Choral Union has never held auditions. Anyone who loves music and loves to sing has always been welcome. Singers who have years of training stand next to those who just love to sing, some who cannot even read music.
In 1881 Milton Choral Union gave its first performance, singing a variety of selections under Professor N.W. Williams of the Milton College of Music. The concert was a great success, and a tradition was born.
Over the next 30 years Choral Union continued to give entertainment and concerts, although not always annually. One of the last performances during these early years was Haydn’s “Creation” conducted by Dr. J. M. Stillman of the School of Music in 1903.
The singing society was revived in 1911 by Professor A.E. Whitford who gathered a group of Milton College students and community members for a public performance that December. The performance was heralded by the Janesville Gazette as “the most striking musical production ever given here by local talent.”
Whitford went on to become President of Milton College, giving up the choir to Prof. L. H. Stringer in 1917. The Choral Union’s purpose under Stringer’s direction was to present the great oratorios to the Music School students so that in four year’s time a student would sing “Messiah“, “Elijah“, Mendelssohn’s “Hymn of Praise“, and one other great work. Over the next thirty years Prof. Stringer directed a Choral Union that grew in size, confidence, musical ability, and reputation.
Bernie Westlund, a young student from Wittenberg, Wisconsin, appeared on the scene in 1936 and began playing in the orchestra that year. Westlund was the orchestra leader the next year, and in 1946, became the new director of the Choral Union. Under his leadership the group continued to grow in stature and ability until it became recognized as one of the finest oratorio societies in the Midwest, if not the nation.
Choral Union has made history by performing a number of “firsts” including the Midwest premiere of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (1953), Boatwright’s “Canticle of the Sun,” Vaughan-Williams’ “Hodie,”, and Finzi’s “Intimations of Immorality”as well as several state premieres.
It has been said that the greatness of Choral Union comes from the tremendous bond and fellowship between the singers themselves, and with the director, as they work to perform some of the greatest choral music ever written. The emotional highs of singing together are what brings members back year after year.
In 1976, Bernie Westlund gave his farewell performance after 30 years as Choral Union director. At that time Westlund commented, “for the singers, the enjoyment is in rehearsing and learning the meaning of the music beyond the notes on the page. The performance is their joyful gift to the audience.”
Professor Thomas Sanborn became the new director in 1977, having been with the Choral Union as accompanist for 20 years. In 1993, Richard Severing took over the reins as director after Sanborn’s untimely death before the season started. Severing believes strongly in the chorus and its role in the community. “I believe in music as a force that brings people together,” Severing commented in the Janesville Gazette in December, 2011. He continued, “I also think it’s important that communities are brought together. I guess both things happen to be the same goal.”
Gazette Reporter Ann Fiore summed it up best in December, 2011 : Each year, the challenge is the same: Take a mix of 100+ experienced and novice singers, give them demanding pieces of choral music, and teach them how to sing. And each year, the group produces a work of art, something greater than the sum of its parts.
HIGHLIGHTS IN CHORAL UNION HISTORY
1881: Group gave its first performance and sang selections under the direction of Milton College professor N.W. Williams. During the next 30 years, Choral Union continued to give concerts but not always annually.
1903: J.M. Stillman of the college’s School of Music conducted Haydn’s “Creation,” one of the last performances in the early years of Choral Union.
1911: Professor A.E. Whitford of Milton College revived the classical singing society when he gathered college students and community members for a public performance in December.
1917: Professor L.H. Stringer took over the choir to present great oratorios to music school students. During the next 30 years, he directed the group, which grew in size, musical ability and reputation.
1936: Bernie Westlund began playing in the Choral Union orchestra. He became orchestra leader in 1937 and took over as director of Choral Union in 1946. Under his leadership, the group continued to grow in stature and was recognized as one of the finest oratorio societies in the Midwest.
1976: Westlund gave a farewell performance after 30 years as Choral Union director. “For the singers, the enjoyment is in rehearsing and learning the meaning of the music beyond the notes on the page,” he said. “The performance is their joyful gift to the audience.”
1977: Professor Thomas Sanborn became new director after having been with the group as accompanist for 20 years.
1993: Richard Severing took over as director after Sanborn’s death.