Three Decades on the scene
TCD's Tom Strini has covered Milwaukee's arts for 30 years, as of Oct. 4, 2012.
I have heard more than half the entire history of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, from Lukas Foss through through Zdenek Macal, Andreas Delfs and now Edo de Waart. I’ve lived through labor strife and financial crises along with the orchestra. I’ve heard it as both a discouraged band given to routine concerts and through its rise to the brilliant orchestra it is now.
Ted Kivitt ran the Milwaukee Ballet when I arrived, in 1982. Both the company and I survived a disastrous, brief merger with the Pennsylvania Ballet. I witnessed any number of narrow escapes for the ballet. Under Michael Pink and Dennis Buehler, MBC has finally stabilized, and that is most gratifying.
I saw the very first Wild Space and Danceworks concerts, and I wrote about Present Music when it was still the Milwaukee Music Ensemble. I saw those fledgling companies become Milwaukee institutions, along with Early Music Now. Their 15th or 25th or 30th anniversaries pass and I think: Really? That long?
Against all odds, almost every arts institution in Milwaukee operates on a higher artistic level today that it did in 1982. In spite of the difficult times and the ongoing financial struggles of almost every arts institution, Milwaukee’s Golden Age of the Arts is happening right now. Which makes right now the best time to be an arts writer in Milwaukee.
Arts journalism, however, parallels the arts market as well as its product. In 1982, The Milwaukee Journal appeared to be an unshakable platform for the likes of me, and it looked even sturdier when I was named music and dance critic in 1987. Every big paper has to have a full-time music critic, right?
Then came 1995 and the trauma of the merger with the Milwaukee Sentinel and the attendant downsizing. As the new millennium wore on and the Internet disrupted the news market, the company retrenched and downsized again and again. On July 31, 2009, the buyout looked too good to me and the future in print looked too shaky.
That summer, Jon Anne Willow extended an offer to become a partner in ThirdCoast Digest, the online magazine you’re reading now. I published my first story on August 3, 2009. TCD was a new life for me. Suddenly, I was in business. I had partners, employees, obligations beyond my own job. It hasn’t been easy. Days off are rare; my longest stretch without one was 18 months.
But TCD gave me freedom, from the restrictions of print and the cautious ways of the newspaper. The beat system there kept me out of theater, visual art and pop music for decades, but now I could plunge into those fields, too. I’ve rekindled my youthful love of visual art and art museums. Once upon a time, I almost became an actor; it’s been a blast to get to know Milwaukee’s theater community, from the Rep vets to the Youngblood upstarts. And this year, alone, I’ve heard Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello live.
I’m not tired of any of it. When the houselights dim, I still get a thrill. Passion still drives me — and makes it impossible for me to even think about going to bed until that review is published.
When people ask, at intermission, what I think of a show or concert, I rarely know what to say. I have to write, to use the words to chisel the mass of impressions and memories into a story that conveys the essence of the event and says something true about it. I write to figure out what I think, and share that in a way that might charm, inform and stimulate the public and the artist.
In the small hours of the morning, long after the theater is dark, night after night, alone at my keyboard, I try to figure out what art meant on a particular evening. And that moment when the plot of my little story comes clear to me, when I’ve eliminated the blind alleys and found a valid path, when the writing takes on sudden mass and momentum — that’s the moment of inspiration. You can’t wait for it and then start writing. You write until you find your way to it. You earn it.
The fall is my season of anniversaries. Thirty years in Milwaukee. Thirty-six years married to the magnificent Lee Ann Garrison. Thirty-one years of fatherhood. And in November, I’ll turn 63. At that age, most people think seriously about retirement. I’m not.
How could I retire during Milwaukee’s Golden Age of the Arts? It’s my Golden Age, too.
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