From a New Album Release to being a Leader Hear from Principal Flute Sonora Slocum

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2021.22 Season, MSO Musicians, Musician

After ten years in Milwaukee, Sonora Slocum is finding her way as a public figure.

Slocum, the MSO’s principal flute, released a new album of the Mozart flute quartets on December 7. And she is learning to embrace her role as an advocate for musicians of color.

A naturally private person, she now has a presence on Facebook and Instagram in part because “the audience wants to be connected with us, to know what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.” As well as music, that can include activism.

Slocum, a Curtis graduate, recorded the Mozart pieces in Philadelphia with three Curtis friends on the other parts. In the four quartets for flute, violin, viola, and cello, the flute essentially takes the role of the first violin in a standard string quartet. During the rehearsals and recording, “It was an adjustment leading a string group,” Slocum said. “I already know how to lead woodwinds, how an oboe or clarinet will respond. Stringed instruments speak differently, so it was fun serving as a leader in that capacity. Everyone had a voice in the group, and I respect their opinions so much.”

Quite aside from being a principal player in a major orchestra, Slocum likes to keep busy with summer festivals, teaching, and chamber music. “If there’s not enough going on, I want to fill the space,” she said. “It’s better to have too much than not enough. I try to have a ‘say yes to everything’ attitude.” Collaborating with different artists in different venues helps her be a better player everywhere, she said, including her work with the MSO.

She has released two previous albums, and another is recorded but in the pre-publication stage. “I want to build a discography to show my evolution,” she said. Even in the less than two years since recording the Mozart quartets, “I’m a different player now than I was then, but I’ve learned to accept that as a snapshot of a moment in time.”

Promoting her work online allows listeners to interact with her, but she also uses that platform to talk about “issues that are important to me, especially as a person of color and a supporter of the LGBTQIA+ community. This seems to be a moment to talk about things that have never been discussed.”

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in 2020 has had lasting ripple effects, including in the arts community. Even before that event (and the pandemic), the Milwaukee Symphony’s administration was deliberately working on diversity and inclusion, and musicians have launched their own parallel efforts, too.

Currently, Slocum is the only Black musician in the MSO, reflecting a decades-long problem across the industry. “I’ve connected with a lot of Black flutists who are looking to me to blaze a trail, and that’s my job,” she said. “I don’t take it lightly.”

For many years, bassist Laura Snyder had the distinction of being the symphony’s only Black musician. When the orchestra made its last trip to Carnegie Hall, in the spring of 2012, Slocum had won the audition for principal flute but had not started yet. “I was 22 and scared out of my wits,” she recalled. But she attended the concert and the reception afterward, “Laura was so warm and welcoming, and she made me feel comfortable.”

Now that Snyder has retired, “that’s a role I can provide for the next musician. But we need more of that in general, so no one feels like they stand out. I probably had an easier time of it than Laura did. We need a diverse orchestra and a diverse audience. In no way does that threaten the quality of the orchestra. I’m proof of that.”

One area where the MSO may be a leader is its high number of female principals. Of the 13 multi-player sections in the orchestra, seven are currently led by women. “I want people to come in and feel they can be themselves,” Slocum said. “If I’m walking around being myself unapologetically, I’ve learned to be comfortable with that so others can do the same.”

The cover photos for Slocum’s album were taken at the spiral staircase in the new Bradley Symphony Center, and she wore a gown meant to recall an operatic diva. “It’s a statement that we belong in these spaces, and we can be as grand as we want,” she said. “My experience with the MSO has been amazing. It’s all about the artistry and the deep connection with one another musically. We really have that here in Milwaukee.”