MSO Musicians Share Their Excitement for the New Hall

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2020.21 Season, MSO Musicians

Mike Giacobassi has been dreaming about the first concert in the Bradley Symphony Center.

In the metaphorical daytime sense, of course, he and many other musicians are intensely looking forward to playing chamber music via live stream on Feb. 6 for the long-delayed opening of the Milwaukee Symphony’s new home. But in addition, “I’ve started to have anxiety dreams,” said the longtime first violinist. “I’ve dreamed that I’m lost in the new hall, or that I come onstage with white socks.”

The moment has been roughly 20 years in the making. Giacobassi was in the orchestra in the early 2000s when they did a sound check on the deserted, shallow stage, “and I was skeptical,” he said. But on a tour last year before the pandemic began, “I was stunned by all the space. It was pretty amazing. I’m grateful to the management and the board, that they saw this through at this time. We’re very fortunate to be here.”

He is far from the only musician who is eager to get back to work. “I’ll be happy to play in the new hall with my colleagues, no matter how far apart we are,” said principal trombone Megumi Kanda. “I just want to play with someone.” During the layoff, she completed a trombone method book and taught a lot of master classes via Zoom, but “it’s really exciting to be back. After the pandemic, this is like the promised land.”

When she was onstage during a previous tour of the Bradley Center, “I was amazed at what it sounded like. I moved my foot and I could hear it move. The only other place I’ve been like that was Carnegie Hall.”

Violist Erin Pipal does have some recent playing experience; she performed in two freelance indoor concerts in December, and “it felt weird and awkward, having to speak to other human beings and be in the same room and have them see me,” she said with a laugh.

Principal clarinet Todd Levy substituted with the Chicago Symphony during their socially distanced concerts in the fall. Many other American orchestras have done similar programming in recent months, and the MSO has learned from their experience, including a long list of strict pandemic precautions. “If everyone is responsible, it should be fine,” Levy said. “It’s been working in other places very successfully.”

Playing chamber music on the stage of the Bradley Center “should be great,” he said. “It’s nice for the woodwinds and the brass to be able to do that stuff. There’s more opportunities to be heard, instead of playing in the group. Eight or 16 people is a very satisfying feeling.”

While at home without colleagues, Levy spent a lot of time listening to orchestral music, to fill in the sounds he couldn’t make. Practicing the clarinet by himself for months, he said, “was like drawing in black and white, and someone has taken your color crayons away.”

During assistant principal oboe Kevin Pearl’s time off, his instrument “definitely sat there for a while.” When he started to get back in shape for the new season, making reeds for his instrument was the thing that suffered most. “It’s not like riding a bike for me,” he said. “I lost the muscle memory of the knife on the reed, and I kept messing it up.” But, he said, he won’t know how to customize his reeds to the acoustics of the new hall until he plays in it.

Getting ready for the Bradley Center, he feels “like a kid on Christmas Eve. You know it’s going to be good, but you have no idea exactly what.”

“I’m not sure anyone knows what to expect,” said principal cellist Susan Babini. “I’m really excited to try out the space, but I’m glad that it starts slowly and very safely.” For the time being, all ensembles will rehearse separately, and for shorter periods than usual.

“I’m really excited about the new hall,” Babini said, “but eventually the hall won’t be new, and the most important thing will be what happens inside. I hope we can be an orchestra for all of Milwaukee, and that the hall is used as a portal to connect with Milwaukee as a whole.”