When the Milwaukee Symphony reconvenes at Uihlein Hall in three weeks, anyone who asks, “So how was your summer?” should be prepared for an interesting answer.
During the 10 weeks when the symphony is off, musicians scatter across the country and the world to play in a wide variety of other settings. Cellist Kathleen Collisson recently returned from the rocky Atlantic coast of Lubec, Maine, where she teaches every summer at Summerkeys, a camp for adult musicians of a wide range of abilities.
“I really enjoy working with adult beginners, helping people get past their roadblocks and showing them new ways of doing things,” she said. “And the setting here is just gorgeous.” But one change this summer was that she also attended two week-long camps to study the viola da gamba, the Baroque predecessor of the modern cello. “I’ve only been home one week this summer,” she said in mid-August. “I worry a little about the house and yard. But it’s also a recharge for me.” She doesn’t intend to go looking for gamba gigs (there aren’t many anyway), but spending two weeks as a student before switching to teaching “has really been fascinating,” she said. “I’ve become a better teacher by being a student.”
At Summerkeys, Collisson also participates in weekly faculty concerts, and she was part of a world premiere trio for flute, oboe, and cello. Another world premiere was also on the docket for Margaret Butler, the MSO’s English hornist, who has played oboe and English horn for six years at Midsummer’s Music, a traveling chamber music festival in Door County.
The festival’s resident composer, 19-year-old Jacob Beranek of Oconomowoc, wrote Partita Melodica for her. It fits with the ethos of the festival, which offers offbeat and new repertoire in living rooms, art galleries, churches, and other venues where “we’re sitting right in the audience’s lap when we play,” Butler said.
In her sixth season with the group, she said, “I love the audiences, and I’ve made so many friends up there.” The five-week span is “the perfect balance of lots of playing and lots of down time to see friends or travel or pursue other projects.”
Off the tip of the Door County peninsula sits Washington Island, which hosts its own chamber music festival every summer, founded by retired MSO principal oboist Steve Colburn. It’s good change of pace for assistant principal bassoon Rudi Heinrich, who plays little chamber music during the MSO season. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of good island fun, too,” Heinrich said. “We go to the beach and bike around the island.”
Up until a few years ago, Heinrich’s regular summer gig was in the orchestra of Des Moines Metro Opera, which he called “a different frame of mind. You’re in the supporting role, no one sees you, the singers are the stars.” But he gave up that job because family commitments were getting more difficult as his children got older. At Washington Island, “the very best part is the family aspect. There are three musicians who have a total of six kids, ages 5 to 13, and they get along great. We turn them loose, and it’s a great environment for them.”
Family also comes up quickly when associate principal bass Andrew Raciti talks about the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming. Since he has played in the Rockies for 10 summers, his children, ages 12 and 9, “have grown up with the same group of kids, their summer friends.” Many musicians from year-round orchestras come for only a portion of the festival, and Raciti said that the bass players with children try to arrange to play the same weeks.
“It’s an incredible orchestra,” he said, “with very low turnover and great camaraderie.” The schedule is not too strenuous, because management “knows that all the musicians are here on break from their home orchestra.” With opportunities for hiking, camping, canoeing, and mountain biking, “this is kind of a place to regenerate every summer. It feels like an essential part of my year.”
Many classical festivals occur in rural tourist destinations, but assistant principal oboe Kevin Pearl has loved his summer in the heart of Chicago, playing three concerts a week in the Grant Park Symphony. “I’ve had a really great time,” he said. “Chicago in summer is a super-fun place to be.” Because of the workload and distance, he sublet his Milwaukee apartment for the summer and moved himself and his cat to the Windy City.
“It’s a nice counterbalance to the MSO,” he said. “It’s less pressure, and I’ve been stretched in new ways and adapted to new people. I’ve learned a lot from playing with Katie (Steele) and Margaret (Butler), but embedded in a different section, I can bring what I’ve learned back to Milwaukee.”
What are the pluses and minuses of playing almost all summer? “Ask me about the minuses in four weeks,” he said with a laugh. “I haven’t had much time for travel – but I guess I’ve been traveling in Chicago.” And playing for huge crowds, or seeing office workers listening to rehearsals on their lunch breaks, “makes you feel really good about the state of classical music.”