In a sense, Cheryl Frazes Hill feels like she’s coming home to the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus.
Frazes Hill, the director of choral activities at Roosevelt University in Chicago and assistant director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, was announced as the next director of the MSO Chorus in April.
“It’s almost like coming full circle,” she said, because when she was still in high school, she sang under Margaret Hawkins, the founder of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and a friend and protégé of Margaret Hillis, who founded the Chicago Symphony Chorus. And years later, Hillis hired Frazes Hill to assist with the CSO group.
“This has always been kind of a dream job for me,” she said recently at the Starbucks across the street from the Marcus Center, where she is in the process of hearing every member of the MSO Chorus individually. “I’m not removing anyone this season. Everyone is welcome back,” she said. “I want us to get to know each other without fear or anxiety.” But as she listens, she will be making decisions about who sings what. “There are some very fine voices that wouldn’t be right for Handel's Messiah,” she said, “but boy, will I be happy to have them for Beethoven.”
“She had a very good fit with the chorus, and they really liked her,” said Deborah Patel, a chorus member who led the search committee for the new director. When Frazes Hill was preparing the chorus to sing Poulenc’s Gloria this spring, as part of her audition for the job, “she kept saying she wanted us to be confident,” Patel said. “That struck a chord with me. And she has incredible time management skills. She knew what she wanted to do with every minute of rehearsal.”
Frazes Hill praised the work of MSO assistant director Tim Benson and accompanist Diane Kachelmeier. “One thing I learned from Margaret Hillis is that you cannot hear everything,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to have a good assistant.”
Although the Chicago Symphony singers are mostly paid and follow union rules, and the MSO Chorus is now all volunteer, Frazes Hill sees no difference in approach or expectations: “The obligation is to be at the level of the orchestras with whom they perform.” And besides, she added, “You can’t pay a singer enough if they don’t like the conductor.”
Frazes Hill succeeds Lee Erickson, who led the MSO Chorus for decades after Hawkins’ death. “There’s a tremendous love between the chorus and Lee,” she said. “I can’t just bulldoze my way through. This is a wonderful group of people who have been doing this for a long time.” She had coffee with Erickson a few weeks ago and hopes to keep him connected with the chorus in some fashion.
The job of a symphony chorus director is to prepare for what the orchestra conductor may want to do, and Frazes Hill makes a point of telling her singers that certain passages may go a different way depending on the conductor. Sometimes other problems come up; when she prepared the MSO Chorus for the Poulenc, she had to discuss the hundreds of errata in the score with librarian Pat McGinn and make decisions about how to handle them.
Adding Milwaukee to her workload will not be much of a problem, she said; she lives in a northern Chicago suburb and can make the drive to the Marcus Center in about an hour and a quarter. “Thank goodness for Sirius radio,” she said. “That has saved the day.”
She looks forward to the MSO’s coming season, with Bach, Vaughan Williams and Ravel in the lineup, and concluding with “a great combination of blockbusters” in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But in general, she said, “my favorite piece is the one I’m working on.”