Peggy Sue Dunigan

100 Years of Beautiful Music

By - Sep 1st, 2008 02:52 pm
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Gracious. Elegant. Gifted. Enthusiastic. These classical characteristics describe Thallis Hoyt Drake, recording secretary and publicity chair of the MacDowell Club of Milwaukee, and the prestigious organization itself, celebrating its centennial in May 2009.

Drake, a past president and member of the MacDowell Club for 50 years, describes the vision of the first 38 women who were strong minded, talented, and desired a stage to perform and display their musical skills back in 1909, well before women achieved the right to maintain property or to vote. As Drake says, “It wasn’t considered proper for a woman to perform in public,” but these women signed the charter for the club on May 19th of that year, which provided them with a new venue to use their abilities and education.

Following through on this original charter, the MacDowell club initiated an all-female chorus and orchestra, conducted by a woman, which presented a series of yearly concerts at the Woman’s Club of Wisconsin, still a historic presence in contemporary Milwaukee. Members either performed or supported the club by attending the productions free of charge. Guests were allowed to listen for a 25-cent admission fee. The concerts, student organizations and musical study groups that developed in the succeeding decades illustrated the MacDowell Club’s mission statement: furthering musical interests in Milwaukee, providing incentive for progressive work for both professional and amateur musicians and acquainting the public with the number and excellence of local musicians.

This includes Drake, an excellent violinist and founder of Early Music Now, along with hundreds of music teachers over these years. The club offered an opportunity and outlet for these musicians to enhance their own artistry and a platform to continue performing. Drake believes that the club saved her performance skills and helped her find long-standing friends and colleagues with exceptional gifts who all shared a passion for performing classical music. Membership throughout these years was earned through a blind audition, which continues to the present day. Annual dues now require a $25.00 check instead of three dollar bills as in 1910, but still include free admission to all the performances given in public places and private homes by the members. Today, the Club welcomes members of both genders, but still embraces the mission it was founded upon: the inspiration of the wife of Edward A. MacDowell.

Edward MacDowell is one of the first American composers to receive international recognition for his career. After his death in 1908, Marion MacDowell played private piano concerts in people’s homes to raise money for the MacDowell Colony, now based in New Hampshire, which provides sabbaticals and housing for all artists to dedicate solitary study time towards their chosen area of expertise. The MacDowell Colony flourishes, as do numerous MacDowell Clubs throughout the country, all as a result of Marion MacDowell’s efforts.

In 2008, Milwaukee’s chapter focuses on their 99th season, leading up to their centennial on May 19, 2009. Drake enumerates the club’s special events for this 100th year. Erin Biank, a graduate student in Musicology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has compiled the club’s history into a book, The MacDowell Club of Milwaukee: A Century of Music (1909-2009). Recently edited and sent off to press, the release date is set for this month and the club anticipates the book will be available by their opening luncheon on September 14. That event inaugurates the upcoming season with a presentation by Dr. Timothy Noonan illuminating the life and work of Edward A. MacDowell.

The MacDowell Club will also feature eight concerts this year, all free of charge to the public – and seven of which are commissioned world premieres. These selected composers, all with ties to Milwaukee, each donated an inventive musical composition for the performances, including one composed by a 14-year-old Whitefish Bay youth. Together with these remarkable compositions, the chapter commissioned a significant choral arrangement by Michael Torke of Wauwatosa for the May 19, 2009 evening performance. Written especially for Milwaukee’s own Kurt Ollmann, Torke will accompany the singer on the piano for this premiere performance of “Song of Ecclesiastes: A Song Cycle for Baritone.”

In addition, the club announced in March their First Young Composer Competition for nascent Wisconsin composers 25 and younger. The response was excellent, and with 14 applications now in their hands, a three-judge jury will select the winning composition in March of 2009. The winner will receive a cash prize of $1,500 and the composition will be performed at a spring recital. Additional place prizes of $1,000 and $750 will also be awarded.

A new logo, a fundraising campaign and the club’s first professionally-printed season brochure finish this ambitious program of centennial celebration events. While the members wait for their melodious exertions to be applauded, untold hours of time and decades of tradition uphold this portrait of an organization that first encouraged women, then students, and eventually men to pursue the pleasures and contributions classical music brings to any community, especially Milwaukee.

Thousands of artistic musicians emulating Drake’s classical profile of exceptional commitment and performance over the last 100 years influenced the city as they instructed future generations – generations that will sustain this vital musical heritage, which can dwindle to nothing in the beat of several short measures without the support of organizations to foster their continual growth.

Drake herself is a true believer. “The arts are so transforming. Somehow we’ve managed to stay together the last 100 years, especially the last twenty, which have been more difficult.” The words of this gracious and powerful musician and missionary herald a challenge to all of us to keep these classical portraits resilient and strong. VS

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