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Note: this is an extended version of a feature article published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Sept. 19, 2004, under the (unfortunate) title "Lock, Stock Pavilion, and Barrel." 

Have Orchestra, Will Travel
The Madison Symphony Orchestra has played all around town over the last 78 years.

            by Michael Allsen

It's often said that a symphony orchestra works collectively as an "instrument" under the baton of a good conductor. In the same sense, a good orchestra "plays" its hall. Every performance venue has its acoustical peculiarities and learning a hall is just as much a process of experimentation and practice as taking a new instrument out of the case. The world's great orchestra halls are those that allow the audience to hear music just as it comes from the players, with the added dimension of mixing and balancing the sounds of various sections. On Friday [October 8, 2004], the Madison Symphony Orchestra picks up its deluxe new instrument, Overture Hall, to begin its 79th season. This is an important turning-point in the history of Wisconsin's oldest continuously-existing orchestra. The MSO is clearly looking forward at this point, but a brief look back is appropriate, too—to the dozens of local venues that have hosted concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus over the past 78 seasons.

Early Years
The Madison Symphony Orchestra was born as the Madison Civic Symphony Orchestra in 1926, when a group of local citizens set up a Civic Music Association to fund musical activities in Madison, and an amateur orchestra. They hired a conductor, Sigfrid Prager, a 37-year-old German immigrant. Dr. Prager was a true "find"—a fine conductor who had worked professionally in Germany, Italy, and Argentina, a virtuoso pianist, and a composer, and he led the orchestra for 22 seasons, until his retirement in 1948. The orchestra's first concert, on December 14, 1926 was a rousing success, with a capacity audience of 1,000 packing into the Central High School Auditorium to hear a program that included works by Bizet, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven Grainger, and Berlioz. A Civic Chorus was founded the next season.  [Click here to see more on the early history of the orchestra and a biography of Dr. Prager.]

The Civic Symphony and Chorus could have foundered after just a few years but for the intervention in 1928 of Alexander Graham, director of the City of Madison Vocational School (now Madison Area Technical College), starting a relationship between the MSO and MATC that continues today. Prager became a member of the Vocational School staff, directing its music department, and the Civic Orchestra and Chorus had its first home, with the organization's library and office housed in MATC's building, next door to Central High School.

Central High School Auditorium was home base for the first few years, but Prager held concerts all over town. In its first ten years, the orchestra and chorus performed at the auditoriums of both West High School and East High School, in the Capitol Rotunda, in the ballroom of the Hotel Loraine, and at Christ Presbyterian Church. Larger performances were moved to venues at the University not usually associated with music: the Red Gym, the old Fieldhouse, and most frequently, the Stock Pavilion. Prager also booked performances in three of Madison's large movie/Vaudeville houses: the Orpheum, the Capitol, and the Parkway. Of these, the splendid Parkway Theater was a particular favorite. Built in 1890 as the Fuller Opera House, the Parkway had been fully renovated in 1921 as a grand movie palace that also included a large stage and orchestra pit. It served as the venue for several fully-staged opera performances in the 1930s, and for many of the Civic Symphony's subscription concerts. The Parkway, which originally stood on the south side of the Capitol Square, was demolished in the 1950s.

Central High School and MATC Auditorium
In 1908, Madison opened Central High School. This impressive building on Wisconsin Avenue not only replaced the cramped and outmoded school built in 1873, it was truly the pride of Madison when it was opened: a beautiful four-story building designed by famed St. Paul architect Cass Gilbert. The building included a large auditorium, with an open floor and surrounding balcony seating. This served as the Civic Symphony's primary venue well into the 1930s, though larger concerts were usually held elsewhere. The orchestra remained rather small for much of its early history—there were seldom more than 40 or 50 players until the 1960s—so the small stage could accommodate symphony concerts.

After several years spent across the street at the Masonic Temple, the Civic Symphony and Chorus moved back to Central High School for the 1953-54 season. By then the auditorium was beginning to show its age, and Walter Heermann, the orchestra's conductor from 1948-1961, made valiant but ineffective efforts to make acoustical and structural improvements to the hall. While the stage was large enough to seat a small orchestra, for choral programs, the orchestra was seated on the floor, and choir and soloists stood on stage. Even in the 1950s, when the Civic Chorus was about a third the size of the present Madison Symphony Chorus, the stage was full.   [Click here to see more on the history of the orchestra in this period and a biography of Walter Heermann.]

