The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why are the Willy Street Chamber Players so successful at presenting neglected and new music? | July 12, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Many individuals and groups, large and small, like to program neglected works and new music.

But no one does it better than the Willy Street Chamber Players, who are now in the middle of their fourth annual summer season.

So what is the secret of the Willys?

Some clues were given at the outstanding and thoroughly successful opening concert last Friday night, when the Willys, with guest mezzo-soprano Jazimina MacNeil (below), played new music by Caroline Shaw, Colin Jacobsen and Michael Kelley – all to a very enthusiastic reception from the large audience.

More chances to experience such success and figure out the reasons behind it are coming up.

Tonight from 4 to 7 p.m. – and again on next Thursday, July 19, at the same time and place — at the Art and Literature Laboratory, 2021 Winnebago Street, the Willys will hold an open rehearsal. Admission is FREE, and you can bring something to eat and have a drink, including beer ($5 donation), as you listen and wander around to explore the space.

Then on Friday from noon to 1:30 p.m., during the Community Connect Concert for the whole family at the Goodman Community Center (below top) at 149 Waubesa Street, the Willys will perform “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout” by the contemporary American composer Gabriela Lena Frank (below bottom) and  the rarely performed “Procession of the Military Night Watch in Madrid” by the Classical-era composer Luigi Boccherini. (Starting at 11 a.m. there is also an instrument “petting zoo.”)

(You can hear an excerpt from the work by Gabriela Lena Frank in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

On this Sunday from 5 to 6 p.m., the Willys will perform the same program — which also features some string quartet selections by Romantic composer Robert Schumann — for FREE on the Union Terrace (below).

Other regular series concerts include the rarely heard String Quintet in A Major by Alexander Glazunov on July 20 and “Light Screens” (2002) by Andrew Norman (below) on July 27.

For times, place and details about series and special concerts, and for other information, go to:

Anyway, the way The Ear sees it there are several reasons to explain the Willys’ success with new and neglected music.

One can start with the basics: The impressive musicianship of all the Willys, who are remarkable for both technique and interpretation.

Another reason is the players’ unflagging ability to project energy and enthusiasm, suggested by upbeat and exciting tempi and by even such a small gesture as the two violinists and two violists playing while standing up, as was the custom in the Baroque era, rather than seated.

The Willys also introduce the pieces, providing not only information but also some humor, often self-deprecating. They prepare you for liking the music, not just for listening to it.

They often choose shorter and easily digestible pieces, so it is never an ordeal that overwhelms you. Sometimes you want a musical short story, not a musical novel.

But most of all the Willys do what more proponents of new music should do: They seem to keep their listeners in mind when they choose the pieces they will play.

Never do you get the feeling that listening to new or neglected music is some sort of aesthetic obligation imposed on you. It is there to be enjoyed, and you are there to be pleased, not just instructed or preached to.

Too often new music seems chosen as a gesture of R&D – research and development – that feels more important to the performers rather than to the audiences.

Maybe there is more to say? What do others think? The Ear looks forward to hearing what you think.

In the meantime, The Ear suggests you take in as much as you can of the superlative music-making of both classics and new music by the Willy Street Chamber Players.

He doubts you will be disappointed and is pretty sure you will be as pleased and impressed as he is.


  1. Hi, Jake! In answer to your query, I believe the positive response to contemporary Classical music here in the Madison area is simply that the musical education programs in the public schools are quite strong here, and have been for many years. This, I believe, has had the effect of producing a musically literate populace of sufficient size that understands and appreciates the diversity and wealth of 20th and 21st century Classical compositions. You’ve got to have that “critical mass” in place to make at least some ventures financially successful. And I think you’re correct in observing that the Willy Street group has gotten away from turning every Classical Music event into “High Church” — again, there’s been a gradual shift from treating Classical Music as “good for you”, an experience to be endured for duty’s sake, into a more genuine educational sharing of what’s out there in the here and now. Subtle attitudinal changes, but quite important.


    Comment by Tim Adrianson — July 13, 2018 @ 11:29 am

    • thoughtful post, Tim.


      Comment by paul baker — July 25, 2018 @ 6:01 pm

  2. A fascinating column that makes many wonderful points.

    But I think you miss the obvious about playing new and neglected music. You begin, I believe, on the wrong foot: “Many individuals and groups, large and small, like to program neglected works and new music.”

    Sorry, I have the opposite observation (and you provide nothing to support your assertion).

    Most groups, amazingly enough most in Madison, otherwise a hip, chic and even radical community, do NOT even make this attempt. The Willy people do, so does Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society: note that both are very successful both artistically and commercially.

    I think UW Music’s Department does, but the Madison Symphony Orchestra under its current maestro does NOT.


    Comment by fflambeau — July 13, 2018 @ 12:00 am

    • Good point. Seems to me that MSO and the WCO are at once enabled, and hampered, by their large budgets and donor bases. The same may apply to music programming on WPT.


      Comment by paul baker — July 25, 2018 @ 6:03 pm

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