MSO’s Jennifer Bouton Schaub Records Vivaldi Piccolo Concertos

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: Flute, MSO Musicians, Musician

Classical music performance, like anything else, is subject to trends. But for her new recording project, Jenny Bouton is trying to tune out the outside voices and be herself.

Bouton, the Milwaukee Symphony’s piccoloist, will soon be recording all three of Vivaldi’s concertos for her instrument. “There’s a range of ways to make good music,” she says. “I was preparing the concertos with a lot of ornamentation, but some recent performances do it with a lot less. And I worried for a second, is this fashionable anymore? And then I stopped worrying. The structure is all there, and it was part of the culture in the 1700s to bring an individual style.”

Vivaldi actually wrote the concertos for sopranino recorder, an extra-small version of the wooden, flute-like instrument that was common in the Baroque period. Although there are a few recordings available on the period instrument, Bouton feels the lack of listening options on the modern piccolo. “When I was learning these, I would have loved to have a recording on our own instrument,” she says.

She does not think much about the differences between Baroque and modern performance, however. When the Bradley Symphony Center opened during the pandemic and she participated in a socially distanced performance of 300-year-old Baroque repertoire, “we were reading off iPads for a streaming concert. It was a neat straddling of worlds.”

She has studied Vivaldi’s manuscripts online, and says they are “very clear, very structured. There’s no extra ornamentation, but there’s room for individual interpretation.” In the 1700s, it was taken for granted that solo performers would add their own embellishments to a score. “There’s a continuity of experience with the music,” she says. “I don’t think about trying to make Vivaldi happy. It’s just, where is the music going today with the people you’re playing with now?”

The recording session, scheduled for mid-August at the Bradley Symphony Center, will feature Bouton on piccolo, a quintet of MSO string players, and a harpsichordist from Chicago. She plans to make it available for streaming on various electronic platforms.

The three concertos are “the core of the solo piccolo repertoire,” she says, but even at that, one is programmed far more often than the other two. She performed the most famous, known as “the big C major,” in January on an MSO classical program.

Because of the nature of the instrument, Bouton stands out when she plays piccolo, but she spends about half her time with the MSO playing third flute, in pieces or passages that don’t call for a piccolo. Until she won her first orchestra job with the Virginia Symphony, piccolo was not her specialty, although every flutist is called on to play it sometimes.

“All I wanted was an orchestra job, so the more things I could do, the better,” she says. “Everything I do on flute, I do on piccolo. I don’t think it’s that different. I think of it as an extension of the flute, just that extra octave.”

Bouton lives in Bay View with her husband, Clay Schaub, a jazz bassist, and their two school-age daughters. When not focused on music, the family enjoys spending time outside in all seasons. “You just put on all the clothes in winter and it’s fine,” she says.

She grew up in Colorado as the daughter of a working musician who, she thinks, tried to protect her from pursuing a difficult career. “But every night he’d come home from a gig with a smile on his face,” she recalls, “and I wanted that.”

By her own telling, she was not a particularly skilled player in high school or early in college. She remembers a summer music camp where “I got my butt kicked, and I called home crying.” Her father listened and consoled her with, “If you’re flying to the moon, you have to have enough fuel to get back. Set your burners for the long haul.”

And, in an ironic twist, her 8-year-old daughter is now an enthusiastic cello player. “I can relate to how my dad felt,” Bouton says, “but also how my daughter feels. She sees how much joy her parents get from music.”