Central High School closed in 1968, and MATC, on the same block, acquired the building. The Central High School Auditorium was renovated and reopened as MATC Auditorium in 1969, with much-needed improvements in lighting and some reduction in the tight-packed and uncomfortable seating (wooden seats were replaced with plush seats in avocado, the ubiquitous furniture color of the1960s). There were also improvements to the stage, but the essential shell of the space remained the same. While the auditorium was part of a working high school, there had always been a certain amount of tension over scheduling rehearsals and concerts. With MATC in control, it meant that the space was nearly always available to Civic Music, and Roland Johnson, the orchestra's third conductor, remembers that there were rehearsals in the space almost every weeknight: weekly rehearsals of the orchestra, chorus, Madison Opera, and the Municipal Band.

By the 1970s, the Madison Symphony Orchestra—the name change took place in 1965--had clearly outgrown this space. Under Johnson, the MSO was an increasingly large and increasingly professionalized ensemble. Not only was the stage too small for an ever-expanding orchestra, the hall itself, which had a seating capacity of 1,046, no longer accommodated the symphony's audience. From 1969 until 1980, the orchestra's concerts were regularly doubled, with Saturday night and Sunday matinee performances of each program, to allow for a larger audience.  [Click here to see more on the history of the orchestra in this period and a biography of Roland Johnson.]

The MSO moved to the Oscar Mayer Theatre in 1980, though it still played occasional youth and Madison Opera performances at MATC in the early 1980s. The orchestra's final performance at MATC was a youth concert in May 1986. Shortly afterward, the former Central High School was demolished: all that remains today is the isolated main archway on Wisconsin Avenue.

Masonic Temple Auditorium
The Masonic Temple on Wisconsin Avenue is one of Madison's architectural gems. Completed in 1925 at a cost of $500,000, the Temple was designed by the Madison firm of Law & Law. (One of the partners, James Law, later served as Madison's mayor from 1932-43.) Though designed for Masonic ritual, the building's central auditorium was also built as a musical venue, with a large organ in one of the side balconies and a broad stage. Over 1000 seats surround the floor in a large horseshoe shape on the main floor, and in two surrounding balconies, and the the floor could handle additional seating if necessary. This is an impressive space, decorated in Classical style throughout, and remains today more or less unchanged from the way it looked in Prager's years.

From 1937 until the early 1950s the Civic Symphony and Chorus concerts held most of their programs at in the Masonic Temple Auditorium. Usage of the hall was on very favorable terms. MATC's Alexander Graham was a prominent member of the Lodge, and partly through his intervention Civic Music was able to use the auditorium at virtually no cost. This was of great importance, as Civic Music's annual budget seldom exceeded $5,000 until the 1960s, and all of its concerts were offered free of charge. The Masonic Temple served as a congenial home for sixteen seasons, and concerts were generally very well-attended, particularly during Prager's tenure. In the 1960s and 1970s, a now-professional Madison Symphony Orchestra performed several times in the Temple under Roland Johnson. It was comparable in capacity to Central High School Auditorium, though Robert Palmer, who managed the business end of Civic Music in the late 1970s and 1980s, recalls that they never tried to sell seats on the "frightening" second balcony, which is sharply sloped and has distressing low railings. The open stage design also allowed for larger choral and orchestral forces.

In recalling programs at the Masonic Temple Auditorium, Johnson notes that "The acoustics were interesting." The hall's high, slightly domed ceiling and more or less square floorplan creates a very reverberant space perfectly suited for the spoken word or choral music. For example, Johnson remembered a 1986 performance of Britten's opera Noye's Fludde—the last Civic Music performance in the space‚with great fondness. It is still used frequently for choral rehearsals and programs today, though the Madison Symphony Chorus has not used the space since the 1980s. The hall is much less kind to orchestral music, however. For instruments, particularly for a large mixed group an extremely "live" space like this one can be treacherous: making it more or less impossible to hear one another for adjustments in balance and intonation.

The University Stock Pavilion
In the 1930s, the Philadephia Orchestra played in Madison on a tour through the midwest. Its conductor Leopold Stokowsi, on hearing that the orchetstra had been booked into the Stock Pavilion reportedly exclaimed: "At last, a chance to play in a hall named after a great conductor!" Stokowski, was naturally thinking of the Chicago Symphony's longtime maestro Frederick Stock, but the Stock Pavilion was designed with a different kind of stock in mind. Completed in 1909 as the centerpiece of the UW's Agriculture program, the Stock Pavilion was the largest venue of any kind in Madison until the completion of the present Fieldhouse in 1940. With a large oval dirt floor, some 160 x 60 feet in area, and surrounding arena-style seating, it could accommodate up to 3,500 people.

Size alone would have made the Pavilion an important venue. In the 1920s and 1930s, Prager annually staged musical extravaganzas at the Stock Pavilion, featuring enormous choirs, orchestra, and even dancers. (One performance, a Norwegian "Sangarfest" in 1932, featured a massed choir of over 1,000 singers.) Prager also used the Stock Pavilion for concerts that would draw a large audiences, as in 1946, when he was able to engage the soprano Marjorie Lawrence. Prager's farewell concert, a performance of Beethoven's Missa solemnis, was held in the hall as well. Heermann never staged concerts there, but Johnson led several programs at the Stock Pavilion, including concerts featuring soprano Eileen Farrell (1969 and 1975) and pianist Van Cliburn (1971).

