3 MSO Musicians Retire After 2023.24 Season

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2023.24 Season, MSO Musicians

As the Milwaukee Symphony’s season is drawing to a close, three musicians are thinking different thoughts about their past and their future.

The 2023.24 season is the last year for trumpeter Alan Campbell, assistant principal second violin Tim Klabunde, and violist Helen Reich, but retirement may see them going in different directions.

“It feels like shedding a skin a bit,” Reich said of retirement. “I’m not sure being an orchestra musician is who I really am.” But having played in the MSO for 36 years, she is eager to further explore her identity as an artisan. For the last 15 years or so, she has been developing a second career crafting Japanese-inspired men’s lapel pins out of fabric and selling her work on Etsy.

Looking back on her career, Reich said, “It’s a more difficult job now than it was,” because of the influx of new repertoire and talented players who push the older musicians to practice harder. “That’s another reason to retire,” she said, “because so many young people need this job more. I recognize what a privilege it was to do this and how many people would kill for the job. But there are more fun things to do, and as a section string player, you can’t make too many decisions on your own.”

As a brass player, Campbell automatically had a higher profile, spending his time with the MSO playing second trumpet. “There are enough challenges to doing that well,” he said. “You can’t be searching for the limelight all the time.” Besides, he said, every brass player in an orchestra is alone on their part, so “everything you do is on the record.”

Campbell actually retired in December, timing it to match his wife’s own retirement from a Madison nonprofit. Now, he said, “I’m playing just enough on a daily basis to keep the gears oiled.” But going out while he was still playing well was important to him. “Unlike strings or winds, for brass players the vibrating medium is a piece of your own flesh,” he said, referring to the lip buzz that begins the sound. “And as we age, our bodies get less supple and less elastic.” After 17 years with the MSO, “I had accomplished what I hoped to, and I was satisfied with where I was.”

Campbell played for years in the Columbus Symphony, moved to Wisconsin for his wife’s job in the 1990s, and soon began substituting with the Milwaukee Symphony. He was appointed to the permanent second trumpet job in 2007.

“There’s something about this orchestra, that they’ve managed to cultivate an atmosphere of support and collegiality,” he said. “They do an amazing job of choosing great artists who are also really great people. It starts in the boardroom and goes all through the organization. It’s a great place to work, unlike a lot of places.”

Klabunde agreed, “I think we are especially respectful here. Your colleagues are worthy of being here and worthy of respect.” A few months ago, when the MSO did Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, “I realized I’ll never play this piece again, and it made me very sad. Every section in the orchestra has to be at the top of its game to make it have an impact, and the energy was incredible. I’m going to miss a lot of people very much, the daily interaction.”

But, like Campbell, Klabunde is aware of the passage of time. “I never planned my retirement, counting down or thinking of it as a goal,” he said. “I need more recharge time between concerts. Things are becoming more physically stressful, and it makes playing more difficult.” Retiring now is a way to “be smart and take care of my body.”

Klabunde, a product of Milwaukee Public Schools and UWM, spent three years as a sub and extra before winning a full-time job in the second violin section in 1980. His memories include tours to Europe, Japan, and Cuba, and playing Prokofiev’s score for the film Alexander Nevsky — one of the first examples of a live soundtrack concert.

And of course, moving into the Bradley Symphony Center was a highlight for everyone. “I appreciate all the staff, librarians, stagehands, donors, all the people who brought us to this amazing building,” Klabunde said. “If you wanted to build something like this now, you just couldn’t.”

All three musicians plan to do at least some performing in the near future. Klabunde hopes to do more chamber music and coaching high school ensembles.

Over the years, Reich has played in now-disbanded early music ensembles and jazz and pop groups. In the next few years, she hopes to get a chance to do more Baroque music, as well as doing more cooking and more travel.

And as well as freelancing, Campbell’s future plans include traveling to visit his daughters in London and New Mexico, “playing a lot of golf, working in the garden, and being a prototypical retired old guy.”