MIlton Williams

Milton Williams — professional singer, conductor, and composer — will take over the direction of the Bayside Singers from legendary local Barbara Poulshock.

A brief history

The Bayside Singers has had a rather charmed history. It all started when Sandy Nielson moved to the Peninsula from King County in 2007 and looked around for a chorus to join. No luck.

But anyone who knows Sandy knows that she makes things happen. So, undaunted, she put a notice in our newspaper inviting women to a music rehearsal and, lo and behold, seven showed up. The Bayside Singers founders are Margie Cochrane, Nancy Logan, Christl Mack, Rita Smith, Claire Everitt, Diane Buttrell and Arwen Norman. (All but two are still singing with the group!)

Sandy, who had sung in or directed community choirs all her adult life, gathered the initial group around the grand piano in her music room. After rehearsals they would adjourn to the kitchen for tea and treats. After all, isn’t the kitchen always where good ideas get started or solidified?

Initially, Sandy played piano for rehearsals, but soon Barbara Poulshock took over accompanying the group for concerts. Soon the fledgling chorus had more than proven its mettle, adding more voices and taking up such challenging pieces as Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” for a Christmas concert in the Oysterville Church.

Before their first performance, Sandy had approached Barbara to act as director, but it wasn’t until three years into the choir project that she was ready to take on the responsibility of directing. Soon Barbara Bate joined as accompanist, and eventually men’s voices were added to give the group a broader range and repertoire. Now 40-voices strong, Bayside Singers enters yet another new chapter.

Poulshock passes the baton

Poulshock, a long-time and much beloved faculty member at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, is a composer, opera director, and a coach for vocal performers. Since retiring and coming to the Peninsula, she’s taught voice and piano and has been musical director for many PAPA musicals, as well as the Bayside Singers, and—until recently — the Lutheran Church choir. At 92, Barbara has decided to pass the baton and focus on self-care in the wake of some recent medical challenges.

Given Barbara’s talents and professional expertise, many wondered who in the world could possibly step into those legendary shoes. Enter Milton Williams.

I had the chance to have coffee with Milton the other day at Adelaide’s, and he shared with me some of the details of his remarkable music career. Milton has a rich baritone voice which he’s used both as an operatic soloist and a narrator for short film. He has performed throughout the United Sates, Europe, