The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A curmudgeon vents his complaints concerning the music scene in Madison, Plus, this Sunday Afternoon the Pro Arte Quartet plays Haydn and Dvorak in a FREE concert at the Chazen Museum of Art that will be streamed live | November 4, 2017

ALERT: The UW’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet will perform a FREE concert tomorrow, Sunday, Nov. 5, at 12:30 p.m., at the Chazen Museum of Art in Brittingham Gallery No. 3. The program features the String Quartet in E Major, Op. 53, No 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn and the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 16, by Antonin Dvorak. The “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen” concert will also be streamed live. Here is a link:

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an essay by Larry Wells, a guest reviewer and a frequent concertgoer. He writes:

“As I have aged, I have become more of a curmudgeon. (My friends and family will readily attest to this.) It is in that spirit that I address some annoyances I have been experiencing over the past few years while attending musical events in Madison.

“I will start with a recent experience, attending University Opera’s performances of “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” at Music Hall (below). The two arms of any seat in the hall have two different numbers. Unless the guest was paying attention as he entered the row, it is unclear which number belongs to which seat. After attending a few shows there, I have figured it out. But I don’t believe I have ever been to a performance there when there hasn’t been confusion about which seat is which. I have routinely heard people asking others (who are generally equally clueless), and I have routinely seen blocks of people shift over one seat. You would think that someone at a great educational institution could figure out a way to make the seating less baffling.

“An equally annoying phenomenon occurs regularly at Mills Hall, also on campus. I discovered that, for choral concerts particularly, the sound in the balcony is far better than the sound on the main floor. However, the doors of the balcony are often locked and the ushers regularly say that the balcony is not open. Upon making further insistent inquiries, I usually manage to get someone to unlock the balcony, but I wonder why it is felt that unlocking it routinely is such an onerous task.

“I will also mention that, regardless of one’s seat location in Mills Hall, it is difficult not to notice that the sound clouds over the stage are in sore need of a dusting and cleaning.

Stephen Sondheim wrote a wonderfully amusing song for “The Frogs” called “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience.” In it the audience is reminded not to talk, cough, fart and so on. (You can hear the piece in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“At the aforementioned performances in the Music Hall (I went twice), I saw people texting and video recording the performance even though the program has, in very small print, an admonishment not to photograph or film. At a recent choral concert in Mills Hall, texting was rampant during the performance, and there was no mention about turning off cell phones in the program. The bright screens immediately draw the eye away from the stage. I find it extremely distracting.

“At performances given by the UW Dance Department, a loud and forceful announcement at the beginning of each performance instructs the audience to turn off cell phones, no texting, no photos, etc. A similar announcement takes place not only at the beginning of the concert but also at the end of intermissions for performances at Overture Center. I think it is time for the UW Music Department to address the issue in a similar way.

“Another criticism of the way that things are done by the Music Department: Why is it so hard to find out what is being performed at a recital or concert? The Music Department has a good website with a calendar that lists the performances being given on any day, but many times the program is not included in that information. I am disinclined to go to a concert when I don’t know what the program is, and I often will go to a performance just to hear one work if it’s one I am anxious to hear. Thus, I often have to go roaming around the Music Building looking for posters or sometimes even going to the person sponsoring the performance to ask what the program is. It shouldn’t be that hard.

“An issue at Overture Center is whispering. I do not understand how people have lived to the ripe old ages that most of the audience members have and not come to realize that whispering is still audible.

“Two seats away from me at Overture Hall for my symphony subscription is a woman who, at every single performance, starts to cough as soon as the music begins, noisily unzips her purse, reaches in and fumbles around until she finds her cough drop, and then noisily unwraps its cellophane cover. Every time. It is a wonderment to me that she has not discovered that she could unwrap the cough drops in advance and have them at the ready.

“When I subscribed to the San Francisco Symphony, there were bowls of wax paper wrapped cough drops at every entrance. Not a bad idea.

“And then there is the seemingly obligatory standing ovation syndrome that has become a standard feature of every performance in Madison. In the rest of the world a standing ovation is reserved for an extraordinary performance deserving special recognition. Here I think of Pavlov’s dog and sheep. The performance ends, one person leaps to his feet (that’s the Pavlov part) and everyone else stands (that’s the sheep). At the same time the sentiment has been lost, and it all seems rather provincial to me.

“I realize that these are all first-world problems of little importance. They are minor annoyances, but that is what a curmudgeon dwells on. And it feels great to vent.”

Do you agree with any of these complaints?

Do you have any major or minor complaints to add?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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  1. Fascinating subject. In the interests of culture and music, and based on the comments herein, I have put together a policy statement for audience behavior at cultural events. This list of verboten items can be freely plagiarized by any and all interested cultural groups:

    “We regret to advice our patrons that the following behavior is not permitted at this our any of our performances, and may lead to your ejection and possible arrest and/or permanent banning from subsequent programs. These rules, simple to follow, are designed for the audience to reap the most from each performance and to protect our patrons against suspect behavior:

    1. Arriving late at a performance. If you do so you will be allowed to take your seat during the next break in the performance only, if there is one.

    2. Bringing a dog, a snake, an elephant or any other animal to the performance with you, even if it is cosseted in a carrier or handled by a professional trainer. Walking a dog near one of our restrooms is especially not allowed.

    3. Extended tittering (defined as making any sounds especially humorous ones) whilst orchestral or vocal performers are in the act of singing–is strictly forbidden. Loud, prolonged, or distracting guffawing (or the like, broadly defined) is also considered objectionable behavior.

    4. Cell phones should be turned off before any performances (which includes lectures preceding the performances). Texting of any kind is also not permitted at any time. We reserve the right to confiscate your cell phone or or electronic device should you violate this rule and to sell it for market value.

    5. Loud farting and coughing are considered no no’s. We do provide cough drops for those who feel the need the urge to cough and since they are free, we urge you to use them if necessary. Minor gaseous emissions that are not smelly or objectionable may be permitted if a minimum of sound is involved; wet farts are strictly taboo (note that we do provide free toilets to handle such problem behavior).

    6. No fist-fighting, handicuffs, and/or duels are permitted on the premises and the bringing into the building of jackhammers, knuckle dusters, guns, knives, dynamite, ammonium nitrate, tanks, nuclear weapons (indeed,weapons of all types, as defined by 13 Code of Federal Regulations sections 1-500 ) are strictly prohibited and may well lead to your arrest.

    7. Talking out loud and even whispering are not permitted during any performance (you may be allowed to write a note to your friends if doing so is absolutely silent). Drawing may be permitted with advance permission in writing and as long as such behavior does not exceed the output of 5 phons on the Stevens’s scale.

    8. Standing ovations are discouraged and mostly reserved, if at all, for “superstars” who have gone well beyond the call of humanistic duty or who have explored artistic areas no one has ever gone into before. Please be advised that your auditorium is provided with photo-taking equipment and attendees prone to making standing ovations, as adjudged by our staff, will receive tickets (amounting to twice the cost of your ticket of admission) in the mail. We also reserve the right to publish your photo and identify you as a needless and persistent standing ovator in any of our media to shame such offenders into correct behavior.

    9. Performers, for their part, are encouraged to play/sing/or entertain only and not attempt to explain themselves, their music, or make political comments during performances unless a publicly advertised per-performance lecture has been advertised. Rustling of sheet music and the knocking over of music stands is strictly forbidden as is blowing kisses to the audience and putting one’s hand over one’s heart during applause is considered objectionable behavior even if committed by outstanding conductors or well recorded musicians.

    10. Bringing dust, dirt, or other objectionable matters to the performance may well clog our sound systems/filters and generally be an annoyance. Make sure your clothing and body is clean. Indeed,it may be a good idea to bring with you a duster to clean up the area around you afterwards.

    11. Eating of candies, donuts, or any type of food or drink (including slurpies) during a performance is not permitted to either members of the audience or to entertainers. Popping open a beer can is strictly forbidden as is uncorking a bottle of champagne during any performance.”


    Comment by fflambeau — November 6, 2017 @ 12:28 am

  2. I recently attended a performance at the Metropolitan Opera and a patron had brought her small dog (not a service dog) in a carrier, which she held on her lap. During the first of two intermissions, she walked the dog in the space near the restrooms. How she got that dog past security is a marvel, but it seems anything goes these days. Many classical music organizations are coping with attendance as a first priority and audience etiquette is not high on the list of issues to address. Fortunately, Met Opera did enforce a late seating policy so late patrons were ushered to a side room for the duration of the act.


    Comment by Carol Pollis — November 5, 2017 @ 5:15 am

    • Great story and it puts to shame the people disturbed by whispering (!), coughing (only human nature as is farting) dusty sound absorbers etc.

      In fact, the odd laments here seem to not only prove your point that “anything goes these days….” but that anything at all can and will be complained about.

      By the way, what is a “service dog”?


      Comment by fflambeau — November 5, 2017 @ 11:09 pm

  3. Irksome to me is extended tittering during humorous operatic moments that cover up notes I want to hear. You’re only entitled to one chuckle.


    Comment by bbead — November 4, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

    • You might have to define “irksome tittering” for people to take you seriously.

      You do realize too, don’t you, that some moments of various operas are meant to be funny and therefore laughter and even “extended tittering” might well be expected? My experience has been that most opera singers understand this and refrain from continuing their singing until well after the audience has shown its emotions. So frankly, you might be overly sensitive.


      Comment by fflambeau — November 5, 2017 @ 11:14 pm

      • I couldn’t care less if you take my comment seriously and don’t think extended tittering needs further definition. And, if singers had refrained from singing during the tittering, then I wouldn’t be complaining, would I?
        But you’re right about the sensitive. As defined by researcher Elaine Aron, I am a “highly sensitive” person, as are about 20% of people. We are the poets, the analytical thinkers and the observers, the ones comfortable getting things done behind the scenes. Arguably, the world needs more of us and fewer of the blustering, condescending self promoters.


        Comment by bbead — November 6, 2017 @ 6:09 am

  4. With some trepidation I must admit to being one of the unwashed, one of the audience members guilty of engaging in distracting behaviour, and even an occasional standing ovation. At almost every concert I have my sketch book and pencil in hand, I draw. I do try to draw softly, and usually go silent and motionless during quiet passages, but even when the music is loud I’m sure that the motion of my hand, as it lays lines to paper, draws attention away from the stage for those seated nearby. I have been drawing at concerts for more than 40 years, so I’m sorry to all of those whose concert experience was ruined as a result of my visual pursuits. I too have been bothered and distracted by people coughing, sneezing, talking, whispering, kicking the back of my seat, being too tall and blocking my view, smelling like a perfume factory, smelling like they should have visited a perfume factory, rustling program notes, checking smartphone messages, forgetting to turn off their phone, phones going off on vibration mode, yawning, farting, keeling over etc, but as Larry stated, these are first-world problems. As humans, we are forced to confront the tension between what pleases us as individuals versus what is in service to the greater good. Going to a concert elicits so many emotions, it is a sensual bath, not restricted to what is going on on stage. We must examine our own capacity to focus on maximizing our positive experience while filtering out the (figurative or literal) noise that surrounds us. Sometimes attending a concert is an exercise in tolerance, something that seems our society is lacking. So the next time I attend even a mediocre performance, after having endured chattering, coughing, page turning and the like, I think I’ll look around at all those who took the time and had the mind to attend a musical performance (instead of a Neo Nazi rally), leap from my seat and give them, the audience, a standing ovation. Bravo to humanity…encore ENCORE!!!


    Comment by Scott Lesh — November 4, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

  5. A standing ovation for Larry (just kidding, but honestly, I am applauding this). Can we add to the list the Madison habit of allowing late audience members to claim their seats AFTER a performance begins, even if they’re clambering over those who arrived on time?


    Comment by S Hering — November 4, 2017 @ 2:17 pm

  6. Of course Larry Wells is right and he leaves the most telling complain to the last—the obligatory standing ovation. It is provincial precisely because Madison is still a small, provincial city. It’s orchestra of talented musicians is still a part-time affair. Nobody makes a living playing for it. Madison is wealthy in terms of cultural blessings, but it is very poor in honest self-assessment with regard to its general level of cultural ambition and sophistication. Would not standing in thanks for performances that are merely ordinary increase the cultural sophistication of the town? I doubt it. Self-satisfaction trumps that every time. People are content in Madison. When did contentment ever breed or reward great art, great music?


    Comment by J Rhem — November 4, 2017 @ 10:42 am

  7. Audiophiles who spend thousands of dollars on audio equipment, profess the expenditure to be because they love “music”, yet never attend a live performance.


    Comment by Augustine — November 4, 2017 @ 9:51 am

  8. This isn’t curmudgeonly, it’s just common sense and a nod to consideration all around. These are all things that could or should be addressed. I might add a further annoyance. For many concerts, especially well attended ones such as those by Christopher Taylor, the doors aren’t opened until very close to starting time requiring the crowd waiting to find a way to line up or, even worse, figure out a way to crash the line once the doors open. This seems to happen routinely while the piano is being tuned. Couldn’t the piano be tuned earlier? It can’t be so sensitive that it would go out of tune just sitting there on stage, especially considering the evident reminder Prof. Taylor gives that it is a percussion instrument once he begins playing. On the other hand we are very fortunate to have such a wonderful School of Music and to be able to attend concerts either free or at reasonable prices. By the way, my wife and I don’t stand during applause either, unless the performance was truly exceptional, although I think we would stand for Bill Lutes anytime!


    Comment by Dennis A Hill — November 4, 2017 @ 9:40 am

  9. I dislike the standing ovation stuff too and once considered it a Midwestern phenomenon. Sorry to let others know that this routinely happens at concerts I’ve attended in NY. As my mother-in-law used to say, Go figure. As for coughing, whispering, talking, texting, please add to the list soulful kissing during a Brahms symphony at Overture. Try tapping on the offender’s shoulder and wagging a finger.


    Comment by Ronnie Hess — November 4, 2017 @ 9:39 am

  10. I agree with them all, but especially the seat numbering in Music Hall. And the standing ovation doesn’t really bother me much; in fact I kind of enjoy it!

    Sent from my iPad


    Comment by Betty Risteen Hasselkus — November 4, 2017 @ 9:24 am

  11. Your comments on the state of Mills Hall and the Humanities Building are spot on. I’ve also noticed the dusty sound clouds and have been staring at a piece of candy (a Werthers, I think) someone tossed into a could about three years ago. I can’t imagine what kind of impression the building gives to prospective students and faculty. I have high hopes for the new performance building and that our student musicians will get the performance experience they deserve.


    Comment by Gwen Evans — November 4, 2017 @ 9:23 am

  12. Madison’s educational habit of scheduling a pre-concert talk 40 minutes to an hour before the program begins coerces people to come early and take their medicine or lose the choice of best seats. Some talks are very good, but they are not what I come for. Some conductors also feel the need to introduce every piece. It breaks the spell of the music for me. I come to hear music, and put myself in a musical space, away from the daily chatter.


    Comment by Ron McCrea — November 4, 2017 @ 8:24 am

  13. Good comments.


    Comment by fflambeau — November 4, 2017 @ 8:16 am

  14. I could not say it any better. Especially the standing ovation syndrome in Madison. I have not seen this in Ann Arbor performances.


    Comment by Irmgard Bittar — November 4, 2017 @ 7:26 am

  15. Long live curmudgeons! Larry is appropriately accurate with his criticism, I attended 16 concerts at the Presteigne Festival in Wales last August. There was not a single standing ovation, despite superlative performances. Here we stand for everything, from the 6 year old violinist playing “Twinkle” to the finest imaginable professional work. The meaning of ovations has been lost. The same is true in theater: standing ovations for everything. It is as if the audience thinks it offensive if they do not stand; the real offensive behavior includes those things Larry mentioned: phone calls, texting, coughing, candy wrappers, talking, etc. My personal guideline for standing is that the music and performance together are so emotionally overwhelming that I have to leap out of my seat and shout immediately after the last note. This situation does not happen for me very often, so I almost always remain seated while others stand.


    Comment by Peter Schmalz — November 4, 2017 @ 7:19 am

  16. Yes! Squash that obligatory standing ovation! This summer I attended the incredible solo piano recital given by Marc-Andre Hamelin in Vienna’s historic Konzerthaus. The audience responded most enthusiastically with applause and shouts, and Hamelin responded graciously with two encores, and not one person jumped to their feet! Madison’s “country bumpkin” audience can take a few lessons from Europe’s culture scene.



    Comment by Terry L. Peterson — November 4, 2017 @ 6:30 am

  17. I can understand your concerns about the seating situation but dusty sound clouds? People whispering at concerts? You should be glad they are just whispering! Coughing is an involuntary and physical need, so I don’t think that can be criticized, but yes, free cough drops would be nice.

    About 30 years ago, in a different city, I went to a symphony performance featuring a famous violinist playing a violin concerto in the first half of the program. After the intermission, during the orchestral only piece, a couple behind me broke out not in whispering but in a loud argument. I turned around without making eye contact, and coughed once or twice. This had no effect whatsoever on the noisy couple. They continued bickering OUT LOUD. Finally, after being exasperated after listening to further outbursts, I turned around and loudly said, “Please shut up!” The offending male was: Nigel Kennedy, the violinist featured in the first part of the concert. I am proud to say I have never bought a single one of his albums and turn off a radio if he is playing. He’s a real jerk.

    I suspect boorish behavior has always been a problem at most events: recall that a fist fight broke out at a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra just last year.

    Yes, you are a curmudgeon but we also live in troubled times. I agree with you on the use of cell phones: they are extremely distracting. Maybe confiscation of offending phones is the answer?


    Comment by fflambeau — November 4, 2017 @ 6:27 am

  18. I had exactly the same thought at the Weill performance about the seat numbers. I guessed wrong about the numbering, heard someone several rows back explaining the system, changed my seat, and watched the later confusion when most of the front row had to get up and change seats when the last person arrived. Ushers could explain the system or it could be noted in the program. Katie Mulligan


    Comment by katielmulligan — November 4, 2017 @ 12:15 am

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