The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This afternoon is your last chance to hear the all-Russian program by violinist Rachel Barton Pine and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Here are two very positive reviews and a more critical one | October 20, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, is your last chance to hear the highly praised all-Russian program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), conducted by music director John DeMain.

The  guest soloist is the critically acclaimed, virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) from Chicago.

For more details about the program, the performers, program notes and tickets, go to:

The concert features the Violin Concerto in D Minor by Aram Khachaturian; the “Lieutenant Kijé Suite” film score by Sergei Prokofiev; and the Symphony No. 9 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

From the previews, the thematic program – all works were composed in the Soviet Union under the threatening shadow of the terrorist-dictator Josef Stalin (below) — sounded promising.

And it turns out that that the promise was, to varying degrees, fulfilled.

Here are two very positive reviews of the concert.

The first is by Michael Muckian (below), who has taken over reviewing duties at Isthmus for the now retired critic John W. Barker:

Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger (below):

And here is a somewhat more critical review by UW-Madison music graduate Matt Ambrosio (below) written for The Capital Times:

What did you think of the programs, the performers and the performance?

Which critic do you most agree with?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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  1. Note to fflambeau: Thanks for the shout-out. I am both pleased and puzzled that you did a Google search on me. And I didn’t know about the mini-bio on WPR, so thanks for digging that one up.

    Yes, I write about many things, including music. In fact, I write a lot about music. I cut my teeth on classical music as a freelance contributor to The Cap Times for some 18 years when The Ear himself was arts and entertainment editor. I count The Ear as my mentor in this area.

    Unfortunately, you won’t find any of those reviews online. Apparently, it was Cap Times policy not to bother archiving freelance contributions at the time so, other that the yellowing newsprint copies I have in my personal archives, those reviews and features are lost forever.

    But I have written for other pubs as well. In fact, in recent years I have received several Milwaukee Press Club awards, including a Gold Award, for critical writing. Apparently, my mentor has had lasting influence.

    I also appreciate your continued references to Bernard Herrmann. I, too, have been a fan of Mr. Herrmann since the 1960s and am pleased that, so long after his death on Christmas Eve in, I believe, 1976, he has come into his due.


    Comment by Mike and Jean — October 20, 2019 @ 10:34 am

    • I wouldn’t call a “shout-out” the fact that I pointed out that you appear to have little or no classical music training or expertise, that you have been, according to WPR, writing food reviews for the past 30 years, and that you have published a book in the Dummies series (for business and accounting, apparently).

      Nor do I think that having worked under the Ear many years ago explains much at all except for being mentioned at all in his column. What is noteworthy too about your post is that it contains no information at all about any study of music or performance of music on your part which is at the center of my lengthy post on needed attributes for a successful classical music critic. Your post seems to confirm, indeed, that you are a writer who is willing to approach any topic–for your own well-being. Being able to recommend a restaurant for its souffles does not mean that one is also knowledgeable or able to tackle classical music reviews. To me, that’s not enough and I find your background makes you unfit to be anything but a food and perhaps business critic.

      “But I have written for other pubs as well.” Sorry, but that can be taken at least two ways: it might also indicate you are something of a “rolling stone” and that the other publications chose to terminate your relationship with them.

      “Continued references” to Bernard Herrmann? There is but one made by me in the posts here.


      Comment by fflambeau — October 20, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

  2. Dear Ear, a few additional notes on the concert might be in order. An intellectually stimulating concert, the chance to be able to hear three Russian composers from a similar period, to consider the effects of totalitarianism on composition and the importance of aesthetic freedom. Perhaps didactic programming but not without certain pleasures.

    I confess to not appreciating the Khachaturian, with the exception of Rachel Barton Pines’ flawless technique and beautiful interpretation of the (to my ears disjointed) piece. I don’t remember hearing the Shostakovich work before and was grateful.

    It was a bit dispiriting to see so many empty seats. Was the program not to people’s liking? Are many concert-goers away on vacation? You know, folks, it’s OK to go to a concert to root for the home team.

    The orchestra’s players seemed genuinely engaged, intent, eager to make music. There was some fine solo playing within the works — especially bassoon, tenor saxophone, bass as well as flute, piccolo, oboe, trumpet and percussion. The strings were lush.

    I have no experience in music criticism and can only claim music appreciation classes in high school and college. At intermission, I recommend the chocolate mousse.


    Comment by Ronnie — October 20, 2019 @ 9:23 am

    • “It was a bit dispiriting to see so many empty seats. Was the program not to people’s liking? Are many concert-goers away on vacation? You know, folks, it’s OK to go to a concert to root for the home team.”

      Something mentioned by many people who have attended MSO concerts of late. Perhaps you should ask yourself why this (and not ignore some of the possibilities other than the tired ones you came up with–the program is not to people’s liking, the concert-goers are away on vacation etc.

      Please face the fact that even with discounted prices for the opening three concert series of the season, MSO prices are very high. The Univeristy has a nice new performance center, and many of its concerts are free. You might also ask why the Overture Center is having to discount tickets (especially with a “big name” performer). Another, and more probable reason for so many empty seats, in my opinion, is that the MSO is and has been mismanaged and that its music director has been around far too long: apparently given an Evergreen contract.

      Contrast the lacklustre state of affairs in Madison with that in Milwaukee where a new, young and dynamic conductor/music director has been named, where the outgoing music director knew that his time was up but cared more for the institution than his own wallet (he has opportunities elsewhere since he is very, very good), and where the Milwaukee Symphony seems to be on fire with creativity and energy.

