The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director and conductor Andrew Sewell talks about the role of classical music in the popular Concerts on the Square. Part 1 of 2.

June 24, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Next Wednesday night, June 30, at 7 p.m., the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell – who next season will mark his 10th season of with the WCO — will kick off its 27th annual series of Concerts on the Square (below) downtown around the state Capitol.

What are Concerts on the Square (COS) all about?

Try listening to this:

The six free Wednesday night concerts, each running about two hours,  take place through Aug. 4 and feature all kinds of music. For more information, including food, parking and other programs, visit:

But the opening concert next week will feature classical works. And the featured soloist is a high school student – Joseph Hauer, an Appleton, Wis., resident who won the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Young Artists Concerto Competition. He will perform the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 (1803), the same piece Hauer played to win to the competition.

Other works on the  “Summer Romance” programs includes Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” Wolf-Ferarri’s Overture to “Il segreto di Susannah,” Edward MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose,” Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” two Slavonic Dances by Dvorak and two “new” tangos by Astor Piazzolla as well as the love theme from “Cinema Paradiso” by Morricone.

I recently asked Sewell (below) about the role of classical music in Concerts on the Square, which have become a summer institution and can attract up to 20,000 people to the stat Capitol grounds and area.

Here is his e-mail Q&A with The Well-Tempered Ear. It will run in two parts, today and Friday.

How does the amount of classical music you’ve programmed for the pops format of Concerts on the Square changed over the years? Stayed the same? Lessened? What is your philosophy of programming classical music for COS?

To be honest, I’ve never considered it a “pops format.”  When I arrived here, I realized it was more akin to the Neighborhood/Runout concert concept that I had been used to programming while I was the resident conductor of the Toledo Symphony.

I try to include standard orchestral repertoire, as well as more popular classic choices. This is a program format that has wide appeal to a general audience, who might come to a concert once a year.

Putting this into a context of a six-week series, I can program whole concerts of one genre or another, as well as intermingle them.  Over the years, we’ve found a mixture of thematic programming and general programs seem to work.

We always have a patriotic themed program around the second concert, as it falls during July 4th celebrations.  We have a Young Artist competition winner to perform at one of the concerts.

I also program at least two or three concerts as purely classical, “masterworks” style programs, and others more in a pops style, with guest artists taking the lead — for example, the Sonnenshein Express from Florida, or pianist Robert Wells, or harmonica virtuoso Robert Bonfiglio.

I’ve also asked some classical soloists to play two signature pieces of shorter length rather than one 30-minute long concerto.  This format seems to work well, since it allows time in between pieces with a 12–14 minute piece being the maximum.   A classic example is Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” that comes in at 16 minutes – perfect.

Over the years, the audience has become quieter, and I have been able to mix works of lesser and greater sophistication. Since we expanded our Young Artist Competition to be statewide six years ago, the winner now appears on one of the Concerts on the Square, usually the first or second one.

Does programming classical music for the COS concerts help WCO build audiences for the Masterworks series during the regular concert season?

No, there is no correlation between the two.  Theses are separate products the WCO offers.  The Concerts on the Square, is one product.  Masterworks concerts are another. Research has proven it to be the case, and it is the same with Pops audiences switching over to Classical programs in other markets.  People either like it or they don’t. But I certainly believe it builds awareness and serves the community to have free concerts open to the public.

What do you look for in a classical piece when you program it for the COS? Do you look for a typical tone, length or sound?

Yes, I do consider the length, tone and style of a piece. Generally, I think in terms of programs and what pieces may fit.  Instrumentation can be a factor and tempo also.

For example, for some time, I’ve wanted to include the Adagietto slow movement from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (a work for strings and harp alone that was used a the soundtrack for Visconti’s film “Death in Venice”) into a program, and this year it seemed right to be able to do that on a program that celebrates Vienna, along with the music of Johann Strauss.  Now it’s slow and soft, but absolutely spell-binding, and having it placed near the beginning of the concert (after the overture) will keep the audience’s attention. We’ll see.

I like to include well-known pieces, or warhorses, that an audience never tires of — for example, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or a Mozart overture or a symphony by Dvorak, Tchaikovsky or Brahms. They’re all familiar to a general audience.

Tomorrow: Andrew Sewell on the audience’s attention span and attentiveness to classical music; and whether exposing pops audiences to classical music gets them to attend classical concerts.

Posted in Classical music

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