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Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012

30th Birthday Surprise Party

'Shepherd Express' and Present Music celebrate an anniversary

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Classical music performances are usually planned a season in advance and etched onto calendars. Any surprise would be disconcerting in the concert hall. Present Music, however, planned its 30th anniversary concert with surprising its audience in mind. As Milwaukee's best-known exponents of that useful oxymoron, “contemporary classical music,” Present Music will present an event it believes is unprecedented. Most of the selections for Saturday night's concert were chosen through online balloting, and the winning compositions will be performed on the stage of the Turner Hall Ballroom.

“We're not telling anyone what we're playing,” insists Kevin Stalheim, Present Music's artistic director. “It's like the Academy Awards—you find out who wins on the night of the event.”

The idea worked like this: Anyone on Present Music's email list received four messages in succession, each one linked to a short selection of music categorized by mood, such as “Exciting-Wild-Gritty,” “Popsy-Light-Delightful,” “Haunting-Beautiful-Mellow” and “Interesting Sounds-Contemplative.” The votes in each category were tallied and the Present Music ensemble will perform the winning numbers.

“It's a power-to-the-people idea,” Stalheim adds. But, of course, it's a guided democracy, with the choices given to voters determined in advance by Stalheim to reflect the usual range of a Present Music concert. “I thought of categories that would create variety and engage the choosers, allowing the people to be part of the process. But I needed to think of the logistics—what can Present Music play? We can't pull off a piece that requires eight oboes. And the choices were a matter of balance and clarity, like at all Present Music concerts. The pieces can't all be serious or all be funny. It's like a meal. No one wants to eat just potatoes or cotton candy.”

The evening's finale, however, has been announced. Donald Erb's Souvenir (1970) is a multimedia presentation involving looped electronics, improvised dancers rolling around with Styrofoam balls, weather balloons and a climactic shower of ping-pong balls. Stalheim incorporated the evening's participatory dimension by inviting non-professional dancers to take the stage and amateur musicians to augment the Present Music ensemble for Souvenir.

During the past 30 years, Present Music has grown from a thrown-together ensemble for a one-off concert, with no apparent future, into an internationally respected group that has commissioned new work and endeavored to keep recent compositions in the public eye. Present Music's beginnings parallel the birth of the Shepherd Express, which grew from its East Side origins to become Wisconsin's third-largest newspaper, with a readership of more than 262,000, and an important voice in politics and the arts. Present Music and the Shepherd Express will continue their history of celebrating their anniversary together with a post-concert birthday on Saturday, complete with cake, free food and a performance by Milwaukee's all-women polka band The Squeezettes.

Present Music's “Choose” concert takes place 7:30 p.m. Jan. 7 at Turner Hall Ballroom. Tickets are $15, $25 and $35. Call (414) 271-0711 for reservations.
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