The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra triumphs with all-American Copland and sexy Wagner, while Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” is a long-winded “Bolero.” Plus, the memorial concert for Ilona Kombrink memorial is set Oct. 20.

October 2, 2013

ALERT: In Memoriam: A University of Wisconsin-Madison Emeritus Professor of voice, soprano Ilona Kombrink (below) died on Friday, August 9, 2013 in Stoughton, Wisconsin, at the age of 80. A Memorial Concert and celebration of her life will be held on Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 3 p.m. in the Grand Hall at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, Madison. A reception will follow. No word on the program yet, but you can be sure that it will be memorable since it is being organized by Edgewood College voice teacher mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson, who was a student of Kombrink.

Ilona Kombrink color

By Jacob Stockinger

So, someone seated nearby asked, what did The Ear’s think of the season-opening concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below in a photo by Greg Anderson)?

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Here we it is.

By and large, I completely agree with the local critics (links are below) who raved about the MSO’s concert to mark the 20th anniversary season of MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad).

John W. Barker in Isthmus:

Greg Hettmansberger in Madison Magazine:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

But here are some other impressions I took away from the Sunday afternoon performance, which seemed well attended by an enthusiastic audience.

There can be no disagreement with the critical assessment of how professional the entire orchestra sounded and how masterly the conducting and interpreting by John DeMain proved.

Especially noteworthy was the enthralling and rapturous violin playing by concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson) as well as the new principal clarinet Joseph Morris (below bottom) and such veterans as trumpeter John Aley and oboist Marc Fink.

Naha Greenholtz playing CR Greg Anderson

Joseph Morris principal clarinet MSO

Still, I found the special all-orchestral program a bit clunky in practice if not design.

So here are the three main points I took away:


I am convinced that Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring, which opened the concert, is The Great American Symphony, just as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is The Great American Novel.  So fret no longer, American composers. The summit has been scaled. Just do what you want.

In its harmonies, rhythms, themes and use of folk elements and indigenous music like the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” (at bottom in a popular YouTube video that features photographs by another great American artist,  Ansel Adams), the dance score by Copland can’t be anything but American.

It is a gorgeous work and received a beautiful, even inspired reading from the America-born and America-trained DeMain and his players.

aaron copland


I came away confirmed in my opinion that Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod” or “Love Death” from “Tristan und Isolde” is the sexist music ever written. It reminds me of the legend that the ancient Greek prophet Tiresias was allowed by the gods to make love as both a man and a woman. Then, when asked who had the better deal and received more pleasure, he was unequivocal: Women.

Indeed, this music by Wagner (below) music shows the composer’s rich imagination and makes him seem like the soul and libido of a woman dressed as a man.

It also supported my long-held contention – which other are free to disagree with — that Wagner’s orchestral writing is superior, in most cases, to his vocal writing. I, at least, generally find his instrumental music more singing and songful than his singers.

Richard Wagner


Finally came Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” It is, all agree, a war-horse that every youngster has heard, one of the great “starter” pieces in the classical Romantic repertoire. It is a showcase that we all supposedly love by a master orchestrator and master colorist (below) who taught Igor Stravinsky. And it did bring the audience to a prolonged standing ovation.

But quasi-dissenter that I am, I have to file a minority report.

I found “Scherherazade” a bloated, repetitious and ultimately unsatisfying work. It is the Tolstoy novel of tone poems- the long-winded Russian equivalent of Ravel’s “Bolero” in its etude-like construction designed to showcase various sections of the orchestra.

The players and conductor did indeed shine and did so brilliantly. It certainly seemed a work that is more fun to conduct and perform than it is to listen to. True, the work did have memorable moments of drama and lyricism. But too often the 40 minutes of music — well, it is based on the 1,001 Nights — grew downright tedious. At least in live performance, I find the Ravel more exciting, catchy and fun, and also more easily instructive for sonic comparisons of different instruments and what they add to the score.

Oh, I found myself daydreaming, if only the first half of the MSO concert had been followed by a really great symphony by especially Brahms, or perhaps Beethoven, Dvorak or Tchaikovsky – something with substance as well as style. “Scheherazade” was sonically splashy, but compared to the Copland and Wagner it is superficial.


So there it is: What The Ear Heard at the MSO Opener.

What did you hear?

And what do you think of what The Ear heard? And how he heard it?

The Ears wants to hear.

Classical music: Does The Great American Symphony” exist – or even its equivalent in a different form or genre? American conductor JoAnn Falletta takes up the challenging question on NPR with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel. Also, the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival opens tonight with a concert by Piffaro and a lecture on “The Germanies of 1616.”

July 6, 2013

A REMINDER: The 14th Madison Early Music Festival, with the theme “Renaissance Germany,”  opens tonight with a performance by the Renaissance band Piffaro (below) at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. It will be preceded at 6:30 p.m. by a FREE lecture by frequent guest blog contributor John W. Barker on “The Germanies of 1616 and How They Got to Be That Way” in Room L-160 of the Elvehjem Building of the nearby Chazen Museum of Art. For more information, visit:


By Jacob Stockinger

Back when The Ear was an undergraduate, he had a philosophy professor who claimed in an aesthetics course that no one in the class that was full of ambitious artists and especially would-be writers should worry about writing The Great American Novel.

It had already been written.

The Great American Novel, he said, was “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (below):

f. scott fitzgerald writing

It’s a great choice, though others might disagree and name Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

Still, overall, I think the decades have proven him right – which is why Gatsby has been made into several movie versions, including an older one with the actor Robert Redford and a recent one by director Baz Luhrman, and John Harbison’s full-length opera (below, with Dawn Upshaw as Daisy and Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby). And maybe a TV drama based on the novel is yet to come.

John Harbison Great Gatsby

But even though that quite of question somehow seems impertinent or irrelevant, it can lead to some memorable discussions and exposure to new music.

So last week, when everyone was looking up American music to play on Independence Day or the fourth of July, the question of The Great American Symphony arose.

And it was discussed on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog by Tom Huizenga and also on “All Things Considered” by veteran host, the cultured, cultivated and witty Robert Siegel (below top) and American conductor JoAnn Falletta (below bottom), in a photo by Cheryl Gorski), who now leads three different orchestras as music director. (The three are the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland.) Falletta comes up with some interesting choices of American composers and works — some you have heard of and some you haven’t. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the beautiful slow movement from Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, which I had never heard either live or in a recorded performance.)

robert siegel in npr studio


It would be interesting to hear what some other American-born and American-trained maestros and champions of old and new American music – from Leonard Bernstein and Alan Gilbert of the New York Philharmonic to Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas (below) of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra said or have to say when they took on the same question.


Anyway, here are links to the NPR discussions. I recommend listening to the program and not just reading the transcript.

What do you think?

Do you have an orchestral work to nominate as The Great American Symphony or its equivalent?

The Ear wants to hear.

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