Friday, December 18, 2020

A Pandemic Lullaby

By Heather Watney, FVSO Cellist

As a cellist and participant in the Fox Valley Symphony’s outreach programs, I am fortunate to be able to touch the lives of listeners in direct ways. I am lucky enough to play quartet music (these days all virtually) for children with special needs, for adults with special needs or memory challenges, or with libraries/clubs that want to interact with symphony musicians on a smaller scale. It is these special symphony presentations that mean the most to me — because I can see directly how my music touches other lives, sometimes in profound ways that can’t be articulated easily.

In mid-August Cassie Schwandt, FVS’s Director of Community Engagement, asked a few people from the orchestra if they would be interested in trying something different and step into a singer/songwriter role to work on a Carnegie Lullaby Project with Appleton’s Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs. The Carnegie Lullaby Project pairs musicians with families, and together they compose and write lyrics for a new lullaby that children will have for their whole lives. Families and musicians involved in the program, piloted in New York City, have written more than 1,400 lullabies across the United States and around the globe!  

Jennie Micke, children and youth advocate at Harbor House, shared with me how hard her organization works to empower our local communities to be free from domestic abuse through safety, knowledge and engagement. Jennie was instrumental in our virtual sessions with mothers as the hub of communication in this lullaby project. She explained to me that writing lullabies with musicians gives families recovering from an abusive situation a chance to be empowered through music as a critical decision maker in the direction a song grows. She led all of us — musicians, mothers and children — through the experience with such grace and gentleness.

There were several mothers I could have been paired with, but I ended up with Rachel and her daughter. I’m so grateful I was paired with Rachel. The lullaby we worked on wasn’t just a project in empowerment for her; it was an important time capsule capturing an uncertain moment in Rachel’s life. When I heard her story, it gave me pause. It made me wonder if I could really do justice to a song that would be a lifelong reminder to her little girl of a mother’s love.

Rachel is battling cancer with an unknown outcome at this point. Rachel’s opening spoken dedication in the lullaby poignantly captures this unknown: “If there ever comes a day that we can’t be together, keep me in your heart. I will stay there forever. I love you today, tomorrow and for eternity.” Rachel’s song is her legacy and a reminder for the little love of her life that even if they aren’t together, Rachel is still there, no matter what. Lyrics in the song repeat this loving reminder:

I’m always with you. I’m here at your side. 
I’m smiling at you when you think you’re alone.
through all of your child days and when you are grown.

So, I sobbed. I sat at my piano after our virtual brainstorming sessions ended and sobbed for Rachel, for her daughter, for my own mother going through serious health risks, for separation, for uncertain futures. Then I set out to compose but with a tormented heart — how could I possibly write a song that could reflect this mother’s purest love and be a lasting ode of encouragement for her daughter? I felt like it wasn’t enough to just write any song. It had to be the right song. I spent the next six weeks torturing and questioning myself, immersed in Rachel’s uncertain future, her story and her song.

Our time here’s a journey we cannot control, 
so please live a life that brings joy to your soul.

Rachel also spends time thinking a lot about her daughter’s uncertain future and journey. What happens to her daughter if Rachel dies? She can write a will naming a desired guardian for her daughter, but in Wisconsin that is no guarantee her daughter won’t be placed with her abusive father who lost his rights for custody. Rachel is, in her own way, also trying to craft a lasting ode. She is working hard to bring positive change to Wisconsin law cases where the primary parent with sole custody and parental rights has assurances that the abusive parent who lost his or her rights cannot regain custody upon the death of the primary parent. Rachel clearly has doubts. She asked me, “How do I protect my daughter if I die?” I don’t know the answer. All I could do is write down the inspired words Rachel penned for her daughter and find a melody (the most uplifting moment in the song) that reflected a shared message of hope and truth for Rachel and her daughter, both:

Keep staring your fears in the face like I taught
and overcome all of them. I believe in you!

The weeks passed and I finally felt the song was done. I had recorded the piano part myself, but wanted to make sure I found the right voice for Rachel, who has pain and difficulty with speaking and singing due to treatments. Kristy Danielski, a wonderful friend, nurse, mother and amateur singer from Christ the King Lutheran, provided the singing. Always an empathetic friend who connects deeply to songs she considers emotionally moving, she asked me, “How will I get through this without crying, Heather?” After practicing it at home she informed me that her own daughter, Autumn, spends quiet time in her bedroom singing the lullaby to herself. It made me smile to know that another mother and daughter were finding shared succor with this lullaby.

