Jim Anello has a personal reason to remember the first time he sang in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus.
It was 1978, in his first season with the group, and he and the rest of the bass section got lost for about four bars. He was furious with himself, and after the performance, he stopped at the apartment of his then-girlfriend, Jane. “She wasn’t expecting me, and she answered the door in her bathrobe and her Coke-bottle glasses,” he remembered. “And she started fixing me a snack, and I realized that if she could put up with me under those circumstances, at my worst, then she was the one.” He proposed, she accepted, and every time since then that the MSO has done the Sea Symphony, they hold an engagement re-enactment party for the bass section.
Another Sea Symphony is coming up in February, and with it another party. “If everyone in the chorus weren’t so nice,” Anello said, “I doubt if I would have stayed this long.”
That’s a common sentiment among the 143 members of the chorus, who collectively donate thousands of hours of time away from their various day jobs every year to provide the symphony with a musical partner on the highest level.
It’s a busy time of year for the chorus. Following the recent highly anticipated Holiday Pops concerts with former music director Andreas Delfs, this week brings performances of Handel’s evergreen Messiah at churches around town.
“That’s a real challenge for a lot of reasons,” Anello said. “You have to have the stamina for a given night and for the run. It’s like a runner in a long race. The worst thing possible would be to get to the end of the Christmas section [Part 1 of Messiah] and find that you’re spent.”
“Messiah is going to be fantastic,” said Rick Landin, who has been singing tenor in the chorus for eight years. “The text, the music, the ensemble, and performing it in beautiful churches – it’s about as good as it gets. That makes the Christmas season for me.”
Landin, who spent 30 years as a consumer products toxicologist, remembers that his first performance with the MSO was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “and I walked out onstage and thought, ‘I’m in over my head.’ Edo de Waart is conducting, I’m standing behind a trumpeter who went to Juilliard – what am I doing out here?”
But he quickly grew comfortable with his role in the chorus. After a lifetime of singing in other genres, symphonic music is “exactly what I wanted,” he said. “It’s easy to blend, because I don’t feel like I have to carry my part. Everyone is a terrific musician.”
But everyone gets to the chorus by a different route. Jamie Yu, who joined three years ago, already had experience from her time in the Milwaukee Children’s Chorus, when she participated with the Milwaukee Symphony in fun concerts like holiday pops with Doc Severinsen and monumental concerts like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
College, law school, and a full-time job forced their way into her adult life, but now singing in the chorus is “a huge circle for me,” she said. Working as a financial services attorney “makes me enjoy singing even more,” she said. “It’s exercising the other part of my brain.”
Although the chorus gets regular infusions of new blood, Jacquelyn Drummer is one of two remaining charter members who have been singing ever since the group was formed in 1976.
“You can go in to rehearsal exhausted and come out exhilarated,” Drummer said. “It’s physical, emotional, spiritual, and social. Families get together; there have been marriages; we’ve shared funerals. People who move away tell us that there’s no other group quite like this anywhere else.”
Drummer feels a sense of connection being “part of something bigger than ourselves, singing music that people before us made and people after us will make. There’s always someone out there in the audience who needs to be there.”
For every singer like Drummer, there’s another like Marjorie Moon, who is working through the cycle of the repertoire for the first time. She is happy to have crossed the Brahms Requiem and the Bach Magnificat off her bucket list, and is looking forward to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony later this season.
“When you get out there with the orchestra, the magnitude of the piece blooms,” she said. “That’s part of the fun of being in this chorus, is singing behind that orchestra.” This week, she will be singing her first Messiah since college, and “the standard of excellence is very high.” New director Cheryl Frazes Hill “is doing a fabulous job,” she said. “I really like her.”
JoAnn Berk, like Moon, is getting first exposures to many pieces in the choral repertoire over her three years in the chorus. “I don’t have the experience of ‘oh, we did this years ago,’” she said. “It’s all new.”
Some of her favorite memories are learning to work with costumes and movement for the semi-staged productions of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in 2016 (“I didn’t realize we were going to be part actors”) and the appearances with the symphony at Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Bucks games (“a lot of work and a lot of excitement for a few minutes”).
Berk’s commitment spills over into her family life. During performance weeks, she said, “I’m not around much, but they know it makes me really happy.”