MSO Hosts Annual Link Up Concert

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2019.20 Season, Concerts for Schools, Link Up

What could be better than watching the Milwaukee Symphony? How about playing with the Milwaukee Symphony?

That is the premise of the Link Up concert, a children’s program originated by Carnegie Hall that has become an annual MSO event. Third through fifth grade students from Milwaukee-area schools work with their music teachers to learn songs to sing, or play on the recorder, while the orchestra performs.

On a recent Tuesday, Uihlein Hall was deafening with the conversation of nearly 2,000 excited elementary school students waiting for the concert to begin. Many had recorders slung around their necks – the flute-like instrument is cheap to produce and easy to learn, making it a staple of elementary music classrooms. But for this concert, music teachers had prepared students to play with the orchestra.

They even participated in tuning. As the strings, woodwinds and brass tuned to their customary A, music teacher Meaghan Heinrich called out from the stage, “If you’re playing recorder, it’s two fingers on the top and thumb in the back.”

Rebecca Whitney, the MSO’s director of education, acted as hostess, and introduced Heinrich, a frequent music education partner of the MSO. She, and her 12 students from Whittier Elementary School and Nativity Jesuit School, acted as section leaders for the hundreds of recorder players in the audience, giving big cues to come in and cut off, as the kids played along with Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and more.

“Kids love seeing other kids onstage,” Whitney said later.

Whitney and resident conductor Yaniv Dinur went through their scripted dialogue about what makes a melody, with examples from Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Copland’s Appalachian Spring, the famous set of variations on the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts.” “How many variations did you count?” Whitney asked. “If you said six, you were right.”

“We practiced a lot” to prepare for the concert, said Linnea Rohde, a fourth grader at Valley View School in Menomonee Falls. Looking around the auditorium and stage of Uihlein Hall, she said, “It’s bigger than I expected.”

“It’s so interactive, and the kids are able to brag that ‘I played my recorder with the Milwaukee Symphony,’” said Karen Heins, a music teacher at Valley View. “Most of them had never heard a live orchestra.”

Flutist Amy Katzman, the winner of last year’s Stars of Tomorrow contest, played the Carmen Fantasy. Heins told her students that Katzman was a Menomonee Falls High School graduate, and “they wished they could be onstage. They hope that someday they can be like Amy on the stage.”

Materials for the Link Up concert are provided by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Center. The MSO also programs two youth concerts of its own during the school year, but Link Up is “so interactive, almost over the top in some ways,” Whitney said. “Certain teachers really love this program and come back year after year. Others prefer a more traditional concert.”

“It’s so different than just going and sitting,” said Peggy Paar, a music teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School in Wauwatosa. For the last number in particular, the Spanish “Oye,” the kids were dancing enthusiastically, “and to experience that with hundreds of other boys and girls was a real thrill for them.” Many of her fourth-grade students are also starting string instruments, and “they were excited to see their instrument played.”

“It’s so alive and so vibrant,” Paar said. “The air was filled with electricity, because they get to play their recorders.” The kids learned to read the music for their recorders, and the screen over the stage showed their parts. In past weeks, she said, her students have been singing Beethoven and Dvorak in the hallway, as they learned the tunes for the concert. “And it all blended into the orchestra. They’ll keep those songs with them for the rest of their lives.”