But the song still needed more musical heart and warmth. So, I called Fox Valley Symphony violist Jane Finch and asked if she would play all the violin and viola parts I wrote (there may have been chocolate and prosecco involved), and I’d play the cello. She didn’t hesitate, which led to multiple hours of socially distanced, masked playing and recording in the sanctuary of Christ the King Lutheran. Her instruments sang in the pandemic-empty space, bringing life and joy to the cavernous room. Hearing her play made my heart feel lighter in this project for the first time. The sun was shining brightly that day, like a warm smile. Jane’s playing was indeed the sound of a mother’s love behind that sunshine smile.

My daughter, my darling, I’m your shining guide.

Before each breakout brainstorming session, we started with singing and fun with all the mothers, musicians and children together. Musician coordinator Sam Taylor found all these fun songs for us to sing together and dreamed up kids’ activities. On one of the days, the children created their own rainsticks and played them during a closing song together. Sam played his authentic rainstick, adding to the cacophony of joyful child noises during that particular Zoom session. I knew I wanted to remind Rachel’s daughter of that musical moment and the rainstick she created with her mom from a toilet paper tube. I asked Sam if he would add some rainstick and string bass to the lullaby I worked on with Rachel. He was more than willing to help out and was instrumental in helping create the final mix with me. His additions to the lullaby were the final pieces of the puzzle. NOW the music was done. I felt exhausted and drained, the fast and inspiring creation process having taken an emotional toll on me. I think I found Rachel’s song.  

Finally, Jennie, Sam and I met with Rachel virtually to help her record her voice and dedication for her daughter. It was the first time she and Jennie heard the whole song from start to finish with the strings added. We were all in tears with the shared experience of the musical journey, of the arrival, of the destination reached. Here was the legacy, completed with her voice — still so beautiful and full of love despite changes due to all her treatments. Here was the gift for her daughter, the spoken and sung assurance that Rachel’s presence would continue no matter what.

Composing and recording music is kind of like being a mother and giving birth. You hope for the best, put your heart and soul into it, and hope your song makes a meaningful impact in the world, even if it impacts just one person. If I live to be 80, Rachel’s daughter will just be turning 41, almost the same age I am now (ok, I’m a few more years older). Even after Rachel and I are both gone, I hope this song I helped craft will still be in this young lady’s life, reminding her that Rachel is always with her, showing her that music has the power to touch our souls in profound ways. I hope this song will help her draw out beautiful memories like a rainstick craft and the sound of her mother’s beautiful voice. I hope this song has the power to remind her that music can be a shining sun in a long, dark winter.

Go live a life that’s defined by just you.
Your vivacious spirit will carry you through.
Go fill your days with your love and desires.
Be confidant fearless and I'll lift you higher.

Please consider donating to Harbor House of Appleton and the Fox Valley Symphony to “lift us higher” and ensure enrichment and outreach programs such as the “Carnegie Lullaby Project,” Youth Orchestras or the “In Harmony” symphony outreach programs can continue into the future. These programs strive and succeed to empower participants and make meaningful connections in our community.

To donate to Harbor House programs please CLICK HERE 

        To donate to Fox Valley Symphony programs please CLICK HERE

For information on the “Carnegie Lullaby Project” CLICK HERE

Thursday, June 25, 2020

An Update on Our 2020-21 Season

As things continue to change in response to the current pandemic, we want you to know we have your safety in mind as we plan for the upcoming season. With that safety in mind, the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra along with the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center are making the responsible decision to offer alternate programming until January of 2021. We both feel it is the right decision to limiting large gatherings.

We hope to add chamber orchestra performances throughout our community this fall. We are committed to making music, even if it looks a bit different at this time. These concerts will be presented virtually, and if fall’s health guidelines permit, we will allow small, socially distanced audiences. Stay tuned for August 10th when we will announce our plans for the full season.

In addition, our orchestra will continue to offer virtual performances, as we have since March. You can visit our website, Facebook, or YouTube channels to add beautiful music to your day. We will continue this programming through the summer.

We want to thank our season ticket holders for their support and patience during this difficult time. We will hold any current subscriptions until we announce the new season in August, but please hold onto your tickets as they are still valid for rescheduled performances! If you have not yet renewed your season tickets, your seats will be waiting for you in the spring or even next fall.

We look forward to being back in our hall and back in our community as soon as it is safe to do so.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Orchestra Notes: A Brief Update

Hello All,

We just wanted to do a quick check with our leadership team and update you on our orchestra planning.

If you have any questions, please let us know and Kevin and Jamie will answer them in an upcoming video.

We hope you are all staying safe and healthy, and we look forward to being with you again soon.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

2020 Brats, Beer, & Beethoven Canceled due to COVID-19

The Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra has made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 Brats, Beer, & Beethoven event. The sixth edition of this popular, free event was to be held on Friday, July 10 at Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium.

“While this is heartbreaking for us, our number one concern is
the safety of our musicians and our audience,” said Jamie LaFreniere, Executive Director for Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra. “Once restrictions lift, we will be back to making music in our community. We’re already looking forward to our next Brats, Beer, and Beethoven at the stadium and we will definitely plan for that next season.”

The first Brats, Beer, & Beethoven was held at the home of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers on July 2, 2015 and was an overwhelmingly positive and successful event. Past events have included performances by the Fox Valleyaires, the MacDowell Male Chorus, some special guests, and the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra.

We want to thank our sponsors for their continued support of this program:
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Our Conductor Search Begins!

This season will be bittersweet for our symphony. As we’ve said goodbye to our Maestro Brian Groner, we now begin the search for our new music director. Brian left behind an amazing legacy, and we are faced with the challenge of finding another great leader to bring us forward.
     After a long and through search, we’ve narrowed the field to four finalists, and I can’t wait for you to meet them. They are all skilled conductors, dedicated educators, and passionate community advocates. Each will share both new music and classics on their concert. Each will work with a soloist and get to know our orchestra both on and off stage.
     More importantly, we want YOU to get to know them. We will have times during their week in Appleton for you to see them in both formal and informal settings, answering questions, and discussing why they are excited to come to our area and join our orchestra.
     Each concert week will be followed up by our team collecting your thoughts and comments. We will have comment cards and surveys at the hall for each concert, as well as emailed surveys, and website forms. Please feel free to give us your candid feedback, ask questions, and become a part of this process.
     I can’t tell you how important this is to all of us. Let us hear from you! We are hoping the person we hire is part of our community, both on stage and off, for a very long time. Please let us know your impressions and help us make a very informed and inclusive decision.
     We would love for you to become a season ticket holder, and then you will receive updates from us throughout the season, letting you know about opportunities to get involved.
  We’re grateful for the 23 years of artistry and dedication Maestro Groner contributed to this community, and we look forward to our next chapter under the baton of our new director. 
     Please scroll down to learn more about our first conductor candidate, Howard Hsu, and join us this Saturday, October 6, at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center for our 2018-19 Opening Night!

     -  Jamie LaFreniere, Executive Director
Save the dates!

October 6, 2018: Conductor Howard Hsu
                  Jonathan Bailey Holland—Motor City Remix
                  Samuel Barber– Violin Concerto, Op. 14, Soloist Kelly Hall-Tompkins
                  Johannes Brahms—Symphony No. 2, Op. 73 in D major
November 17, 2018: (No candidate for this concert)
Disney’s Pixar in Concert! Enjoy scores from your favorite Disney Pixar films! A visually stunning, high-definition, multi-media family show!

January 26, 2019: Conductor Wesley Schulz
Chris Rogerson– Luminosity
Jennifer Higdon– blue cathedral
Aaron Copland– Clarinet Concerto, Soloist Jorge Montilla Moreno
Sergei Rachmaninoff– Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

March 9, 2019: Conductor Alastair Willis
Mason Bates– Mothership
Dmitry Shostakovich– Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107 in E flat Major,
Soloist Alexander Hersh
Sergei Prokofiev– Romeo & Juliet, Selections from Suites 1 and 2

May 11, 2019: Conductor Kevin Sütterlin
Adam Hochstatter– My Name is Aiden
Jim Pugh– Trombone Concerto, Soloist Thomas Stark
César Franck– Symphony in D minor

We start the season on October 6 with Conductor Howard Hsu. We've had a fun week with him visiting Appleton East High School, Lawrence University, 91.1 the Avenue, and getting to know our board and donors. Last night was our first rehearsal with the full group, and we continue with a strings-only rehearsal tonight. We can't wait to get in the P.A.C. hall for the first time on Friday night with special guest violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, friends from our season underwriters at The Boldt Company, and students from Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys & Girls Club. It will be a busy weekend, we we can't wait to share this music with you!
Howard Hsu at the Fox Cities P.A.C. (Photo: Graham Washatka)

Learn a little more about our Conductor Howard Hsu:

