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WCO: "Concerts on the Square"

Program June 27
Rossini: Thieving Magpie Overture
Respighi: Selections from Three Botticelli Pictures
Mendelssohn: Midsummer Night's Dream Wedding March
Grieg: Movements from Norwegian Dances, Op. 35
Mendelssohn: Midsummer Night's Dream Overture
Handel: Hornpipe from Water Music
Handel: Rejoicing from Royal Fireworks Music
Johann Strauss, Jr.: Voices of Spring Waltz
Grainger: Molly on the Shore

Program July 4
Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man
Copland: Lincoln Portrait
Carmen Dragon, arranger: Memories of America Medley
Ron Goodwin: 633 Squadron Main Title Theme
Calvin Custer, arranger: The American Frontier
Copland: Celebration from Billy the Kid
Peter Wilhousky, arranger: Battle Hymn of the Republic
Tchaikowsky: 1812 Overture

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra
D. Scott Glasser, narrator
Andrew Sewell, conductor


The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's first two "Concerts on the Square" of the season were massively well attended. As artistic events they presented the familiar problem of too much talking during the music but also -- for the first time in my memories of this 18-year summer festival tradition -- the singular triumph of the music commanding absolute quiet from the huge audience. My hat is off to music director Andrew Sewell in other regards as well.

The June 27th crowd was the largest I've seen, which led to some scrambling by the sound engineers to get adequate resources set up at the State Street quarter of the square during the first half of the program. Sewell delivered on his resolve to try out ways to get the partiers more involved in the music by offering first-rate works of Rossini, Respighi and Mendelssohn, with varying degrees of success. The performances were quite good, but not inherently forceful enough to silence the more recidivist blabbermouths. Exasperated with the dimbulb closest to me, I confess finally resorting to some fairly rude language.

For the July 4th concert, a fortunate invitation to share a table in the patronage area gave me my first chance to be close to the orchestra and actually able to see Sewell conduct. The country's birthday traditionally includes an unfettered outpouring of uniquely American patriotism, but mercifully Sewell postponed the playing of the National Anthem until after the first piece, Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, very movingly played and -- miracle of miracles -- listened to by easily 10,000 people. Better yet was still to come, after the anthem. D. Scott Glasser, artistic director of the Madison Rep, was the narrator for Copland's Lincoln Portrait, an evocation of the best aspects of Lincoln's simple, direct, heartfelt sense of America, with such gems as "We must disenthrall ourselves and thus we shall save our country," a message as potent today as it was 140 years ago.

"At long last," I thought, as I listened to what for me finally fulfilled the promise of these concerts: a musical performance and a dramatic presence that fully commanded the audience's complete attention; you could have heard a pin drop, almost. The Lincoln Portrait is a fairly difficult piece, both musically and dramatically. It requires extra focus and attention to detail on the part of the musicians, and if the narration is not scaled just so, the piece either falls flat or becomes an overly melodramatic, sentimental morass of platitudes. The only word for Glasser's delivery was "splendid," and not less so Sewell's and the WCO's playing.

The balance of the program was a bit heavy on Hollywoodized pop-music arrangements of folk materials, I thought. And I keep hoping that someday we will not have to endure Tchaikowsky's 1812 Overture yet again; there's certainly nothing American about either Russia or Napoleon. True, we're into artillery and bombs in a big way, but we better hope our military gets its blasts in the right place; these were not.

Isthmus, July, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson

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