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
21 Comments

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:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/about/news/in-the-news/sunday-afternoon-live-with-pro-arte-quartet-november-5/

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.


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Classical music: Are concert halls and opera houses becoming refuges and shelters from the on-line world of the Web and social media?

September 19, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Are concert halls and opera houses becoming refuges and shelters from the on-line world of the Web and social media?

New York Times senior music critic Anthony Tommasini (below) thinks so. He published a long essay this week justifying his view.

tommasini-190

Along the way he also offers other suggestions, from alternative venues to informal dress, for how to increase audiences and attendance. And he thinks that live performances might help regain shortened attention spans.

In terms of the digital world, Tommasini even goes so far as to think that providing a refuge from social media could be selling points for the survival of live performances in concert halls and opera houses.

(Below bottom is an iPad in Carnegie Hall, below top, is a photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times. Tommasini also discusses smart phones and cell phones.)

carnegiehallstage

iPad photo in Carnegie Hall Karsten Moran NYT

The Ear hopes Tommasini might be right, but fears he might be naïve – especially when it comes to younger audiences.

The Ear thinks that the new media may well end up being more powerful than such old media as opera and classical music. He suspects that concert halls and opera houses will end up accommodating and incorporating new media.

But he hopes he is wrong.

What do you think?

And how do you view Tommasini’s arguments or ideas?

The Ear wants to hear.

Here is a link to the essay:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/14/arts/music/the-concert-hall-as-refuge-in-a-restless-web-driven-world.html


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and piano soloist Ilya Yakushev excel in a varied program. But audience members should do better at observing concert etiquette. Plus, retired UW-Madison bass-baritone Sam Jones dies at 87.

January 26, 2015
4 Comments

ALERT: Sad news has reached The Ear. Samuel M. Jones, a bass-baritone who was an exceptional performer and teacher at the UW-Madison School of Music for 37 years and who also served as the cantor at Temple Beth El and the Choral Director at Grace Episcopal Church, has died at 87. Here is a link to the obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://m.host.madison.com/news/local/obituaries/jones-dr-samuel-m-jr/article_8a445e98-0cf3-5112-bd72-8840b58a0399.html?mobile_touch=true

Samuel M. Jones

By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night, The Ear couldn’t be in two places at once.

Being in the mood for some solo piano playing – because The Ear himself is an avid amateur pianist – he attended the solo recital of works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, William Bolcom and Johannes Brahms performed by UW-Madison School of Music professor Christopher Taylor. But more about that will come in another post this week.

However, Larry Wells — a college classmate and good friend who is a longtime and very knowledgeable classical music follower and who has worked, lived and attended concerts in Rochester, San Francisco, Moscow, Tokyo and Seoul — went to the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

He filed this review:

WisconsinChamberOrchestrainCapitolTHeaterlobby

By Larry Wells

The program opened with a short introduction by Maestro Andrew Sewell, the longtime music director and conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, to the “English Suite” for string orchestra by the contemporary British composer Paul Lewis. (Sewell himself is a New Zealand native who also trained in England.)

Paul Lewis composer

Although the work was termed by Sewell as an obligatory form for British composers in the manner of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and the like, I found the rhapsodic opening and closing of the second section, “Meditation,” reminiscent of VW’s “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” But the remainder of the piece seemed trite and forgettable.

Following was the Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach. In this case, a concert grand piano was used featuring soloist Ilya Yakushev, a Russian native who now lives in the U.S., who was making his second appearance with the WCO.

This familiar piece was played bouncily in the first movement, sweetly in the second, and really fast in the third. I enjoyed Yakushev’s playing, although from my seat the piano seemed slightly muffled and occasionally unheard over the orchestra.

ilya yakushev 3

The second half of the evening opened with the Chamber Symphony No. 2 by Arnold Schoenberg, which Maestro Sewell claimed to be in the manner of Richard Strauss. If so, Strauss was much more expressive and engaging.

The evening ended with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Felix Mendelssohn, again featuring Yakushev. I was unfamiliar with the piece, and found it immediately engaging and enjoyable throughout. (You can hear Ilya Yakushev perform the Mendelssohn piano concerto in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether, it was a good evening of music.

But it was unfortunately marred early in the aforementioned “Meditation” movement when a woman two seats down from me decided to answer a text. The bright light from her cell phone was distracting, so I pointedly stared at her until her seat mate nudged her, and she put away the phone. The seat mate clearly felt that I was in the wrong and glared at me.

I noticed that there is no caution in the program about turning off cell phones, so I believe it would be a good idea for a brief announcement to be made at the beginning of the concert and at the end of the intermission for people to turn off their phones. That simple courtesy has still not become a part of all concertgoers’ routines.

smart phone

And what is with the Madison tradition of giving everything a standing ovation? (Below is a standing ovation at a concert on the Playhouse by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.)

BDDS 2014 Playhouse standing ovation

There have been perhaps a dozen times in my long concert-going life when I have been so moved by the moment that I’ve leapt to my feet. I think of a standing ovation as recognition of something extraordinary — not as a routine gesture that cheapens to the point of meaninglessness.

For purposes of comparison, here is a link to the review of the same concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and pianist Ilya Yakushev that veteran local music critic and retired UW-Madison medieval history professor John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=44422&sid=6243d3d1e78139b69884d31c5c1126e2


Classical music: Ringing cell phones and coughing made Saturday’s concert by the UW-Madison’s Clocks in Motion enthralling and unforgettable.

September 23, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School,, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He has also been named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra, effective two weeks ago. The ensemble has an out-of-date website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of an unusual percussion concert this past weekend by Clocks in Motion. I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

MAYCO Mikko Utevsky by Steve Rankin

By Mikko Utevsky

When we go to a concert, we go to listen and to watch. Perhaps with the very best performers we hope to be touched by the music, for the musicians on stage to speak to us through their playing.

But the role of the audience in classical music is generally passive: we expect to sit quietly, clap when a piece ends, cough politely between movements. We certainly do not walk in the doors expecting to be part of the performance.

At Saturday afternoon’s free performance in Mills Hall of “Percussion is Revolution” by UW-Madison resident ensemble Clocks in Motion (below, in concert), however, all this was turned on its head, and the result was an experience unlike anything I have ever witnessed. (For more information, visit: http://clocksinmotionpercussion.com)

clocks in motion in concert

The ideas of John Cage (below) and his colleagues have not penetrated the conscious of the concert-going public, by and large, and we are comfortable with our music on its pedestal, secure in the rituals surrounding a symphony concert or string quartet recital. The opportunity to see it toppled, however briefly, is notwithstanding an event not to be missed.

John Cage and cat

I, like many audience members, was slightly skeptical about the idea of a participatory concert. I went unsure of what to expect, but I had thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble’s other concerts I had attended, and thought it best to approach with an open mind.

After an exciting opener of “Pulse” by Henry Cowell (below), th group’s music director Sean Kleve explained the structure of the remainder of the program to the audience.

henry cowell

The next four works, all by John Cage , would be played without break and without applause. However, they would be separated by interludes of audience sound. We were asked to make sure our cell phones were turned ON – unthinkable in any other context – and permitted to make one call to another audience member during the course of the performance of Cage’s notorious 4’33” that would follow the next piece.

cell phone ringing

At another juncture, we were asked to read from the program notes in a whisper. Elsewhere we were invited to make noise using whatever we had in our pockets, and later to cough and clear our throats, as inevitably occurs between movements during a conventional classical music concert.

coughing

A video would be projected on the back wall during the performance – a potpourri of more or less random short clips (rain dripping from a rooftop, a turtle, a can rolling off a table, quotes on the nature of music, screensaver-like digital images) – which Kleve (below  top) informed us had not been timed to match the music, nor had it been viewed by any members of the ensemble other than Dave Alcorn (below bottom), who assembled it.

Sean Kleeve

Dave Alcorn Clocks in Motion

Our role as audience, then, was to experience. We had music to listen to, video to watch, spaces to participate (as well as permission to accept accidents – a phone ringing, dropping a program – as part of the concert), and an ensemble of visually engaging performers to observe.

The effect was totally immersive, hypnotic, and utterly enthralling. I have never experienced such a powerful performance, or been so completely engaged by the performers on stage.

Clocks in Motion (below, playing outside the UW-Madison’s George Mosse Humanities Building, and at bottom in  YouTube video where the group discusses its mission and goals) ) is a virtuosic ensemble, made up of incredibly talented and dedicated musicians (including multiple Collins Fellows). Their performances are unfailingly engaging, energetic, and executed with a precision befitting their excellent training and intense rehearsals.

(Clocks in Motion is running an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign for a new studio album, featuring two premieres; a link is below:)

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/clocks-in-motion-s-first-album

Not a piece on the program was dull, though there were highlights: Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape 1″ and “First Construction in Metal” were personal favorites, along with the Cowell opener.

Clocks in Motion outside

During “Imaginary Landscape 1,” I could not tell at one point whether the synthesized pitches were coming from in the room or inside my own head. Elsewhere, this would have been disconcerting; here, it simply allowed me to immerse myself in the landscape the performers were inviting me to imagine with them. I think John Cage would approve, both of the effect and of the superb performances of so much of his music.

I realize it is difficult to write authentically about music such as this without sounding trite or ridiculous, and that I may come across as such here. Discarding the accumulated pomp and circumstance with which we dress our music in the classical world does not come easily, at least when reading about it, and if indeed my assessment seems laughable, so be it. The risk of being laughed at is one worth taking for music like this.

For a young musician such as myself, performances like “Percussion is Revolution” are formative experiences – albeit few and far between.

For the veteran concertgoer, perhaps they are powerful enough to challenge the rituals of concert music, at least for an afternoon. If (when?) the program is offered again, it is not to be missed. Attend with an open mind, and be prepared to take part and to accept your experience as a kind of music not played at a symphony concert.

And if you laugh a little, you’re among friends.


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