I recently attended performances by the JACK Quartet (Nov. 10, UW-School of Music) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (Nov. 21, Union Theater) that were, in my opinion, brilliantly programed and played. However, in both instances I found myself frustrated by the formalities of the concert’s presentation and the limitations of the respective venues. In the end, I left each concert satisfied, feeling like I had had encounters with greatness: these were technically exquisite performances executed with palpable excitement and passion. Still, I wondered if anyone else felt the same way, the people who weren’t music majors, who hadn’t performed or heard the pieces before, who don’t regularly attend classical concerts. There wasn’t anything exciting about these performances other than the music on stage, and is that enough? This is the sort of thing Greg Sandow writes about all the time and I’ve touched on before, but here’s another crack at it, starting with the JACK Quartet concert.The JACK Quartet is one of new music’s hottest ensembles. Coast to coast, critics are piling up adjectives like “explosive” and “mind-blowing” to describe the group’s adventurous programing and exacting technique. Their show in Madison was marked on my calendar well in advance, even though I could predict my biggest frustration the second I heard about it: new music in Madison is pretty much confined to the free series at the UW-School of Music, in dumpy Mills Hall, and the JACK Quartet, despite being known for taking their music to exciting new spaces, would be no exception. Adding insult to injury, the SOM does not market these events, so attendance is pretty much guaranteed to be lame. This is akin to watching pro surfers in a wave pool at the local Splish Splash on a cloudy day.
And so “Dig Deep” by Julia Wolfe, String Quartet No. 7 by Salvatore Sciarrino, String Quartet by Laura Schwendinger, professor of composition at the School of Music, and String Quartet No. 2, “Reigen Seliger Geister” by Helmut Lachenmann, became an academic exercise, the predictable culmination of a standard contemporary music residency at any American university.
Mind you, the JACK Quartet played the crap out of this stuff, and I liked that they incorporated the work of a Madison composer on the program (Professor Schwendinger is a neglected local treasure). My favorites were the ferocious “Dig Deep” by Wolfe and the Sciarrino, with it’s whale-like underwater calls, haunting in the extreme. There’s a reason these guys have seen more coverage in The New Yorker than the New York Philharmonic in the last year.
But here’s the problem: I’m not the one that needs to be sold. Despite my frustrations, in many cases, the music is enough for me. But what did this performance look and sound like to an outsider? There was no dialogue with the audience about some of the challenging elements of the work presented; no food or beverages were allowed in the auditorium; lighting was more appropriate for a lecture than a performance; and, despite the small crowd, there was no post-concert reception to break down some of the many barriers that had been erected in the previous ninety minutes.
The good and the bad news is that, to my eye, there weren’t many newbies in the audience to be turned off. The SOM should have capitalized on the group they were working with. Here was a free concert smack in the middle of 40,000 students, many of whom like to think they live in Brooklyn. With Madison’s thriving indie/experimental music and cultural scene and with the JACK’s credentials and style, there was an obvious opportunity for some cross genre cultivation here that was simply missed, again.
Things weren’t as clear cut with the Milwaukee Symphony concert, though my feelings were similar. But more on that later, this post got kinda long.