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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 8.0° F  Fair
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Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra tells magical tales at Concerts on the Square's 2013 kickoff
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This was a perfect example of a substantive "pops" concert.
This was a perfect example of a substantive "pops" concert.
Credit:Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

Despite the recent storms, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's first Concerts on the Square event of 2013 came off beautifully. We could not have had more lovely twilight sun or more comfortable temperatures on Wednesday.

Likewise beneficent was the program, built around a theme of fairy tales and fables. Leading off was the famous waltz from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet, followed by six movements from Ottorino Respighi’s arrangement of Rossini tidbits in the ballet score La Boutique fantasque (The Magic Toy Shop).

As always in the season’s first concert, music director Andrew Sewell presented a Young Artist Concerto Competition winner. This year the winner was David Cao, who played the first movement of Felix Mendelssohn's beloved Violin Concerto. While the aural conditions made it difficult to judge fairly, it is clear that Cao has a firm technical foundation and a musicality that will help him work toward a high-quality career. He will return for the July 24 concert, along with three other young local musicians. Sewell not only provides them with concert experiences but reminds the public of the remarkable quantity and quality of Madison's young musicians.

After the intermission, the program veered into pure storytelling with a performance of Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf." The narration was read by Norman Gilliland, Wisconsin Public Radio broadcaster and longtime host of the Concerts on the Square.

Three movements from Maurice Ravel's ballet score Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose) were next, followed by an excerpt from Prokofiev's ballet Cinderella, whose soaring waltz slides into the cacophony of the heroine's midnight disaster.

In all, a perfect example of a substantive light-classical "pops" concert.

As an encore we had a predictable Sousa march, in this case his “Washington Post.” And we are still stuck with that mandatory recorded epilogue, the offensive “Home to Madison” pop song.

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra played with its usual solid professionalism. Beyond that, one could not judge nuances, given the distortions of the sound system. Its volume level seemed louder than ever, which is, I suppose, necessary to combat the noise of audience conversation. I sat near one table whose occupants hardly ever ceased chattering. I had to wonder why they had not gone instead to a restaurant, where they could ignore the piped-in music.

Alas, this critic is too readily tempted to review the audience as much as the concert. But it must always be remembered that these are not concerts in the conventional sense. They are outdoor social occasions with musical decoration. In truth, most of the large public is very respectful, well behaved and appreciative, and there is no question that by now, after 30 years -- count 'em, 30! -- Concerts on the Square is a popular fixture of Madison's summer life.

There are five more Wednesday-evening concerts in the series. Their contents move from Gershwin to John Denver and related byways, but a second classical program will be heard at the penultimate performance on July 24.

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