Madison's Concerts on the Square are a far cry from the small-town concerts at the village bandstand of a century ago. But they have become an institution, now in its 26th season.
What makes the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's performances on Capitol Square possible is, of course, a huge amplification system. Last year's memories may fail me, but based on Wednesday night's program, I think the system seems more tubby, boomy and bass-heavy than ever. Yet the very distortion of balances by selective microphone placement surprises me by revealing details I had never noticed in familiar scores. Underemphasizing the violins liberated a lot of things in the lower strings and the woodwinds, things usually hidden in normal "live" acoustics.
The launching of the 2009 season on June 24 provided further evidence of maestro Andrew Sewell's continuing upgrading of content. With one notable exception, the programs this year lean more than ever to explicitly classical content. (Could that process account for what seemed to me a much higher standard of good manners and respectful silence from the audience this time?)
There was one throwaway item, the waltz from the Rogers & Hammerstein musical Cinderella. Surely just a discarded song tune turned into bad movie music, it is utterly unworthy of what other composers have done with the waltz idiom and the Cinderella story.
Otherwise, things opened with Suppé's "Light Cavalry" overture, and renewed after intermission with the March from Bizet's "Jeux d'enfants" suite. Crisply played, those primed the audience for two substantial Russian works. The most familiar was Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Fantasy-Overture. Whether it was interpretation or just the amplification, Sewell seemed to apply less than usual sentimentalism to the "romantic" episodes and more than usual excitement to the dramatic ones. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra made a confident showing of an overplayed warhorse.
But the most enterprising and ambitious fare came before the intermission. Rachmaninov's "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini" is an extended bravura piece that is a pendant to his four rousing piano concertos. Whatever its requirements of the orchestra, it demands a virtuoso piano soloist. How wonderful, then, to have teenager Christina Naughton take it on. Given amplification, it was difficult to judge her nuances, and there was a certain brashness to her vigorous playing. But her already phenomenal technique brought the piece to real life. A prodigy to watch for, I think.
A Sousa march as an encore has apparently become an unavoidable cliché. But is the blasting of that trashy pop song the only possible epilogue for each concert?