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.

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Classical music: Are arts audiences and presenters in Madison rude or inconsiderate? One loyal patron thinks so.

October 24, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Arts patron Larry Wells wrote to The Ear to get something off his chest that might also pertain to other audience members, including you. Here is what he said:

I moved to Madison a little over a year ago after spending the last 40 years in San Francisco, Moscow and Tokyo, all of which had vibrant offerings for symphonic music, ballet and opera as well as great performance venues.

I have been very pleased to find that Madison offers the same. I can think of four different symphony orchestras I’ve heard in Madison this past year as well as opera and ballet performances. (Below is Overture Hall.)

Overture Hall

The difference has been the audiences.

I do not believe I have been to a single performance this year where there hasn’t been someone who has decided to unwrap a cough drop. This usually happens during a quiet passage, and often the culprit realizes that he or she is making a noise, so decides that the solution is to unwrap the cellophane more slowly, thus lengthening my agony.

In San Francisco, someone at the symphony came up with the solution to supply cough drops with silent wrappers in bowls at each door to the hall. Problem solved.

cough drops

Another source of noise in the audience is whispering. Usually when someone starts speaking to his neighbor, annoyed audience members glare at the culprit, and then he starts to whisper. I assume that the underlying belief is that when you whisper, you cannot be heard. That is, of course, incorrect. You can still be heard, just not as clearly. In Japan, no one would dream of speaking during a performance.

Woman whispering in man's ear, close-up (B&W)

Woman whispering in man’s ear

I was at the ballet the other night at the Capitol Theater for which I had bought the priciest ticket in the center orchestra. There were five middle school girls seated directly behind me. Each had a plastic cup filled with a drink and crushed ice. Throughout the first act I kept hearing the ice being sloshed around in the plastic cups as every last drop of icy goodness was being extracted.

I asked an usher during the intermission about this, and she said that it was each ensemble’s choice as to whether drinks were allowed in the theater or not. For example, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does not allow drinks but the Madison Ballet does.

This is the first time I have heard of drinks being allowed into a ballet — they certainly weren’t allowed at the Bolshoi where they had very stern ushers, I can tell you — and I wonder if popcorn and hot dogs will be next. Perhaps it has to do with the prevailing current American fear of becoming dehydrated, although I think most people can endure 40 minutes without dessicating.

soda in a plastic cup

The Ear believes that I am a curmudgeon, and I halfway believe it myself. But when my enjoyment of a concert is jeopardized by inconsiderate audience behavior, then I believe I have a right to be miffed.

Curiously, I have not been to a single performance of anything this past year that hasn’t ended with a standing ovation. Now, I understand that the audience is just trying to be nice. But shouldn’t standing ovations be reserved for truly sensational once-in-a-lifetime experiences? Otherwise, the whole idea is cheapened, and Madisonians end up coming across as provincial.

BDDS standing ovation

I will end this diatribe with one more aspersion to be cast, but this time toward the ticket office at the Overture Center.

Last weekend, I was at the Madison Symphony Orchestra and had a spare ticket that I was trying to give away when I was yelled at by a box office clerk who said: “That’s illegal here!” Thinking that she thought I was trying to scalp a ticket to the symphony — probably not a major problem in Madison — I told her that I was merely trying to give the ticket away. She repeated, “That’s illegal here.”

I was very embarrassed. I seriously doubt that there is a city ordinance against giving away concert tickets, and if I want to give away a $75 ticket as a good deed, I think that should be my prerogative.

MSO ticket

With declining attendance at arts events, I feel that the Overture Center should have its patrons’ good will in mind instead of demonizing them for doing a good deed.


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