A Conversation with Les & Wilanna Kalkof

Will Loder

Tagged Under: 2016.17 Season, MSO Musicians, piano, Violin

Earlier this month, MSO staff members Will Loder and Linda Unkefer sat down for a chat with MSO musicians Les Kalkof (violin) and Wilanna Kalkhof (piano), who will be retiring at the end of this season. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Will Loder, development associate: Tell us how you joined the MSO.

Les Kalkhof, second violin: I came and auditioned in the spring of 1976 and joined that fall. I had played for seven years professionally prior in Louisville. I was in Louisville Bach Society and Kentucky Opera, and then played for four years with the Louisville Orchestra.

Wilanna Kalkhof, piano: We were both born in Louisville and met when we were 15, and were married in 1974. After we moved to Milwaukee, the next fall he told me the MSO was holding auditions for a pianist. I auditioned and started in the fall of 1977.

Will: What are some of your most memorable experiences in your 40 years with the MSO?

Les: I would have to say our international tours, especially to Europe and Japan. We went to England, Germany, Austria, and Amsterdam for three weeks.

Linda Unkefer, orchestra personnel manager: And the Japan tour was 14 days. I always hear about Lukas Foss on these trips!

Les: Foss was on the European tour.

Wilanna: It was exciting because he was from Europe, and he had lots of connections; There were people from all over coming to see what he did with an American orchestra. The European audiences knew every part of the music. It was a part of who they were.

The orchestra was often followed by the media from our hometown. We had well-known broadcasters and music critics from Milwaukee, who shared their interviews with musicians and coverage of our concerts with their Milwaukee audience. This was a pleasure for our children, their babysitter–Les’ mom, and our friends, to follow us along our journey. Plus, the local NPR station did almost daily updates of the Japan tour, with our associate conductor, Neal Gittleman. Since I was not needed in Japan, it was great for me and my children to keep up with what Dad was doing for those two weeks. In the same way, I have heard that people back home liked keeping up with us as we moved from London to Hamburg, to Bonn and Dusseldorf, Amsterdam to Vienna, etc.

Second, the Carnegie Hall trips were always exciting for our family, partly because we (like many of the MSO musicians) were able to meet family from all around the U.S. and show them what the MSO could do. Most of them had heard about us, but had never been to one of our orchestra’s performances. So, we had family from Virginia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and the New York area come to visit and attend the concerts, during the various that the MSO has played in Carnegie Hall. Our son heard us twice, and our daughter finally had the opportunity to come to our last performance when Edo was conducting (in 2012). As a side note, our son has even had the experience of singing with his Whitefish Bay High School choir in Carnegie Hall.

Our Cuba tour was also fascinating, of course, but I really found interesting our trips to small town Wisconsin when the whole town would come out to hear us. They made us feel very welcome, and it was very heartening.

Linda: All the pieces, all the different repertoire you have performed over the years must have presented challenges that you weren’t necessarily trained for.

Wilanna: We did a circus pops concert where I had to perform on a calliope powered by a Black and Decker vacuum! I was to entertain during the intermission, but someone had hooked it up wrong, so Schermerhorn came and fixed it! I was mostly a pianist, but here I have had to play organ, synthesizer, celeste, harpsichord, and harmonium-anything that has a keyboard.

Les: We were involved in the ACE program for over 20 years as the third grade quartet. This is our last year for that, too.

Wilanna: I never get tired of the questions the kids ask, and they always have new ones to ask us.

Les: There was one school, about five years ago, where one asked me “Aren’t you too old to still be playing violin?” I said, “Yes, but I am too young to retire!”

Will: What is special about performing together as husband and wife?

Wilanna: Luckily, we love spending time together.

Linda: At home, how do you manage practicing without interfering with each other?

Les: We were able to build an extra room on our house where I can practice away from the piano.

Linda: That is something that I never knew in all these years!

Wilanna: It’s his haven in the sky! I practice in the living room, and his room is back over the garage.

Linda: So your two children grew up in a musical household, then, even though they did not go into music.

Wilanna: They both had music lessons and came here a lot. Our son sang in choirs, and our daughter, when life gets rough at the veterinary school, she pulls out her cello. They both love music.

Les: We had a family trio for a while. Our daughter was in MYSO for a year, and she did not like it. We said you can get out of MYSO, but the price is you have to play trios with us. So we invented MYFT, Milwaukee Youth Family Trio, because she was pretty miffed at having to do it!

Linda: I like that story a lot because so much of our time is trying to understand and acknowledge the far reaching benefits of the symphony, how it goes beyond the Hall into our neighborhoods, homes, and communities. For the founders of the MSO, it was important to have these world class musicians be active members of the community. I think your family is an example of that.

I think the only question we haven’t answered yet is if music will still be a part of your life after the MSO?

Wilanna: Oh yes. I am also a singer, so I will be singing at church more. We hope to play more together at church.

Will: Any non-musical plans?

Wilanna: I hope to do more mission work with church.

Les: I am an amateur photographer with my own dark room.

Linda: And your grandchildren are up in Minnesota.

Wilanna: Yes, we will be travelling a lot, to see them, and to go other places as well, especially national parks.

Linda: When I started, there were not too many retirees. As the years went on, I came up with the idea for someone to help with retiring musicians make that transitions. Violinist Andrea Leung has embraced being the liaison for retiring MSO musicians. She keeps all the news going along among our retired musicians. Has she reached out to you?

Wilanna: She sure has! (laughs) We are looking forward to joining that group now.