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Thursday, August 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison's major classical groups came on strong during the last decade
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Credit:Ryan Peltier

People in the classical music world spend a lot of time in the future, predicting what audiences will want and need years from now. But even as groups plan farther and farther in advance, it's sometimes good to look back.

To mark the beginning of this fall's music season, I asked musicians and administrators with Overture Center's classical groups to reflect on their seasons during the first decade of the millennium. They agree that the defining moment was their move into Overture. That brought opportunities to even better serve Madison music fans.

So many good musicians

For the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the large orchestral piece was a signature item over the last decade. Works like Holst's The Planets, Joseph Jongen's Symphonie Concertante and Mahler's Eighth Symphony created sonic storms.

One reason for this trend is that John DeMain, the MSO's music director and conductor, likes big, high-quality sound. "It's not just because I like noise," he says. "It's because there are so many good musicians in Madison and they need to be heard. I love having 110 musicians on stage."

DeMain credits Richard Mackie, the MSO's executive director, for the grand scale of the repertoire. "Rick shares my vision and hasn't nickel-and-dimed me into playing only the smaller pieces."

In this large milieu, the orchestra presented composers from about 20 countries. Romantic and early 20th-century music dominated the repertoire. The most frequently played composers, though, were Classical giants Beethoven and Mozart.

Marc Fink, the MSO's principal oboist, recalls some big moments. "In the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, I remember the slow movement as magical. It went beyond the music. Playing [Mahler's] 'Symphony of a Thousand' was a great opportunity and one that doesn't happen all the time. [Joel] Hoffman's concerto for cello and oud was also a great piece of programming."

Big ideas in the music also influenced programming, taking the MSO from eight triple concerts per season at the end of its tenure in the Madison Civic Center's Oscar Mayer Theater to nine triples after its move into Overture Hall in 2004. Subscriptions also increased with the move into Overture, going from 3,200 subscribers to 5,000. Due to the recession, the number of subscribers is now around 4,200, Mackie says. A decision was made to eliminate one of the nine concerts per season. Planners are hopeful these numbers will go back to the way they were.

When I asked DeMain how the MSO defined itself over the decade, he was quick to say that the string section became the glory of the orchestra. "Of the 96 musicians in the orchestra, 60 are string players, and they are a core we can be proud of," he says. While DeMain says that all musicians in the MSO are wonderful, the string section wasn't its strong point when he arrived in 1994. He credits the improvement to hard work and to the high quality of string musicians from the UW-Madison who joined the MSO.

Mackie says the MSO forged a solid media presence over the years. "When I came in 1999, the orchestra didn't have a brand," he says. "Now our name is associated with a logo and a visual look. A component of the brand is quality. The Overture Concert Organ is an element of the brand. John DeMain is an element of the brand." The orchestra also greatly expanded its community outreach and education for the young.

A new development was the musicians' vote to affiliate with the American Federation of Musicians union in 2009. When I asked Mackie if this would affect the orchestra's musical offerings, he replied that the AFM "doesn't have control over the repertoire. John always welcomed and solicited suggestions from the orchestra. We continue in the warmest, most collegial relationship I have ever experienced."

The MSO's sonic personality throughout the decade leaned toward the warmth, precision and bravura of a German orchestra. "In the future," says DeMain, "we may take up a challenge and become more of a French orchestra, concentrating on the suavity of sound."

Forging an identity

The decade was an eventful one for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. The 2009/2010 season marked its 50th anniversary and the 10th anniversary of its music director and conductor, Andrew Sewell. Sewell says the decade saw the WCO "come of age as a top-quality chamber orchestra."

The WCO was founded in 1960 as a summer orchestra, and for many years it was seen mainly as a group for outdoor entertainment. So it's not surprising that at the beginning of the decade, the WCO's indoor classical season was known as Concerts off the Square, which suggested a yin-yang relationship with the ensemble's popular outdoor counterpart, Concerts on the Square.

Forging an identity as a purveyor of serious classical music took time, but the orchestra has succeeded in developing a unique voice that engages chamber music in the most charming ways.

In 2001, the reference to Concerts off the Square was dropped from the classical season, and the series became known as Masterworks. By 2002, three Masterworks concerts per season grew to four. When the WCO moved into the Overture Center's Capitol Theater in 2005, four Masterworks concerts grew to five, and the orchestra began to develop an inside voice that fit the intimate acoustics of its new permanent home.

