The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square is back on the Square for its thirty-ninth season. It’s probably safe to say that musicians, fans and business owners are all happy about that.

“There will be refreshments at food and drink carts,” says Andrew Sewell, the WCO’s music director. “You’ll get everything that you came to expect from Concerts on the Square before the pandemic.”

After work-arounds due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, including ticketed concerts at Breese Stevens Field, this summer the picnic baskets and blankets will be back at the King Street corner of the Square and concertgoers will be free to mingle and enjoy the free music.

The WCO and Sewell (who celebrates his twenty-third Concerts on the Square this year) have prepared six Wednesday evening programs that will run from June 29 through August 3. Whether you like classical, R&B, gospel, Sousa marches or Native American music, you’ll find it all this year on the Square.

The season opens on June 29 with Spectrum, a Las Vegas vocal quartet that covers the sounds of Motown. Think Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Four Tops, The Temptations, and other groups that created the smooth harmonies and soulful R&B that defined the Detroit sound experience of the 1960s and ’70s. Spectrum’s easy style and great choreography create a feeling that says, “let’s relax and have fun.”

“I usually put the pop concert later in the season,” says Sewell. “But I decided to have it first this year to get things going.”

Another change this year — no 1812 Overture in the July 6 Summer Celebration concert. Tchaikovsky’s famous Overture was always performed around the July 4th holiday, but this year, Sewell chose two fanfares: “Summon the Heroes” by John Williams and “Our Wings Have Caught the Wind” by John Keltonic. “I wanted to give the Overture a rest this year,” says Sewell. “With world events as they are, it didn’t seem like the right time for it.”

The featured work will be the first movement of Sibelius’s darkly mercurial Violin Concerto in D Minor. The concerto opens with a soft, lonely theme in the violin, but ends with sudden fury. The path between these opposing forces is a sea of technical challenges for the violinist. But all this will be in the capable hands of wunderkind Ava Kenney, whose young musical path is already strewn with honors.

During Reflections on Liberty on July 13, the crowd will be the first to hear William Banfield’s Testimony of Tone, Tune and Time. Banfield is in his second year of a three-year term as the WCO’s composer-in-residence. “Bill’s piece is for saxophone, two narrators, piano, strings, harp and percussion,” says Sewell. “The words are from the writings of Frederick Douglass.” The idea for the work came about when Sewell pondered Aaron Copland’s famous Lincoln Portrait and thought there should be a work of equal importance that honored composers and historical figures of color. So he commissioned Banfield to write what became Testimony for Concerts on the Square. 

Works by composer Patrice Rushen are also on the program. Banfield was instrumental in encouraging Rushen to compose in different styles and mediums. If you were around in the 1980s, you might remember her famous R&B hit, “Forget Me Nots.”

Guest artists for this concert will include the Middleton High School Choir, the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, choir director and composer Leotha Stanley, and saxophonist Grace Kelly.

The July 20 concert, The Planets & Ho-Chunk, is a rare combination of selections from Holst’s The Planets and performances of Native American music like “Dejope Song” and the “Ho-Chunk Marine Corps Song.” Guest artists will include Darren Thompson (flute), the Wisconsin Dells Singers & Dancers, and their manager and lead singer Elliott Funmaker.

The idea for this concert started in 2019 when Sewell contacted Funmaker to explore the idea of reaching out to various communities to present their music. “I listened to Elliott sing the “Dejope Song” and I wrote it down and then arranged an accompaniment for it,” says Sewell, noting that Dejope means “Madison.”

“I found that Jim Latimer of the UW-Madison music department had arranged an accompaniment for the “Dane 175 Soldier Chief Song” in 2011,” says Sewell. “That’s another song we’re performing at the concert. Elliott’s father was a World War II soldier and a chief.”

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is the featured concerto for the July 27 concert. Nicknamed the Rach 3, it is known in classical music circles as one of the most difficult pieces to play because of its intricate passagework and large chords that leap across the keyboard at high speeds. But Rachmaninov was also a master of beautiful melodies and the Rach 3 has plenty of them. This thorny wonder will be performed by a wonder himself, pianist Maxim Lando. 

The final concert on Aug. 3, Finale with Foley, will feature concertos for the double bass. Not many composers wrote for the instrument, but Giovanni Bottesini wrote his virtuosic Double Bass Concerto No. 2 in B Minor in the 1850s. Looking at the score, the beginning of the concerto isn’t remarkable. It’s in common 4/4 time with triplets in the melody line, there aren’t too many sharps, and it’s not too fast. But guest artist Xavier Foley takes music that looks ordinary on the page to places we hadn’t imagined. “When Xavier was here [in 2021], he knocked everybody’s socks off,” says Sewell. “So we invited him back again this year.”

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