Sharon Hansen is not “retiring.”
She is not shy, sheepish or demure, that is. Hardly. Speaking about her musical career while seated at her East Side dining room table, she’s eloquent and effusive, her hands occasionally dancing about to emphasize a phrase or punctuate a chuckle.
That makes sense. Hansen’s gestures are her business. She’s one of the Midwest’s most acclaimed choral conductors and founder of one of the city’s great musical ensembles, the Milwaukee Choral Artists.
But Sharon Hansen is retiring. After nearly 20 years as one of the leading figures in Milwaukee’s art music scene, Hansen is definitely leaving one post and considering leaving another. “In the near future,” she says, she’s considering retiring from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s music department, where she teaches and directs the graduate choral program.
More definitely – and perhaps more significantly for the average Milwaukee music lover – the Choral Artists will sing no more. “I’m 40 years in the business,” Hansen says. “I don’t think you get any extra points for continuing after that.”
But Hansen isn’t quite there yet. When I talk to her in early October, she’s still buzzing from the excitement of the MCA’s 15th anniversary gala, which included heartfelt tributes from leaders in the music community. “Lovely people had lovely things to say,” she notes.
And she’s looking ahead to one of the group’s most ambitious seasons to date, which includes a concert this month with the Boston Camerata, an early music group. “It’s wonderful to be able to go out on a high note,” she says, referring to both the current season and the group’s balanced budget.
Hansen grew up in Omaha, Neb., and started on the piano at age 5, continuing to play through high school while she also sang in choirs. At the University of Nebraska-Omaha, she started as a music and theater major, focusing on piano and solo voice, but decided it didn’t fit her personality. “Piano performance means sitting in a room, eight hours a day, all by myself,” she says in mock disgust. “I was more interested in the group dynamic.” So she completed her degree in music education and began her career teaching music in elementary and high schools.
She eventually got her doctorate in musical arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and got a job at the University of Northern Iowa, where she met husband David Rachor. Hansen arrived in Milwaukee in 1994 after spending 16 months in Europe as a member of the internationally renowned Helmuth Rilling ensemble. She was eager to start a professional choral group in Milwaukee. “There was choral singing everywhere,” she recalls, “community choirs, big choruses, two symphonic choirs.” She wasn’t quite ready for what she found during auditions.
“Men and women came,” she says. “The women were mostly like me – degrees in music, professional
histories with the Florentine, the Skylight. They were professors, voice teachers, music professionals. The men had lovely voices, but they were essentially ‘amateurs,’ and I mean that in the best sense of the word. They didn’t have the intellectual understanding of the music that these women had. So now what do you do?”
The solution – “What the heck, let’s have a chick choir!” – meant there was a tremendous learning curve ahead. “I had no experience with the repertoire for a woman’s group. My specialty was chamber music for mixed voices,” she says. But over the years, the women of the MCA have performed more than 600 different pieces – from the medieval music of Hildegard of Bingen to 70-plus world premieres, several of which were written specifically for the MCA.
But the birth of the Choral Artists also meant a different kind of challenge. “People didn’t know what to do with us,” Hansen says, imitating her polite detractors: “‘Aww, you don’t have any men? That’s too bad. You must not be very good.’ And for 15 years, we’ve had that – spoken and unspoken.”
Hansen and the MCA let their music speak for them. And they’ve certainly found listeners.
“They are fantastic,” says Present Music Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim, who has collaborated with the MCA on several concerts and world premieres. “I’m not easy to please. For us to collaborate on a world premiere means we have to be very excited about their ability and attitude.”
On an October Sunday afternoon, a rehearsal session radiates exacting organization and musical joy. A list of titles on a chalkboard indicates exactly how much time will be devoted to each song. As the clock ticks, Hansen zeros in on song sections needing attention. She’s even more animated than in conversation, her face lighting up as she quietly sings with the chorus, coaxing a charged accent out of a syncopated rhythm with a stamp of her foot. Working on “No Time,” a spiritual-tinged song about the final days, she chats with the choir about the right vowel sound for a particular syllable and moves voices around on a particular harmony (she gives a “woohoo” and a fist pump when the balance is right). To fine-tune a particular phrase, she flutters her hand over her head, saying, “let that line just disappear in a puff of smoke.”
The results are gorgeous: Soulful rhythms land with the precise attack of the voices, and clarion harmonies sound as if they’re coming from a single mystical voice. “No Time” indeed suggests the final days of the Choral Artists, and the sublime sounds seem to linger beyond the final note. As the refrain says, “We will hear the angels singing in that morning.”