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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Fair
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Sounds of the summer
Warm-weather concerts keep classical lovers happy till fall
Opera in the Park attracts attentive audiences. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:James Gill

Arriving in Madison in 1962, I found little continuing classical music activity in the summer months. Madison Savoyards was launched the next year. That, with the Summer Symphony concerts at Edgewood College, plus occasional UW Music School events, remained for many years what Madison summers offered.

Now the summers are crammed with enduring activities, almost rivaling regular season hubbub, reflecting Madison's lively cultural growth overall. Let's consider the six major components of the summer scene. Here are some origin stories, and season highlights.

Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society
Overture Center's Playhouse, Stoughton Opera House, Taliesin's Hillside Theater (Spring Green), June 10-26

In 1992, flautist Stephanie Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sykes induced some of their musical friends to come to give, without pay, two free concerts of chamber music at the Madison Civic Center that July. Their success encouraged Jutt and Sykes to found a continuing operation, Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Over the years they have explored diverse venues: the First Unitarian Society; Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin; UW's Music Hall; and, most recently, Overture Center. From two weekends with two programs in July they shifted to three weekends of three programs in June.

The organization's name originated with jazz/classical concerts Jutt played in at an oceanside estate in California. One night, a Bach Brandenburg Concerto so excited the audience that they spilled out to dance on the beach and shoot fireworks. The neighbors dubbed them the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. The label stuck, and proved transferable.

Within a different theme each year, BDDS mixes classic works with new ones, including many novelties. For this 20th year's program, the theme is "Back to Bach," with programs that revolve around their eponymous composer; classic and contemporary also will be performed.

Madison performances regularly include visual contributions by various artists, and the performers come from the wide Jutt/Sykes network of top-drawer musicians around the country.

Enlivened by raffles and other antics, BDDS programs are "chamber music with a bang," says executive director Samantha Crownover, "for people who want to have serious fun."

Concerts on the Square
Capitol Square, June 29-Aug. 3

In 1968, a UW graduate student in conducting, David Lewis Crosby, took over Gordon Wright's Summer Symphony, broadening its scope and new name as the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in 1974. Patron Pleasant Rowland expanded prospects by agreeing to finance the free outdoor events that in 1984 became Concerts on the Square.

For these, Crosby sought a repertoire of broad appeal - against criticism for compromising classical material with popular things. He sought to develop a genuine bridge literature that combined classical, light classical, Broadway and even current pop material. He was, indeed, reinventing the historic American tradition of band concerts in public squares or parks.

Cosby died suddenly in 1998, and two years later Andrew Sewell became his successor as music director. Sewell has continued his predecessor's spirit, amplifying and diversifying his repertoire steadily. In 2005, the WCO settled into its new home the Overture Center, where it performs its indoor-season Masterworks concerts.

But Concerts on the Square is one of two quite distinct activities. Representing 35%-40% of the WCO budget, the summer program has its own underwriters, collects license fees from vendors and is blessed by teams of dedicated volunteers.

Not exclusively musical events, these see concertgoers socializing and picnicking on the Capitol lawn or around the Square. They have become a firm Madison institution. This summer's 25th anniversary season includes strictly classical events, like the June 29 concert featuring pianist Amy Hua, as well as pops-oriented events like "Arrival ABBA," on July 20.

WCO executive director Doug Gerhart says these concerts represent "the broadest reach into a diversified audience in one setting." They are, he says, like "building your own concert hall" - six times per summer.

Madison Early Music Festival
UW Mosse Humanities Building, July 9-16

The idea of a festival devoted to early music - music composed starting in medieval times and up to 1750 - was hatched in 1999 by Chelcy Bowles of the UW's Continuing Education in Music and the UW music school's baritone Paul Rowe. Helped by a small grant, they planned the first Madison Early Music Festival, a two-week program for July 2000, and invited outside performers and experts.

While the workshops did well, the public concerts drew unexpectedly large audiences. Those two dimensions quickly gave the festival a unique spirit.

Each year the festival has focused on a different area of musical literature and culture (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque), and appropriate various performing groups are invited. The theme of this year's festival is music of colonial Latin America, and guests include Pittsburgh's Chatham Baroque and the Philadelphia-based ensemble Piffaro: The Renaissance Band.

With wife Cheryl Bensman Rowe, Paul Rowe now is co-artistic director of the festival, which currently runs for one week and features five concerts. The number of participants and attendees has grown, apparently unaffected by the economy.