Over 10 seasons of chamber music, the Austro-German composers predominated, followed by France, Italy, Russia and England. Mozart took the lead as the most frequently played composer. The unusual orchestration of music of Finland and Estonia added a mystical aura to the decade, and music from New Zealand broadened our knowledge of Sewell's native land.

Executive directors Robert Sorge and Doug Gerhart oversaw the orchestra's business over the decade. Sorge, who served the WCO for almost 17 years, left in 2007 to take a position with the Madison Community Foundation. Gerhart joined the WCO in 2008 from his position as executive director of the Sioux City Symphony.

"Bob was an excellent leader and we forged a great partnership," says Sewell. "Doug is very skilled and experienced - and a former trumpet player. The severe economic challenge when Doug came made him prove his mettle. He kept cool under great pressure."

The WCO musicians' strike in October 2008 reminded us that classical music is an industry with rules and standards that are subject to interpretation. While the strike was the first in the WCO's history, strikes are, unfortunately, more common events nationwide. Contract disputes were settled in April 2009.

Despite this setback, the orchestra showcased composers from over 20 countries and released three CDs during the decade, including the critically acclaimed Mozart: The Early Years. Community outreach efforts attracted hundreds of high school students from around the state to audition for the WCO's Young Artist Concerto Competition, instituted in 2001.

Everyone has a favorite concert, and for Doug Gerhart, it was the WCO's January 2008 performance of Schubert, Haydn, Brahms and Rhodion Shchedrin. Gerhart was interviewing for the director position and hadn't heard the orchestra play. "The level of music making was jaw-droppingly good. I was a believer after the first 30 seconds."

The WCO has defined itself as a promoter of unfamiliar works and composers. Not many orchestras feature music by Meude-Monpas or Frederick the Great. And its use of couples and quartets as guest artists goes against a trend of using only solo artists in this role.

The WCO's 2010-11 season is unique. Even the order of musical notes will be affected. In the April 8 concert, the last five pitches in Charles Wuorinen's Flying to Kahani will reverse the first five notes of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24.

Reaching out

By the beginning of the decade, the Madison Opera had a reputation as that "plucky little company" that mounted a "daring venture." These words were taken from a New York Times article about the company when it commissioned its first world premiere work, Daron Hagen's Shining Brow, in 1993.

At that time, the Madison Opera's general director was Ann Stanke, who held the position from about 1985 until she retired in 2005. She is a cofounder of the company. Stanke is a longtime Madisonian, deeply committed to its classical music scene and a promoter of new works.

Allan Naplan, the opera's present director, took over in 2005 from his position as director of artistic administration for the Pittsburgh Opera. He was a professional opera baritone who spent as many as nine months out of the year on the road. His cosmopolitan outlook and commitment to spreading the good news about opera have boosted the Madison Opera's reputation here and in other parts of the world.

Naplan says that the Madison Opera is a very different company now. "In 2000, the budget for Carmen was $200,000. The 2009 production had a budget of $450,000. That's a massive expansion in production."

Madison Opera premieres abounded during the last few years with The Pearl Fishers, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Tender Land, The Turn of the Screw and The Flying Dutchman. The relationship between music and set design also took on new meaning. Jun Kaneko's minimalist set design for Madama Butterfly in 2008 brought high definition to the music.

Deciding which operas made it to the stage was a joint effort between Naplan and artistic director John DeMain. An opera's mass appeal, aesthetic appeal and cost all came into play. Size was a concern in the Oscar Mayer Theater, but the company's move to Overture Hall in 2004 eliminated that.

Of the 32 operas staged this past decade, Puccini's operas were performed most. Operas by Verdi, Mozart and Bizet followed. Over the Madison Opera's 50-year history, the most-performed operas are Bizet's Carmen and Strauss' Die Fledermaus.

As for the defining elements of the decade, Naplan lists the company's many community outreach programs. Under the umbrella title Creating OPERAtunities are a myriad of public enrichment programs. Opera in the Park, the company's free, open-air event that attracted 14,000 people this year, began in 2002. The company added a third opera to its yearly programming in 2008.

The company has a good name around the world. "The Madison Opera has gained a reputation as a nurturing place with high quality both musically and dramatically," says Naplan. "Artists want to sing here. Some go from their debut at the Madison Opera to their debut at the Met."

These are just a few happenings in the groups' eventful decade. As for repertoire, it's not surprising that audiences preferred the harmonic simplicity and realism of Beethoven, Mozart and Puccini. They're a sure thing in uncertain times.

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