The Wisconsin Union Theater's 1997-98 season certainly looks promising, and not coincidentally also points to a trend unfolding in the town of booking programs that emphasize quality more than quantity. The Union's concert series and performance series for the coming year include some of the best-known, most solidly established soloists and groups -- The Guarneri Quartet, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, pianists András Schiff, Peter Serkin and Pascal Rogé, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center -- and only the most promising of newcomers -- The Dayton Contemporary Dance Ensemble, cellist Gary Hoffman, violinist Cho-Liang Lin, the guitarist brothers Sergio and Odair Assad, and the young Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster.
Union Theater director Michael Goldberg points to the Performance Series (the two dance companies and MacMaster) as evidence of a "less is more" trend. "We had six events in this series last year, five this year, but only three on tap for next year," he says. "The Civic Center is also scaling back in the number of attractions offered. We need to remain mindful of people's time. There is so much going on: here at the Union, at the Madison Symphony, at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, at the Civic Center and at the UW School of Music. There's a lot of cross-over audience from one kind of event to another, and we know what we offer has to attract and retain that audience from year to year. So for every conceivable reason, quality is important."
The popularity of live performance in the Madison area seems never to have been higher than it is now. The Madison Symphony's phenomenal growth perhaps leading the way, concert events in all venues have now reached the point that audiences cannot reasonably attend everything of interest. A recent example of inevitable scheduling conflict was the opening of the Madison Opera's first-rate Verdi Rigoletto on the same night as the first of two Beethoven concerts by the Orion Quartet. Painful as such choices might be, that they exist is actually a good thing: it means we have a richer cultural life in the community than we used to.
Goldberg echoes these sentiments: "Here in the UW environment we are looking for converts to the arts," he says. "The goal is to create life-long ticket buyers. My students and I have to maintain credibility with our audience. The ticket buyers are not shy about letting us know what they think, and they make it clear that what we offer better be good."
Things do look good in the quality dimension, without being exactly routine. The Quarneri Quartet will be marking the 30th anniversary of their first performance at the Union. The renowned Schiff and Serkin will appear in a two-piano concert; Madison is one of only four dates they will play together. Marsalis will be premiere a new composition together with the Chamber Music Society, which will then play Stravinsky's masterpiece, L'Histoire du Soldat. Hoffman, a young player cutting a wide swath of acclaim in the world's concert halls, will appear with one of the best chamber-music pianists in the business, David Golub. The Assad brothers are reported to be dazzling while concentrating on contemporary repertory. The Dayton dance ensemble has been restoring and restaging works by pioneering African-American choreographers. While much specific repertory has yet to be finally decided, it's clear that 97-98 will set a new high-water mark for interest and quality.
Isthmus, April, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson