On a Tuesday afternoon in February, in a mostly empty Uihlein Hall, 190 singers from four Wisconsin high school choirs assembled onstage with the musicians of the Milwaukee Symphony, to rehearse Francis Poulenc’s Gloria. Conductor Randy Swiggum gave the downbeat — and some of the teenagers gasped.
“Hearing those opening chords ring out in the auditorium — I don’t think I’ll ever forget it,” said Jack Innes, a senior at McFarland High School near Madison. “It was kind of an out-of-body experience.”
The students were participating in the MSO’s annual Teen Choral Partners program, in which four high school choirs are chosen to sing with the orchestra for an educational concert. This year, the Gloria lined up with what the orchestra was presenting the same week for a subscription audience with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus.
“It’s a really important outreach that the symphony does,” said Bonnie Scholz, director of the Pius XI Catholic High School Concert Choir in Milwaukee. She said, for most of her students and their parents, it was their first experience of a professional orchestra concert.
Scholz described an incident during rehearsal when Swiggum asked the students to point to the player they were watching, “and the hands went in 100 different directions. You could tell the orchestra sat up a little straighter after that.”
Poulenc’s adventurous harmonies, however, were a challenge for teenage singers to learn. “What a masterpiece. But a very difficult work for high school students,” said Nate Mendl, director of the McFarland choir, who sang as a student with Teen Choral Partners in 2000 (the program goes back to at least the 1980s). This year was the first time his group was selected to participate, after two previous auditions. In a typical year, about 10 schools apply, and no school may participate in consecutive years.
“They grew so much as musicians who could read their own scores and pick it up,” Mendl said. “When they got to the more dissonant movements, they were reading quite well.”
“The first time they read it, they looked at each other with wide eyes,” said Robert Cody, director of Living Word Lutheran High School A Cappella Choir in Jackson, but they worked hard to learn it over the course of several months. Many of his students also play an instrument, and it stretched their imaginations to hear the MSO musicians with “a sound as close to perfection as they’ve ever heard, and to know this isn’t just a recording. It’s reality. You can’t recreate that visceral experience in any other way.”
Innes, the McFarland senior, has a full scholarship to attend UW-Madison in the fall to study opera performance, and he also plays violin. “It was a surreal experience, to be singing and to hear the violins echoing under the choir,” he said. “It’s something I’m going to remember the rest of my life.”
Jonathan Hess, a junior at Bay Port High School in Green Bay, said that before the first joint rehearsal, he was worried that every other choir would be more prepared than his. That worry was unfounded, but “I saw how far we had left to go. There was always something stylistically to add to the piece.”
Hess’s director, Michael Pufall, said, “Bringing a group of high school students to the same place in the state, with a major performing organization, that’s an experience they won’t have anyplace else.”
At a Catholic school, Scholz’s students are used to singing various settings of the Latin Mass, and they had some good discussions about Poulenc’s approach. “Is he putting his tongue in his cheek? Is he telling you the world is coming to an end?” she said. “They were all great conversation starters.”
To any director who is considering auditioning for the program, “it’s absolutely worth the work,” Cody said. “Our own choir is a totally different choir now — the focus of their sound, their professionalism, their maturity.”
March is Music in Our Schools Month. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Music Association are celebrating the music programs in our schools and the music teachers who are transforming lives through the power of music. You support is crucial to helping the Milwaukee Symphony keep music playing in our schools. The Teen Choral Concert is just one of the many ways in which the Milwaukee Symphony offers education opportunities to the students of Wisconsin. Visit mso.org/education for more information about the Milwaukee Symphony’s education and outreach initiatives.