Tom Strini
State of the Milwaukee Arts

Present Music

Present Music, growing apace and new, improved and even less predictable in 2012-13.

By - Aug 15th, 2012 01:04 am

Laura Murphy and Seth Warren-Crow in Amanda Schoofs’ “Acedia,” at Present Music’s multimedia extravaganza at Turner Hall last March 3. Jennell Jenney photo for TCD.

Present Music’s biggest event of 2011-12 was Water, an extravaganza involving boats, puppets, dozens of muscians, dancers, a small army of visual artists, theater people AND a concert in Uihlein Hall, just about one year ago. Water kicked off Present Music’s 30th anniversary season. Thousands attended. And no one paid a dime — admission was free.

Despite that giveaway, Present Music’s 2011-12 revenues rose 30% over the previous season, which also wasn’t bad. Paying customers flocked to the group’s other programs last season.

“It was a big year,” said artistic director Kevin Stalheim, who founded Present Music in 1982. “Almost all our concerts sold out.”

Eric Lind, managing director, noted that as much marketing and more logistical effort went into that free concert as would have gone into a ticketed concert. The return,  in addition to the satisfaction, was contact with about 500 new households. That surely helped drive audience growth for the rest of the season.


Kevin Stalheim. Angela Morgan photo for Present Music.

“This is our fifth year with a modest surplus,” Lind said. “We went from a budget of about $460,000 in 2010-11 to$520,000 last season, and we’re working to maintain that level.”

“We rallied around the 30th anniversary, so last season was bigger,” Stalheim said. “But this one’s big, too.”

The 31st season will feature Present Music’s most expensive single project ever: The premiere of Kamran Ince’s opera, The Judgment of Midas, April 12-13 at the UWM Zelazo Center.   Present Music and Ince, a Turkish-American long ensconced at the University of Memphis, have worked together for more than 20 years. They toured Turkey together in 1994.

Jill Anna Ponasik, of the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, helped assemble the six featured singers for this tale of a singing contest between Pan and Apollo, who represent street music and art music, respectively. Ponasik will also be stage director, though Stalheim hastened to say that these will be concert performances.

“So many of our projects go beyond the music,” Stalheim said. “Midas involves mythology, archaeology, history, even food, and it’s part of the UWM Peck School’s Year of the Arts. “This is the opposite of the usual wait-for-the-composer project. We’ve been looking at it for two years. It’s done. Way done.”


Present Music Thanksgiving, 2011, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Rob Bundy photo for TCD.

Present Music will return to the Milwaukee riverfront and the Marcus Center Sept. 1 to open its 2012-13 season, but without quite as much splash as last year.

“We’re not arriving by boat or anything like that,” Stalheim said. “Calypso, the MYSO steel-drum band, will play outside. Then we’ll all go into tiny Vogel Hall for a concert. Musically, this will be really great. The concert isn’t that big, but the difficulty is, and there’s a lot of technology.”

Steve Reich’s 2X5, for example, involves two electric guitars, electric bass, drum set and piano playing live. The live players combine sounds with the same ensemble pre-recorded. Anna Clyne’s Blush is for laptop, baritone (Kurt Ollmann) and mixed chamber ensemble.

“It would be easy to say no to the technical hassles, but we want to keep things fresh,” Stalheim said.

Stalheim has managed to put on many big events in part by involving other groups, from Milwaukee Public Theatre to the Milwaukee Choral Artists to Danceworks. Fall(ing), Oct. 26 at the UWM Zelazo Center, will be another collaboration with the Peck School and its Year of the Arts. It will also be Present Music’s first ever with the Milwaukee Ballet. Simone Ferro and Dani Kuepper, of the UWM dance faculty, will create new dances for the occasion. So will Tim O’Donnell, winner of the Milwaukee Ballet’s 2010 Genesis Choreography Competition, and company dancer Petr Zahradnicek. Stalheim will use existing music for this one, but it’s not easy to match music with the choreographer and the available musicians and to make it all work in continuity.


Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre was part of Present Music’s “Water” event in August of 2011..

Present Music’s traditional Thanksgiving concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, set for Nov. 18, includes a major new commission by Timothy Andres (check out his fascinating blog/website). We last heard Andres at Present Music in January; I loved his Night Jaunt. Andres is a serious cook, so his Thanksgiving piece is Names of Food, for women’s choir and 10 instruments. It might step outside the meditative spell we have come to expect from Present Music’s Thanksgivings.

“The entire text is nothing but names of food,” Stalheim said. “It goes from silly to quirky to serious.”

Stalheim is notorious for leaving lots of TBAs in his season schedule. That’s no big deal because Present Music’s audience comes to concerts to find out what will happen, not to recreate a familiar experience. In terms of repertoire, Stalheim is unusually complete in his planning for the coming season. He’s already programmed Andrew Norman’s Sabina, inspired by Roman churches in the early morning; Ted Hearne’s Vessels and Nico Muhly’s Honest Music on February’s In the Chamber concerts. However, those concerts will take place at venues TBD, on dates on or around Feb. 16.

“We’re excited about exploring different spaces,” Stalheim said. “We want to keep that open. We plan to do it six times, three in Milwaukee and three somewhere else. We might do it in someone’s house.”

Circumstances will keep Present Music away from its de facto home, Turner Hall Ballroom, until the final concert of the season, on May 24. The group will return with Multitude, a sort of concert/arts carnival with all sorts of visual art, theater, dance and video going on, rather like the multimedia bash of last March. Music by Ted Hearne will get special attention.

“Hearne is part of a scene that’s blossomed in New York and elsewhere,” Stalheim said. “They get out of Yale and Princeton, they form groups, and they play. Most of them are performers, too. The don’t sit around waiting for Kevin Stalheim to call, which is great.”

Last season, Stalheim and Present Music celebrated 30 years not with a survey of music from concerts past, but with new sorts of presentations and lots of new music. The season’s battle cry was Forward!

“We chose ‘forward’ to put down any notion of nostalgia,” Stalheim said. “We’re looking for a word for to describe the coming season, but we’re just so unpredictable. We’re not always going back to the same eight musicans on every concert. And now we’re doing an opera. And it’s not Danceworks this year, but the Milwaukee Ballet, and I don’t know how that will sit with our audience. There’s no focus on one style of music. I sometimes think we might have an identity problem.”

Forward is so 2011-12. Unpredictable! in 2012-13!

Musical sound bites, interviews, further details and ticketing and subscription links are available at the Present Music website.

Previously on State of the Milwaukee Arts: Danceworks, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Milwaukee Ballet, Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Florentine Opera.

Don’t miss anything! Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s continually updated TCD Guide to 2012-13, brought to you by the Florentine Opera.






Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us