Pat-McGinn-MSO-Librarian

The Room That Makes Every Performance Possible: A Visit to the MSO Library

By: David Lewellen

Published September 12th, 2019

Tagged Under: MSO Notable, MSO Musicians, Staff, 2019.20 Season

On the third floor of the Marcus Center, tucked under some steam pipes and ventilation ducts, is the room that makes every Milwaukee Symphony performance possible. The MSO’s library holds more than 2,000 complete sets of scores and parts. It holds computers and pencils, both heavily used. And on most days it holds principal librarian Pat McGinn and associate Paul Beck.

Far beyond shelving and cataloging, “our job is music preparation,” Beck says. “The orchestra librarians should be the second-best score readers in the organization, aside from the conductor.”

Weeks or months before a particular concert, the librarians pull the music from the shelves – or rent it from the publisher if it is still under copyright. They then go through every part, page by page, marking any cuts, adding bowings, and looking for awkward page turns or transpositions. If a conductor wants a horn in F to double a clarinet in B-flat, for instance, it’s the librarian’s job to write it out in the correct key. 

The resulting piles of music are stacked neatly near the doorway for musicians who come in to pick up their parts for coming weeks. If they know it already, or used a practice part at home, they can wait until rehearsal, when the librarians will put it on their stands.

A music librarian’s career path begins with being a musician, and then with being curious and helping someone else in a conservatory or a part-time orchestra. “It’s almost all on-the-job training,” McGinn says. “If you like it, you look for a job at a smaller orchestra, or as an assistant. But you need to be a musician who has performed and played, so you can anticipate problems.”

McGinn is a percussionist and Beck is a bassoonist, but the majority of the parts they handle are for strings. The principals of each string section mark the bowings in their parts, with upbow and downbow strokes delineating the phrases, and the librarians transfer the instructions to the rest of the parts for the section. Over time, “you learn what makes sense and what doesn’t,” McGinn says. “If something looks odd, we’ll say, ‘Did you really mean that?’”

McGinn came to Milwaukee in 1979 when his wife, Katy, won a job in the MSO’s bass section, where she still plays. A year later he got a part-time job in the MSO library, and after several departures, he became principal librarian in 1986.

Administration takes up a lot of his time, working sometimes a year or more in advance with the artistic administrator and personnel manager to make sure that music will be ready for whatever programs are announced. McGinn also has to plan his budget; in the 2017.18 season, which celebrated Leonard Bernstein and American composers, rental costs were much higher than usual because the new music was all under copyright.

Beck, a native Milwaukeean, was an intern in the MSO library years ago before moving to New York and becoming a librarian for Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera, among other groups. He returned to the Midwest three years ago and was “the obvious choice” when the MSO budgeted for an assistant for McGinn, for the first time in years.

Some people might wonder why orchestras still use paper music in the electronic era – but a music tablet would have to be big and sturdy, and viewable from different angles. An orchestra would need 50 or 60 of them, and it would be harder for musicians to add their own markings. Some soloists and chamber musicians do use tablets now, McGinn says, and “down the road, it may become a normal thing, but there are obstacles to overcome.” 

But electronics are becoming normal in other ways. Since two string players share one stand, many musicians get practice copies for home use, which now usually means emailing a PDF.

Has technology made the librarian’s job easier? There is a long pause before McGinn answers, “It has changed the job. The record keeping and communications are a lot easier now. But a lot of it is still paper and pencil.”

“The job is part analog and part digital,” Beck says. “You can’t be one or the other.”

After decades in a former storage room at the Marcus Center, McGinn is excited at the thought of a brand-new facility in less than a year when the MSO moves into the Warner Grand Theater. He has met regularly with the architects to describe how much space the library needs and how it should be laid out, and he has visited many other new concert halls to gather ideas. “I’m very much looking forward to new space in the new hall,” he says. “I’m not looking forward to the actual move.”

While the two librarians are explaining their jobs, a visitor drops in – assistant principal bassoonist Rudi Heinrich is picking up his music. For the second week of classical concerts on September 20-21, he needs the first bassoon part for Kaija Saariaho’s “Ciel d’hiver” and the second bassoon parts for the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Beck helps him get the right materials out of the Week 2 stack.

“Are you as far ahead as the John Williams concert and Figaro?” Heinrich asks, referring to the first pops concert of the year in Week 3 and the Florentine Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro on October 11 & 13.

“We sure are,” Beck says, handing him the appropriate second bassoon folders from the neat stacks.

“Thanks. You’re the best.” Heinrich leaves with enough material to keep him busy practicing for several weeks. Multiply that interaction by 80 or so, and it’s the iceberg tip of the librarians’ job.