The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opened its tenth season of "Concerts on the Square" a day late, owing to the threat of rain. After some years of avoiding it, I strolled around the never-greener grounds of the stately old Capitol that week and the next, enjoying the pre-show pomp and prattle, then settled down on a convenient bench to listen to the music and the speeches.
Looking back on a whole decade of these extravaganzas, one has to wonder as much about the audience as about the music. The music has gone considerably downhill in artistic quality, the programs now consisting of a formulaic incantation of Sousa marches, show tunes, "Happy Birthday" (under the puffed-up moniker "Anniversary Salute"), one or two short works from the standard symphonic repertory, a piece or two by composer-conductor David Crosby, a guest speaker or two at the front, the sometimes droll announcements of Public Radio's Norman Gilleland during, and Crosby's appeal for money in the middle.
Now that the orchestra no longer gets State aid, they need the funds raised by the summer concerts more than ever. So they're trying to survive, which one has to respect. But other cities have outdoor summer music, and compared to the Boston Pops concerts on the Esplanade and to Ravinia near Chicago, ours are far below what they could be. The sound system is dreadful, especially so on the second occasion, when some low-pitched but very loud roar could be heard nearly throughout. What the vast majority actually hear at these events is substandard loudspeaker sound and the endless chatter of the audience, who merely raise their voices when the music threatens to intrude on the conversation. Evidently the music fails to command their complete attention.
Before the mid-concert break, Crosby talked about listener-supported music in terms of "maintaining the quality." Well, what quality is it that's being maintained? Not the programming, which has always been conventional. Not the sound, which approximates a cheap radio. Not the playing, which is blessed by very few crests on an otherwise flat sea, one brief lyrical passge in a Strauss waltz, a sudden crispness in an overture by Beethoven.
So where is the quality? It must be the setting, the truly magnificent grounds of that fine old building, the blankets spread, the wines and sparkling waters drunk, the pizza slices and elegant box lunches eaten, the people young and old enjoying themselves outdoors. Clearly, just being there is the thing. We have to face squarely that the "Concerts on the Square" are for the thousands who go, plus thousands more who listen to the live broadcasts, and this huge audience is getting what they pay for. In all, it's quite a lot less than it could be, less than it should be.
Madison is quite capable of being a classy city. Decent sound systems are readily available. The orchestra could easily raise the standards of both its programming and its playing. Given such a wonderful setting and such a large audience, the "Concerts on the Square" could make being there a real treasure, a cultural asset the community could be proud of. It would cost a lot, of course, but the town has the money, and if people were willing to pay what it's worth, they'd probably talk less and listen more. With luck, the second decade could pale the first into the oblivion it probably deserves.
Isthmus, July, 1993
Copyright 1993 Jess Anderson