What makes the Stock Pavilion truly remarkable is the way it sounds. A large elongated space, with wooden walls and ceiling, a hard-packed floor, and no proscenium arch or large flyspace to eat up sound, its acoustics are magnificently suited to orchestral music. Johnson notes: "Madison will be lucky if the new Overture Hall sounds that good." Orchestral concerts occasionally used a portable orchestra shell, but the response of this space was such that it was really unnecessary.

While music sounded great in the Stock Pavilion, it was not a particularly comfortable place in which to play and listen. Seating on the floor and for the musicians was on butt-numbing folding chairs, and seating in the bleachers was little better. (Keep in mind that in Prager's day, concerts frequently ran three hours or more!) Betty Bielefeld, who has played flute in the MSO for nearly fifty years, recalled one program where bats circled the orchestra for the entire concert. And of course it was always impossible to forget that the Stock Pavilion was not really a concert venue. This was especially apparent during Farrell's first visit to Madison, recalls Johnson.  When the orchestra arrived for the dress rehearsal, they found that someone had neglected to move a large wagon filled with very ripe manure. When Farrell arrived, Johnson apologized profusely about the smell. She was a consummate professional about the whole thing until she started to giggle uncontrollably during the first aria, eventually breaking down completely. Her comment: "At least my vocal chords are being well-fertilized."

Oscar Mayer Theatre
Two of Madison's grandest movie/Vaudeville palaces were completed within nine months of one another: the Orpheum opened in March 1927 and the even more opulent Capitol, directly across State Street, opened in January 1928. Both theaters included stages and orchestra pits, for traveling Vaudeville and musical acts, and both housed large theater organs used to accompany silent movies. Prager staged concerts in both halls in the 1930s, but eventually they were turned over more or less exclusively to movies. The Orpheum Theater was briefly under consideration in the 1990s for conversion to a concert hall for the MSO, but this project was eventually abandoned, and soon afterwards Overture Hall appeared on the horizon. In recent years, however, the Orpheum has experienced a rebirth as a venue for art films and live performance.

The Capitol Theater had a very different fate. It was renovated in the late 1970s as the central performance space of the Madison Civic Center, a 2,000-seat multipurpose venue known as the Oscar Mayer Theatre. While its sound and lighting were completely modernized, and deteriorated movie-theater seats were replaced, the stage and auditorium remained largely unchanged. The Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus opened the hall on February 23, 1980 with a gala concert that concluded with Beethoven's ninth symphony. (In a nice bit of historical symmetry, this season's subscription concerts in Overture Hall will also open with the ninth, with concerts on October 8-10.) The Oscar Mayer Theatre was to be the MSO's most important venue, hosting nearly 300 concerts over 25 seasons. The orchestra's final performance there was a children's concert on May 11. Initial plans for the Overture Center called for using the space for the Madison Children's Museum, or even razing it entirely. Responding to local preservationists, Overture's builders have retained it as a performance space. In the second phase of construction, now underway, the space will be reopened as the Capitol Theater in 2006, an 800-seat hall. The MSO will almost certainly perform on an occasional basis in its old home as well.

The acoustical problems of the Oscar Mayer Theatre became obvious immediately: this was a hall designed with silent movies in mind. (And, incidentally, designed with the smaller proportions of 1920s Americans in mind, as anyone who purchased seats in the theater's upper balcony can attest.) While there were certainly places in the hall where the sound was wonderful, there were also notorious "dead spots"—particularly the seats under the balcony. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, increasingly subtle miking and amplification alleviated the problems to a certain degree, but it was never great. DeMain also moved the orchestra further forward into the hall, with the strings playing above the orchestra pit. In any theater, one of the great problems--from an orchestra's —is the necessity for a large open space beneath the stage, and, even worse, a large flyspace above the stage, blocked by the proscenium arch. A certain amount of the orchestra's sound is swallowed, never to be heard by the audience. The MSO has tried several arrangements of orchestra shells over the last twenty years. In the past few years, we have achieved some success with shells on either side of the orchestra and suspended in the flyspace. At the rear of the orchestra there was nothing but a white scrim to protect the audience from seeing the Oscar Mayer's unsightly cement stage wall.  [Click here to see more on the history of the orchestra in this period and a biography of John DeMain.]

