The Well-Tempered Ear

Too bad the Wisconsin Union Theater didn’t book a great pianist for next season

May 21, 2022

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By Jacob Stockinger

“We are living in a Golden Age of pianists,”  famed concert pianist, Juilliard teacher and frequent Madison performer Emanuel Ax (below) has said.

He should know. But you would never guess that from the recently announced next season at the Wisconsin Union Theater (below).

The WUT has not booked a solo pianist for the 2022-23 season.

Here is a link to the lineup for the next season:

Is The Ear the only one who has noticed and is disappointed?

Who else feels bad about it?

After all, this is the same presenting organization that brought to Madison such legendary pianists as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ignaz Jan Paderewski, Percy Grainger, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Dame Myra Hess, Guiomar Novaes, Egon Petri, Robert Casadesus, William Kapell, Claudio Arrau, Alexander Brailowsky, Gary Graffman, Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Byron Janis, Misha Dichter, Peter Serkin, André Watts, Lili Kraus and Garrick Ohlsson

It is the same hall (below) in which The Ear has heard Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Angela Hewitt, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Valentina Lisitsa, Andras Schiff, Joyce Yang, Yefim Bronfman, Jeremy Denk, Ingrid Fliter, Richard Goode, Leon Fleisher, Simone Dinnerstein, Wu Han and so many other great and memorable names including, of course, Emanuel Ax.

What a history!

As you can see and as The Ear likes to say, the Wisconsin Union Theater is “The Carnegie Hall of Madison.” For over 100 years, it is where the great ones play.

One irony is that many of those former bookings of pianists took place when the University of Wisconsin School of Music had many more pianists on the faculty and provided a major alternative venue for piano recitals.

Another irony is that so many young people take piano lessons (below) and are apt to want to attend, probably with their parents, to hear a live professional concert piano recital. You would think the WUT would also see the advantages of having such community outreach links to the public and to music education, especially since the WUT has hosted Open Piano Day for the public. (See the YouTube video of a Channel 3000 story in February 2020 at the bottom.)

From what The Ear reads, there are lots of up-and-coming pianists, many affordable names of various winners of national and international competitions. They should be affordable as well as worthy of being introduced to the Madison public.

But that seems a mission now largely left to the Salon Piano Series.

Plus, so many of the new pianists are young Asians who have never appeared here, which should be another draw for the socially responsible and diversity-minded WUT.

But that is another story for another day.

What do you think of the WUT not presenting a solo pianist next season?

Maybe there will be a pianist booked for the 2023-24 season.

What pianists would you like see booked by the WUT student programming committee?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is Super Bowl Sunday, so The Ear asks: Who are the winners and champions in the concert hall? Here are the most popular pieces, composers and soloists. Plus, on Tuesday night, violist Elias Goldstein returns to perform Paganini’s fiendish Caprices in a FREE recital

February 7, 2016
1 Comment

ALERT: The Ear has received the following note from University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music viola professor Sally Chisholm, who also plays with the Pro Arte Quartet: “Elias Goldstein, who has a doctorate from UW-Madison (2011) and was a Collins Fellow, is playing a concert of all 24 Caprices, originally composed for solo violin by Niccolo Paganini, on VIOLA this Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall. Admission is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

“On March 9, he will perform this program at Carnegie Hall in New York City, as the first violist ever to perform all 24 Caprices in one concert. This is such a feat that it is difficult to believe one of our own is accomplishing it. I was with him in Krakow, Poland when he performed 6 of them. He got standing ovations. He is professor of viola at Louisiana State University, won top prizes at the Primrose International Viola Competition and the Yuri Bashmet Viola Competition in Moscow in 2011.”

Elias Goldstein big

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the 50th Super Bowl of the NFL, and will be played by the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos in the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, near San Francisco.

It starts at 5:30 p.m. CST.

Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem. Coldplay, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars will perform in the half-time show. The Super Bowl will be broadcast live on CBS-TV.

super bowl 50 logo

So, one might ask in a society that loves competition, what constitutes The Super Bowl of classical music?

It is a source of endless discussion and often disagreement.

What classical music is the most mainstream, if not best?

Who are the big winners and champions in the concert hall?

A survey, compiled by a student at the UW-Milwaukee, of the most popular or frequently performed composers, works and soloists was recently conducted by the League of American Orchestras. The rest are for the 2010-11 season.

