Tom Strini

Three Decades on the scene

TCD's Tom Strini has covered Milwaukee's arts for 30 years, as of Oct. 4, 2012.

By - Oct 4th, 2012 01:39 am
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Today, Oct. 4, 2012, marks my 30th anniversary of writing about the arts in Milwaukee. That was my first day as dance critic and critic at large at The Milwaukee Journal.

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?

I took them seriously. I understood Colin Cabot’s Third Ward vision for the Skylight Music Theatre and advanced his ideas, and I’d like to think I’ve played some small role in getting the company into its present home. And I’d like to think I had something to do with its emergence from the crisis of 2009.  I’ve cheered on Bill Florescu’s transformation of the Florentine Opera. I chronicled the rebirth of the Pabst Theater when Michael Cudahy took it over and the remake of Uihlein Hall.

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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0 thoughts on “Strini: Three Decades on the scene”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations Tom and thanks for years of dedication to the city!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations on your 30th anniversary, Tom, it is always a pleasure to see and hear through your eyes and ears. Here’s to many more years covering the thriving Milwaukee arts scene. Cheers!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Tom, you’ve been an incredibly influential voice on Milwaukee’s arts scene, most especially in your latest incarnation. Glad you’re not planning to stop anytime soon–and congrats!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Tom, it’s been great to know you and work with you through all those years. Also have enjoyed knowing your family as well, and our association through our children. Your article today is wonderful and evokes many great memories. Here’s to another 30 more!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful article; great memories! I have been with you and your reviews through it all, and BEFORE — my memories of the MSO go back to the very beginning, in the late 50s, when we were the Milwaukee Pops, and Arthur Fiedler was the guest conductor, and my beloved MU chorus under Gunnar Granquist actually sang for him in that concert. You are right — the journey has been memorable. Keep going, please — forever!

  6. Anonymous says:

    “…use the words to chisel the mass of impressions and memories into a story…” Phrases like those are among the many reasons I look forward to every article and review you write, Tom. Congratulations!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations Tom! We are all fortunate for your intelligent and well-crafted coverage of MKE’s ever evolving cultural scene. Thanks for 30 years of great work, and the many more to come!

  8. Anonymous says:

    And the most exciting part for me is that, now that our three sons are grown, I get to attend most of these events with him! I am learning to love classical music and opera (being a jazz, blues, and rock and roll kinda gal), not just appreciate them. Tom and I engage in deep art conversations that feed the soul. It’s a great life.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations Tom well done!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations…I love the Milwaukee arts scene and have really enjoyed it’s growth in stature and confidence since I started attending the symphony when I came to MKE to attend UWM way back when…but drat, I can’t attend everything and really enjoy the vicarious attendance via your comments!

  11. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for teaching me so much over the decades, Tom. You’ve led me to a far deeper appreciation of music and dance. Love the TCD holiday song project. Here’s to 30 more years, writing what you love and being with the woman who loves you back.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations, Tom. Milwaukee’s performing arts scene and patrons are fortunate to have you in our midst!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Tom’s reviews and essays are based on knowledge, experience, and prose that is lean, flexible, interesting, and personal. His 30th anniversary essay is a first-rate example. Congratulations, Tom, and thanks!

  14. Anonymous says:

    Tom, you’re certainly an expert, by now, on the arts scene in Milwaukee, I’m sure under-appreciated – people don’t tend to be verbal towards critics – except when people need to read reviews and adjust their budgets to see what they can afford to see! Congratulations, and I think you’re a great reviewer. Having done some TV on the arts in Milwaukee for many years and writing many book and film reviews online now (besides being a poet, writer, artist myself), I should know!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Tom, we’re all better off as a result of your ongoing critical assessment of the arts. Congrats on your anniversary-laden year.
    Salud, dinero y amor. r

  16. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations Tom. You are part of the Milwaukee cultural scene. We could never dissociate one from the other…. many more years to come….

  17. Anonymous says:

    Bravo Tom! The Milwaukee Arts scene owes a great deal to your support and insight. Wishing you the best on the next 30!

  18. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the kind words. — Tom

  19. Anonymous says:

    I’ve read all the comments; they all reflect my feelings. It has been my pleasure knowing you and learning so much I never knew about music. Never quit doing what you enjoy and we’ll all be the richer for your perseverance. Thanks, Tom

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