Holiday Concerts: Past, Present, and Future


Tagged Under: 2019.20 Season, Holiday Music, Special Presentation

A new home next year means a chance for the Milwaukee Symphony to add holiday programming without subtracting.

The MSO’s routine for this December and for many years past — Holiday Pops downtown, Handel’s Messiah in local churches, film with live orchestra presentations at the Riverside Theater, and runout concerts to surrounding cities — made a virtue of necessity, since the symphony has always had limited access to the Marcus Center during December. While these events usher in the holiday season in 2019, the MSO is also busy planning ahead, and thinking about how to establish some new traditions in the Warner Grand Theater.

“Most programming will be the same, but we’ll probably add things,” said Bret Dorhout, vice president of artistic planning and operations. “We know what works now. We’ll start with that template, and we’ll evolve.”

Symphony officials hope to create a pattern of events from Thanksgiving through New Year’s that the community will look forward to and make into traditions. In the past, events such as live movie soundtracks and New Year’s Eve concerts were dictated entirely by the availability of some venue; starting next season, patrons can expect to see those things every year. “It’s hard to establish a tradition when you don’t know if you’re going to have a venue,” Dorhout said.

The symphony’s December problem has always been that the Milwaukee Ballet gets the Marcus Center for almost the entire month, to present The Nutcracker. The holiday season is the most lucrative time of the year for many arts organizations, and without a hall of its own, the MSO has had to improvise.

But next year will not be starting from scratch. “One of the things that makes the MSO so special is that we do take music to neighboring communities,” said John Roloff, senior director of orchestra and facility operations. “We provide the music that people want to hear where they are.” This year, as in recent years, that means concerts in Brillion, Cedarburg, and West Bend the week before Christmas, with a program of light classics, festive fare, “and always a singalong. Wisconsinites love their singalongs.” Runout performances will continue “as long as they’ll have us,” Roloff said. The symphony will also continue to present Messiah in the Basilica of St. Josaphat, while possibly adding performances in its own hall.

Extending the popular holiday pops concert to two weekends is a possibility in future seasons, depending on demand, Dorhout said. For the first year or two, numbers will probably be swelled by people who are at least partly curious just to see the new hall.

With the renovated Warner Grand available to the symphony every day of the year, more events will be added — possibly groups such as the Canadian Brass or the Vienna Boys’ Choir, or Broadway stars presenting holiday programs without an orchestra, said Susan Loris, executive vice president for institutional advancement. “We don’t want the Warner Grand to be just the home of the Milwaukee Symphony,” Roloff said. “We want it to be the home of all genres of music in Milwaukee. December’s a good time to reinforce that.”

Another possibility is hosting corporate holiday parties, complete with a short MSO concert. “Part of the business plan is food and beverage,” Dorhout said, and Loris added, “And we will have the best food and beverage. It will reflect the Milwaukee community, with local sourcing.”

But the new hall, which will look beautiful and inviting any day of the year, should be something extra special 12 months from now. “People will have family in town, they’ll want to show off the city,” Roloff said. “The first time the hall is decorated for the holidays, it’s going to be almost as special as opening night.”

“And we’ll get to leave it up for six weeks,” Dorhout said.

“Right,” Roloff said. “In the Marcus Center, we’d decorate for five days and then we’d have to take it all down.”

“During the holidays, people want to hear the music they want to hear,” Dorhout said – but there is so much holiday music, in so many arrangements, that every year’s concerts can present different pieces within the same formula. “Sleigh Ride will be a constant,” Roloff said wryly. “Fifty years from now, the most performed piece in the repertoire will still be Sleigh Ride.”

“But there’s a chorus version, too,” Dorhout added. “We can mix it up but still give people what they want.”