The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Concerts on the Square start tonight. Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra conductor Andrew Sewell talks about how he plans them and why he loves conducting.

June 29, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight, Wednesday, June 29, at 7 p.m., the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will kick off its 28th year of FREE summer Concerts on the Square.

The orchestra will perform on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

Each of the six two-hour concerts will be given on consecutive Wednesdays through Aug. 3 and each is expected to draw up to 20,000 people or more who sit around the state Capitol and eat dinner, have drinks, chat with family and friends, and listen to some fine music finely performed. (Rain dates are Thursday. Cancellations will be called by 3 p.m. and announced on the website, Facebook page and on MAGIC 98 radio – as well as here, if possible.)

The conductor for five of the concerts is WCO music director Andrew Sewell.

Here is a link to the web site with information about COS dates, times, music, food and other aspects of what is billed as “the biggest picnic of summer.”

And here is a link to the opening concert:

The guest soloist for tonight’s opening concert is Madison West High School student Amy Hua (below), who won the WCO’s concerto competition for students and who will perform the first movement of Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto in A Minor. None other than Sergei Rachmaninoff called the most effective piano concerto ever written — and Rachmaninoff himself knew a thing or two about writing piano concertos.

Here is a link Amy Hua gave to The Ear and that was posted last Friday:

Also on the program are Mendelssohn’s Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” with dancers of the Madison Ballet in choreography by their director W. Earle Smith; and Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite.

Conductor Andrew Sewell (below) recently gave The Era an e-mail interview in which he discussed how he plans the Concerts on the Square and what he loves about conducting:

What is the social or public value of Concerts on the Square, and how has it evolved over the years and during your tenure? What are your plans for the future?

Concerts on the Square has developed into an important public and social event. Now in it’s 28th season, it has grown in size and stature to be Madison’s main downtown attraction for the summer. The six weeks of Wednesday night concerts attract a regular audience of over 20,000.

Business and retailers benefit, as do the vendors who provide food and other amenities each week. It is a free concert and on the Capitol grounds, so it has a significant community spirit that brings people from all walks of life and is multi-generational.

At the 25th anniversary a few years ago, there were many stories of families who brought their children to the concerts, who now in turn bring their own families down to the concerts at the Capitol. It is an opportunity to socialize as well as enjoy top class entertainment in a variety of genres from classics to pops.

The concerts have evolved into a mixture of classical, popular classics and pops depending on the guest artists and repertoire.  I try to mix it up each year to keep things fresh and appealing.  Sometimes we have a theme, other times it is a touring group such as the ABBA tribute band, Arrival, who will be playing on July 20th.

The concert attendance has increased over the past 10 years, and the audience has become more attentive, although that can depend on the repertoire.

Each year I try different things to stretch the audience, for example, last year we performed the entire first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 – a work of 23 minutes or so .  I will usually program selected movements of a symphony or concerto rather than play the entire selection. The concert is intended for a general audience, including families with small children, so it should be user-friendly.

We have found that six weeks of concerts is an optimum number and so maintaining this format and selling out patron tables each season are our goals.

What is the role or purpose of more classical music versus more popular music in Concerts on the Square?

I think there is a balance.  You will find with such a general audience, you have to traverse all styles and genres, and so I try to balance the six-week season with a classical-to-popular ratio.

Some years the pendulum may swing further in one direction than another, and then it may swing back the following year. Our second concert celebrating the July 4th holiday has evolved into a tradition with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the “Armed Forces Salute” by Bob Lowden, honoring all veterans in the audience.

We also feature our Young Artist Concerto Competition winner usually on the first concert. But aside from that, we begin each year with a clean slate so to speak.

You are a well-known fan of French music. But this summer you have an all-Spanish program. Why? What are the qualities that you find to be Spanish and what do you like and audiences should look for in Spanish music or Spanish-inspired music?

For the last two seasons, I have included one program devoted to one country or style.  For example, we had an all-Russian program, entitled “Russian Fireworks,” and an Italian program, “Viva Italia.”

Manuel De Falla’s music is very appealing, and our concertmaster, Suzanne Beia (below), wanted to perform Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole,” so we continued in that vein. I also enjoy Rodrigo’s music and found a lovely chamber orchestra suite by him, as well as music by Ginastera.  To top it off, Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite, “Capriccio espagnol” is a very popular orchestral piece, and he is such a great orchestrator. So the Spanish-inspired program was born.

I think what will be appealing to the audience, is how differently the Spanish style has influenced and inspired each of these composers.  In program order, from a Spanish, French, Spanish, Russian and Argentinian perspective.

How do you choose programs and pieces to perform?

I’m always on the lookout for repertoire for both indoor and outdoor concerts. For example, I recently found a great CD of works by Percy Grainger (below). In wanting to bring these to the public’s attention, I plan to program a couple of short pieces by him, one very familiar and one less familiar on the Square, next summer.  The same goes for the composer, John Williams.  He has written some great show stopping pieces, besides his popular film scores, that just aren’t heard in the concert hall.

So, on July 27th our American Heroes program will feature these works by John Williams as well as music of Bernstein, Barber, Copland and Gershwin.

Why do you conduct?

That’s a very broad question but also intensely personal. I enjoy it more than anything, and always have. It inspires me in the same way as playing an instrument does. And to that end, I have endeavored to be a conductor since I was a teenager.

Simply put, conducting is making music with a very large instrument of people. Without them, however, you can’t make a sound.  So, conducting involves interacting with people, inspired by the composer’s music, and invested in the same result, to produce the best possible performance.

Posted in Classical music

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