The No. 1 work is a YouTube video at the bottom. It is the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor by Johannes Brahms and is performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its late music director and conductor Sir George Solti.

And on March 11, 12 and 13 the Madison Symphony Orchestra hosts TWO of the Top 10 winners: Pianist Emanuel Ax performing the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven. (The Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler completes the program.)

Emanuel Ax Philharmonia

Here is a link to the complete results along with the method used to gather data:

See what you think and leave a COMMENT.

Do they match up with your preferences and your choices of favorites?

In your opinion, what makes them so popular?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Pianists Peter Serkin and Julia Hsu will play works for piano-four hands by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms this Saturday night at Farley’s House of Pianos.

March 31, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Our friends at Farley’s House of Pianos write to the blog with news of a noteworthy piano concert this Saturday night:

Renowned American pianist Peter Serkin (below top) and Julia Hsu (below bottom) will perform piano, four-hand pieces by Schumann, Bizet, Mozart and more, as part of the Salon Piano Series concerts held at Farley’s House of Pianos at 6522 Seybold Road on Madison’s far west side near West Towne.

Peter Serkin

Julia Hsu

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday night, April 4 and will include an introduction by Karlos Moser (below), a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of music and former longtime director of the University Opera at the UW-Madison School of Music.

Karlos Moser

The program includes: Six Etudes in the Form of Canons for Pedal-Piano, Op. 56, by Robert Schumann; Three Pieces from “Jeux d’Enfants” (Children’s Games) by Georges Bizet; the Sonata in B flat Major, K. 358, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Allegro ma non troppo in A minor (the dramatic and lyrical “Lebenssturme” or “Lifestorms” that you can hear in a live performance in a YouTube video at the bottom), D.947, and the Rondo in A Major, D.951, by Franz Schubert; and Four Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms.

Tickets are $45 and are expected to sell quickly. They are available online at and or at Farley’s House of Pianos, (608) 271-2626.

For more information about the Salon Piano Series, visit:

The distinguished American pianist Peter Serkin has performed with the world’s major symphony orchestras with such conductors as Seiji Ozawa, Daniel Barenboim, George Szell, Claudio Abbado, Eugene Ormandy and James Levine. A dedicated chamber musician, Serkin has collaborated with artists including violinist Pamela Frank and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

An avid exponent of the music of many contemporary composers, Serkin has brought to life the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Michael Wolpe, and others for audiences around the world. He has performed many world premieres written specifically for him, in particular, works by Toru Takemitsu, Oliver Knussen and Peter Lieberson. Serkin currently teaches at Bard College Conservatory of Music and the Longy School of Music. Serkin became friends with the Farleys in 1994 when he was in town for a concert and visited the Farley’s showroom (below).

Farley Daub plays

Originally from Taiwan, Julia Hsu received scholarships to study at The Purcell School for young musicians at the age of 14. She has also studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at the Hannover Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Germany. Julia has collaborated with conductors Fabio Panisello, Lutz Koeler and cellist Ivan Moniguetti. She was a Festival Fellow at Bowdoin Music Festival, and a scholar at the Banff Centre, Canada before she became a Piano Fellow at Bard College Conservatory of Music in 2013.

The Salon Piano Series is a non-profit founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.

Upcoming concerts include the internationally acclaimed Czech pianist Martin Kasík (below top), who will play the “Moonlight” and “Les Adieux” Sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven and Sonata No. 3 by Sergei Prokofiev, on Saturday, April 18, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. Jazz pianist Dick Hyman (below bottom) will perform on May 30 and 31, 2015, at 4 p.m. both days.

Martin Kasik w piano

dick hyman

For ticket information and concert details see

All events will be held at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, Madison, on Madison’s west side near the Beltline, and plenty of free parking is available. It is also easy to reach by bicycle or Madison Metro.

Classical music: Why can’t I like the piano playing of J.S. Bach by Simone Dinnerstein? Plus the UW and Sun Prairie High School Wind Ensembles team up tonight for a FREE concert of music by Grammy-winning composer Michael Daugherty.

