The 70 or 80 black-clad figures onstage at Uihlein Hall get most of the attention, but the Milwaukee Symphony also relies on an army of community volunteers and donors to fulfill its mission. That’s why the symphony has been observing Donor Appreciation Month with events throughout March.
“When I think of being a donor, to me, it is more than just donating money,” said Jessica Pihart, who has sung in the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus for 12 years. “Of course, my husband, Paul, and I happily give every year to the annual fund. But volunteering as part of Forte and as part of the Chorus are two very important ways that we give to the MSO.”
But Pihart gives of her time in other ways, too. For the past 10 years, she has served as a docent for Pleasant View Elementary School in in Franklin and Carollton Elementary School in Oak Creek, teaching children about the music they will hear on their field trip to Uihlein Hall to hear an educational concert. “If the students have a love for music now, it will help them appreciate music as an adult,” she said, “and they in turn can be that patron, chorus member, volunteer, donor.”
Also, Pihart coordinates the Stars of Tomorrow program, in which the symphony auditions outstanding young musicians from the region for a chance to perform in a special concert with the musicians of the orchestra. Her job is to handle all of the essential details: “making a spreadsheet for all of the applicants, mapping out the day and assigning warm-up and audition times, communicating with the students and answering questions, managing last-minute requests, all leading up to the actual audition day.”
“I love the symphony,” said Haruki Toyama, a longtime donor who has served on the MSO’s board of directors for several years. “It’s such an important institution for Milwaukee, and I want to see it thrive for many years.” When he moved to the area in 2003, “I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the music scene in general, but especially the symphony.” His wife, Amy Blair, agreed that the MSO was “one thing that made this community a viable option for us. It’s a sign of civic vitality.”
The orchestra’s musicians, of course, contribute to that scene in many ways, through teaching, chamber music and other outside activities. “Their impact is five- or tenfold,” Toyama said.
As part of his work on the board, Toyama chairs the task force overseeing all aspects of the new concert hall at the renovated Warner Grand Theatre. “We’re going to give the symphony a sustainable model for decades into the future,” he said. “I can’t wait till I’m sitting in the hall for that first concert.”
For Jim and Sandy Wrangell, the connections are personal. Jim met MSO Executive Director Mark Niehaus through Boy Scouts, while Niehaus was still playing trumpet in the orchestra. Sandy knew violist Norma Zehner through working at Lutheran Home in Wauwatosa, where Zehner’s mother lived. And when Jim was curious about an old violin that his father had made, Niehaus put him in touch with associate concertmaster Ilana Setapan, who gave him an appraisal. Seeing musicians onstage whom they know reinforces their sense of belonging.
The Wrangells have subscribed to the Pops season for many years, and also choose classical concerts to attend every year. With grandchildren taking up most of their free time, they have not volunteered with the orchestra, but the MSO does get their money. “It’s been a part of our lives for a long time,” Sandy said. “It’s just worth supporting.”
“It’s just so amazing,” Blair said. “During the summer, I can’t wait, and when I go to that first concert in the fall, it’s like, thank God, to be listening to these outstanding performers playing at such a high level.”