Milwaukee Choral Artists honor composer Paula Foley Tillen
Paula Foley Tillen composed and arranged music for the Milwaukee Choral Artists from the beginning, 15 years ago. And she’s with MCA to the end, which is near. Sharon Hansen, founder and music director of this remarkable women’s choir, will retire after two more concerts. Rather than try to replace the irreplaceable Hansen, the group will disband.
On Friday (March 1), MCA will honor Tillen by singing seven of her works on the group’s second-last concert ever.
“I had done tons of arrangements, but I was just getting my feet wet as a composer when MCA came along,” Tillen said, in an interview Wednesday. “Sharon would say, ‘We need this hole filled on a program. How would you like to write something?’ She has been a great advocate of my work and got me in the door with publishers.”
Tillen met Hansen through the Master Singers of Milwaukee. Tillen sang in that group when Hansen served as its music director for one year, just after Hansen had come to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to join the music faculty. When Hansen decided to form her own group…
“I said ‘Sign me up!’” Tillen said. “I really dug working with her. Her standards were so high, and that’s what I wanted. She scratched my musical itch.”
Hansen is a brilliant and demanding conductor, the sort with an opinion about every sound on every beat in every bar. Sheworks relentlessly to tune, balance and express. In the beginning, when she couldn’t find enough good men, she settled for a women’s choir and kept it small. Every MCA singer is highly trained and almost as dedicated as Hansen. Their crystalline perfection has been one of the musical wonders of Milwaukee for 15 years.
“Sharon is such a fantastic musician,” Tillen said. “Her whole ethos is that everything is an art song.”
An early MCA triumph involved choral renditions of a full evening of German lieder arranged for treble choir. The group sang with the expressive flexibility of a single voice, an achievement that I, for one, will never forget. That occurred at the Women’s Club of Wisconsin; the MCA will return to that downtown site for Friday’s program.
Tillen, 54, directs the church choir at Southminster Presbyterian in Waukesha and is a long-time adjunct at Pius XI High School, where she currently leads the men’s jazz choir. She also serves as a piano accompanist for many singers, including the superb Leslie Fitzwater. Tillen arranged all the music, played the piano and led the band in Fitzwater’s recent Edith Piaf Onstage at the Skylight Music Theatre. (Fitzwater, by the way, has been an MCA singer for several years.) She’s also composing constantly; Tillen has work on the market with five different publishers.
Few of those published works originated with MCA, however. When she writes for publication, she makes it easy enough for high school choirs. With the hugely skilled MCA, she pushes the limits.
“The publishers reject them — they say they’re too hard and no one can sing them,” Tillen said. “I know the MCA intimately. It’s an extreme pleasure to tailor music to them. Every time I write for them, I want to show what they can do.”
Tillen decided on a career in music largely because of the excellent and inspiring music teachers she encountered at Waukesha North High School. She graduated from Carroll University in 1980 with a piano performance degree. She then found her way in the free-lance life in Greater Milwaukee. The theater attracted her, and she collaborated on a pair of original musicals with Carol Zippel, artistic director of Windfall Theatre. But her pivotal career experience began with a lie.
“Dick Chudnow asked if I could improvise, and I said yes,” Tillen said. Dick Chudnow is the founder of Comedy Sports; the lie landed Tillen a gig as pianist for the Comedy Sportz New Year’s Eve show on January 31, 1985. She was Comedy Sportz’ music director for the next 11 years.
“I couldn’t improvise a lick when I started,” she said. “But I learned how to think on my feet. By the end, I could improvise an evening-length musical. Then I thought that if I could make this stuff up on the fly, I should start writing it down.”
And a composer was born, just about the time MCA came into the world. They grew up together. Musical life will go on for Tillen, Hansen and all the MCA singers when the choir comes to an end. But life won’t be quite the same for any of them.