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A Community of Singers, Right Here in Ann Arbor

Photo: UMS Choral Union on stage for Handel’s Messiah at Hill Auditorium. Photo by Mark Gjukich Photography.

Karen Isble is Assistant Vice President of Development at the University of Michigan, and she’s also been a member of the UMS Choral Union, Ann Arbor’s 137 year-old, Grammy Award-winning community choir, for nearly eight years.

We chatted with her about her most memorable experiences, including a performance in blizzard conditions, the community, and outgoing music director Jerry Blackstone.

Karen Isble

Karen Isble

UMS: What do you love about singing?

Karen Isble: I’ve been a singer all my life. I have two music degrees, one of them in voice performance from the University of Michigan. Earlier in my life, I had visions of becoming a professional performer. When that didn’t come to fruition, I wanted to make sure that I had an opportunity to use that part of myself. Singing became my avocation. I joined the UMS Choral Union in 2007 when I began to work for the University.

UMS: 2007, you’re coming up on eight years with the Choral Union, wow! What are some of the highlights of your experiences with the Choral Union?

KI: One of the highlights, and there have been many, was singing the Saint Matthew Passion several years ago in what was the last blizzard of that spring. I work here on campus, so I had an advantage over a number of folks who were coming in, some people come from as far as Ohio, and certainly from the rest of southeastern Michigan or East Lansing. Members of the Detroit Symphony were coming in from Detroit. We had a children’s choir coming in from Michigan State University.

This snow storm was horrible, and I think it was going to be a three hour concert. As the choir arrived, UMS president Ken Fischer came out on stage and said, “Let’s everybody get the choir on stage. We’re waiting for the orchestra to get here, we’re waiting for the kids to get here, go out and wave your hands so that the audience knows something’s happening.” So, I think, the choir, or those of us who had made it there, ended up going out and sitting on the risers for about an hour while we sort of waited for everyone else to arrive.

Amazingly, the house was packed. I thought there’d be tons of empty seats, but the audience was full to the rafters, all the way up to the second balcony. As each group of musicians showed up, these cheers would go up from the audience. And once the children’s choir arrived, there was an ovation. So then, about an hour late, we dove into this wonderful, wonderful, incredible piece of music, which I hadn’t sung in about twenty years up to that point. So I was really thrilled to have the opportunity to do it again. I had a small solo that Jerry Blackstone had granted me. It was a very transformative performance. It was just this badge of honor, we had made it through this blizzard and we had a wonderful evening.

UMS: A truly “Michigan” story!

KI: There were tales of people abandoning their cars. I remember that a member of the choir said, “I abandoned my car, I couldn’t drive any further. I just walked the rest of the way.” That sort of thing.

UMS: Has there been anything surprising in your experience with the Choral Union? Something that has challenged you or something that’s been a particularly good learning experience for you as a singer?

KI: Before the Choral Union, I’d mostly done solo singing, chamber music, small choir singing, and I wasn’t really sure I would enjoy singing with a group this size. Every year we’d start out with close to 200 folks of every skill level. What has surprised me over and over again is how beautiful and agile a choir of 150 to 200 people can be, and what incredible music we can make. It doesn’t happen all of the time, sometimes we’re just big and loud! But when we have an opportunity to be something a little different, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how well the group comes through.

UMS: It seems that there’s a real sense of community outside of the singing, too, within the group. Would you say that that’s true?

KI: I think that’s true. I think there are a lot of folks, certainly, who have been with the Choral Union for decades, and they have sort of formed that foundation. But I think one of the things that the group does well is have a huge spectrum of participants. We have students who join each year and are part of the equation, and that’s nice, and they’re a little more fluid. Many of the members are also one-time students who have come back a decade later, working in the Ann Arbor area now and looking for another creative outlet.

But definitely a sense of community. I think it grows on you the longer you are there. It takes a bit of time to find your place in a group that big. I certainly feel very at home with the Choral Union though I don’t know everybody, I don’t know that I ever could. You get to know the faces, and when you see them in unexpected places around town you kind of give that high-five or, “Hey, how’re you doing?”

UMS: What would you say to someone who is considering joining the Choral Union?

KI: For me, singing in the Choral Union is my respite from the day-to-day grind. It’s a wonderful escape. It’s hard, actually, sometimes to get myself pumped up for it on a Monday night after a full day’s work, but as soon as we start to sing, it’s almost immediate, and I always leave revitalized. And so I would say if people are thinking about it, weighing adding it to their schedule, that the Choral Union can re-energize you is a really important part of that.

