A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jun 26, 2014
09:34 AM
Classically Speaking

Concerts on the Square: What You Hear Is What You Get

Concerts on the Square: What You Hear Is What You Get

PHOTO COURTESY OF WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

From the grass, Concerts on the Square feels like a picnic, with some lovely background music that intermittently catches one’s ear.

I heard the best background music in Madison Wednesday night. I went to the opening of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s thirty-first season of Concerts on the Square—and for the first time, sat on the grass.

I probably learned more about the wine preferences of the folks in my general area than I did about any musical enlightenment.

Now lest you assume that I’m about to issue a blanket indictment (besides, some patrons sit on beach towels), allow me to give you the full context. In the last three summers of soaking in the special pleasures of Andrew Sewell and company, I’ve always brought my trusty foldable camping chair and plopped it down on the pavement (conveniently near the ice cream vendor, of course). But when I took “old faithful” out of its carrying bag this time, I discovered it had sustained a compound fracture (it must have snuck out of the storage area this winter and had a skiing accident that was hushed up).

It had always seemed to me that the lawn area in front of the Capitol was nearly solid blankets well before concert time at 7 p.m. But I spied a couple of slender grassy spots, hustled back to my car and retrieved a well-worn but serviceable towel large enough to sit on.

But when the proceedings began, everyone within sight—and earshot—ignored or were unaware of the nearby sign that reminded everyone of the rules of Concerts on the Square, including “Please refrain from talking during the music.” I had always assumed that those lawn denizens, most of whom stake out their claim shortly after 3 p.m. (which the rules allow, of course), were the “serious” listeners at COS. I’ll grant you this: They are the serious picnic participants. It reminded me of my years in the Los Angeles area, and the Olympian competition among those who sat at the tables nearest the acoustic shell at the Hollywood Bowl…and it also occurred to me that one of the reasons the Bowl audience gets quiet is that essentially everyone is facing the orchestra; in other words, it feels like an outdoor concert. From the grass, COS feels like a picnic, with some lovely background music that intermittently catches one’s ear.

I had also assumed over the years that it would be easier to understand Maestro Sewell, or Norman Gilliland or the evening’s sponsor when they spoke, but the amplification is still of only minor help—I think that’s just a function of the general acoustic.

Thus, I can say nothing useful about the typically intriguing program of Balakirev, Bruch and the Swedish composers Soderman and Alfven. And I will take it on faith that this year’s wunderkind competition winner soloist, Isabella Wu, has all the requisite gifts that we’ve come to expect from high school sophomores who have been playing the piano since they were five years old. She was right on in a recent online interview that her choice of repertory, the Piano Concerto No. 1 of Rachmaninoff, deserves more hearings than it gets in the shadow of the Russian master’s next two concertos (and Madison Symphony audiences will get to hear it this fall).

But some things don’t change: Leftover chicken and strawberries with honey do taste better when I’m hearing the WCO perform outdoors, and there are few better ways to celebrate summer in Madison. In the next week I’ll be sure to check my stock of portable chairs, and celebrate July 4th a little early—from my confirmed favorite spot on Main Street. See you in the ice cream line.

For more information on this season's Concerts on the Square lineup, click here

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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