After 11 years, the Madison Early Music Festival's reputation is enviable nationally and internationally in the early-music world. Visiting performers, usually attending several festivals around the country each summer, say they enjoy this festival the most. Meanwhile, it has powerfully stimulated early-music interest and activity in Madison itself.

Opera in the Park
Garner Park, July 16

Hoping to make a gift to the community, and to broaden the public idea of opera, Madison Opera directors John DeMain and Ann Stanke cruised around town and spotted Garner Park. It was the perfect venue for what became Opera in the Park in 2002.

Though only a single night's occasion, it invites contrasts with the other free outdoor event, the six-evening Concerts on the Square. Opera in the Park is a more controlled event. There is opportunity for immediate donations, and the audience, however sprawled up a hillside, is notably more attentive.

Set beside the regular Madison Opera season, Opera in the Park "doubles our audience," says marketing director Brian Hinrichs, noting recent audiences of 14,000. It has increased the vital donation base through many small contributions. Unlike Concerts on the Square, the Opera in the Park events have regularly induced surges in new subscribers. They also allow opera experience for families with children, who may not be ready for indoor events.

Opera in the Park repertoires emphasize variety. While suggestions from guest singers are welcome, promoting the operas of the season ahead is emphasized - this year, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Philip Glass' Galileo Galilei and Rossini's La Cenerentola.

Typically, extra-operatic fare is blended in - as "bait," says Hinrichs, to enlarge the season audience.

Madison Savoyards Ltd.: Utopia, Limited
UW Music Hall, July 22-29

In 1963, some precocious Madison high school students decided for fun to put on a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that September. Madison Savoyards Ltd. debuted with Iolanthe, semi-staged but with orchestra. A one-off adventure became an annual commitment, and participants multiplied.

By 1966, productions were fully staged, first at the First Congregational Church Auditorium, then at Wisconsin Union Theater, and now at the UW's Music Hall. The group has performed cumulatively all 13 of the surviving G&S operettas (most twice or more), plus two by Sullivan with other librettists. This summer's selection is a colorful rarity, Utopia, Limited, which spoofs British imperialism.

Extraordinarily, Savoyards has no paid administrative staff. The performers elect a board that makes plans and arrangements, relying on volunteers. Box office receipts long supplied the main income, but now donations and grants are vital. A rare plunge into debt 10 years ago was resolved by a newly vigilant board, leaving the group uniquely solvent for its type.

The UW music school is a source of talented student singers, but this is a true community group, welcoming all ages, and blending experienced continuers with youth turnover, in unfailing annual self-renewal. Giving important experience to young singers, it guarantees professional-level productions of the immortal G&S classics at low prices to an annually delighted public.

Next year will mark the Savoyards' 50th anniversary season. Observes board member Helen Baldwin, "Traditions hold darn strongly."

Token Creek Festival
Token Creen Festival Barn, DeForest, Aug. 24-Sept. 4

In the 1980s, violinist Rose Mary Pedersen, with her composer husband John Harbison, decided to take up part-time residence on the DeForest farm where she grew up, refurbishing the old barn as their dwelling. Receiving a MacArthur grant in 1989, they considered creating a rural music festival. With some distinguished friends from Boston and elsewhere, that August they presented a demanding program of chamber music to an invited audience in the Barn's large living room.

Encouraged, they incorporated the Token Creek Festival that autumn, and the beginnings of a board were assembled. Cumulative work overload prompted hiring a managing director, Sarah Schaffer, in 1998.

After a break in 1991-93, the festival gradually settled into a format of concerts on two successive weekends, with further events in between. Repertoire leaned strongly on Schoenberg (in tribute to the Harbisons' Boston mentor, Rudolf Kolisch, who studied under Schoenberg), Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, with examples of contemporary music including some of Harbison's own, and also regularly including jazz events. Harbison has customarily given illuminating little talks to the audience.

Gradually, local musicians were engaged, and concern for public accessibility prompted experiments with Madison sites. The 1990 opener was held in the UW's Music Hall. A 1996 concert was given at the American Family Insurance building's atrium. Selective uses were made in 2001-03 of the Gates of Heaven, and in 2004-06 of the St. Andrew's church, but these created logistical problems.

Since 2007 the festival events have been at the Barn, re-establishing an intimate rural setting for chamber music. This year's program features an all-Bach and an all-Mozart program, the latter performed by pianist Robert Levin. A program for two pianos and one of jazz round out the series.

Increasing ticket demands brought thoughts of dramatically expanding the Barn's structure, but it was decided to preserve the intimacy of its living room as is, for superlative chamber music to round out the summer.

This article has been edited to correct the erroneous statement that alcohol is forbidden at Opera in the Park.

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