A Back-and-Forth with Black Cat Ensemble

Like Door County’s own Griffon String Quartet, Milwaukee-based woodwind quintet Black Cat Ensemble aims to bring live classical music to places it often doesn’t reach, from classrooms to libraries.

This Saturday, they’ll be playing at a more traditional venue: Egg Harbor’s Anchored Roots Vineyard and Winery. 

We caught up with Jennifer Burke, the ensemble’s flutist and founding member, and her husband Alec Burke, the group’s trumpeter, before the show. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

SW (Sam Watson): How would you describe the mission of Black Cat Ensemble?

JB (Jennifer Burke): We focus on communities that don’t always get to experience live classical music and try to make it relatable to them. We also try to break the boundaries of what classical music can provide. For example, the trumpet takes the place of what’s usually a French horn, which isn’t something you see a lot.

One way we’ve offered community-centered performances was by doing a tour of Michigan schools in the Ludington and Grand Rapids areas. We performed for the kids and taught them about what chamber music is, and what it means to run your own chamber-music ensemble.

We also do performances at local libraries; our most recent one was for Hispanic Heritage Month. We were working off of a children’s book, Drum Dream Girl [by Margarita Engle,] that correlated with some Latin rhythms that we presented in the music and taught to the students who came.

AB (Alec Burke): School engagement is one way that we interact with communities, but we also have done fundraisers for organizations in the Milwaukee area like Hope House and local homeless shelters. And when we did our tour in Michigan, we raised money for Mason County Eastern Schools there.

SW: How did the ensemble come together?

JB: I was a graduate student at UW-Milwaukee (UWM)– I was there for a master’s degree in flute performance – when I decided to form a woodwind quintet. I knew I didn’t want it to be a school-facilitated ensemble because I wanted to do things out in the community.

We’ve gone through three or four iterations since the beginning. All of the members of the second iteration happened to have black cats; that’s how we got our name.

Now I’ve graduated and this ensemble has gone past being a student ensemble. We’re working on maintaining a professional career with it. 

AB: I joined the group at the tail end of the pandemic, summer 2022. People were graduating from UWM, so scheduling was getting difficult and they [Black Cat Ensemble] needed a French horn player. I was like, “Well, I play trumpet, I play brass, and there’s music out there for non-standard instrumentation.” So I stepped in.

I play two roles – I’m an ensemble member and a composer-in-residence, so I’m writing, commissioning, transcribing and arranging music. A focal point of the group, even before I joined, is performing works by living composers, not just the tried-and-true traditional repertoire. 

SW: Who are some of your favorite living composers? 

AB: One group the whole ensemble gravitates towards is Akropolis Reeds, a reed quintet. We model a lot of their business practices and music selections off of them.

JB: There are two artists that really opened up my mind as to what music we could perform. One is Valerie Coleman; she’s a flute professor and a composer, and we’ve performed music by her. Another is Flutronix, which uses flute and electronics to make their music. 

SW: Is everyone in the ensemble a full-time musician?

JB: Yes. We balance lots of different roles. I am a private flute instructor and a band director, and I also sub for regional orchestras; our clarinetist works at a music-publishing company and performs; our bassoonist is a full-time student currently living in New York; and our oboist makes and sells oboe reeds and performs with a lot of different orchestras. She’s performing with the Peoria Symphony and the Milwaukee Symphony this month, so she’s not going to be at the [Anchored Roots] show because of those.

AB: I teach at a private studio, and I’m faculty at the Milwaukee Area Technical College and a part-time band director. But the majority of what I do is perform – I freelance a lot and play for regional orchestras, pit orchestras and musical theater. 

Balancing multiple revenue streams is the norm for many musicians. We’re fortunate that everybody in our group does music full-time in some form or another.

JB: We all have empathy for the fact that we’re all working pretty constantly. 

SW: What brings the ensemble to Door County? 

AB: Jen and I took an anniversary trip to Door County and met Amy [Gale, Anchored Roots owner.] We were chatting and she asked what we do; I said, “We’re musicians” – and we got a couple dates at Anchored Roots.

JB: We’ve performed as our pop duo, Ekruteak, there too. 

Black Cat Ensemble will perform Dec. 16, 1 – 3 pm, at Anchored Roots Vineyard and Winery, 4873 Willow Road in Egg Harbor. Their performance is part of the winery’s Holiday Sip and Shop event, which runs 12 – 4 pm and features local vendors selling last-minute gifts.