November 30, 2012

ALERT: At 8 p.m. tonight in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble with the Wind Ensemble from Sun Prairie High School, and conductors Scott Teeple of the UW and Steve Sveum of Sun Prairie High School, will perform a FREE concert featuring several compositions by Grammy-winning composer Michael Daugherty (below), composer-in-residence, who will be attending the concert. A free pre-concert discussion will be held at 7:15 . The program features “Motown Metal” by Daugherty (Madison Premiere); “Bells for Stokowski” by Michael Daugherty (Madison Premiere); the combined UW Wind Ensemble and Sun Prairie High School Wind Ensemble in “Country Gardens” by Percy Grainger/Rogers; “Blithe Bells” by Percy Grainger; and the Sun Prairie High School performance in “On the Air” by Michael Daugherty (Madison premiere).

By Jacob Stockinger

Then there is pianist Simone Dinnerstein (below) – pronounced “Simona Dinnersteen.”

I really want to like her playing.

Mostly because I really like her story.

She beat the odds and she beat the system.

I like that Dinnerstein attended Juilliard, where she studied with Peter Serkin; that she graduated, start teaching piano lessons privately while she began her family; and that she herself then established her own busy international career in these days when most soloists need to win a competitions or generate controversy to get a big name agent and big money contracts.

Dinnerstein did it by financing a her own recording of J.S. Bach’s monumental “Goldberg” Variations. It was received well by critics – though not by me — and sold well. So she got a regular contract, first with Telarc and now with Sony Classical. Her datebook of tour bookings is now filled years in advance.

She became an in-demand star with a following far and wide.

We have already heard her twice in Madison, once in a solo recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, when she played Bach, Schubert and Phillip Lasser; then with the Madison Symphony Orchestra when she played Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto. Both appearances disappointed me overall, thought hey had some high points.

But Dinnerstein sure sells a lot of recordings and plays a lot of concerts. She is a certified phenomenon.

So what is wrong? Is it me? Or is it her?

Here is a link to a fine profile with lots of background on Simone Dinnerstein:

It’s just her playing, not her, I can’t stand.

And I have tried.

But it is just too ponderous, too self-indulgent for my taste. I am especially turned off by her Bach, which is supposed to be her specialty.

The very qualities I don’t like were well perceived by the New York Times reviewer Vivien Schweitzer, who heard phrases extended to the breaking point with self-consciously expressive mannerisms and senselessly slow tempi. Look at her take on Dinnerstein, which is the second review in the group:

Decide for yourself. Here is a link to recent live performance in an NPR studio (below).

The NPR mini-concert features Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, which is also included on her latest CD:

See if you can make it all the way through the performance of “Bach Between the Notes.” The Ear, who would just prefer better notes without so much in-betweenness, could not.

What do you think of Simone Dinnerstein and her Bach?

Leave a COMMENT.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music news: Is this “au revoir” or “adieu” for classical music at the Wisconsin Union Theater, The Ear asks after pianist Peter Serkin performs Beethoven and new music to bring down to the curtain?

May 11, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night’s piano recital by Peter Serkin (below) at the Wisconsin Union Theater was certainly timely.

It was a perfect event for bringing down the curtain for the next two seasons at the Union Theater as the Memorial Union undergoes a major renovation in time to reopen for the theater’s 75th anniversary season in September of 2014.

The question is: Does this mean “au revoir” or “adieu” – that is, “until next time” or “farewell” – to classical music at the Wisconsin Union Theater after 73 seasons?

(NOTE: A Curtain Down Party and Open House will be held — free and open to the public — from 2 to 6 p.m. this Saturday. For details, see

I speak as someone who sincerely hopes the answer is “Au revoir.” After all, I have often referred to the Wisconsin Union Theater as “The Carnegie Hall of Madison.” It is where The Great Ones have played – and continue to play — as you will see shortly in my review of Peter Serkin’s Beethoven, which was done on the same legendary stage where I heard his famous father Rudolf Serkin (below) also perform Beethoven 40 years ago. Now that is tradition and legacy! History and longevity!

But I also know that classical music has been a tough sell for the past several seasons at the Wisconsin Union Theater. The audiences are dwindling, due, I am sure, to competing events, to tough economic times and to shifting priorities in how young people – or older people, for that matter – choose to spend their discretionary money and leisure time.

While the jazz festival and world music series continue to draw large crowds or even sold-out houses, the classical concerts usually sell under half a house.

How long, one has to ask, can that go on?

