LGSO, UWW combine for classic juggernaut

The Whitewater Symphony Orchestra, under UW-Whitewater Director of Orchestras Christopher Ramaekers, performs at a past Holiday Gala. The group recently paired with the Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Holst’s “The Planets.” (Photo by Tom Ganser)

By Tom Ganser


A concert in the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Irving R. Young Auditorium on March 16 was likely as monumental in the histories of the Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra and the Whitewater Symphony Orchestra as the two classical compositions the combined orchestra performed.

The WSO – comprised of students from UW-Whitewater – and the LGSO took on a pair of musical offerings, opening with strings only for “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” by Ralph Vaughn Williams, then transitioning to the classical masterpiece “The Planets” by Gustav Holst.

The first piece borrowed a theme from the 16th century English composer of Renaissance music, while the second showcased more than 120 musicians and a hidden choir of UWW female voices, led by Robert Gehrenbeck, director of choral studies at the university.

Written between 1914 and 1916, “The Planets” reflect Holst’s interest in astrology. His subtitle to each section serves as a guide to the music required: Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, the Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, the Magician; and Neptune, the Mystic.

Pluto was not discovered until 1930, so when Holst wrote the suite, Neptune was the farthest planet from the sun. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet.

The concert marked only the third time that LGSO has partnered with other groups. In 2019, the orchestra teamed up with a chorus of 150 students from UWW, the University of Northern Iowa and the Moody Bible Institute from Chicago to perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Last year, the LGSO and The Dance Factory of Delavan collaborated in a production of “The Nutcracker” by Tchaikovsky, along with a Lincoln Elementary School choir.

Pairing up

The March concert continued a strong connection between the LGSO and the UWW College of Arts and Communication.

“From master class partnerships to faculty soloists to the Fellows program, the relationship between the LGSO and the College of Arts and Communication has always been close,” said David Anderson, LGSO music director. “Having the LGSO combine with the Whitewater Symphony Orchestra is an organic step in our partnership.”

College of Arts and Communication Dean Mike Dugan said the partnership “between the Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra and the UWW music program, especially the Whitewater Symphony Orchestra, enriches the region’s cultural landscape and provides valuable opportunities for our music students.”

Dugan joined the combined orchestra for the event.

“As a trombone player, performing ‘The Planets’ is an exhilarating experience that goes beyond technical mastery,” Dugan said. “Playing ‘The Planets’ isn’t just about notes; it’s about tapping into the excitement and passion of this iconic composition, making every performance a journey through the cosmos of sound.”

UWW Director of Orchestras Christopher Ramaekers said the concert is a perfect example of the relationship between the two orchestras.

A central panel in the tapestry representing the LGSO-UWW collaboration is the LGSO Fellows program, which allows string students to hone their craft of orchestral playing and expand their repertoire. The original concept only allowed for a small travel stipend, but in 2021 was replaced with a scholarship provided by the LGSO. There are currently 11 fellows.

“The fellows program allows several of our undergraduate string students to perform with the LGSO, fostering their artistic growth,” Dugan said. “This collaboration demonstrates a shared commitment to transforming lives through music and education, bridging academia and professional practice.”

Rachel Hansen plays viola as part of the LGSO Fellows program, and said it gives her an opportunity to play an “amazing repertoire” at a high level.

“Thanks to the Fellows program, I have made so many connections through the LGSO that have given me more opportunities to play and improve my own musicianship,” Hansen said. “There is a big emphasis on community within the orchestra, and everyone goes the extra mile to support each other.”

Keri Kelly, a fellow who plays violin and pipe organ, said the opportunity to perform ‘The Planets’, and ‘Fantasia’ “is a dream come true for an orchestral musician, especially for collegiate musicians. Being able to collaborate with both LGSO and the WSO has really opened my ears to ways of interpreting these pieces.”

A year of preparation

More than a year prior to the concert, Anderson and Ramaekers began working together to produce it and both pieces were selected as “monuments in the orchestral repertoire.”

“It is important for UWW students to perform this kind of music, just as it is for LGSO musicians.  While it’s possible that each ensemble would be able to perform them alone, the music will be that much better when the total number of musicians is doubled,” Ramaekers said.

Each rehearsed weekly but separately, with essentially half of the combined ensemble for the concert.

“The performance sound of the string section will be vastly different because of the number of players,” Anderson said prior to the concert. “If the principal bassoon player is in the other ensemble, then half of the players won’t hear that part until concert week. We will need to be ready to listen and quickly adapt during the small amount of time we have together.”

A dress rehearsal two days prior was the first time the WSO musicians were under Anderson’s direction for “Fantasia,” and the first time the LGSO musicians were under the direction of Ramaekers for “The Planets.”

It was also the first time the two ensembles played next to each other.

An exciting venture

Sue Childress has played flute and piccolo with the LGSO for 10 years, including the Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and “Nutcracker” productions. As a UWW alumni in music education, she’s excited to be part of the combined orchestra.

“It will be an incredible experience for the players and audience as well to have an orchestra of this size do justice to this epic work,” Childress said before the concert.

David Katz, founder and chief judge for the American Prize National Nonprofit Competitions in Performing Arts, applauds the collaboration.

“First, it solidifies in the minds of the university students that the performance of music can continue at any age, regardless of personal circumstances or professional goals,” Katz said. “From a musical perspective, it provides the opportunity for the ensembles to perform some of the greatest (and grandest) orchestral repertoire, pieces like ‘The Planets,’ that might otherwise be beyond the scope of the ensembles playing individually.

“Lastly, there is little more fun or exciting in music than playing as part of such a large ensemble, where the physical excitement generated by so many musicians performing together is a thrill, not only for the players, but for the audience, too. Bravi, tutti,” he added.

Ramaekers said prior to the concert he expected it to be memorable.

“‘The Planets’ is a work that calls for massive forces. While neither of our orchestras can muster the full instrumentation for this piece on our own, together, this performance could truly be something to behold,” he said.

Whitewater City Manager John Weidl, said the collaboration is a continuation of Whitewater’s tradition of bringing the community together through unique and inclusive events.

“We believe that such cultural and recreational activities not only enhance our quality of life but also strengthen the bonds within our community, making Whitewater a truly special place to live and visit,” Weidl said.

For Anderson, the partnership helps to enhance the experience of playing music together that LGSO musicians value and said joining with the WSO as a full symphony orchestra is very different than performing with a choir, dance company or guest artist.

“We will play orchestral music in such a way that is not possible on our own and in a way, that will be new and different for all players. Think of a painter that normally uses 50 colors in a painting who now has the ability to use 100,” he said.

“The sound will be enormous. The color palette will be rich. The scale of the emotional spectrum will be vast.”

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