Great Music from Milwaukee
South Milwaukee Performing Arts presents Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra, Robin Pluer and Stas Venglevski.
You’ve never heard of the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra? That’s okay, you get a pass.
For most people, when you think orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony comes to mind–but mandolin? And yet the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra or MMO has been around since 1900, so you’d think it would be at the tip of your tongue. Heck, it’s been a non-profit venture for half a century longer than the Milwaukee Symphony, or since William McKinley was president, if you prefer that sort of measurement.
The mandolin is a versatile instrument, and the MMO’s repertoire centers on the best in traditional American mandolin orchestra music (waltzes, tangos, marches and polkas) plus light classical, modern, Italian and Latin numbers. The orchestra regularly performs unique repertoire at music festivals and concert halls around Wisconsin and occasionally outside the state. They’ve had the pleasure of appearing on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” on two occasions.
The MMO captivates audiences with inspirational performances of preeminent works of the baroque and classical periods. Music that Made Milwaukee Famous will feature this unique combination of historic music.
So, if you’ve never seen them, or even if you have, they are part of an upcoming concert on Saturday January 26th, at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, that sounds like great fun. The show is “Music that Made Milwaukee Famous,” featuring the MMO with special guests Misha Litvin, Stas Venglevski and Robin Pluer. Venglevski, a native of the Republic of Moldova, part of the former Soviet Union, enjoys increasing acclaim as a virtuoso of the Bayan. A two-time first prize winner of Bayan competition in the Republic of Moldova, Venglevski is a graduate of the Russian Academy of Music in Moscow where he received his Masters Degree in Music.
Pluer is perhaps best known for her tenure with the R & B Cadets, a band formed in 1979. “There were times where we did at least three shows a week,” Pluer says. “We’d play Teddy’s and Stone Toad and Century Hall and all these clubs. People were dancing like crazy. So many people that I know met at our gigs and fell in love. Our shows brought out the best in people. It was sort of a community where people gathered and got caught up on each other’s lives.” (One of those couples who fell in love after attending an R & B Cadets show was Mayor Tom Barrett and his wife Kris.)
Pluer moved to New York in 1993 and returned to Wisconsin shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
After all these years Pluer said she still gets nervous before she takes the stage. “It can be unnerving if you’re playing with musicians you’re not used to or know the material well,” Pluer says. Fortunately she’s worked consistently with what she calls ‘great musicians.’ “They know my quirks, how to follow me and that allows for a huge level of comfort.”
Fans of Pluer might associate her with an eclectic look–like she popped tags at every thrift store from here to Montana. “Even though I wear a kooky costumes, people have been fans of my voice. I’ve been crazy with my outfits since I was five years-old. I always wore berets. I went to Catholic grade school and I begged my father for lime-green go-go boots. He got them for me.”
Pluer’s mother played the accordion and her brother plays piano and all her nephews are musicians. She said her performances are distinctive and feels fortunate to have been working as long as she has.
“I am lucky,” Pluer says. “As my friends get older I can see many of them have made more money than me, have more personal toys, but I’ve always done what I wanted to do and there’s something to be said there. I’m lucky that people will come out and hear live music.”
Pluer has long been a staple in the Milwaukee music scene. She’s sung with the BoDeans and had a few gigs with the Violent Femmes. “This is who I am,” Pluer says. “I don’t think I could have done anything else.”
She says her life changed after her first trip to Europe. “I was mostly amazed at their lifestyle. They spend a long time with lunch, walk to the store, eat fresh food. It’s a way of life and I think it speaks to my music–especially in France.”
Singing with the MMO is a pleasure for Pluer. “I’ve had a couple of concerts with them. I think Rene Izquierdo (MMO music director) is a fantastic conductor. He’s really whipped the orchestra into shape, taken them to a whole new level. I love his old tunes and repertoire. For this concert they had to find charts for me to sing that went with mandolins. It’s never easy to pick a song or find arrangements for the song.”
The audience can expect classics like “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” from the 1930s. They’ll hear “Pennies From Heaven” and Steven Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” which Pleur calls “a gorgeous ballad.”
“I talked with Katy, one of the lead mandolinists about what songs would work. I had some ideas too. We realized I could find arrangements for some of the songs. I get to sing a French song, and that’s something I can really sink my teeth into.”
Tickets for the show are $20 to $30 with discounts for seniors or students. Tickets may be purchased online at www.southmilwaukeepac.org or through the box office at 414-766-5049.