Newsletter of the College of Letters and Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Volume 3, Number 2
"I always knew I wanted to be here," says Bev Taylor, Director of Choral Activities in the UW School of Music. "I had known of Robert Foundain for years. I had heard the chorus and visited here to observe rehearsals. When the position opened up, it was very attractive!"
Taylor, previously Associate Director of Choral Activities at Harvard, joined the L&S faculty in the fall of 1995 as the successor to the late Robert Fountain. She admits that stepping into the shows of such a venerated director was a daunting challenge.
"But on the other hand, I was coming to a program that had a long tradition and a lot of support."
Indeed the tradition began at the first meeting of the Choral Union on November 29, 1893. The choir was created to perform the larger works of the world's great composers. Both University students and residents of the city were invited to join the organization in an attempt to encourage "town and gown" interactions. Its first public performance, of Handel's Messiah, celebrated the opening of the University's Armory and Gymnasium on May 24, 1894.
Meanwhile, establishing a school of music at the University had run into opposition. As reported by an early instructor, "The large agricultural population of the state, which was taxed for the support of the University, would not look with favor upon the active development of a department of study so purely ornamental and unpractical as music."
Fortunately such short-sightedness was overcome, and the School of Music opened in September 1895 with an instructional staff of six. The Choral Union was already thriving, under the enthusiastic leadership of University President Charles K. Adams, who served as its president until his death in 1902. He was reported to have stated on many occasions that "a great university is a singing university."
Now 100 years later, Bev Taylor has completed direction of a demanding fall performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony, and is deep into rehearsals of the Schubert Mass in A Flat for the spring concert (April 23rd and 25th). The mixture of town and gown is still maintained, she says, for a number of reasons.
"The outreach is very important. There are too few opportunities like this where community and University members can participate on an equal basis. Then too, you get a more mature sound. The low bass in particular needs a few extra years of age to develop. We also gain from the musical experience of the community members--they can mentor the students and they enjoy being part of a multi-generational group. We have one father and son pair, where the son is still a high school student. And finally, having more people involved, with wider community connections, means a bigger audience."
Taylor estimates that the choir is about half students and the other half community members, of whom many are faculty and staff. And although an outsider would expect the student singers to be primarily music majors, this is not, in fact, the case.
"The music majors are involved in other choral activities that demand more time commitment," says Taylor. "The Choral Union, with just one rehearsal a week, offers a chance for non-music majors to participate." She flips through her roster to check majors and comes up with representatives from nearly every department on campus: biochemistry, psychology, pre-med, nutritional science, Russian history, bacteriology, kinsesiology, poli sci, zoology, pharmacy, math--"and many undecideds." They all participate for the sheer enjoyment it adds to their lives.
For any given performance by the Choral Union, the choir may number 180+ members. Depending on the piece, the UW Symphony or Chamber Orchestra will join them in the final weeks of rehearsal and the performance. Taylor, who has studied both orchestral and choral directing (she is assistant conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra), directs the combined forces. And the resulting performance, as anyone who has attended can verify, is a stirring experience that fills Mills Hall to the rafters and sends the audience away uplifted and renewed.