MSO cellist, recitalist, bandmate
MSO cellist Peter Thomas commences a complete Beethoven sonata cycle Sunday. Then he'll get out the electric cello to play with I Am Not a Pilot.
(A) plays cello in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
(B) represents the musicians on the MSO’s marketing committee
(C) plays in a band, I’m Not a Pilot, with a growing following, and writes some music for it, including all of his own parts;
(D) plays in the Arcas String Quartet, with MSO colleagues
(E) and, starting Sunday, Jan. 13, Thomas and Matthew Bergey will commence a three-concert complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas for cello and piano.
Did I leave anything out, Peter?
Thomas, 31, is in his fifth season with the MSO. From the start, he sought opportunities to make music beyond the orchestra. That first year, he and violinist Margot Schwartz were new hires. He had met pianist Bergey already, and immediately invited her to play with them. They got together for one concert as the Prospect Trio, which quickly evolved into the Arcas Quartet with the addition of violinist Ilana Setapen and in 2009 and, a little later, violist Wei-Ting Kuo.
“Matt Bergey was like, ‘Hey, what happened to me?'” Thomas said. “We did a recital together two years ago. Matt thought we should do all five Beethovens together, and he’s been persistent about it. I’m in way over my head this year, so of course we’re doing it. Who plays three recitals in one semester?”
The particulars on the Beethoven cycle:
Jan. 13: Sonata No. 2 (G Minor) and Sonata No. 5 (D Major)
April 14: Sonata No. 1 (F Major) and Sonata No. 4 (C Major)
Sept. 29: Sonata for Horn/Cello (F Major) and Sonata No. 3 (A Major)
Amid the Beethoven and the very dense spring MSO schedule, Thomas and I’m Not a Pilot band mates Mark Glatzel (vocals, keyboards), Steve Vorass (drums) and Adrian Esguerra (bass and backing vocals) will play a concert at the main hall of the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center on Jan. 25. Some time this spring, they’ll throw a CD release party from their second album, which they’ve been recording and editing lately.
Thomas got involved because a friend knew Glatzel, who was looking for either a violist or cellist to round out his no-guitar band.
“I thought I could use a social life,” Thomas said. “Mark emailed me and told me the practice — we still call it band practice, not rehearsal — would be in Brown Deer. This was November of 2008, I’d just gotten here, and had no idea where that was.”
So Glatzel drove to the East Side to pick Thomas up, which gave them 30 minutes to misunderstand each other.
“I had such a big ego,” Thomas said, and went on to quote himself in haughty tones: “‘Do you have any idea what it takes to become a cellist in a major symphony orchestra?’ But then we had our practice, and I had a blast. We wrote one of our hit songs, ‘No Heart,’ that very night. When he was driving me back, Mark said, ‘Can you practice with us again?’ I just never stopped practicing with them.
“I can show off, finally.”
Not to mention shred on an electric cello. Playing in the MSO or any orchestra is all about blending in, becoming an extension of both the composer and the conductor and part of the cello section. The close-order drill of orchestral playing brings another sort of satisfaction, however, and Thomas was quick to appreciate the privilege of playing in a very good section within an excellent orchestra under an A-list music director, Edo de Waart.
Thomas landed in Milwaukee in part because of Joseph Johnson, who became a beloved figure in our town’s musical circles though he served just three seasons (fall 2007 through spring of 2010) as MSO principal cellist. Thomas met him in Minneapolis, when he was an undergrad at the University of Minnesota and Johnson was a section player in the Minnesota Orchestra. Johnson heard him play and gave Thomas extra lessons for a time. Later — after Thomas completed graduate work at the Cleveland Institute of Music, with Stephen Geber — Johnson encouraged him to audition for the Milwaukee job.
Thomas gives Johnson and Tanya Remenikova, his principal teacher at U of M, credit for nurturing his very green talent at a critical time in his development.
“When I got to Minnesota, all I knew were the Suzuki Method books,” Thomas said. “I didn’t know that those Bach pieces in the Suzuki books were parts of suites. I had a lot to learn.”
Stevens Point, Wis., is one of the regional capitals of Suzuki Method. Thomas grew up there as part of a musical family. His father is a professor of organ in the UW-SP music department, and his mother, who came to Wisconsin from Japan to study there, is also an organist and choir director.
“We were the musical Thomas family,” he said. “My older brother started to play the cello at 4. He chose the cello because it rhymed with Jello. No joke.”
Peter started at 5.
“I remember being born with the cello,” he said. (By the way, Thomas’ girlfriend, Lynn Kabat? Cellist.)
He’s certainly doing a whole family’s worth of cello playing in Milwaukee. He sees it all — rock band, orchestra, chamber music — as a continuum. He’s not slumming when he plays with I Am Not a Pilot. He’s just making music — and promoting it.
“The MSO right now is like a winning team on the field that doesn’t have enough people in the seats,” Thomas said. “The marketing department does a great job, but there’s only so much they can do. The rest is up to the musicians. It’s not part of our contract to promote the orchestra, but it won’t survive unless we do our part and go above and beyond. What does it take for us to put up a Facebook post from backstage? The orchestra needs social media and web presence. We can do that. Every time I play with the band, I drop in the MSO connection. The more I can do for the band, the more I can do for the orchestra, and the orchestra understands that and is very supportive.”
Thomas isn’t shy about leveraging his Facebook friends, all 2,384 of them, to promote music.
“You have to be entrepreneurial these days,” Thomas said. “You determine what you can do and what you can’t. The business model is different — you can’t wait for someone to book you. You have to do everything yourself and find ways to get to the public. You have to make your own opportunity.”
Such as: Conceiving, booking, promoting and playing a complete Beethoven cycle on top of everything else, starting 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13, at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.
It must be Cello Week in Milwaukee. Monday and Tuesday, Tamás Varga, principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic, will join pianist Stephen Beus and violinist Frank Almond on the Frankly Music Series.