True, next season, the Union Theater’s four classical concerts will largely take place in Mills Hall, the same hall in the UW School of Music where pianist Jeffrey Siegel (who will mark his 25th anniversary performing “Keyboard Conversations” in Madison) and the UW faculty and the school’s guest artists now perform. It has about 750 seats compared to the Union Theater’s 1,200 seats.

In addition, the classical series is holding down ticket prices and is trying out scheduling mini-concerts at non-traditional times in non-traditional venues — at lunchtime at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, for example — to generate interest and audience.

Plus, there is clearly a decision to mix in some of the appeal of world music by booking groups like the Grammy-winning Imani Winds (below, below in a photo by Jeff Fisano) and The Knights chamber orchestra (below middle) with the pippa player Wu Man (below bottom) in a Silk Road Ensemble-type event .

More traditional classical bookings include cellist Joshua Roman (below top, in a photo by Tina Su), who will do a solo recital and also play a concerto with the UW Symphony Orchestra; and up-and-coming pianist Jeremy Denk (below bottom), who first appeared there as an accompanist for violinist Joshua Bell and last season played a fabulous and monumental recital of J.S. Bach and Ives and who offered a master class and blogging workshop as well as a lecture on Chopin at the UW School of Music.

For details, visit:

You have to believe that cultural arts director Ralph Russo (below, in a photo by Jeff Miller of UW-Madison) and the student directors whom he works with are doing their very best to make the classical concert series succeed. But I already have heard several veteran subscribers who say they will pass on subscription tickets next season and wait to see what else is happening that week or day.

That doesn’t bode well –- though I could be, and hope that I am, wrong.

Time will tell, as they say. Maybe larger new audiences will indeed replace lost audiences. Something has to happen, that is for sure.

Whatever it takes for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s classical series to succeed and become popular again, I hope that is what happens. But I do fear for the worst – which is that it will continue to wind down to the point of disappearing. That would be a shame. We just can’t let that happen.

AS FOR PETER SERKIN (below): It was a memorable concert that featured Serkin’s specialties.

The first half was devoted to contemporary music by British composer Oliver Knussen, Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu and American composer Charles Wourinen.

Of them all, I preferred the “Adagio” by Wuorinen (below), which had a great sense of spaciousness and placidness while so much contemporary music seems abusively aggressive.

But I also have to confess that largely atonal new music is not my thing and that I find the music just can’t get traction, as they say, on my being.

I think I need more melody or tunes in the music, more obvious sense-making or structure and emotional directness with less cerebral puzzle-solving, for new music to reach me and seem like something other than R&D – or research and development. I seek emotional resonance.

I think you could play a sampling from any one of the pieces and almost no one could tell you which composer or which piece it was.

I also think it says something that even someone as experienced with those works as Peter Serkin – who commissioned the Wuorinen and Knussen and continues to champion them in performance – had to use scores to play them. On the other hand, the hour-long, late-life magnum opus “Diabelli” Variations by Beethoven (below) proved no challenge technically, musically or memory-wise. For players or listener, the Diabellis stick, so to speak, while the other works do not.

Playing without a score, Serkin turned it a fabulous interpretation that treated each of the 33 virtuosic and encyclopedic variations on an insipid  simple waltz by Beethoven’s publisher Anton Diabelli (below) as a discreet composition unto itself.

Even for someone like me – who finds any number of Beethoven’s piano sonatas to be much more rewarding music than these often pedantic as well as inspired variations – found many memorable moments, like the subtle fugue, where the music and the performer (who has recorded the Diabellis twice) all came together. 

But it is the kind of program where opinion can vary widely. So here are some others.

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and its blog Classically Speaking:

And here is a review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal by Lindsay Christians:

What did you think of Peter Serkin’s recital?

And what do you think about the future of the Wisconsin Union Theater and about its next season?

Classical music Q&A: Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations are modernistic like new music by Toru Takemitsu, Charles Wuorinen and Oliver Knussen, says pianist Peter Serkin, who will perform all four composers this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

May 3, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Few pianists have such a long history of playing both revered classics and untested new music as Peter Serkin, who has won major awards for both.

This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., Serkin (below) will return to the Wisconsin Union Theater with exactly the kind of mixed old-new program that has become his signature.

The first half of his recital features three modern or contemporary works by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, the American composer Charles Wuorinen and the British composer Oliver Knussen – the last two were written for him – and the second half features Beethoven’s epic “Diabelli” Variations.

