Milwaukee’s Best Thanksgiving Tradition?

Present Music's annual Thanksgiving concert offers a warm and wonderful mix of music.

By - Nov 16th, 2017 05:03 pm
2016 Present Music Thanksgiving Concert. Photo from Facebook.

2016 Present Music Thanksgiving Concert. Photo from Facebook.

I’m going to miss the Present Music Thanksgiving concert this Sunday afternoon. I’ve been attending this program for so many years that it has become a wonderful tradition – one of the first items I add to the Fall calendar. Only an out-of-town commitment breaks the string.

Once a year, Present Music departs from its pattern of offering a new, surprise-filled experience with cutting-edge contemporary music to return to a familiar formula celebrating community the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

The Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group opens with a drum circle that echoes viscerally within the acoustic of Saint John’s Cathedral.

A youth choir participates in a choral item or two that breaks ground musically, but inevitably explores familiar human sentiments. This year the Present Music Ensemble will be joined by the Reagan High School Choir. The youth choir will be featured in a “simple and beautiful work,” as Present Music’s program notes put it, called Their Passing in Time by Richard Reed Parry.

Soprano Lindsay Kesselman serves as the soloist in a tender work featuring poetic word-play, The Pieces that Fall to Earth, by Christopher Cerrone.

A song by Aaron Copland, “The Promise of Living,” from his 1954 opera The Tender Land, “expresses gratitude for the living, growing, giving and ending processes and communities of our lives,” the program notes suggest.

An exotic work, ‘Tar o Pood’ (Warp and Weft) by Iranian/ Canadian composer Sahba Aminikia, merges influences of Iranian tradition and Western culture, challenging the perceived conflict between the two. Recorded work songs sung by Iranian weavers and the sounds of weaving are interspersed in the piece.

And within this frame, Present Music manages to offer something entirely new. A young composer, commissioned to write an premier work, visits Milwaukee. This year Ingram Marshall has written Alleluia Grace. A five-second digital delay will “add a rich shimmering quality to the strings and voices as they travel in the Cathedral,” according to the program notes. Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim has often found inventive ways to adapt to the limitations of the large, hard-surfaced space and use the acoustics to advantage.

The afternoon closes with another drum circle song and a Native American Friendship Dance involving much of the audience — joining hands and circling the inside walls of the cathedral space.

To a few, this is a bit too sentimental. To many who return each year, the concert has become an annual secular community observance.

Present Music offers the opportunity to preview concerts by offering the program, detailed biographies and links to recorded performances of many scheduled works. As with any music you may have not heard before, the concert experience is enriched by listening to the works once before the concert. The magic, however, is only experienced at the event; when the music, unique space, performers and community come together.

The Thanksgiving concert begins at 4:00 p.m. Sunday, November 19th. A pre-concert talk with composer Ingram Marshall begins at 3:00 p.m. Set your GPS for the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist at 812 N. Jackson St., or just head for Cathedral Square in downtown Milwaukee. Street parking is generally easy on Sundays, but your favorite spot may be lost to street car track installation work this year. Tickets may be purchased online. Open seating in three sections range from $15 to $35.

Present Music will offer its next concert, “Give Chance a Piece,” as a series of performances in several venues February 22 through 24, 2018. The selection of contemporary chamber music benefits audiences close to the musicians in an intimate space. Choices range from “the exquisite art collection of a private home” to “the gracious warmth of the Women’s Club.”

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