Claire Nowak

Bing Crosby Begone

Present Music’s annual Thanksgiving concert packs in crowds for its warm, but untraditional holiday fare.

By - Nov 18th, 2014 02:10 pm
Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group

Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group

Chad Piechocki was hired as the managing director of Present Music last July, but has attended the group’s annual Thanksgiving concert with his wife for seven years. To him, it’s “the best concert by far in Milwaukee for the holidays.”

Holiday concerts are generally reserved for Christmas carols, but Present Music has always been about breaking stereotypes. Its Thanksgiving program at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist always offers a different take on the season.

The program will open with a presentation from the Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group, who has started each Thanksgiving show since 2000. The group sets up right beneath the cathedral’s crucifix. Piechocki says the concept of tribal music being performed in a church shows “the impact of where we are today as a country, just that real simple gesture to the history of Thanksgiving.”

The all-male group also performs a traditional Friendship Dance to close the show. Audience members hold hands in a large circle around the church and dance a simple rhythmic step like in a pow wow.

It turns into a community affair when the rest of the artists join in. Present Music tries to find musical partners that share an understanding of what the concert means culturally. This year, over 90 musicians will take part, coming from the Milwaukee Handbell Ensemble, Vocal Arts Academy, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, and Muskego High School. Present Music’s new vocal group Hearing Voices is also part of the program, performing the more strenuous vocal pieces.

“We’ve always been collaborating — before collaborating was cool,” Piechocki says.

Composer Kamran Ince, whom Present Music celebrated in “Ince by Ince” earlier this season, authored two songs on the program. “Hammers and Whistles” was commissioned in 2006 for Present Music’s 25th anniversary. His signature sound—a blend of Turkish and Western components—is more pronounced in his other work, “Gloria Everywhere.” Its text from the mystic Sufi poet Jelaleddin Rumi offers praise for God’s presence in nature.

“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” addresses faith in a less abstract light. Using audio of a homeless man singing the tune, composer Gavin Bryars looped it and added a light orchestration behind it. Its simplicity in melody and message makes it a powerful contrast to the consumer culture surrounding Thanksgiving.

“It’s humbling this holiday season to think of all we have as Americans,” Piechocki says. “Then, here’s this man who has next to nothing, and he’s essentially singing this song of praise. He’s grateful for what he has, just to put that in perspective.”

Past years have brought crowds that nearly filled the cathedral, and a similar turnout is expected this year. In Piechocki’s experience, the key factor that keeps everyone coming back is the concert’s communal, faith-filled celebration in the true spirit of Thanksgiving.

Concert goers, he notes, “take away that sense of community in a very non-commercial, non-Hollywood-esque, like Bing-Crosby-singing-White-Christmas way,” he says. Instead, “People come away feeling connected to themselves and other patrons.”

4 p.m. Nov. 23 at the Cathedral of St. john the Evangelist. Tickets are $15, $25, and $35. Students get a 50 percent discount. Purchase tickets online or by calling 414-271-0711.

Michelle DeYoung with MSO

Michelle DeYoung

Michelle DeYoung

The last time mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung sang with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, she performed in the psychologically dark opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. Making a drastic change in subject matter, the three-time Grammy-winner returns to Milwaukee to sing about the journey of love in Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs.

DeYoung has performed the work in the past—this will be her first time working with conductor Asher Fisch—but that doesn’t make the songs any easier to perform. Though Berg wrote well for the voice, he requires singers to use their entire range.

Still, DeYoung enjoys working through the technically difficult pieces, and had a hard time picking her favorite of the seven. Each elicits different emotions, so her preferences change with her mood. “I’ll be singing one and think, ‘Oh, this is my favorite,” and then I’ll get to another and go, ‘Oh no, this is my favorite,’” she says.

The poetry in each song highlights themes of nature, love, and heartache. DeYoung focuses on the meaning behind those words, how they affect her in the midst of her performance, to convey Berg’s intended message.

“It’s like dessert. The poetry is touching and beautiful,” DeYoung says. “The vocal line is very fulfilling. They’re very atmospheric. You kind of go into this different place and experience music on a different level.”

11:15 a.m. Nov. 21 & 8 p.m. Nov. 22 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $21-$101 and are available online or by calling 414-291-7605.

Florentine Opera’s Trial By Jury

The verdict is out. The Florentine Opera’s upcoming charity event will take the company to court for a one-night-only showing of Trial By Jury.

The comic one-act opera by Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert satirizes hypocritical authority figures through a court case involving outrageous characters and “a breach of promise of marriage.” To put the show in a period setting, the Florentine will present the performance in the Federal Courthouse’s Ceremonial Courtroom. The cast, featuring the Florentine’s Studio Artists as principal roles, will incorporate the courtroom’s jury box and judicial bench into their staging.

The evening includes two performances of Trial By Jury, giving attendees more flexibility, plus dinner in Courthouse Atrium and a live auction. All proceeds benefit the Florentine Opera’s education department, which provides arts programming to children in southeastern Wisconsin. This season, the Opera’s annual school tour will let nearly 20,000 students take part in an original, fully staged production of “Goldie B. Locks & The Three Singing Bears.”

5:30 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 22 at Milwaukee’s Federal Courthouse. Single tickets cost $295 and are available online.

Frankly Music’s Strauss and Mozart

Violinist Frank Almond and his string ensemble from Frankly Music take on two great composers for the second performance in their St. Paul’s Episcopal Church series. The show celebrates Strauss’ 150th birthday with his “Metamorphosen” and string sextet from his opera Capriccio. Since Strauss had a deep admiration for Mozart, the musicians will also perform Mozart’s String Quintet, K. 515.

7 p.m. Nov. 24 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Tickets range from $10-30 and are available online.

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