UMS: The Summer Sings on July 6 is the final Choral Union moment for outgoing music director Jerry Blackstone. Would you like to say anything about your experiences with Jerry?

KI: I had the opportunity, as a University of Michigan grad student, to sing with Jerry. As I mentioned, he was the catalyst for my joining the Choral Union. Jerry has fostered the Choral Union community. His ability to be so musical and so warm and so inviting to everyone at every musical level really made the difference during his term as the music director.

Do you sing? New singer auditions for the UMS Choral Union will be held in August and September 2015.


Being a Part of Something Bigger: A Student Perspective on the UMS Choral Union

umcu-tsukomoniwa-fmaPhoto: Tsukumo Niwa.

Tsukumo Niwa will be a junior next year pursuing degrees in Oboe Performance and International Studies at the University of Michigan. In addition to being an active member of the UMS Student Committee and one of this season’s 21st Century Artist Interns, Tsukumo was a UMS Choral Union soprano in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Here she writes about her experiences with Ann Arbor’s 137 year-old, Grammy Award-winning community choir: the UMS Choral Union.

I had been singing in choirs throughout Middle and High school, and I didn’t want to quit singing when I got to college. As I looked for singing opportunities, I came across the UMS Choral Union. Although my academic and extracurricular commitments keep me very busy, I found that the time commitment (2.5 hours weekly) was doable. It turned out that joining the UMS Choral Union was one of the best choices I have made at the University of Michigan.

With the UMS Choral Union, I got to experience many opportunities that I would otherwise not have experienced. I’ve met many people from different walks of life, all of whom contribute to the friendly atmosphere in rehearsals in their own way — taking attendance, leading the difficult passages by example, throwing jokes around, or simply smiling and singing away. While some members are students at Michigan like myself, others are older and have been in this ensemble for decades. I have really enjoyed the relaxed yet productive atmosphere in which I get to meet adults from the greater Ann Arbor and Detroit area, while also meeting students across disciplines and levels. Not to mention the opportunity to work with wonderful conductors including Dr. Jerry Blackstone, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Leonard Slatkin. In the past two years, I’ve sung in several Handel’s Messiah performances, performed with three different orchestras, participated in a Michigan Football half-time show with 500 singers and the Michigan Marching Band, and celebrated Dr. Blackstone’s last performance as the Musical Director of the Choral Union. It’s been a unique experience that not many other undergraduate students have shared with me, as I wish they did.

Right before the Messiah performance in 2014, one of the choir members said to the group: “Singing… is a chance to be a part of something that is bigger, to accomplish something that you can’t accomplish by yourself.” The UMS Choral Union embodies just that. Every single time I perform with the Choral Union, I know that I am playing an integral role in the ensemble, and I am able to connect with hundreds of audience members through beautiful music. I feel very fortunate to be able to share the music that I love with so many dedicated musicians.

Do you sing? New singer auditions for the UMS Choral Union will be held in August and September 2015.


Behind the Scenes with UMS Choral Union

Watch these behind the scenes moments with the UMS Choral Union and former conductor Jerry Blackstone as they prepared for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah on February 14, 2015.

Interested in more?
Explore the history of the UMS Choral Union, learn about new conductor Scott Hanoian, and get the details about upcoming audition information.

UMS Choral Union Sings Ken Fischer Happy Birthday!

The Choral Union sang Happy Birthday to Ken Fischer, the UMS President,  last week!

The Choral Union wished Ken Fischer, the UMS President, a Happy 70th Birthday last week! Watch the video here. 

Behind the Scenes with Soprano Janai Brugger

This post is a part of a series of playlists curated by artists, UMS Staff, and community. Check out more music here.

Handel's Messiah

Photo: Handel’s Messiah. Courtesy of Mark Gjukich Photography.

Soprano Janai Brugger performs at our annual Handel’s Messiah on December 6-7, 2014. We had the chance to chat with Janai about her time in Ann Arbor and about what she’s been listening to lately. Check out her selections in the playlist below.

UMS: We know that you’re a University of Michigan alum. Can you talk a little about your time in Ann Arbor, and what you’re looking forward to in coming back?

Janai Brugger: It’s been five years since I graduated from the University of Michigan, so I am truly excited to return to Ann Arbor to perform at my alma mater! I have so many wonderful memories of my time at U-M, that I’m not sure exactly where to start or which ones to pick.

