The Sound of a Madison Summer

Pack a picnic for Concerts on the Square.

Spectators watch a performance on the Wisconsin state Capitol lawn

The events feel like a trip back to a predigital, summer-bandstand era of classical music and conversation. Bryce Richter

It’s the biggest outdoor party of the summer, with blankets and picnic baskets as far as the eye can see. Yet there was a time when it seemed like a long shot for turning into a beloved Madison tradition.

For the past 36 years, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has hosted Concerts on the Square on the capitol lawn. The free, six-concert series has become a huge success, drawing more than 200,000 people annually, including a good number of UW–Madison students taking in the sunset. Young and old gather to talk, eat, and listen to the evening’s repertoire, which ranges from challenging concertos to popular film music to Beatles hits. It feels like a trip back to a predigital, summer-bandstand era of classical music and conversation.

As hard as it is to imagine a Madison summer without Concerts on the Square, the concept seemed like a stretch during initial discussions in 1984. “There were five or six of us sitting around the table, and I remember thinking, ‘How is this going to work?’ ” says Nancy Mayland Mackenzie ’76, DMA’84, who has been principal clarinetist with the orchestra since 1980. “The orchestra didn’t do a lot of playing at that time. It’s hard to believe that’s how it started and where we are today.”

The concerts run on corporate sponsorships and individual contributions. Pink collection barrels on the perimeter of the capitol also encourage concert-goers to make donations. In terms of marketing, however, the series practically sells itself, according to Joe Loehnis MBA’18, CEO of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. From the moment a summer’s series is announced, he says, people instinctively block off the six Wednesday evenings.

“The venue’s downtown location, next to the beautiful capitol, is probably one of the most unique features of any outdoor performance venue in the country,” Loehnis adds. “These are serious performances with really amazing music — it’s second to none.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 season will have only two live events at Breese Stevens Field. I’ll likely be there myself, fresh off my graduation from UW–Madison. After I attended my first concert last summer — to write this very story — I found myself returning to the capitol lawn on subsequent weeks.

All you need is a blanket and a picnic basket, and you’re ready for the party.

* This story was updated on June 30, 2020, to reflect changes to the concert schedule.

Published in the Summer 2020 issue

Tags: Arts, music

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