Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra
David Crosby, conductor
It was a cold, windy Wednesday evening at the Capitol when the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's "Concerts on the Square" celebrated America's birthday last week. Joining several thousand other picnickers for the first time in the 12-year history of this downtown summer ritual, I took some out-of-town visitors, a friend from work and a great salad, plus a couple brewskis, and spread out our own blanket, wondering if tasty food and excellent company would possibly render the event more enjoyable than it has been in the past.
The musicians' playing was actually pretty good, and David Crosby led the band with just tempos and lively spirit. But the fare was something else. As usual, the sound system was far from adequate. Where we were, near the North Hamilton Street spoke, the speakers alternated between ear-splitting and dead; we saw technicians scurrying about, but they never banished the gremlins. As you might expect, when the music was loud, people simply shouted to their companions -- no sense letting art (which it wasn't) get in the way of sociability.
I have no quarrel with the pops concert concept, but there's more to American music than "If You Wanna Be a Badger" and other UW sentimentality or various movie-music arrangements by Richard Russell Bennett, the National Anthem, and "Stars and Stripes Forever." More interesting was a setting of "Yankee Doodle" by Morton Gould (a real composer, at least), in which the WCO displayed good ensemble and intonation.
The one nominally serious offering was Tchaikowsky's "1812 Overture" (not that American, but what the heck), replete with big booms from some fireworks folks; I'm not sure, but I think there were a number of misfires. But let's face it, this is one of the dullest, most prolix large-orchestra pieces ever written and even the cannons don't redeem it.
In all, the programming of these concerts is an insult to audience intelligence, as though funds could not reliably be raised and ordinary folks could not possibly comprehend music with a bit more substance to it. There are hundreds of good modern American composers, many of them women, whose works are highly accessible, and there's always the much-neglected Stephen Foster. The perennial appeal to the lowest common denominator has always tarnished these concerts, and it's way past the time for aiming a little higher.
Isthmus, July, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson