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Published: Thursday, 5/30/2013

Donna Tozer Wipfli to be choral director at Ottawa Hills

BY SALLY VALLONGO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Tozer Wipfli Tozer Wipfli
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Donna Tozer Wipfli usually is not at a loss for words.

For 23 years she has used words as a way to bridge the gap between her concept of the choral music she brings to Masterworks Chorale and the 40-or-so singers she leads in weekly rehearsals and seasonal concerts.

“It has been a terribly satisfying musical experience to stand in front of that group and make music,” she said last week.

But since she announced her departure from the venerable group earlier this month, she is, well, verklempt. Often.

“It’s bittersweet,” she said of her decision and the new realities behind it. “I’m choking up talking about it.”

Starting in the fall, this longtime music director of Ottawa Hills Elementary School will graduate to the system’s junior and senior high schools as choir director. The move became possible with the retirement of Mitch Tyson, who held the position for many years. Tozer Wipfli will be in charge of four choirs between the two schools.

“The high school choral job will require a lot of energy,” Tozer Wipfli said.

She should know; Grace Wipfli, daughter of Tozer Wipfli and her husband, Steven Tozer Wipfli, just graduated from Ottawa Hills. A noted singer already, she’s off to college in Columbus, according to her mother.

So though the home nest will be empty, Tozer Wipfli notes, “Steve and I are looking forward to attending performances which she will be in at Capital University.”

While those in Masterworks’ loyal and enthusiastic audiences turn up just for the two to three hour concerts at Christmas, in spring, and early summer -- the final performance for Tozer Wipfli is at Saturday’s Collage VI concert, 8 p.m. Saturday at the Valentine Theatre -- they are hearing only the results of the director’s work.

Before those glowing moments come hours of practice, research, planning, and study, all to be ready for rehearsals and performances. Beyond Masterworks regular series, the group has performed with the Toledo Symphony and Ballet Theatre of Toledo, plus offered lots of smaller local and regional concerts.

“One thing you have to remember about the Chorale is that, while we have a number of well-trained singers in our membership (with a sprinkling of music educators included) many of us, myself included, have no formal musical training,” said Kathy Kress, a lawyer and former president of the Masterworks board of directors.

The choir started in 1972 by Benjamin Locke, has inspired an amazing loyalty among its members, most of whom must pay an annual fee and audition to participate. Tozer-Wipfli has the longest tenure record of any conductor, including Locke, who now is choral music director at Kenyon College.

“Donna has been able to take a bunch of non-trained amateurs and make us sound like something bigger and better than the sum of our parts,” continues Kress.

“Some of that is inspiration. But a lot of it is the hard work of teaching, explaining things, breaking down concepts, and giving us very specific direction. I leave every rehearsal a better musician. If you do that consistently for 23 years, the results are bound to be noticeable.”

Known for balancing the choir’s programs between beloved old favorites and innovative new music, Tozer Wipfli, who sang for years with the renowned choral conductor, Robert Shaw, said what has kept her going is the chorale itself.

“The bottom line is the people,” she said. “They are so dedicated to this music making. Members are so darned passionate about what they do. They are there every week. From year to year, when it came time to audition, I would ask if anyone was not going to return.

“Rarely did a hand go up at those moments. And if so, usually it was because they were moving away or had a professional conflict,” Tozer Wipfli said.

During her stint in charge, the chorale has increased its outreach program to young singers, to the community at large through appearances at the Toledo Zoo, Toledo Museum of Art, and Westfield Franklin Park Mall for its holiday flash mobs, and its free community sing-in of the Messiah at Christmas. There have been numerous recordings and new music commissions.

Tim Langhorst, a ProMedia executive who now heads the board of directors, said, “I think Donna very much conducts with her heart, and with an expectation that we could always be better, whether it was a new piece we were singing or something we had sung before."

The board has begun the search process for a new conductor, he said. They hope to announce the replacement before next season.

Contact Sally Vallongo at svallongo@theblade.com.



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