One of my fondest memories was attending my Studio Class with [U-M Professor] Shirley Verrett. Listening to my colleagues sing through new repertoire, seeing the process each week, critiquing, growing together was so much fun. Ms. Verrett was very adamant in asking us to always say something that we liked about a performance before listing the things we wished we could’ve done better. That was an important lesson and reminder for me during that time, and it continues to be something I remember today when I receive criticism. the class was always a supportive environment, tons of laughter, great music, and we heard amazing stories from Ms. Verrett. Our studio class was like a family, and we all looked forward to gathering together and singing for one another.

Another memory from my time at the University is meeting my husband! Javier Orman was a U-M Violin Master’s student, and we were introduced through a mutual friend. We had our first date a Pierpont Commons and talked for hours over hot chocolate [laughs]. So, in many ways Ann Arbor is very special for that reason, because I met my partner and best friend there. He’s such a wonderful person and a very talented musician and artist, whom I respect and admire more and more each day.

Janai’s Playlist:
Mozart’s The Magic Flute
I am studying the role of Pamina for my Covent Garden debut next year.

German Lieder sung by Barbara Bonney
I am singing a few song recital concerts with tons of German Lieder, and Barbara Bonney is one of my favorite interpreters of these songs

The Best of Ella Fitzgerald
I love listening to Ella sing, especially when I need a little escape from the classical world [laughs].

Motown Classics
I grew up listening to Motown artists and it’s just such great feel good music, it gets my energy going and makes me happy!

The Monster Mash hit album for kids
I’m putting this playlist together around Halloween, and my son is a year-and-a-half, so we are listening to lots of fun Halloween songs for kids. He loves it!

Selected Tracks on our Spotify Playlist:

What did you think about this playlist? Share your thoughts or song suggestions in the comments below.

Donald Bryant (1918-2014)

UMS was saddened to learn about the death of former UMS conductor Donald Bryant. In the photo above, Dr. Bryant is pictured with Handel’s Messiah soloists at Hill Auditorium in 1971. During his tenure, Dr. Bryant continued to nourish the long-established role of the Choral Union in Messiah concerts and May Festivals, but his legacy to UMS was the Festival chorus, a smaller group of singers, who performed with visiting orchestras in the Choral Union Series and at May Festivals, as well as abroad.

“I began my first year with UMS as Donald was beginning his 18th. He was a talented, multi-faceted musician – conductor, pianist, teacher, coach, composer – who was beloved by members of the UMS Choral Union and Festival Chorus,” said UMS president Ken Fischer. “He worked with many of the greatest conductors and orchestras of our time for the annual Ann Arbor May Festival concerts and for Choral Union Series concerts. He also led memorable tours of the Festival Chorus to Europe in 1976, Egypt in 1979, and Spain in 1982.  UMS and the community paid tribute to Donald’s distinguished two-decade career with UMS on the occasion of his retirement in January 1990 with the presentation in Hill Auditorium of Genesis, a major work composed by Donald with libretto by son Travis Bryant and son Stephen Bryant as bass-baritone soloist. It was always a treat to see Donald at many UMS concerts after his retirement. He made a wonderful contribution to UMS and to the Ann Arbor community. Our sympathy goes out to Donald’s family and his many friends.”

UMS Choral Union member and coordinator of the Summer Sings program Marilyn Meeker remembers him as an “exceptionally talented pianist and composer.” She notes, “Everyone who knew Donald savored his racontorial skills…he had a lifetime filled with wonderful stories and anecdotes, and he could tell them with great relish and delight.”

Dr. Bryant’s memorial will be held at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor (1432 Washtenaw Ave.) on Saturday, June 7 at 4 pm. At the request of current and former members of the UMS Choral Union, UMS is pleased to receive gifts to the UMS Choral Union Endowment Fund in memory of Donald Bryant. Gifts can be sent to Development Department, UMS, Burton Memorial Tower, 881 North University Avenue, Ann Arbor MI 48109.

We invite you to leave a memory or tribute in the comment section below.

We are also saddened to report that Thomas Sheets, former choir director at First Baptist and former UMS Choral Union conductor, passed away suddenly yesterday morning, April 24, 2014. Information about a memorial will be forthcoming.

This Day in UMS: Vladimir Horowitz

Editor’s Note: “This day in UMS History” is an occasional series of vignettes drawn from UMS’s historical archive. If you have a personal story or particular memory from attending the performance featured here, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

January 31, 1930: Vladimir Horowitz in Hill Auditorium


Photos: (Left) 1930 advertisement in the Ann Arbor News (Ann Arbor News Ann Archives, Arbor District Library). (Right) Program from 1978 performance.

The great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz first performed in Ann Arbor on January 31, 1930, and then on another 8 occasions before 1953, when he began his long “intermission” from the concert stage. For music lovers, those years only enhanced his legend, and his return to stage in the 1970s caused a sensation.

For the inaugural concert of the hundredth season of UMS concerts in 1978, no artist could have been more fitting. Adding to the centennial pride of the local audience, the pianist was celebrating his fiftieth anniversary of his own American debut. This 1978 performance, before an enraptured audience, featured a program of works of Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and an enraptured audience found it hard to let Horowitz go, calling him back for four encores.

This Day in UMS: Sergei Rachmaninoff

Editor’s Note: “This day in UMS History” is an occasional series of vignettes drawn from UMS’s historical archive. If you have a personal story or particular memory from attending the performance featured here, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

November 11, 1920: Sergei Rachmaninoff in UMS Choral Union Series


Photo: Advertisement in the Ann Arbor News (Ann Arbor News Ann Archives, Arbor District Library).

The celebrated Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff performed solo in Hill Auditorium as part of the 42nd season of the Choral Union Series on November 11, 1920. He opened his recital with a performance of “The Star Spangled Banner,” during which the entire audience remained sanding. The remainder of his program consisted of six pieces: Beethoven’s Sonate Opus 90 in e minor, Mendelssohn’s Six Songs Without Words, Chopin’s Ballade, Valse, and Barcarolle, Grieg’s On the Mountains, Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnol, and his own Prelude, C-sharp minor Etude-Tableaux, Opus 33.

His masterful tone, unique personality, and flawless technique delighted a sold out Hill Auditorium, as audience members were in awe of his interpretation of his own works and how he portrayed the sorrow and fatalism of his own Russia. Sergei Rachmaninoff returned to Ann Arbor and Hill Auditorium for a second time in 1939, performing another solo recital as part of the 61st Choral Union Series.

Our Choral Union Usher Crew


Our Choral Union series usher crew at the final Choral Union performance of 2012-2013. Learn more about becoming an usher at our performances here.

Announcing the 2013-2014 UMS Season!


Surprising. Invigorating. Disruptive. Inspiring. Captivating.

These are just a few of the words we heard when asking audiences for their impressions immediately following performances this past season. This instant reaction gets to the heart of what it means to be present: to be there, in person, interacting with some of the best performers in the world in the extraordinary transaction between artist and audience.

And our 2013-2014 season’s performances will go even one step beyond. Some traditional. Some outside the lines. All designed to move you. But only if you choose to be present.

Watch our season announcement video:

Check out our 2013-2014 season brochure:

We’ve also got the complete 2013-2014 season listing with details about each event on our website.

What performances are you excited about? Tell us in the comments below.

Need the 2013-2014 season announcement video by chapter?

Choral Union

Chamber Arts


Global Music



And more

UMS Choral Union music director Jerry Blackstone with Beethoven


The UMS Choral Union took the stage this weekend in Detroit for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra! Here’s UMS Choral Union music director Jerry Blackstone with Ludwig himself backstage.

UMS 10/11 Season: The Complete List

We realize not everyone wants the multimedia bells n’ whistles when it comes to getting information about the new UMS season.   That’s why we’ve created a link (back on where you can download a simple listing of the entire 10/11 UMS season.

Click here  for a complete chronological listing of the 10/11 season. [pdf]

Download or view the 10/11 Season Brochure.

Subscription renewal packets will be mailed to current subscribers in early May.  On Monday, May 10, subscription sales will open to the general public.  Subscriptions may be purchased using a paper order form or through the UMS website.  Subscriber benefits include installment billing, free exchanges, free parking to subscribers of at least eight events, priority access to special non-series concerts, and the opportunity to discuss programming in depth with members of the UMS Programming Committee to facilitate decision-making.

Tickets to individual events will go on sale to the general public on Monday, August 23 (via and Wednesday, August 25 (in person and by phone).

To be added to the mailing list, please contact the UMS Ticket Office at 734-764-2538 or visit  UMS also has an e-mail list that provides up-to-date information about all UMS events; sign-up information is available on the website.

For series information with multimedia links and in-depth information:

Choral Union & Piano Series

Dance Series

Chamber Arts & Schubertiade

Theater Series

Jazz Series

Divine Voices

Family Series

Additional Events

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