The Tabernacle Choir Blog

Day 6 - Milwaukee

Eric Huntsman
Baritone -  Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Milwaukee, “A Genuine American City”

On Monday the Choir left Schaumburg, outside of Chicago, for the less than two-hour drive to Milwaukee. Known as “a genuine American city,” in many ways Milwaukee typifies both the Upper Midwest and the American Heartland in general. Situated on the shore of Lake Michigan, the city takes its name from the Potawatomi Indian language and means “gathering place on the water.” The earliest Europeans here were French trappers, but the greatest number of settlers came from Germany during the mid-1800s in search of good farmland, which they found in abundance here in Wisconsin. As the city urbanized and became a center of industry, they were followed by a substantial number of Polish immigrants, and subsequently a significant African American community formed here as well. These and other cultural influences have given Milwaukee its specific but very American feel.

When we arrived, we went directly to the Milwaukee Theatre, a grand old auditorium built in 1909. Over the years, it has seen everyone from the likes of President William Howard Taft to John Philip Sousa, Martin Luther King, Jimi Hendrix, Liberace, and James Taylor. Our sound check and rehearsal took a little longer as our technical staff worked to adjust to this kind of venue, the first formal inside space we have performed in on this tour, but the results were, I think, quite good. It was a beautiful and surprisingly intimate space to sing and play in.

We then walked a few blocks to the Hilton Hotel, where we had a great—and ample—buffet featuring a lot of Milwaukee favorite foods, including bratwurst, fish, and chicken, together with potatoes and vegetables prepared in traditional German and Polish ways. In addition to the food, the art deco style of the hotel, built in 1927, and grand dining hall added to the local color of our dining experience. As we walked back to the auditorium for the performance, the cityscape conjured up memories of old television programs set in Milwaukee such as Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Choir members struggled to remember the Yiddish rhyme that opened the latter: “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”

Midway through our tour, we have come to the point where the concert program has become quite familiar. In a way, this presents a potential challenge of its own, because it is easy for us to become almost too comfortable with the pieces. Repeating his frequent observation that “it does not happen on its own,” Dr. Wilberg encouraged us to concentrate and keep working hard, and I think we were successful. 

We performed for a large and appreciative audience. In some ways it was one of our most enthusiastic, with frequent approving calls during each wave of applause. My favorite portion of the program is the trio of classical masterworks, all based on sacred or liturgical texts: “Gloria,” “Nunc dimittis,” and “Cum Sancto Spiritu.” The first and last are powerful compositions in Latin accompanied by full orchestra and Andrew Unsworth on the organ. The central piece, though we sing it in English, was also originally in Latin, which in turn is based on the original canticle found in Luke 2:29–32. The words of the prophet Simeon as he took the infant Jesus in his arms never cease to move me: “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

But for me, as always, the spiritual highlight of the concert came at the end of the first half, which we close with Mack Wilberg’s beloved arrangement of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” These lines epitomize, I think, the heart of our shared Christian faith: “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood. . . . O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be. . . . Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”

Our guest conductor tonight for our final encore of “This Land Is Your Land” was the delightful archbishop of Milwaukee, His Excellency Jerome Edward Listecki. A former military chaplain, Archbishop Listecki joked with us during the sound check about meeting with small groups of tired soldiers for mass and having them sing the opening hymn. After their tired efforts, he would often retort, “You’re no Mormon Tabernacle Choir.” Joking aside, he told us how much he appreciated us, not just musically but for what we stood for, noting how our Church and the Roman Catholic Church stood together on so many social and moral issues. At the end of the concert, when it came time for him to “conduct” our encore, he was particularly humorous. Before he began, he crossed himself and placed his hands together in a position of prayer, looking up to heaven as if asking for help. Then, when he had successfully conducted the number, he dropped to one knee and “Tebow-ed,” flexing his arm and bringing his fist to his forehead in a pose of triumphant thanks. It seemed that we had again made another influential friend for the Church.