The opener for this year's series of Concerts on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra was blessed with ideal weather plus a seemingly more ample audience than ever -- and a very well-mannered one to boot.
The brisk and varied program bore the general title of "Summer Romance." Two saucy opera overtures were included: the familiar one to the ever-popular Marriage of Figaro of Mozart (up for Madison Opera's next season, remember), the other to the more rarely performed but sprightly Secrets of Susannah by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari. There were four minor bits. A transcription of MacDowell's tired piano piece "To a Wild Rose," and Rachmaninoff's own arrangement of his "Vocalise" were in the first half. In the second, there were a throw-away theme song from Ennio Morricone's film score to Cinema Paradiso, and two bits from the Argentine tango-trivia master, Astor Piazzolla, the attractions of whose music elude me.
The program's meat was the first movement (only) of Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 3," one of his most powerful scores. The soloist was Joseph Hauer, a finalist in the 2006 Bolz Young Artist Concerto Competition, and soon to study at the Oberlin Conservatory. Whatever his need for growth in technical discipline and artistic maturity, he showed a powerful talent whose development should be fruitful.
The formal program concluded with two (Nos. 5 and 8) of Dvorak's Op. 46 set of "Slavonic Dances." As an encore, instead of a Sousa march, as in past years, music director Andrew Sewell offered Brahms's "Hungarian Dance" No. 5, in the zippiest performance of the evening.
In this season opener, I paid particular attention to the sound system. An orchestral concert meant for indoor acoustics is almost impossible to transfer accurately into the very different circumstances of the outdoors. For many years the amplification system carrying these concerts over the Capitol lawns and around the square was coarse and blaring, often a trial for more seasoned ears.
But I have sensed a real improvement in the quality of sound. I took the opportunity to talk to the sound crew of Madison's Sticha Brothers Sound and Lighting, which has held the sonic contract for five years now. Their experimentation and skill has been paying off.
I was told that all of 58 microphones are used for the orchestra, heavily concentrated among the strings, but also spread throughout instruments or sections beyond. As I noted last year, the resulting balances are not fully natural, with emphases in the woodwinds that spotlight interesting details one would not normally catch in conventional acoustics. But the balancing did strike me as more coherently managed. It may not be true orchestral sound, but it is an amplified extension of it that is now ever more valid and lucid for these purposes -- a real contribution to the musical values of Concerts on the Square.
The variety of programs continues through the remaining five concerts. An "American Celebration" on July 7, following Independence Day. An Italian menu for July 14, and a Beatles binge for July 21. A musical celebration of Vienna, mainly via Johann Strauss, with dancers from Madison Ballet. And a full-blooded program of Russian classics for Aug. 4. See the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's website for more information.