Over many years serving as the Isthmus potentate of classical music commentary, I've had far too many occasions to make negative criticisms of the performance standards of Madison's orchestras, opera companies, and chamber-music groups. Leading the list of common flaws is intonation, the music-technical term for playing in tune. People have written letters of complaint to my editor or directly to me, one even suggesting I have a neurotic fixation on this issue. Friends have made the well-meaning suggestion that I let up on the point. I'd like to, there being so many other exciting things to write about in the limited space available for most articles. At the risk of sticking my neck out pretty far, I'll tell you why I won't let up on the intonation point, the ensemble (playing really together) point, and assorted other music-critical issues.
If concert reviews are to have any credibility, they must evince a standard that is informed, passionate, and sincere. The reason I cannot in good conscience forego such criticisms is that the excuses offered by these critics are basically insulting to the musical taste and intelligence of the audience here. Can there be any valid reason why Madison and the surrounding area should not demand the same high standard of its musicians that audiences in Berlin, Chicago, London, and Milwaukee have come to expect of their orchestras and operas? Are we that much less a place, culturally, that we have no hope of ever hearing a violin section play the actual notes from the score, not just a spread of pitches nearby? Should we just gloss that over, boys will be boys and girls will be girls, and besides the violin is darn hard to play in tune? Be serious: not if you actually love the music.
Well, you might reasonably object, we have to make do with what we have, and besides, hiring really good musicians costs big bucks. It does cost, no doubt about it. Berlin pays. Milwaukee pays. They have it. We don't; we're making do, and none too well. I believe those who say otherwise are making pretty feeble excuses, amounting to denial at best and being self-serving at worst. Madison prides itself, perhaps over-much, on being an enlightened place, the seat of State government, the home of a world-class university, the most liberal of liberal places. I would much rather such clichés, used by the movers and shakers to congratulate one another and to obscure the mediocrity they're helping to perpetuate, were replaced by a well thought-out program of attaining and maintaining real excellence, backed by the resources to make it work.
I have no solid proof, though I'm confident no one has any to the contrary, but I am quite sure these problems persist because our social and cultural leaders are not actually leading; rather, they are making do with illusions, refusing to believe that given the chance, area communities would support real world-class musical standards for our operas and orchestras.
Isthmus, June, 1993
Copyright 1993 Jess Anderson