The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1960 by Gordon B. Wright as the Madison Summer Symphony Orchestra. After an initial summer concert series at the Eastside Businessmen’s Association, the Orchestra established a summer series at Madison’s Edgewood College, where it remained for 10 years. The repertoire performed by this summer orchestra consisted of great orchestral music from all ages, including composer residencies or revivals of lesser-known works by composers from other eras. Generally, the orchestra performed a four-concert series on Sunday evenings in July.
In 1969, Gordon Wright was engaged by the University of Alaska, and David Crosby, then an apprentice of Maestro Otto-Werner Mueller, was engaged as music director and conductor. During these initial years, the Madison Summer Symphony played occasionally outside of Madison. In 1974, it began to play during other seasons of the year and changed its name to Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, to reflect the expanding geographic range of its performances. In 1980, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra established a full subscription season of indoor concerts featuring guest artists and ensembles. Its size grew from 20 to 30 musicians.
In the winter of 1983, local businesswoman Pleasant Rowland saw an opportunity to increase accessibility to the arts and to create a sense of community, while utilizing the beautiful Capitol lawn as a gathering place. After receiving start-up funds from The Evjue Foundation and The Norman Bassett Foundation, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra launched its first season of Concerts on the Square in the summer of 1984. Known alternately as “The Biggest Picnic of Summer,” the Concerts on the Square® series annually draws 120,000 people to the State Capitol Concourse for a summer of “donation-supported” music, picnicking and community gathering.
Conductor Gordon B. Wright founds the Madison Summer Symphony. The first performances of this new orchestra take place during the summer months at the East Side Business Association on the shore of Lake Monona. Following the first season, performances were moved to Edgewood College on the shore of Lake Wingra, where they remained for the next 10 years. Generally, the orchestra performed a four-concert series on Sunday evenings in July. Three people comprised the board of directors during this decade, and all concerts are free to the public.
Gordon Wright is engaged as conductor of the Fairbanks College Symphony Orchestra in Alaska in late 1968. David Lewis Crosby moves to Madison about this same time and meets Wright in Otto-Werner Mueller’s graduate conducting class. Wright recruits Crosby as Wright’s successor. Crosby assumes the titles of Artistic Director and Conductor. The season continues with four free concerts at Edgewood College. The annual budget is $4,000.
The Madison Summer Symphony changes its name to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra to reflect its expanded mission to serve communities across the state. The summer series is now performed at various parks in Madison.
The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) debuts the “Artist Series” – a series of performances featuring “classical” repertoire and guest artists during the fall and winter months. It performs this season in the Madison Civic Center during the Civic Center’s first year of operation. The core orchestra grew from 20 to 30 musicians.
Pleasant T. Rowland, a Madison businesswoman, approaches the WCO about moving its summer programming to Wisconsin’s Capitol Square. Subsequently, the first season of Concerts on the Square? takes place in 1984. Founding sponsors for the series are the Evjue Foundation and the Norman Bassett Foundation. The Board of Directors is in place. The first full-time manager is hired. The annual budget is approximately $150,000.
Fall- Spring Artist Series moves to First Congregational Church to take advantage of the superior acoustics, sight-lines, and price.
The run-out program begins with a performance in Columbus, Wisconsin. The stage is built from scratch and shaded by a winter pool cover.
WCO experiences a running $50,000 budget deficit for years 1992-1993. Wisconsin’s state government bails WCO out with a one-time $100,000 grant to cover the deficits.
WCO develops its first long range strategic plan to provide clear direction and a strong foundation for the Orchestra. The Orchestra finishes the year with a small surplus absent state funding.
Madison mourns the sudden death of David Lewis Crosby on July 29, 1998 – just two hours before the final Concert on the Square of the season is to take place. Following a tribute concert that September, the WCO Board announces an 18-month search process that will be used to select Crosby’s successor. Crosby served the WCO for 28 years.
The day before Crosby’s death, local businessman Jerry Frautschi announces a $50 million gift for new arts facilities in Madison. Ultimately the gift grows to over $200 million by the time Overture Center is completed in 2006. WCO has the opportunity to be part of the planning process for the new facilities.
The WCO celebrates its 40th anniversary. The Music Director search draws over 240 applicants from around the world; a new logo is developed; and the Artist Series is renamed Concerts OFF the SquareSM.
Andrew Sewell is appointed WCO Music Director on February 1, 2000. The Music Director Debut Concert draws a capacity audience.
WCO Board approves a new, five-year strategic plan, which ultimately encourages Pleasant T. Rowland to offer the WCO a $5 million endowment challenge match. The Artist Series is renamed as the Masterworks series.
Concerts on the Square celebrate its 20th season. WCO finishes a decade of growth, achieving nearly a 500% increase in the annual operating budget ($370k - $2.1m), ending each of those years with a small surplus that enables WCO to build a reserve fund.
WCO completes the $5 million endowment challenge match, which will eventually yield a $10 million endowment when all pledges were fulfilled. Resources from the endowment are allocated (but not designated) toward funding increases in musicians’ compensation as outlined in the WCO strategic plan. WCO sees the benefit of the allocation immediately. Auditions increase from 110 applicants for nine positions in 2002 to 450 applicants for 13 positions in 2004.
WCO opens its new home in Overture Center for the Arts on November 4 & 5, 2005. Ironically, WCO’s new space, the Capitol Theater, is the same space it left in 1980 because of bad acoustics and high costs (at that time called the Oscar Mayer Theatre). Fortunately, the new facility, having gone through a dramatic renovation to improve acoustics yet maintain the elegant aesthetics, turns out beautifully. The acoustics are ideal for a chamber orchestra.
WCO ends its 14th straight year with a surplus. Critics are raving about performances, including this quote, “…I would have crawled through snowdrifts on all fours for last weekend’s performance at the Capitol Theater.” WCO’s budget is $2.4 million. It’s endowment of $10 million is 80% capitalized, with pledges to surpass the goal. To secure its position of strength downtown, WCO purchases a building for administrative offices and back-office production space at 321 E. Main Street. WCO releases its first internationally-distributed compact disc on the VAI label. The core orchestra is 34 musicians and the WCO season includes: six Concerts on the Square, five Masterworks, three youth concerts, two Holiday Pops, one Halloween concert, one Side-By-Side performance, one series of seven Nutcracker performances and three-four run-outs and contracted services.
Also this year, WCO’s founder, Gordon Wright, dies at the age of 72 while on the porch of his cabin in Rainbow, Alaska.
WCO celebrates 50 years of bringing beautiful music to the people of Wisconsin.