Milwaukee Musaik reinvents the notion of a chamber orchestra

Kirstin Roble, Contributing writer

In late 2014, the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra board was looking at its numbers and not liking what it was seeing. Years of financial hardships had reduced the chamber ensemble’s season and it looked like the company would have to shut its doors.

Then three of the company’s musicians came to the board with a seemingly radical idea that would save the company: Give them the proverbial baton.

A little more than a year later, the company has been reborn as Milwaukee Musaik, a self-governing organization in which the musicians are in charge, keeping the ensemble small and flexible to suit economic and musical needs.

New board president and violinist Alexander Mandl says the transition really began in November 2014, when members of the MCO board asked him and some other members of the orchestra to take on more prominent roles to keep the organization afloat — a request he says quickly made itself clear as a stopgap measure. “It was only a matter of time before some major changes needed to be made.”

Mandl, violinist Jeanyi Kim and clarinetist William Helmers went to the board with an alternative proposal, formalizing their roles as musician-leaders and reimagining the orchestra to have an adjustable size based on the needs of particular concerts. Supporting them would be an advisory council of local and national musicians.

“This model is one that is seen more in Europe but less in the United States,” says Mandl.

The MCO board voted, approved the changes and passed the reins to the trio. They renamed the company Milwaukee Musaik, coined from a combination of the German word “musik” and English word “mosaic.” “Our name is representative of our musicians,” Mandl says. “We have a group of musicians representing various groups and organizations in Milwaukee like pieces in a mosaic.”

Milwaukee Musaik will retain the chamber music focus of its predecessor, which was formed in 1973 by oboist and conductor Stephen Colburn as the Milwaukee Chamber Music Society. Colburn led the organization for three decades, before stepping down and transferring the leadership to Bel Canto Chorus’ music director Richard Hynson. Hynson led the company until its 2015 restructuring, overseeing a number of successful collaborations with organizations including Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks.

But the new organization’s flexibility will enhance the opportunities for musicians in the area. “Since the organization is managed by the musicians, we can tailor our needs to various offers,” explains Mandl. “For instance, if we get an offer for a concert in Kenosha, we can create the ensemble to fill their needs from our existing pool of musicians if we don’t already have it in place.”

Mandl says the company also can feature individual musicians who might not otherwise have the opportunity to be in the spotlight, giving them solos and otherwise configuring concerts to emphasize them.

He adds that the company’s musicians are happy with the changes he and the board made. “Many of our musicians are chamber music specialists by trade. This is where they have strength — we want to share that in our concerts,” Mandl says. 

The company has held one well-received concert, at Wisconsin Lutheran College, and will be presenting two more concerts this spring at Mount Mary University. One performance, scheduled for March 1, is a European Tour, with works by Danish composer Carl Neilsen, Irish composer Charles Wood and German composer Ludwig von Beethoven. 

To learn more about Milwaukee Musaik and upcoming events, Mandl says to visit milwaukeemusaik.com. He adds that patrons can make a donation there to help support the organization.

ON STAGE

Milwaukee Musaik’s European Tour concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. March 1 at Mount Mary University, 2900 Menomonee River Pkwy., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25, $15 for students, and can be ordered at
milwaukeemusaik.com.