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A Lifetime in Music

Charles Q. Sullivan reflects on his devotion to the musical life of his city

Aug. 1, 2017
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“My only time out of the Milwaukee arts scene since 1969 was to direct a major music program and concert series in Columbus, Ohio,” reflects Charles Q. Sullivan, retiring executive and artistic director of Early Music Now (EMN), though he quickly wishes to clarify just what leaving that position means. “This ‘retirement’ is the latest in a series of endings to a variety of roles I have served in the Milwaukee arts community,” says Sullivan. Endings that always lead to new beginnings.

Charles Q. Sullivan is leaving his leadership post with EMN after 16 years in that role—his longest tenure in any one such position—during which time the early music presenting organization has proffered more than 90 concerts to more than 30,000 Milwaukee-area residents—critical reviews of which have been almost universally enthusiastic. World-class ensembles, time and time again, have made their way to Milwaukee for concerts of early music unavailable elsewhere in our city.

“We will greatly miss Charles’ sure and steady hand in leading Early Music Now,” says EMN Board President Katherine Lambert. Thallis Hoyt Drake, who, with music-loving friends founded Early Music Now in 1986, adds that the organization “has grown beyond my wildest dreams, in large part due to Charles Q. Sullivan’s faithful leadership.” 

Clearly, Sullivan threw himself into making EMN a success because his heart was truly in it; his music bona fides are, indeed, impossible to overstate. Between 1971 and 1982, he founded and directed the Sullivan Chamber Ensemble, “the most active small performing organization in the area,” he says. From 1985-1992, he served as executive producer and director of liturgical drama at Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, “presenting what became an alternative Christmas presentation that drew audiences of close to 5,000,” he recalls. (What those concerts entailed were alternating performances of the medieval Latin liturgical drama, Play of Daniel, with Benjamin Britten’s 1948 cantata, Saint Nicolas.) In addition—and overlapping several of the important occupations previously mentioned—Sullivan has been a vocal coach with UW-Milwaukee’s Professional Theatre Training Program, founder of the Plymouth Chorale and, today, continues on as Chapel Musician at St. John’s On The Lake. 

“These years of working to promote other artists have been very rewarding, but I have missed performing and conducting and hope to exercise some of those muscles in the coming years,” says Sullivan, who is clearly not ready to retire in any sense of the word. “I feel that I am leaving EMN in excellent artistic and financial shape to support new ideas in the future.” He most certainly looks back upon his leadership of Early Music Now as a successful chapter in his musical life, though, as we see, not the final chapter at all.

“Early Music Now was founded very early in the burgeoning of interest in early music and has become widely regarded as one of the most creative and successful early music presenting organizations in the U.S.,” Sullivan explains, adding that it “attracts the finest and most creative period musicians for concerts and outreach events.” He attributes much of the success of the organization to its growing, devoted audience members.

“Visiting artists frequently comment on the size and musical sophistication of our audiences, noting that this is unusual for a city of Milwaukee’s size,” he says. “Concert audiences are frequently close to capacity, and for major artists, often sold out.” Perhaps they are in on a secret that deserves to be exposed widely: Through Early Music Now, Milwaukeeans have “an opportunity and a privilege enjoyed by only a few cities in the U.S. In fact, EMN is the only music presenter in the Midwest and one of the few in the country to focus on performances of Medieval, Renaissance and early-Baroque music,” according to Sullivan.

“It was Early Music Now’s great good fortune when Charles Q. Sullivan accepted the position of executive and artistic director in 2001,” comments Katherine Lambert. “He brought to the job a unique combination of attributes and experience—knowledge of music and its historical context and performance practices; fundraising, business, communications and administration skills; a wide network of contacts; and a deep understanding of the arts in the Greater Milwaukee area.”

This is not, at all, a goodbye and fare-thee-well. Sullivan is at St. John’s On The Lake, and look for him performing and conducting concerts in our community for what we can only hope will be quite some time to come.

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