What we did on our summer “vacation”

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: Around Town, MSO Musicians

From September to June, the Milwaukee Symphony is a tightly knit group of musicians who spend their days and evenings together in well-defined roles. But in the summer, the symphony’s 70 instrumentalists scatter in almost as many different directions, playing in opera, chamber music, or festival orchestras, teaching, or just resting.

It may be summertime, but the living is not exactly easy at some fast-paced festivals. At the Grant Park Music Festival, the outdoor concert series in downtown Chicago, “although it is 10 weeks long, it feels like it’s already had been more than 10 weeks because we play so much unique repertoire and two different programs every week,” said violinist Hyewon Kim. “I like that the Grant Park Festival is loved by Chicago people. So many people can come to the concert and enjoy music for free (at the lawn), and I love playing in this setting.”

Jon McCullough-Benner, who joined the Milwaukee Symphony as principal bass in January, is in his second season as assistant principal in Grant Park, and enjoys the variety of repertoire and the camaraderie of hanging out with a different group of people. When he was preparing for the MSO audition last summer, he played for his Grant Park colleagues and got valuable feedback.

Stepping back from a principal role also provides good perspective. “It’s my turn to be the page turner, to be in a supporting role,” McCullough-Benner said. “I don’t have to worry about solos or about figuring out bowings.”

North of Milwaukee, in the bucolic setting of Door County, MSO principal second violinist Jennifer Startt feels the same way about playing in the first violin section at the Peninsula Music Festival. “It’s lot less pressure, and a good change of pace,” she said. “You can’t be a good section leader without being a good section player.”

Getting ready for Peninsula’s season, Startt said in late July, “It’s not like I’ve been doing nothing for six weeks. I’ve been looking at all of the Peninsula music since the MSO stopped. And I’m looking ahead to the MSO schedule in September, too. It’s a combination of practicing for things immediately upon us and practicing for things in the future.”

Seeing a different group of colleagues who gather in Door County every summer is “a very interesting type of relationship,” Startt said. “We catch up really fast, pick up where we left off, work together for three weeks, and then leave again. Every time we walk in for the first rehearsal, we share the feeling of, “Wow it’s like we didn’t leave, we were just here.’ ”

“It is healthy for us to play with other musicians,” agreed principal clarinet Todd Levy, who also holds that position with the Santa Fe Opera. Playing five operas per summer with an internationally renowned festival, “it is inspiring to hear truly great singers from the pit every night,” he said. He also plays at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, making music with another set of inspiring colleagues. Playing from June to August, “I miss the best season in Milwaukee,” he said, “but the lower Rocky Mountains of Santa Fe are gorgeous in the summer.”

Does a musician recharge by taking time off from the instrument, or by playing in other settings? The balance is different for everyone. Associate concertmaster Ilana Setapen resigned from Grant Park in 2014, after six seasons, because “I would end up coming back to the MSO in the fall already exhausted,” she said. “We work our bodies so hard playing in orchestra, and I decided that I wanted to do things that would use different parts of my brain and body for the summer.”

Now Setapen chooses a few one-week festivals or camps to participate in, “and I love the way it’s worked out,” she said “It’s definitely nice to do other festivals in the summer, to get to work with other musicians we don’t see during the year. For me, having some down time as well as some new challenges in the summer has become essential for me to feel ready to be inspired by the MSO season in the fall.”

Principal trombone Megumi Kanda spent a week in June at the International Trombone Festival in southern California. “Many of the other guest artists are friends of mine and/or are artists I admire, so it is always a lot of fun to make new friends, reconnect with old friends and hear many inspiring performances,” she said. “There were also a good number of composers I enjoyed meeting and discussing their work. Maybe one of them will consider writing a piece for me someday!” As it was, she performed a solo recital which included three world premieres and gave two master classes.

First violinist Margot Schwartz has been traveling to the Pacific Northwest for the past 10 years to play in the Bellingham Festival of Music north of Seattle, which offers a good work-life balance. “Over the years I have begun to feel like it is my second home,” she said. The schedule gives her time for kayaking, hiking, and visiting Seattle or Vancouver. Also, she has been able to borrow the idea of MSO Mondays to present an annual concert at a Bellingham ice cream shop on a Saturday afternoon near the farmer’s market. It reaches a nontraditional audience, “and even if they hate the music, nobody complains about the ice cream,” Schwarz joked.

But she, too, has cut back on her summer commitments in recent years. “Festivals still feel like work to some extent,” she said, “and therefore I find myself needing some time completely away from the instrument later in the summer.”