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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Sweet summer sounds
Concerts on the Square is off to a rousing start

Beyond expectations, I enjoyed the opening Concert on the Square, on June 27.

Ideal weather, for starters. And the sound system showed improvement. Heavy on the bass, a little boomy in the middle, with slightly forced miking balances (never such prominent violas!).

But, for outdoor purposes, a reasonable vehicle for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's upgraded playing. The sound also seemed louder, perhaps encouraging the apparently greater attentiveness and good behavior on the part of the audience - at least those on the grass around me, if not on the always-noisy street fringes.

Also helpful was maestro Andrew Sewell's continuing progress in upgrading the program contents. Of the six concerts this year, all but two (July 4, July 18) offer essentially classical fare.

Of course, much of it is "light classical" music - what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call his "lollipops." For this first concert, at least four items in the program fit that category: the Overture to Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on Greensleeves," Hugo Alvén's Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, "Midsummer Vigil," and a Hardanger fiddle tune by Norway's Geirr Tveitt. All delightful listening, of course, so no complaints intended.

Also marking this program was inclusion of only portions of larger works. Thus, the final movement of Haydn's "Clock" Symphony No. 101, the first movement of Beethoven's "Pastorale" Sixth Symphony and two movements of Emmanuel Chabrier's "Suite Pastorale." Some of these excerpts represent a kind of down payment: the finale of the Beethoven symphony will be played on July 25, while the Chabrier suite's other two movements are slated for Aug. 1.

The "theme" title of this program was "Midsummer Rhapsody," suggesting an aptly outdoorsy spirit. The exception to the theme, however, was another excerpt, the first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's "Cello Concerto No. 1." Back in January 2006, Sewell led a stunning performance of the full work with wonderful Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. Here the excerpt showed off the "Young Artist" prizewinner, cellist Stephanie Smith.

Just about to begin her college years, she already commands impressive tone and fine technical control. For this high-voltage music she did fall a little short of the necessary bite and thrust (she needs to learn more about anger!), and Sewell sometimes sacrificed momentum to deference. Still, a most promising Wisconsin artist.

Sousa's "Washington Post" March was a typical encore. But can't the sponsors drop the silly and inappropriate pop song about Madison that is blasted out at concert ends?

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