The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Today is Labor Day. Opera San Jose brings classical music into the workplace – can we try that here? Plus, you can take a WQXR poll about what music is best to mark the holiday

September 4, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Labor Day (celebrated below by famed photographer Lewis Hine.).

The holiday probably won’t be celebrated in a big way by the blowhard billionaires and anti-union tycoons who run the government these days.

But workers can be and should be proud of what they do—despite the wealth gap, wage stagnation, unfair taxes, income inequality and a general lack of respect and support.

The Ear, however, has two offerings for the holiday.

The first is a story about how Opera San Jose is bringing classical music into the workplace of high technology companies like Adobe in Silicon Valley.

The opera company has started a program called “Arias in the Office” (below). And it sure sounds like a fine idea that other local groups – especially small chamber music groups – might try doing here in the Madison area.

Talk about taking music to the people if the people aren’t going to the music!

And let’s not forget that composing music, performing music and presenting music are all hard work too. So we should also celebrate the musicians, the administrative and box office staffs, the stagehands, the light and sound engineers,  the sets and costume people, and all the others who toil behind the scenes for our pleasure.

The story was reported by NPR (National Public Radio) and can be found on the radio station’s website and Deceptive Cadence blog:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/08/30/544164183/new-pop-up-series-treats-silicon-valley-workers-to-opera-at-the-office

The second is a listener poll, now three years old, done by the famed classical music radio station WQXR in New York City.

It is a survey of classical music that is appropriate for Labor Day and features three generous examples in YouTube videos — an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, a symphony by Franz Joseph Haydn and a film soundtrack by Virgil Thomson.

But it also has about two dozen other choices– including music by Handel, Schubert, Copland, Joan Tower, Robert Schumann, Gershwin, Shostakovich and others — for the public to select from, and a lot of comments from other respondents that you might want to check out.

Here is a link:

http://www.wqxr.org/story/poll-what-music-best-captures-spirit-labor-day/

Happy Labor Day!

And if you have another piece of music that you think is appropriate, let us know in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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