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Present Music's Gathering at the River

Imaginative Milwaukee ensemble opens season with 'Water'

Aug. 10, 2011
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“It was never a well-laid plan. It evolved in an organic way,” admits Kevin Stalheim, reflecting on the 30th anniversary of Present Music. The artistic director of Milwaukee's internationally respected performers of contemporary (or at least recent) “serious music” (if often presented in unserious fashion) also confesses that he founded the group “because I was bored in graduate school” and that several seasons passed before Present Music found its name, its focus and a board of directors.

“I had no idea it would grow into the level it's at now,” he adds.

It's four weeks and counting, when our conversation took place, until the debut concert of Present Music's 30th season, “Water.” The evening promises to be the most elaborate Milwaukee fine arts performance in recent memory—and Stalheim's plans are evolving organically. The climax of the performance will be the world premiere of Kamran Ince's composition Water, but Stalheim has yet to hear the music.

“Kamran recently called and said he wants all the singers to bring a jar and a spoon. He also wants a large container of water that will be splashed around and amplified,” Stalheim says.

That's all he knows four weeks beforehand, aside from the composer's insistence on 17 instrumentalists from the Present Music ensemble and some 60 singers from the Bel Canto Boy Choir, Milwaukee Choral Artists, the Vocal Arts Academy of Milwaukee and other groups.

Not to worry: Stalheim has always calmly danced at the edge without falling. “Water,” however, is the most logistically complex event Present Music has ever attempted. As the name suggests, the event represents life's basic element.

“Water is such an important issue these days, and Milwaukee has become an important place for thinking about the future of water,” Stalheim explains. “I think it all makes sense: Milwaukee as the 'gathering of the waters'; Present Music gathering a lot of collaborators from our history for the performance. I felt it was important to do something big for our 30th, and part of its bigness is to include the whole community.”

“Water” will take place on the banks of the Milwaukee River behind the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, Aug. 27. By 7 p.m. the crowds on the esplanade will be treated to roaming members of Milwaukee Mask & Puppet Theatre dressed as sharks, jellyfish and even a rowboat with oars, along with the Wisconsin Cream City Chorus singing songs about rivers. Boat demonstrations will occur on the water with canoes, kayaks and sculls along with—if all goes as planned—an Irish currach, a Venetian gondola and a Chinese dragon boat. Students from UW-Milwaukee's Peck School of the Arts will display decorated rain barrels and execute chalk drawings on the pavement.

At 7:30 Present Music and a party of VIPs will be ferried to the landing behind the Marcus Center by the Milwaukee Boat Club; the various choirs will sing in greeting and the entourage (and audience) will proceed into Uihlein Hall. Present Music's concert will commence with a performance alongside Danceworks of Sea Tropes by contemporary American composer Ingram Marshall. The ensemble will segue into a kaleidoscopic mélange of watery melodies—everything from Handel to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Next: contemporary pieces on water themes by Timothy Andres and Bang on a Can's David Lang and Michael Gordon accompanied by video and dance.

The concert concludes with Ince's Water, but the night won't be over. The riverbank will be the site of a post-concert party featuring a bar and music by Milwaukee alternative rock band Herman Astro.

“The event is huge—just think about finding 22 people who can row a Chinese dragon boat—and it's way beyond being a concert or a performance,” Stalheim says. “I care about water issues, so I've been meeting with all sorts of community groups and getting to know what they do. Starting with the Water Council and all of its members and connections, all kinds of community groups have been helping out with the event. Present Music is lucky to be in a city like Milwaukee.”

Admission to “Water” is free, but seating inside Uihlein Hall is limited. Tickets can be reserved at presentmusic.org/concerts/water.aspx.

David Luhrssen has taught at UW-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and has authored several books on American culture and history.


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