A Perfect Fit: Orchestra Personnel Manager Linda Unkefer draws on love of people, music to excel in her unique role

By: David Lewellen

Published October 22nd, 2018

Tagged Under: MSO Notable, Operations, 2018.19 Season

Being an orchestra personnel manager is a tough job, and it has gotten tougher over the course of Linda Unkefer’s 41 years in the field.

Unkefer, who is retiring from the Milwaukee Symphony at the end of this month, has to know all the usual human resources material about family leave laws, harassment training, and benefits. She has to know the musicians’ labor contract forward and backward. And she needs her musical background to know that if she has to bring something up with the principal flute, for instance, she does not do it when Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is on the program.

Her career began as a cellist in the Canton Symphony in Ohio, and she added personnel manager to her duties there in 1977. “I love people and I love music, so it was a good match,” she said. When the MSO job opened up in 1990, she interviewed and made the move.

In Milwaukee, the personnel manager is a full-time job, with no playing involved — an arrangement that is becoming more common as the responsibilities grow. “It’s a natural function of our labor agreement,” she said. “We’re bigger and we’ve got more rules.” It also helps to avoid conflicts by establishing clearer lines of authority. But it’s still important for a personnel manager to have a playing background, “to understand what it takes to perform, the difficulties, and the drive and passion and effort.”

For decades, Unkefer attended every symphony rehearsal and concert. More recently, she has given some of the load to assistant personnel manager Rip Pretat, who also plays in the bass section, and to Françoise Moquin, her replacement, who came on board in September.

In her time in Milwaukee, “the orchestra has been through ups and downs,” she said. “But it’s always been known as a very friendly group. It’s handed down from one generation to another.” Music Director Laureate Edo de Waart had “a very good sense about good musicianship and what kind of people were making music. But he didn’t have to say that out loud.”

As well as handling HR issues, Unkefer has to make sure that the right people are onstage for every rehearsal and performance. For the upcoming performance of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, guest conductor Jader Bignamini asked for six extra brass players, and Unkefer had to work with principal trumpet Matthew Ernst and principal trombone Megumi Kanda to figure out which musicians to hire on which instruments, and where to place them in the hall.

“My biggest delight has been observing Edo’s thought process,” Unkefer said. “He’s very quiet but very thorough.” For the concert performances of Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman in January, Unkefer attended a two-hour production meeting in September with de Waart, librarian Patrick McGinn, Bret Dorhout, vice president of artistic planning and operations, and John Roloff, director of operations. De Waart, working with his score from past productions, indicated spots where the horns should move across the stage for an echo effect – and it will be Unkefer and McGinn’s job to make sure the music and stage setup is ready.

The semi-staged cycle of three Mozart operas that the MSO presented under de Waart’s direction in 2014 through 2016 was “three of the most magnificent experiences I’ve had,” she said. “The orchestra played so beautifully for those. Just being a part of that was a highlight of my life. Who gets to go to work and say that?”

But now the time is right to retire. The symphony is in a good place now, she says, with the new hall under way and a new four-year contract with the musicians. Also, she noted the passing of her mentor, Carl Schiebler, who helped her get jobs both in Canton and Milwaukee. Schiebler served as personnel manager for the New York Philharmonic for many years, but died in 2016 – before he retired. “I want the opportunity to experience other things,” she said.

Unkefer lives in Thiensville with her husband, Lynn, and hopes to get more involved in village activities when she retires. She will also care for her 17-year-old cocker spaniel and look forward to getting another dog that could be trained for the Read to Rover program in local libraries, because “I’ve always loved kids and dogs.”

As a farewell gift, the orchestra got Unkefer tickets to the 2019 Westminster Kennel Club show in New York City. “I’ve never been before,” she said. “I always worked in February.”