No ordinary chorus, The Master Singers are a nationally renowned amateur choral ensemble dedicated to bringing the finest choral music to the Chippewa Valley and beyond.
By day the ensemble members are nurses, lawyers, teachers, librarians, and software engineers; they’re church musicians and doctors, students and stay-at-home mothers. But their shared avocation is singing, which means regular two-hour evening rehearsals on Mondays and Thursdays, even after a full day of everything else life has thrown at them.
Gary Schwartzhoff, Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at UW–Eau Claire, is The Master Singers’ founding conductor and artistic director.
At tonight’s rehearsal—January 7th— Schwartzhoff is thinking ahead to the National Presidents Day Choral Festival on February 3rd, where he’ll be conducting a mass choir assembled for a performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in memory of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Schwartzhoff’s UW–Eau Claire Concert Choir, along with about half of the Master Singers, will form the heart of the group performing at the Kennedy Center.
After running the usual scales and vocal warm-ups, Schwartzhoff turns to the choir room blackboard and draws three rows of short vertical lines.
“This is our rehearsal schedule,” he says. Twelve rehearsals for the fall concert, eleven for the Christmas concert, and just three until the Kennedy Center Performance.
This memorial concert features a challenging program of large-scale works for choir and orchestra. Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, for example, consists of five separate movements and takes nearly twenty minutes to sing; the score of Ethan Wickman’s Let the Word Go Forth, a setting of excerpts from Kennedy’s speeches commissioned specifically for the National Choral Festival, is more than fifty pages long.
It’s a challenge for an amateur chorus to be sure, but The Master Singers are utterly committed to the work, and to each other. The group grew out of the Musical Arts Society Limited, a nonprofit group created in 1980 to foster quality music throughout the Chippewa Valley.
Marcia Van Beek, one of several charter members of The Master Singers still performing with the ensemble, traces her involvement back to those early days with about a dozen singers, all of them accomplished soloists and graduates of strong college choral programs or college concert choirs.
“We were all longing for the chance to sing great choral music,” Van Beek says. That group continued until the early 1990s, about when Schwartzhoff arrived at UW–Eau Claire. As part of his community outreach efforts, conductor Schwartzhoff was seeking local musicians; the singers were looking for the kind of performance opportunities they had enjoyed with the recently disbanded Musical Arts Society. After an ad hoc Christmas performance with the Chippewa Valley Symphony in 1993, the group decided to start up again. “Gary pulled us back together and said, ‘What do you think? Do you want to keep doing this?’ ” Van Beek explains.
After twenty years, the answer is still an exuberant Yes. With nine new members joining the solid core of veterans this year, community support and audience appetite for the group has been growing steadily. Just as important, a strong foundation of corporate sponsors, including frequent contributions from the Wisconsin Arts Board, supports the Master Singers’ touring and recording. It’s an encouraging model of high-level amateur musicianship, a demanding ensemble whose continuing presence in the community rewards both its members and its audiences.
“I am driven,” Schwartzhoff says, describing the musical standards he brings to the group. “I am my father’s son. I saw him work harder than anyone else.”
This explains the blistering pace of rehearsals, with Schwartzhoff conducting with one hand, writing notes in the score with the other while giving instructions (“Watch the B natural, top of page seven”), correcting posture (“Elbows; sternum”), cuing entrances, and calling attention to diction (“Legato singing is served by pitch consonants, and the fricatives”). At times the singers have to scramble to keep up.
But they do keep up; singing may be an avocation for them, but it’s an avocation they take seriously. And The Master Singers’ relentless commitment to musical excellence is reflected in performance; the ensemble’s sound glows warmly, it glimmers and shines and swells, creating a complex vocal web of incredible purity. There is a magical quality in human voices bound by tightly organized harmonies, a magic The Master Singers have in abundance.
Besides their busy performance schedule, over the years The Master Singers have commissioned a significant number of new choral works from leading composers. They added yet another dimension in 2012 when they named Andrew Steffen, a current UW–Eau Claire music student and first-year member of The Master Singers, as their first Composer-in-Residence. It’s an incredible opportunity for a young composer, one that Schwartzhoff is confident will prove a good investment.
“The kid’s got a future, doesn’t he?” he says after running through Steffen’s lovely Cradle Song in a pre-Christmas concert rehearsal. There’s a round of applause from the singers, who clearly share his opinion.
Tonight, though, it’s time to work on the rapidly approaching Kennedy Center performance.
“So,” Schwartzhoff says, while the singers are shuffling scores into rehearsal order, getting ready to start. “This is a daunting task. Three hundred and thirty singers from five states, who will sing together … not a lot.”
He goes on to update the choir on a few arrangements for the trip to Washington, DC, only to abruptly stop.
“Okay, so there’s some background for you,” Schwartzhoff says. “Enough yickyacking; let’s sing!”
For more information about The Master Singers and a schedule of upcoming performances, visit themastersingers.net.