Beth Bender isn’t new to our community. She has played cello with the Racine Symphony Orchestra for 15 years, as well as with other area groups.
Bender is, though, new to her current role as interim executive director of the symphony, a position she took over at the start of this year, while also taking a leave of absence from performing with the orchestra.
Before joining the RSO, Bender earned a Master of Music from the Conservatory at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Performer’s Certificate in Chamber Music from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She also taught private cello lessons in the Milwaukee area for 10 years and did orchestra and chamber music coaching with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony.
The 43-year-old Iowa native, who has lived in Wisconsin since 2001, currently lives in Milwaukee with her husband, Mark Bender, and their two sons. She answered some questions for Journal Times readers.
Who or what led you to play cello and what is it about that particular instrument that you enjoy?
I started in the public schools when I was 9 years old and in the fourth grade. I remember being attracted to the rich sound and the interesting shape.
What was your biggest challenge in learning to play the cello?
I’m extremely uncoordinated! The physical aspects of things like the bow and vibrato took me a while to grasp. I didn’t have private lessons for the first three years I played, which meant I developed some bad habits. Breaking those wasn’t fun and took quite a bit of work. I was still working on that when I went to college.
What other groups, besides the RSO, have you performed with?
I’ve played with Festival City Symphony in Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Philharmonic (formerly Waukesha Symphony) almost the entire time I’ve lived in Wisconsin. In the Racine area, I’ve performed with the Choral Arts Society many times and collaborated with James Kinchen at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, both for his “Messiah” performances and with his Milwaukee Choristers group. I’ve played with the Kenosha Symphony a handful of times as well, and have performed at weddings, church services and various background music jobs across southeastern Wisconsin.
Please tell us about some of your other interests, outside of music:
I’m very interested in childhood obesity prevention and the promotion of healthy eating for families. Before I took this job I was doing volunteer work with the Healthy Choices Program and the Sixteenth Street Community Center in Milwaukee. The local foods movement is very important to me and I try to hit farmer’s markets and buy directly from local farmers as possible. I’m looking forward to acquainting myself with the options in Racine.
I’m also an avid reader, a fanatic “Harry Potter” fan and I have an embarrassing interest in the British royal family. The current TV shows I’m watching are “Sneaky Pete,” “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” “Victoria,” and my husband and I just finished Season 4 of “Sherlock.”
What are your main responsibilities as the orchestra’s executive director?
Keep in mind I’ve only been in the position since January 3 so I’m still learning the ropes. The RSO has an incredible office staff and a dedicated board so there’s a team of people who share the heavy lifting. One part of my job is to manage many of the logistics — everything from our office to concert venues, the necessary items for our board meetings, making sure everyone gets paid, etc. Another part, about which I’m very excited, is getting to know the community of Racine (patrons and volunteers, ticket holders, music students in the schools, local businesses and institutions) and to make sure the RSO is serving the area to the best of our ability.
How will your experience as a musician with the RSO help you in your new job?
I’m extremely fortunate to come into this job with many years of experience with the organization. Obviously, it helps to have a good working knowledge of the classical music repertoire and how things work from the perspective of the musicians. What I think will benefit me the most is the relationships I’ve built over the years. In addition to performing with the orchestra, I have been a member of the board for two and a half years. People know me, which I like to think makes me approachable. While I haven’t had personal relationships with most of our incredible patrons and volunteers, I look forward to getting to know them better in my new role. I’ve always been impressed by the support the people of Racine give their symphony and I now have a chance to dig into this community in a whole new way.