In the course of its 11 years, the "Concerts on the Square" series has become a solid fixture of Madison summers. Artistically, it takes the low- to middlebrow road, as conductor David Crosby and members of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra rattle through show tunes from Gilbert and Sullivan or Broadway, marches, and the occasional bit of not very serious classical music. I attended the last concert in July, knowing pretty much what to expect but looking for the brighter facets.
The best music that night was The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss and a couple of marches by John Phillip Sousa. At the other end of the scale, Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. The composer himself, the announcer shared with us, said he couldn't stand "In the Hall of Mountain King," which concludes this suite. Grieg was right; it's dreadful music. But of course that doesn't mean we don't have to hear it, cough syrup for the ears, so to speak. One more thing, before we leave the downside of the critical balance: the sound system is really pathetic. Piercing squeals from feedback, open mics with no windshields producing roars loud enough to rival a subway train, and an overall nasty sound quality. Anyone close to the loudspeakers would probably need the cough syrup.
Still, the series is obviously popular and there are enough things to enjoy when the music is less than riveting. People come from far and wide, from all over Dane County, as County Board chair Rick Phelps observed in his opening remarks. The Capitol Park is packed solid from East Washington Ave. to Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and beyond, full of picnickers young and old, including lots of young kids, with food and drink vendors in Main and Pinckney streets and more listeners sitting wherever they can along both sides of the street.
On this particular night, which was mercifully cool, a good breeze wafted huge, billowy clouds, heaped up as though this were England, across the isthmus, delightfully edged by the sunset's bright glow. During the intermission, the clouds gave up a very light rain, enough to force a delay of well over half an hour in the program. We're a little ahead on rainfall this year, and one result is how green everything is. As usual, the Capitol groundskeepers have the lawn in perfect shape and the flowers are glorious. Symbolizing to me the fun aspect of the whole thing, during the Strauss waltz an absolutely adorable little girl, eight or nine years old, was elegantly turning and dancing in perfect time with the graceful music.
Not everyone stays still for the whole event. Some of them, like me, sit a spell, listening alternately to the music and to nearby conversations, then mill about, gawking at the crowd, the setting, or whatever chance brings past us. By the end of the program, I was standing near the North Hamilton Street portico, above which is engraved Sapientia (knowledge), looking out over Lake Mendota at the darkening skies. It seemed an appropriate setting for Sousa's excellent Hands Across the Sea march, a really good piece that I hadn't known before. I would have been quite content with this new knowledge, but it was I suppose inevitable that the evening would end with On Wisconsin. And there you have it: a Madison event, a Dane County crowd, and a Wisconsin standard.
Isthmus, July, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson