Behind the Scenes: MSO & Student Choir Performance at Pius XI High School

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2019.20 Season, Chorus, In the News, Teen Choral

After a recent rehearsal at Pius XI Catholic High School, a student came up to choir director Tom Ajack and said, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, isn’t it?”

Ajack agreed, and thought to himself that the Milwaukee Symphony’s visit to Pius to present a concert with the high school’s choirs was also probably a once-in-a-career opportunity for him. Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, the full symphony accompanied Pius’ combined choirs in a one-hour concert at the school on Oct. 10, 2019.

Rebecca Whitney, the MSO’s director of education, said that the donor wanted to fund something that would specifically “have an impact in the community,” and presented a list of possible institutions, including Pius. Whitney, who is a Pius alumna herself, knew that the school had a strong choral program, and Ajack was receptive to the idea.

The hour-long program was presented in the fieldhouse for an audience of about 1,200, including the full student body, parents, alumni, and younger students from Pius’ feeder schools. The school’s six choirs combined into one group for the concert.

The program was a joint decision by Ajack, Whitney, and MSO resident conductor Yaniv Dinur, who led the concert. Six pieces included the Pius choir, and others were chosen from the repertoire of the MSO’s recent young people’s concerts. Ajack said that the pieces have were also chosen so that Pius teachers in other subjects could work them into their lessons – a setting of a poem by Robert Frost, two selections from the Civil War, and music from West Side Story, “which has lots of social implications.” The selections “within the ability of a solid high school choir, but not something that a younger voice couldn’t handle,” and something that his students could put together in the first seven weeks of the school year.

Ajack made a deliberate choice to include every choral student in the concert, instead of just his top group. “The older kids have come in and worked with the younger kids and mentored them,” he said. “It’s an amazing event, and we wanted the opportunity for everyone to be a part of it.”

“I enjoy going to the MSO,” said senior Grace Gierach, who sings in the Pius Concert Choir and plays violin, “but it’s a really cool experience to see them in a different environment, to watch how they rehearse.” She hopes to make a career out of music, and the experience of helping the younger students has been valuable.

Tim Benson, assistant director of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, has worked with the students several times, and Dinur visited the day before the concert. The students rehearsed with the MSO the morning of the concert, with the performance in the afternoon.

The full symphony rarely performs at a school in the Milwaukee area, Whitney said, because “usually students come to us,” at young people’s concerts or the Teen Choral Partners program, which brings together choirs from several high schools every year to perform with the MSO. But the symphony was unable to schedule Teen Choral Partners this season due to the very limited availability of the Marcus Center.

Ajack, who sang with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus for many years, said that teaching his groups to sing with an orchestra is “a whole different set of skills.” Since they did not rehearse with Dinur, the actual conductor, until very late in the process, students had to learn to be flexible with whatever his approach may be. And they also have to know that “this is a paid professional orchestra, there’s a union, there are specific start and stop times, and we’ve talked about stage decorum.”

“It’s a great way to start the year,” Ajack said. “Sometimes I wake up at night and think, holy cow, the Milwaukee Symphony came to our school! I’ve been in a lot of events, but this one is kind of special.”

View event photos by Jonathan Kirn