me and the others are historic artifacts. I’d like to see a reversal wherein Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven are brought out occasionally, but the bulk of the music performed comes from the rich source of the 20th century.

What do you think?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.


  1. I agree with the guest writer. But more questions need to be asked (especially since the overwhelming nature of the comments here is in favor of non “war horse” selections: 1) Who does the programming for the MSO and why is it so timid? 2) Is it in the best interests of the audience to have a conductor for so long, and one whose tenure is apparently extended indefinitely? I think not. Contrary to all the effusive remarks of many people, I think the maestro is nothing outstanding and that Madison can do better and should. I would favor an initial five year contract, with the possibility of two 3 year extensions to a new conductor and after that, make a change.

    Comment by FFlambeau — April 25, 2017 @ 9:44 pm

  2. The Madison Symphony Orchestra is an outstanding ensemble and I have always looked forward to their performances. We are fortunate that those looking to expand their horizons have a lot of choices. In particular, I have enjoyed the performances of the UW instrumental and choral groups (often for free). These have included a number of 20th century works, including works by John Adams, the Symanowski Violin Concerto, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and the Britten War Requiem. On April 29th and 30th, the UW Choral Union and Symphony will perform Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloomed”. I believe this will be the first time for this work in Madison.

    Comment by Anna Shen — April 19, 2017 @ 11:41 am

  3. I agree with Scott MacPherson. I am in my 70’s and yearn for more contemporary music.

    Comment by Inga Berg — April 17, 2017 @ 11:38 am

  4. Heaven is a mansion with many rooms. So is music, but those rooms, as constructed by the MSO, are too frequently, as Larry Wells suggests, painted in pastels. Yes, more boldness would be nice. More modern music, but also more international offerings as well as more female composers. All that said, the period that most speaks to me is the Baroque, so hope there is at least one splendid room set aside for them.

    Comment by George Savage — April 15, 2017 @ 4:36 pm

  5. Personally, there are only two reasons for me to attend a concert: 1) for an anticipated extraordinary performance (as measured by world standards) or 2) to hear live music that is not basic repertoire which I expect to deliver interest, excitement, depth, and refinement. Therefore, in attending MSO concerts I select entirely on repertoire. There are many orchestral composers born in the “golden years” of 1860-1920 who were extremely well-trained, and could respond convincingly within, or against, the tradition of Western classical music. Some of them are well-known, including Mahler, Strauss Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev; others less known, but worthy of performance include Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, Dohnanyi, Bridge, Bloch, Martinu, Martin, Hindemith, Korngold, Finzi, Walton, Barber, Schuman, Britten, Daimond, and Richard Arnell. I go out of my way to hear live performances by these composers, even in less than stellar performances. But that’s me. I also know, as a retired music educator, that everyone has to come to the basic repertoire for the first time, and it is often a profound experience in live performance. Don’t we all have thrilling memories of the first time with the Beethoven THIRD, or the Brahms or Mahler FIRST? An orchestra has the impossible task of meeting all needs and keeping everyone happy. If, like London, Madison had five full-time professional orchestras the conflict would be between the orchestras, not between the single orchestra and its single audience.

    Peter Schmalz, Mineral Point

    Comment by Peter Schmalz — April 14, 2017 @ 6:15 pm

  6. Can we please quit with the tired “dead white male” tripe too. Bach and Beethoven aren’t around to go on a forced guilt trip to confess their privilege. Their music speaks for itself without the antiwhite and antimale retroactive shaming. Get off your keister and compose music and kvit yer kvetching!

    Comment by John — April 14, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

  7. I am eager to hear music from the 20th and 21st centuries as well as unusual or not often heard from other centuries. How about some women composers and other nationalities too!!

    Comment by CJT — April 14, 2017 @ 10:44 am

  8. I am not in my 70s or 80s (like the person criticising MSO programming) but thought the Lutoslawsky piece was meaningless and found it offensive. Good music will always stand the test of time. The “modern” composers cited are mostly from the last millennium too. It’s all a matter of perspective.

    Comment by John — April 14, 2017 @ 9:26 am

  9. I fully agree with Larry Wells. My reasons aren’t that I’m tired of the masterpieces of orchestral literature, it’s that in my experience of the MSO DeMain doesn’t bring anything to the performances of these works. He seems to really try/study/work with 20thc pieces and the performances are always more satisfying. The MSO is obviously quite capable of delivering very satisfying performances of masterpieces; they just aren’t called to do so. For all kinds of reasons topmost being higher levels of musical satisfaction all around he ought to play to his strengths and program music that really wakes him up, causes him to work and bring out his and the orchestra’s best.

    Comment by James Rhem — April 14, 2017 @ 8:43 am

  10. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! How will you build future audiences and supporters if all they can expect at an MSO concert is compositions by (mostly) dead white men? I’m so bored of the “Overture-Guest Soloist Concerto/Encore-Big Symphony” format that I no longer subscribe, but go when I see something that interests me. Take a chance – at least once in awhile.

    Comment by Kathleen Otterson — April 14, 2017 @ 8:16 am

  11. Yes, I very much agree with the sentiments expressed here — I’d only add that DeMain seems to be very comfortable with 20th centuty music, and IMO presents it very well (at least the compositions I’ve heard). And, in particular, I’d love to hear more of the American; masters from the early to mid 20th century — Harris, Persichetti, Diamond, Kubik, Schuman, Sessions, etc,etc,etc — none of whom get any schrift whatever anymore. If DeMain has anything to say about it, I’d certainly attend any program of his in this regard.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — April 14, 2017 @ 7:47 am

  12. I agree with Larry to some extent.
    Twentieth and Twenty-first century music runs the gamut. Some of it is quite accessible; some of it isn’t.I’d love to hear Steve Reich but I don’t want to hear Webern. Some of Britten is very melodic, some makes me want to leave the concert hall. So I think the pieces have to be chosen judiciously. By the way, I’m 76.
    It sure would be nice to get away
    from some of the old warhorse symphonies, though!

    Comment by Ann Boyer — April 14, 2017 @ 7:39 am

  13. Yes, yes, yes! I heartily agree. I am 73 years old and, like your reviewer, was delighted to see the Britten and Janacek, but otherwise greeted the whole program with a big Meh as usual. I would love to be a more enthusiastic supporter of the orchestra.
    Pat Henson.

    Comment by Patricia Henson — April 14, 2017 @ 3:53 am

  14. Newly commissioned orchestral works are a good point but I still love the Russians: Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokoffief, Stravinsky. I had to good fortune of seeing him conduct his Rite of Spring with the Chicago Symphony in Ravinia.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — April 14, 2017 @ 1:45 am

  15. I agree with the author that music of the 20th and 21st centuries should have a much more significant presence in programming. This is how the art is perpetuated. However, I find the author’s implication that all other music is “historic artifact” to be somewhat offensive. It’s sad that he can’t enjoy it for what it is. And yes, orchestras must be respectful of their audience’s interests, lest the donors head for the exits. Does the Madison Symphony commission new music? This should be a part of every season and would help engage their audiences with living composers.

    Comment by Scott MacPherson — April 14, 2017 @ 1:00 am

  16. I am eagerly awaiting music from 20th and 21st centuries. Wake up Madison!

    Comment by Cheryl Bartlett — April 14, 2017 @ 12:20 am

    • Yes!

      Comment by Patricia Henson — April 14, 2017 @ 3:55 am

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