Milwaukee Choral Artists sing their last songs
Sharon Hansen, preparing to retire, leads the last concert of the professional women's choir she founded 15 years ago. Tonight in 'Tosa.
Fifteen years ago, Sharon Hansen held auditions to form Milwaukee’s first fully professional paid choir.
She didn’t know where the money would come from, and she didn’t know who would show up to sing. A surfeit of women with good voices, degrees in music and sight-reading skills showed up. So did some guys; they were, well, very nice.
“So Paula Foley Tillen, (who would become the new group’s composer/arranger) said: ‘Let’s form a chick choir,'” Hansen said, in an interview Tuesday. Thus began the Milwaukee Choral Artists and one of the extraordinary chapters in Milwaukee musical history. That chapter ends tonight (Saturday April 13), with a farewell concert at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Wauwatosa.
Hansen, 59, also intends to retire from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she has been a music professor and choir director for 19 years, next spring.
“A couple of years ago, my husband and I realized that it would be possible for us to retire and started tossing around scenarios,” Hansen said. “I went to the MCA board and proposed 15 years. It could have been 16 or 17, but the board had to figure it out. The members had to decide whether to continue, to change into a different sort of organization or close. They formed a committee to consider all the alternatives.”
They decided to close — wisely, I think, as Hansen is irreplaceable. The choir is so much an extension of her musical personality that it could not go on as the same sort of group. Her acutely tuned ears, her communicative gestures, her specific ideas about every tone and beat, and her uncompromising pursuit of quality make her one of the best conductors of any sort that I’ve encountered. I saw it first hand just before Christmas of 2009, when I asked Hansen to participate in a series of holiday music videos for TCD. She and the ladies showed up with a riveting new arrangement, made just for us, of “Silent Night.” Even though this was just a YouTube project for a struggling little web magazine, they arrived early and worked and worked until every last note was tuned to Hansen’s satisfaction. Which is to say, tuned to perfection.
She approaches every piece that way, and that’s why the MCA became the astonishing group it will surely remain through its last program this evening.
Surprisingly, Hansen knew next to nothing about music for treble choir when she took on this women’s group. Her specialty prior to MCA had been music for mixed choir with orchestra. Her education, at the University of Nebraska at both Lincoln and her hometown UN-Omaha, and later at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory, had been heavy with orchestra work.
She discovered a wealth of music for women’s choir, most of it rarely performed for obvious reasons. Their programs were revelations of music none of us knew. I had no idea, for example, that treble-voice arrangements dating back to the 19th century exist for most of the great art songs. MCA put on a Liederabend in 2005 that, more than any other program, expressed the essence of the group. Twenty or so women sang with the pliancy, unity and awareness of a top-drawer lieder soloist. That was the night I realized just how special Hansen and the MCA were.
And that was no fluke. As Tillen put it in an interview a few weeks ago, “Sharon is such a fantastic musician. Her whole ethos is that everything is an art song.”
Tonight’s program comprises favorite numbers selected by the seven charter singers still with the MCA and a new commission for this Grand Finale concert. Ola Gjeilo, a Norwegian composer especially known in choral circles as a rising young talent. The new piece, set to Emily Brontë poems, is for string quartet and improvised jazz piano. The composer will be at the keyboard.
“This is not a boo-hoo farewell,” Hansen said. “It’s a celebration.”
The name of the piece is Desert Sky. Just by coincidence, it fits: Next spring, Hansen and her husband, David Rachor, will move to Phoenix. Their personal situation is hastening their retirement plans. Before Hansen came to Milwaukee, she taught at the University of Northern Iowa, where they met. Rachor still teaches there and is the principal bassoonist in the Des Moines Symphony. For 20 years, they’ve maintained a commuter marriage at a distance of 275 miles, and they’ve had quite enough of that.
“That’s the life of two performers,” she said. “He didn’t even make our last gig in Milwaukee, because he was playing Beethoven in Des Moines. It’s been 20 years of driving back and forth 35,000 miles a year.”
They’ve chosen to be together in Phoenix because they love the west, the warm weather and the proximity to California. Hansen’s mother lives in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Hansen loves Mexican culture. Fluency in Spanish is at the top of her to-do list — which is long.
“We’re not ones to sit by the pool with drinks in hand,” Hansen said. “David is involved with early instrument groups and spends a lot of time in Europe, and Phoenix has an international airport. We’ll live in Tempe, close to the major research library at Arizona State. I like to write, and I want to do more scholarly writing and editing. I’m thinking about a conducting textbook. And I want to get more involved in social justice.”
In part because of MCA and in part because of her scholarly research, Hansen has become well-known in choral circles. She recently conducted the Texas All-State Womens’ Choir, a big thing in the field. Fifteen thousand high school girls audition for 400 spots. Success with that group spreads throughout the choral world. Hansen could do well as a traveling clinician and guest conductor. She’s considering that, but something else is on her mind, as well.
“I think I want to sing,” she said. “A couple of groups interest me, Conspirare, in Austin, and the Phoenix Chorale. I think I’ve got the chops for that.
“I want to sing. Imagine that.”
Concert Information: The MCA Grand Finale begins at 7:30 p.m. tonight (Saturday, April 13) at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, 1615 Wauwatosa Ave., in Wauwatosa. Tickets are $25, $15 for students, $20 for seniors. They are available online and by phone, 414 376-5878.