Having taught at Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute, Serkin, who lives in Massachusetts near the Berkshire Mountains, now teaches  at Bard College in addition to playing 50 to 60 concerts a year. He says he loves teaching because of the interaction. Learning from students, he adds, is like learning from rehearsals.

Serkin also says he drawn to out-of-the-way repertoire and rarities. These days he is working on solo piano pieces by Bizet and Carl Nielsen.

Tickets for his Madison recital cost $10-$42 and can be purchased through Campus Arts Ticketing by phone at (608) 265-ARTS or in person at the Union Theater Box Office or the Vilas Hall Box Office and online at:

For more information plus videos, visit:

Just back from concert tours to Scotland and Vienna, Serkin spoke to The Ear about the works on his upcoming recital, his approach to new music and to Beethoven, and his philosophy of programming:

Do you have new recording projects in the works?

Not really. I enjoy the recording process a lot, so I do home recordings. But they’re not for sale. These days I’m playing on a piano synthesizer and a clavichord.

You have performed in Madison several times. Do you have a reaction to the city and its audiences?

I always find it a very responsive audience, very musically informed to begin with. It is also very open to new things. There is a curiosity there about unusual music.

You have been a lifelong champion of new music. Why on this program do you mix new music with old music, especially such an iconic masterpiece as Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations?

For me, it’s somewhat natural to be up on and interested in the music of our own time. For me, new music isn’t exclusive of older music, although I tend to avoid the enshrined classics.

Some older music is very modernistic. That is the case with the “Diabelli” Variations by Beethoven (below). I included them because they are challenging and outrageous in a way. The work by Beethoven had and still has the intensity and adventurousness of new music. You need to impart some sense and coherence to it. Something that can be that daunting can be very exciting and appealing.

Is there some special approach or perspective you have on the Beethoven?

With the Beethoven, I try to come to it as something new. I have no particular take on it. I just jump in and meet the unexpected. I have played it for many years, but it always a new and fresh experience. I try to stay in touch with the outrageous aspects. Beethoven had distinct compositional ideas that were outlandish for then and are still outlandish.

There is an immensity to the Beethoven. One has a sense of the whole piece all at once, but at the same time there is a sense of jumping into the theme and variations and taking them one step at a time. There is a whole world for each one.

How do the “Diabelli” Variations compare to other works by Beethoven?

It is one of my favorite Beethoven pieces, but then there are so many. Of course, we venerate the piece because it is a remarkable achievement. But there is a fun-loving and mischievous quality that runs throughout it. It has humor and depth too, but it isn’t all deadly serious. There is a sense of lightness and possibilities, things you just can’t do but he does. That sense of playfulness really appeals to me.

How do people response to the new music you play?

There are no guarantees about how people will respond. It takes openness and good will. You have to allow for the possibility of relating to it.

Can you briefly walk us through the new music you will play from your point of view?

Oliver Knussen’s Variations, Op. 24 (1989): I have commissioned a piece of piano and orchestra from him. This is the 60th birthday year for Knussen (below). I also love to play his solo pieces, and these variations were written for me. They are very concise. He studied the “Diabelli” Variations when he was composing his own.

Charles Wuorinen’s “Adagio”: This was also written for me. It is a follow-up to a wild and energetic scherzo he wrote for me. This piece has a stillness and spaciousness to it. It lasts about 14 minutes. He is going to write a third piece for me, and then I can play them all as a suite or play sections individually.

Toru Takemitsu’s “For away”: This was written in the 1970s for Roger Woodward. But he also wrote many pieces for me. I have a real connection to Takemitsu (below) and his music. He was a great friend, and I love to play much of his music – orchestral, chamber music and solo works. It’s gratifying to keep coming back to such good music. It is it compelling and evocative.

Do you think there is more acceptance of new music today?

I’ve noticed that with many of the new composers I play that there is more acceptance. When I was young (below, Peter Serkin in 1976), Arnold Schoenberg had just died. His music was considered a forbidden difficulty. The same thing happened with the music of Messiaen, whom I have played a lot of. People didn’t know how to deal with it. Now music like that gets much more support. It is interesting to see the change.

Take Takemitsu. Only recently has he been declared a national treasure in Japan. Familiarity comes as one gets to know them. It is hard to say, but in some ways they will become standards. Now we are hearing a lot more of their music and it is performed well.

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