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Nearly 40 years strong, the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus sings its own tune

Since 1976, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Chorus has been a valued partner to its orchestra, performing alongside it whenever needed. On March 28 and March 29, the stage is their own. In "MSO a cappella," the chorus will perform a series of vocal works without the usual orchestral accompaniment.

“This is not the first time we’ve done a concert like this,” said chorus director Lee Erickson in a recent phone interview. But, he adds, the last such installment was five years ago, making the upcoming concert something of a special occasion.

The concert features several pieces appropriate for the upcoming Easter season. Featured composers include Orlando Gibbons, Samuel Barber, Camille Saint-Saëns and Olivier Messien. The exciting program includes Paul Mueller’s “Ubi Caritas,” which was famously performed at the 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Margaret Hawkins established the chorus as we know it in 1976. Prior to that time, it was composed of four Milwaukee area ensembles that would come together when needed to form a large choral ensemble. Combining the choirs often proved difficult, due to conflicting rehearsal and performance schedules. Hawkins was tasked with forming a permanent chorus that could meet the MSO’s needs.

The response was overwhelming. Between 180 and 200 singers sang with the ensemble in its earliest years. When Erickson joined the group in 1978 as an assistant conductor, the chorus was rehearsing in two locations, each on different nights. As an assistant, he helped Hawkins lead the two rehearsals.

Erickson’s leadership and dedication to the group did not go unnoticed, and his role expanded as years passed. When Hawkins was diagnosed with cancer in 1990, it was he who stepped up to fulfill many of her leadership responsibilities, and after she died in 1993, Erickson eventually became the company’s director.

Today the chorus is a vibrant, active ensemble of about 140 singers. They span a wide variety of Milwaukee-area residents, from professional musicians to lawyers to teachers to retirees to students. A professional core group of singers aid Erickson in leading the rehearsals.

“We have a very energetic, hard-working group in this chorus,” Erickson says proudly. “All of our singers are volunteers, but they put a great effort into each piece. They are a very disciplined and flexible group. Our chorus rises to provide a top-level choral ensemble for the MSO. It is because of them that we exist, and we are grateful for that.”

Erickson is not alone in running the chorus. Tim Benson is his regular assistant and Diane Kachelmaier serves as the rehearsal pianist. Rounding out the leadership roles is Nicolas Sluss-Rodinov, who is the production assistant and chorus manager.

During the season, from early September to late spring, the chorus rehearses on Monday evenings. Auditions are held a few times throughout the year.

Along with the a cappella songs, the upcoming program will feature works performed with area organists Christopher Berry and Thomas Koester. 

The concert is especially near and dear to many choristers’ hearts, as it is being dedicated to Mary Peterson, a longtime chorus member and financial supporter who recently died.

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