Pop or Classical? Why Choose?

In a musically rich area like the Valley, we should take pride in enjoying different styles of music

Johannes Strohschänk

Top: University Symphony Orchestra (UW-Eau Claire); Bottom: S. Carey (Luong Huynh)
Top: University Symphony Orchestra (UW-Eau Claire); Bottom: S. Carey (Luong Huynh)

There are times when nothing tastes better than a generous plate of spare ribs straight from the grill slathered in barbecue sauce, a cob of corn oozing with salted butter, and a heap of tangy coleslaw, accompanied by a pint of Lazy Monk’s Bohemian Lager. And then there are times when our mouth waters at the sight of thinly sliced, medium-rare duck breast in a red wine reduction, spring vegetables au gratin, and mushroom risotto, accompanied by a glass of French Burgundy Pinot Noir. This is how I feel about popular and classical music. One does not exclude the other. Yet, in the same way that my taste buds have to adjust between simple, wholesome, eminently satisfying food for the soul and the refined, complex, and sometimes challenging flavors of “haute cuisine,” our ears, after getting “attuned” to the chords, the beat, and the voices of U2, country, or Bon Iver, must re-adapt to the more delicate – but no less passionate – sounds of string or wind instruments, often straining our listening habits with unexpected harmonies, juxtaposed rhythms, and jumping tempos.

Is one kind of music better than the other? Heavens no! Both types have their place in our lives. There is, however, one small difference: While my ears have been hearing popular and folk music for as long as I can remember, classical music, in order to be fully appreciated, usually takes some time getting used to. As with everything else, the more you indulge in one kind of cultural expression, be it R&B or J.S.B(ach), the more sophisticated your understanding of it – and the richer your life – becomes.

Is one kind of music better than the other? Heavens no! Both types have their place in our lives. There is, however, one small difference: While my ears have been hearing popular and folk music for as long as I can remember, classical music, in order to be fully appreciated, usually takes some time getting used to.

Now, are you aware that there are quite a number of classical ensembles in Eau Claire, including the Chippewa Valley Youth Symphony Orchestra, the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra, the Eau Claire Quartet, and the Ukulele Klub (yes!), to mention just a few? Then there are the many choral ensembles, from the Master Singers to the Eau Claire Male Chorus to all the high school choirs, and should you have heard any of them lately, you would agree that these groups perform at an amazingly accomplished level. This is also true for all the classical performances (mostly free!) at the UW-Eau Claire Music Department, pretty much every week during the semester.

But let me introduce you to one more ensemble: The Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra, or ECCO. (What a wonderful acronym!) This community group boasts both players who have made music their profession and others for whom music and its performance might be referred to as a hobby, or, more accurately, a life’s passion. You may call them “amateurs” or “dilettantes” (referring to love or joy, respectively, and therefore in no way derogatory). While professional musicians have undergone rigorous, often grueling training in order to make a successful living as artists and teachers, amateurs underwent various levels of instruction, mostly during their childhood and youth, before joining music groups for which they are deemed qualified. The wonderful thing is that when it comes to making music together, the amateurs are inspired by their professional friends to give their very best, to measure up to them. The decisive factor, however, for achieving truly fine performances is continuous practice, whether you are a professional or an amateur.

When I was a kid of eight years, my father, who had dreamed of playing the cello but never was given the opportunity, decided to transfer this dream to his second child. (My older brother was started on the piano, since my mother was a concert pianist.) However, cellos being more expensive than half-size violins, he determined that I should learn to play the violin. I can’t tell you how much I hated my first lessons, extracting nothing but scratchy, squeaky laments from the poor instrument. It was years later that I learned how to make my sound slightly swing back and forth, or just a tad over and under the actual pitch – what’s called “vibrato,” just as an advanced singer’s voice tends to vibrate. Now, that was different. It actually sounded like music! This was the point when I didn’t have to be pushed any longer. (Thanks, Dad, though, for pushing me in the first place!) I developed ambition, and that most important of all driving forces: passion. So why didn’t I become a professional musician? Very simple: Violin wasn’t my only passion. But I have kept playing all my life, in orchestras and ensembles back in Germany, in France, and later the United States. When ECCO was established almost 20 years ago, I had the great privilege to be invited to play with an ensemble that would become a venerable fixture in our town. While, due to my other professional obligations, I occasionally have to skip one or the other concert, I am always thrilled to return to my customary chair behind the second violins’ principal.

Beginning next fall, ECCO will highlight its 21st season by officially moving to the Pablo Center at the Confluence where, on Sept. 29, it is scheduled for the first regular concert just one week after the center’s official opening! Until then, we will conclude the current season with our last concert on Saturday, April 21, at Grace Lutheran Church, 202 W. Grand Ave. Check us out at eccochambermusic.org, get your tickets, and relish the exciting surround sound of a dynamic, dramatic, and yes, passionate ensemble – an experience no recording can match!