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On the Twentieth Century
"Old school" tunes from Kurt Ollmann and the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra.

Janesville composer Carrie Jacobs-Bond

Local music lovers don’t have too much trouble finding their fill of Beethoven or Verdi from the local concert calendar. But this weekend offered music that was a little more off the beaten path. 

Saturday night at UWM’s Fine Arts Recital Hall, baritone Kurt Ollmann and pianist Jeffry Peterson offered a program they called “Le Belle Epoque—The Gilded Age” which offered a sampling of art song—from both American and France—written between the late 1800s to the early 20th century. It wasn’t intended to be a competition, and if it was, it was hardly a fair fight. While this was a golden age of French music—think of the composers: Camille Saint-Saens, Gabriel Faure, Jules Massenet, Cesar Franck, Charles Gounod and Claude Debussy. But it was a time when American music didn’t quite hold its own on the world stage. There’s a reason people think Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Samuel Barber when they think of American classical music. And they were all born around the time this music was being written.

Still, the contrast was fascinating. The music and words of the French songs were like an Impressionist painting or Alphonse Mucha poster come to life: Passionate ardor surrounded by fecund nature, with meditations on mortality and the mutability of love to boot. Some American songs shared the meditative stance on death, but the language was more muted, and often more specifically about the American experience. The final set of songs were certainly rooted in the American experience—they included art music celebrating life on the wide-open prairie of both cowboys and Native Americans. For an encore, Ollmann chose the lovely and sentimental song, “A Perfect Day,” written by Janesville composer Carrie Jacobs-Bond, one of the most popular composers of songs in her day (she also wrote “I Love You Truly,” mostly known today as George Bailey’s wedding song).

Ollmann and Peterson were in complete command of the music, whatever side of the Atlantic it was from. This was a time when the French (and some Americans) were interested in expanding the harmonic palette of song, even as melodies strove for an expressive lyricism well suited to the text. Ollmann brought both clarity and drama to the songs, inhabiting the characters and adding extended dramatic pauses when it suited the poetry (as in the heart-stopping end of Reynaldo Hahn’s “Infidélité”). And Peterson was there every step of the way, accompanying with great sensitivity and a lyricism of his own.


Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra, circa 1923

Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra, present day

On Sunday night, the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra also included some music from the early 20th century. But this was an All-American affair. The MMO is the oldest continuously operating music ensemble in the city (it was founded in 1900), and it takes its history seriously. Not surprising, since it still has arrangements in its library that were first performed by the group in the 1920s and ‘30s. It’s part of the great tradition of music ensembles that exist simply because the musicians love playing in a group.

The sound is unique—bright and exotic; it reminded me of the zither in The Third Man more than once during its set (that also might have been due to the setting, the Old World ambiance of the Pabst Brewery’s intimate beer hall, Best Place).  It was mostly dance music—waltzes, fox trots—and despite the 20-odd members (including bass violin, a guitar or two, and several types of mandolins), the MMO plays without a conductor, using only the occasionally gestures of the music director Linda Binder, nodding from her chair.

Robin Pluer joined the group for some music from the Great American Songbook, and her voice and outfit (think 1920s diva a la Bessie Smith) fit perfectly. The second half of the concert was given over to jazz mandolin virtuouso Don Stiernberg and his superb trio (guitarist Andy Brown and bassist Emma Dayhuff), which played dazzling, “Hot Club”-style jazz, but not without also paying tribute to its home town, Chicago, with a soulful rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”

NOTE: A previous version of this story listed the incorrect name for the bassist within the Don Stiernberg Trio. She was also listed incorrectly in the performance's program.

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