All of its acoustical problems aside, moving to Oscar Mayer was arguably the most momentous event in the MSO's history, as important as the orchestra's transformation from a community group to a fully professional ensemble in the 1960s. First and foremost, it allowed the audience to expand. By the late 1970s, the MSO's subscription programs were routinely filling MATC Auditorium for Saturday night and Sunday matinee concerts of each program, a potential audience of up to nearly 2,000. Oscar Mayer Theatre offered over 2,000 seats for each performance, and the orchestra was frequently selling out its concerts by the end of Johnson's tenure in the early 1990s. Within a few years under DeMain, the MSO's subscription series had expanded to eight pairs of Saturday/Sunday concerts, and in 2002-03, this expanded to nine pairs. Given the orchestra's phenomenal growth in subscribers and single-ticket buyers, this means that we performed each Oscar Mayer Theatre program to 3,500-4,000 people. As the MSO moves into Overture this season, most of its programs will be tripled, with concerts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. According to the MSO's administration, subscriptions are already well above last year's levels, and this bold experiment looks like it may succeed.

With a stage vastly larger than that of MATC, the Oscar Mayer Theatre could also hold much bigger musical forces: in some cases 300 or more players and singers. This allowed the orchestra and chorus under Johnson, and later under DeMain to take on the most enormous works in the literature, works like Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Cantata, or the series of Mahler symphonies that began with DeMain's first season. The string section grew by several players within a few years of the move to Oscar Mayer, and the chorus expanded as well.  The string section in particular has continued to grow, in quantity and quality, during DeMain's tenure. Another effect of the new venue was more intangible: several of my fellow musicians who were in the orchestra in 1980 have discussed the pride they felt in performing professionally in a truly impressive hall. Overture will almost certainly kindle the same kind of pride.

While many of us will miss the rather grand and ostentatious space of the theater itself, despite its uncertain acoustics, none of us will miss the backstage area. It was generally dingy and cramped, with just two small dressing rooms (usually occupied by Maestro DeMain and our soloists) and one partially functioning toilet backstage—larger bathrooms and dressing rooms were deep in the catacombs under the auditorium.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra has continued to tour the town, even during nearly a quarter century's residence at the Oscar Mayer Theatre. There have been several choral programs at First Congregational Church from the 1960s onwards. Johnson remembers that it was necessary to build a large temporary side stage at the church for a 1966 performance of Britten's massive War Requiem. (This was, incidentally the first midwestern performance of this now-classic work.) In an effort to reach out to all of the city's neighborhoods, Johnson staged choral and orchestral concerts at several venues outside of the isthmus: St. Bernard's Church, and at East High School, West High School, and LaFollette High School. More recently, the orchestra performed a successful series of family-oriented shows at the Mitby Theater in the 1990s. Johnson staged benefit Pops programs at the Dane County Youth—now part of the Exhibit Hall of the Alliant Energy—all through the 1960s and early 1970s, and later moved Pops programs to the Dane County Coliseum.

Outdoor concerts were a relative rarity in the orchestra's history, though Johnson did institute a series of summer "brown bag concerts" on the steps of the Capitol in the 1970s, a modest predecessor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's successful Concerts on the Square. Soon after becoming the MSO's fourth music director in 1994, John DeMain held the first annual Concert on the Green--a dinner and concert held each year at Bishop's Bay Country Club to benefit the MSO's educational programs. The Symphony has also played in Garner Park for Madison Opera's Opera in the Park programs for the last few years. In 2002, we played for our largest audience, some 300,000 people in Warner Park, for Rhythm & Booms--a concert that featured Country singer Lee Greenwood, and a performance of Classics carefully synchronized to the fireworks.

Overture Hall and the Future
The move to Overture Hall is as much a quantum leap forward as the 1980 move to the Oscar Mayer Theatre. The sound is great. In Overture Hall, by necessity another multipurpose space, there is no real proscenium arch, and the orchestra is surrounded by a shell that completely insulates the stage from the wings and flyspace. The dramatic curves of the Pleasant Rowland Concert Organ provide a backdrop, but the organ's sound box is an integral part of the hall's acoustic design. The stage itself is far roomier than that Oscar Mayer, with a substantial and dramatically swept series of orchestra risers that concentrate the sound and make it much easier to for us to hear one another. The spacious backstage area, with several dressing rooms, a large "green room," and ample restrooms seems like a luxury.

Playing in Overture Hall during the Grand Opening has, quite simply, made us proud to be members of this orchestra and this community. This was never more apparent than at a special invitation-only concert on September 10 [2004], hosted by Jerry Frautschi for the men and women who built Overture and their families. We are used to applause, but the most emotional moment in the program was when we had a chance to applaud the people who had built our brand-new instrument.

At some point—not soon—playing in Overture will become as much a routine pleasure as taking a well-worn and familiar horn or violin out of the case. But for the time being, we can all relish the honeymoon period.

Michael Allsen is Professor of Music at UW-Whitewater and a longtime member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

©2004 by J. Michael Allsen