Howard Hsu is the Music Director of the Valdosta (GA) Symphony Orchestra, and serves as Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Orchestra Studies at Valdosta State University. Under his leadership, the Valdosta Symphony was selected as the 2014 winner of the American Prize in Orchestral Performance (community division). He has performed with world-renowned artists such as Robert McDuffie, Simone Dinnerstein, Jennifer Frautschi, Wendy Warner, Rachel Barton Pine, Stanford Olsen, Alexander Ghindin, Alexander Schimpf, Katia Skanavi, Awadagin Pratt, Amy Schwartz Moretti, and the Empire Brass, and has introduced live classical music to thousands of children in the Southern Georgia region. He conducted the world premiere of James Oliverio’s Trumpet Concerto No. 1: World House, the U.S. premiere of Ned McGowan’s Concerto for iPad and Orchestra (Rotterdam Concerto 2), and has given the Georgia premieres of Fernande Decruck’s Sonata for Saxophone and Orchestra, several of the Debussy/Matthews Preludes, and Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Motor City Dance Mix. Hsu has appeared as a guest conductor with the Hartford (CT) Symphony Orchestra, Macon (GA) Symphony, New Britain (CT) Symphony, and Bronx (NY) Arts Ensemble. Hsu received his D.M.A. from the University of Connecticut, his M.M. from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and his B.S. from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Visit for more information.

Friday, September 7, 2018

The 5 Milers + FVSO = Support Your Symphony!

Local folk group The 5 Milers started in 1962 with a group of friends in high school, and today they are raising money for local charities with their love of music.

Rob Billings, one of the founders, remembers how it all started. “I purchased a used six dollar guitar and ask Tom and Terry, ‘how do you play this thing?’ We were only in our sophomore year at Neenah high school, but we were motivated.”

Music from the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Weavers inspired them. Once they got the hang of it, they were hooked.  

Their love of music carried through the years, and even though not all of them are still living in Wisconsin, they always return home for a few concerts each year, and their fans follow them each time. They’ve drawn crowds in Neenah, at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, and other venues around the Fox Cities. “Our audiences love the folk music of the 1960s and many sing along,” says Billings, “and others simply sit back and remember where they were when they first heard the music.” 

A few years ago, they decided to put their love of music, and their growing audience, to use in helping the community. “I had the honor of performing with Door County bluegrass musician Bill Jorgenson, and he had some great advice for us.” says Billings. “He encouraged the band to do annual benefits in support of causes we really believe in. He was right, and it is such a win-win situation for us! We get to play the music we love, the audience has a great time, and it all goes toward supporting charities in our own community.”

The 5 Milers select a new group to help each year. Past recipients include Homeless Connections, Old Glory Honor Flights, and Backpack for Kids. This year’s recipient is another local musical group, the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra. Billings approached the symphony first as a recipient, but it soon became clear the partnership could grow.
“We were so honored they picked us for the benefit this year,” says Jamie LaFreniere, Executive Director of the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra. “But as we started talking, Rob had the fantastic idea of having both our groups share the stage for this special night.” The concert is sponsored by gifts from J.J. Keller & Associates and Dr. Monroe Trout and Sandra Lemke.

“We’re looking forward to a fun night of 60s classics,” says LaFreniere. “We love to partner with other groups in our community, and bring together different genres and fans of all types of music. We’re just lucky to live in a community where there are so many choices!”

The concert is on September 13 at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, and proceeds will go to the symphony. PURCHASE YOUR TICKETS HERE!

Growing up in the Fox Cities, our group had many memorable and enjoyable moments,” says Billings. “It is our pleasure to try to give back to our community both in our performances and with the money raised for charity.”

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

FVSO Received NEA Grant for Brubeck Outreach

The Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support outreach activities associated with our upcoming concert featuring Grammy-nominated composer and trombonist Chris Brubeck. 

The $10,000 “Challenge America” grant will underwrite the costs for Brubeck and Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra musicians to share the music of modern American legends with veterans and audiences in rural areas, as well as support Brubeck’s appearance with at the symphony’s February 3 concert at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center’s Thrivent Financial Hall.

Brubeck’s outreach events will include an interactive workshop at the Gerold Opera House in Weyauwega focusing on performance and music composition with band students from the Weyauwega area.  He’ll follow that up with a lecture and performance at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King.  The FVSO’s Brass Circle quintet will accompany Brubeck at both appearances.

Photo Credit: Stephane Colbert
“Working with the local youth is part of our mission. Helping to provide the opportunity to be inspired and informed by Chris Brubeck and members of the symphony is very exciting,” said Kathy Fehl, Artistic Director of WEGA Arts.  “The effort to work with us and other places in the area is wonderful; encouraging kids to consider a life in the arts is very important.”

