The final concert of the season features music surrounding the events of the First World War.
If they made Hollywood movies about chamber music ensembles, the tale of Milwaukee Musaik just might be showing at a multiplex near you.
It is, after all, a story about the last-minute rescue of a venerable music institution—the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra—and its transformation into a leaner, more flexible ensemble for these challenging musical times.
Alexander “Sascha” Mandl, now a member of Milwaukee Musaik’s “Artistic Board,” recalls his reaction when he heard that the chamber orchestra–was in jeopardy: “We can’t let it die. It’s a staple of the community.”
That was in 2014, soon after the ensemble played what might have been its final concert. The MCO board was ready to vote to dissolve the group, believing that its operational model was no longer viable. But conversations between the MCO’s former music director Richard Hynson, and several of the area’s prominent musicians lead to an idea for a new model. (Hynson will continue to be involved with the group as a member of its Advisory Council.)
“Instead of looking to salvage the chamber orchestra model,” recalls Mandl, “we focused on some of the ensembles that we had in town already. How can we put those groups together to create something bigger.” Jeanyi Kim was a part of that conversation, and she invoked the idea of a mosaic. And Milwaukee Musaik was born.
The organization will cap its inaugural season on April 4, with “In Memorium,” a concert of music composed around the time of World War I. And a look at the group’s season so far offers an idea of its “mosaic” approach to chamber music.
Its opening program–at Wisconsin Lutheran College’s Schwan Concert Hall in January–featured four works for chamber orchestra, including two “concerto grossi” (by Arcangelo Corelli and Vivaldi) that gave several soloists a chance to strut their stuff. In March, a program called “European Tour”–at Mount Mary University’s Helfaer Hall–featured a quintet (by Carl Nielsen) and two septets (by Beethoven and Charles Wood) that blended strings and woodwinds.
“Woodwind players don’t often get to perform with string players in a chamber setting,” says Mandl. “Usually you have your woodwind quintet or your brass quintet. So Milwaukee Musaik is facilitating concerts with people who have wanted to play chamber music together, but only had a chance to do it on their own.”
The smaller ensemble also allowed the group to move to a smaller concert hall. “One of our goals is to bring the audience as close to the music as possible,” explains Mandl.
Similarly, “In Memorium”—also at Helfaer–features chamber music for a mixture of instruments that don’t often appear on the same program—strings, clarinet, flute, harp, piano and baritone voice. The idea started with Marguerite Helmers, a scholar who specializes in arts and literature surrounding World War I. And the result was a program that includes music by well-known figures like Debussy and Schoenberg, but also work by little known composers such as André Caplet and Ivor Gurney. The program also lead to the invitation of baritone Paul Rowe, a professor at UW-Madison, who specializes in music of that era.
Mandl and the rest of the board are currently working out the ensembles next season, which will continue with a blend of chamber orchestra and small group concerts, and will include performances at venues around Southeastern Wisconsin.
“In Memoriam, Music of the First World War” takes place at 2:30 pm, April 3, at Mount Mary University’s Helfaer Hall.