      The excuse for the MSO in the past, if you review their history is that they played in bad musical halls. That was true before the Overture Center was built but that excuse doesn’t work any longer.

      It’s time to start asking more penetrating questions about the musical scene around the MSO. The review by Matt Ambrosio of the Cap Times which suggests that the orchestra sounded ragged in the performance that he heard might also explain why Rachel Barton Pine has appeared just once in her career with this group: they might not be good enough to play with her. One of the cardinal failures in music is an inability to accompany a solist; if that is what happened, lots of questions must be raised and answered.


      Comment by fflambeau — October 20, 2019 @ 8:20 pm

  3. This violin concerto was written in 1940 for the great Russian virtuoso, David Oistrakh (who many consider to be the finest modern player of the instrument) by his friend, the composer, Aram Khachaturian. On the YouTube below, you can hear what is considered the “gold standard” of this piece performed by Oistrakh and the composer himself conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra.

    It is for virtuosos only. The first and final movements are exceptionally difficult. It is good to see someone as talented as Rachel B. Pine performing this.


    Comment by fflambeau — October 20, 2019 @ 6:15 am

    • You can also hear a brooding sound quality (at about 1:54 of the Oistrakh recording, for instance,) that seems to have influenced the motion picture scores of Bernard Herrmann in some of his Hitchcock work. Herrmann was also born to parents who came from Russia.


      Comment by fflambeau — October 20, 2019 @ 6:26 am

  4. I know nothing of Michael Muckian but it appears that he wrote reviews of food for years. How this helps him write musical reviews is unclear. See

    The other “critic” is not knowledgeable at all about classical music and is nothing but a cheerleader.


    Comment by fflambeau — October 20, 2019 @ 1:10 am

    • A quick Google search for Mr. Muckian seems to reveal he is the author of a Dummies series book on business and accounting. Again, with this kind of expertise and an apparent background in writing food reviews as noted in my other comment, it is unclear as to how this background would help form knowledgeable reviews of classical music unless one subscribes to the dubious notion that virtually anyone who can pick up a pen or peck away at a keyboard can review classical music.

      What would Sibelius make of these people? (He has been quoted as having said words to the effect that no statue has ever been erected for any critic.) Sibelius was a smart man and a gifted composer.

      Mr. Matt Ambrosio is the only critic of the three cited individuals, to my knowledge, who has a background, (an extensive one at that), in classical music. He also seems to know how to write.

      I believe that any responsible publication should list the qualifications that their “critics” hold and that general writing ability is not enough to be considered an effective music critic. Nor is general education alone enough since it is so readily available in our society especially in a town like Madison. And as to another one of the “critics” listed, it appears he is not even employed by a responsible publication but is a freelance blogger.

      Even the professional website for classical music critics maintains this: “A bachelor’s degree in journalism or in a music-related field, such as music theory or musical performance, is considered the minimum education for a job as a music critic; however, many critics have earned a master’s degree.”

      In my opinion, that’s not enough. Music is a difficult, specialized field that requires a great deal of talent, training, knowledge and expertise. The simple ability to hammer together words into an intelligible fashion is not enough.

      These “critics”, of course, do have the right to their own opinions but that is exactly what they are.

      On a personal level, I hold no animus against any of these individuals; I just love classical music and expect the best of people associated with it. My own qualifications include two doctorates (not in the musical area) from a top-rated graduate school, one M.A. from the same institution, graduate fellowships from prestigious foundations, a B.A. from Wisconsin (with “highest honors”), study in Europe, about 12 years of study and performance of the trumpet, and several years of training/lessons on the piano. I have attended classical concerts and performances all over the world (on at least 5 continents).


      Comment by fflambeau — October 20, 2019 @ 4:43 am

  5. From a comment I made to a post a few days ago which contains commentary from critic Ambrosio:

    “Here’s some good, and critical commentary about the MSO performance. From the observant Matt Ambrosio (a professionally trained muscian) at the Cap Times, who called the MSO’s performance, “somewhat precarious start….” It was not due to the soloist, he indicates.

    More critical words from Ambrosio who used terms throughout his commentary like “unrehearsed”, “scattered” and “unsteadiness”: “First on the concert’s program was Sergei Prokofiev’s “Suite from ‘Lieutenant Kijé,’” a collection of tunes from the composer’s first film score for a film by the same title. It is a lighthearted suite, characterized by animated “oom-pah” dance rhythms, yet the MSO fell short of inciting any such movement in the audience, sounding a bit scattered and unrehearsed, save the fourth — and most well-known — movement.

    Unfortunately, the orchestra’s unsteadiness continued into the first movement of Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto. It is a demanding work, full of tricky rhythms and irregular phrasing that would challenge any orchestra. The MSO struggled to keep pace with the soloist, which was most noticeable during extended syncopated patterns.

    That said, Pine’s performance was a joy… .”

    Ouch! Thanks for the honest insights and maybe the powers that be at MSO take steps to rid us of what has become a problem.

    I’ve been saying for years that the maestro should never have been retained so long and given a virtually unlimited contract. Give a new person a max of 6 years with maybe 4-6 years of extensions if their work has been outstanding. After that, a nice dinner and a watch and goodbye. That should have happened long ago with the incumbent.”

    Only one of these critics, to my knowledge, has any real understanding of classical music as a trained musician and that is the person who wrote the above.

    The other is an unknown and one is a cheerleader, and a blog writer looking for work, not a critic.

    Note too that one of the sins of music is to have a soloist and the orchestra supporting her out of synch as seems to have happened here.

    Oh well, the audience gets to vote with its feet.


    Comment by fflambeau — October 20, 2019 @ 1:05 am

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