Brubeck said he hopes that he can contribute to the creative spirit in the young music students.

“We still live in a society where a creative thinker, player, visual artist, dancer, film maker, author or singer can still have a significant impact. If I can connect with, encourage and inspire one young person to pursue their dreams then I feel that the mission was accomplished,” said Brubeck. “The Arts are a reminder of our wonderful human potential.”

Brubeck’s performance at the Veteran’s Home at King inspired some memories of his father, jazz musician and composer, Dave Brubeck.

“Through the years, my Dad told me many stories about his going into hospitals and playing music for Veterans which seemed to connect with them in a special way,” said Chris Brubeck. “If the Vets can't come to a concert, I am happy to go to see them and reach out through music.”

On February 3, Brubeck will be featured as the guest artist for the symphony’s “Modern American Legends” concert.  He will also participate in a discussion with FVSO’s Sandra Lemke & Monroe Trout Music Director Brian Groner before the concert in the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center’s Kimberly-Clark Theater. 

The NEA Challenge America grant program offers support for projects that extend the reach of the arts to those whose opportunities to experience the arts are limited by geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability. 

ABOUT THE National Endowment for the Arts
Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. Visit to learn more about NEA.  (Source,

ABOUT Chris Brubeck
Grammy-nominated composer Chris Brubeck continues to distinguish himself as a multi-faceted performer and creative force.  An award-winning writer, he is clearly tuned into the pulse of contemporary music. The respected music critic for The Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein calls Chris: “a composer with a real flair for lyrical melody--a 21st Century Lenny Bernstein.”   
Chris has created an impressive body of symphonic work while maintaining a demanding touring and recording schedule with his two groups:  the Brubeck Brothers Quartet (with brother Dan on drums), and Triple Play, an acoustic trio featuring Chris on piano, bass and trombone along with guitarist Joel Brown and harmonica player extraordinaire Peter Madcat Ruth. Additionally, Chris performs as a soloist playing his trombone concertos with orchestras and has served as Artist in Residence with orchestras and colleges in America, coaching, lecturing, and performing with students and faculty.

Chris is a much sought-after composer, and has been commissioned to write many innovative works. Current projects include a concerto for the Canadian Brass Quintet to be premiered with the Lexington Philharmonic in November 2017.  As Composer in Residence with the New Haven Symphony, Chris premiered Time Changes for Jazz Combo and Orchestra.  He had two new commissions premiere in 2016:  "Fanfare for a Remarkable Friend" and "Sphere of Influence".  His "Affinity: Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra" was written for celebrated guitarist Sharon Isbin, and premiered in April, 2015.  To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Allied Liberation of France in June, 2014, Chris and French composer Guillaume Saint-James wrote Brothers in Arts: 70 Years of Liberty, which premiered to much acclaim in Rennes, France. Chris's long list of commissions are varied and range from a Russian-American cooperative project commissioned by the Hermitage Museum and the National Gallery ("The Hermitage Cats Save the Day"), to the Kennedy Center for the National Symphony Orchestra; to concertos written for violinist Nick Kendall; the exciting trio Time for Three, a song cycle for Frederica von Stade ("River of Song") as well as many chamber and orchestral pieces commissioned by the Concord Chamber Music Society, the Muir String Quartet, 3 commissions from The Boston Pops, and multiple commissions from consortiums including The Boston Pops, Baltimore Symphony, Colorado Music Festival in Boulder, Indianapolis Symphony, Portland Symphony, Oakland East Bay Symphony, and many others. 

His highly acclaimed Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra, has been played by many of the top bass trombonists in the world and was recorded with Chris as soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra.  It can be heard on the Koch International Classics recording "Bach to Brubeck".  He also wrote a second trombone concerto, The Prague Concerto which he premiered and recorded with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra on the Koch cd, "Convergence".  Reviewing that disc, Fanfare Magazine wrote "Brubeck's skill both as composer and soloist is extraordinary." April, 2009 saw the premiere of “Ansel Adams: America”, an exciting orchestral piece written by Chris and Dave Brubeck.  It was commissioned by a consortium of eight orchestras and is accompanied by 100 of Ansel Adams’ majestic images projected above the orchestra.  In 2013, "Ansel Adams: America" was nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition. 

Join us for the Concert on Saturday:
February 3 at 6:40 pm:  Pre-show lecture in the Kimberly-Clark Theatre at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.

February 3 at 7:30 pm:  Concert with the Fox Valley Symphony in Thrivent Hall at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.