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Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013

Present Music Sings Out for Thanksgiving

Contemporary choral music featured at annual concert

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Between the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus singing Handel’s Messiah, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s staging of A Christmas Carol and the Milwaukee Ballet’s Nutcracker, our city has no lack of favorites in the performing arts for Christmas. And this was not only slightly annoying to Present Music’s Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim, but presented the musician-impresario with an opportunity to fill the gap. “I was a little frustrated by the lack of respect for Thanksgiving,” he says. “There are a gazillion Christmas concerts but not much for Thanksgiving, which was always one of my favorite holidays.”

After two decades of Thanksgiving concerts, the holiday performance has become the anchor event on the calendar of Milwaukee’s contemporary classical music ensemble, to use the oxymoronic yet oddly apt term for recent music that grew from Modernist idioms of the 20th century. “It’s like my vision of the first Thanksgiving—different people coming to share,” Stalheim says.

Perhaps because the human voice is the most essential musical instrument, or maybe because the concerts have long been held at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist (“a building made for great singing,” Stalheim says), choral groups have always played a key role in Present Music’s Thanksgiving fellowship. This year marks the debut of Present Music’s new male-female vocal ensemble, Hearing Voices. Some of its members belonged to the now defunct Milwaukee Chorale Artists, a group that had collaborated with Present Music in the past. Their eight voices will join in a performance of Sarabande by Caroline Shaw, who at age 30 became the youngest artist ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music. Ears and eyes always open for new work by living composers, Stalheim read about Shaw in The New York Times, went to her website and listened to excerpts of her work. “I said, ‘Man, do I ever want to do this music.’” Three other short pieces by Shaw are on the program, including one featuring a vocal performance by the visiting composer.

Joining Hearing Voices will be students from Arrowhead and Pius XI high schools and Carthage College along with members of the Milwaukee Opera Theatre for a pair of works featuring 40 singers, Spem in alium by Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis and David Lang’s contemporary minimalist piece, I Never, inspired by Tallis and working from a similar, if more inclusive, text of giving thanks.

As always, the Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group will open and close the concert. Rounding out the program will be To Whom It May Concern, a string quartet by Paul Simon’s Music Director Mark Stewart, and an a cappella version of Abba’s “The Way Old Friends Do,” “It’s over-the-top poppy,” Stalheim says of the latter song. “A ‘We Are the World’-type hymn to friendship, which to me is a lot of what Thanksgiving is about.”

Present Music’s Thanksgiving concert begins at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 24, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 812 N. Jackson St. A pre-concert talk with Shaw is offered at 4 p.m. For tickets, go to presentmusic.org or call 414-271-0711.

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