The Founder of Present Music Reflects on the Organization’s Past and Future

Kevin Stalheim prepares to hand over the Present Music reins after he retires this season.

When Kevin Stalheim founded Present Music in 1982, you would have been hard-pressed to find a classical music ensemble in Milwaukee playing a composition that had been written by a living person. Or a woman. Or anyone of color. “Even now,” he says, “95 percent of what gets funded is by dead, white male composers.”

While working toward a master’s degree in conducting at UW-Milwaukee, Stalheim started organizing his own concerts around town. He quickly homed in on new music – and work by underrepresented composers – in part because few groups were playing it.

Evidently, few people were initially interested in listening to it, either. “We’d put on shows with 25 or 50 audience members,” Stalheim remembers. “There just wasn’t much of an appetite for new music in Milwaukee then. But I was confident that if we could get people in the door, we could get them to keep coming back.”

He was right. Over the years, Present Music grew, in size and reputation. By 1992, Stalheim had achieved enough success to make overseeing the organization his full-time job. He hired other employees too, and began to organize ensemble trips abroad. “We had some interesting experiences in Japan, Turkey, China. We were the first new music group to go to China.”

These days, a Present Music concert – like the 2011 free show that saw ensemble members playing their instruments from boats floating down the Milwaukee River – may draw as many as 800 audience members. And Stalheim is confident that the two men who will succeed him as co-artistic directors, longtime PM collaborator Eric Segnitz and New York conductor David Bloom, will be able to continue to put on provocative shows spotlighting living artists.

What’s next for Stalheim? When contacted for this interview, he was on the road, preparing to compete in a canoe race in Florida, and he doesn’t plan to slow down any time soon. “I have so many interests outside of music,” he says. “I’m hoping to spend more quality time with friends and family. I’m interested in becoming more involved with the community in a non-musical way, too.”

[alert type=white ]Present Music’s last concert with Stalheim at its helm, the aptly named Stalheim Time Finale, takes place on June 1.[/alert]

“Keeping Time” appears in the May 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.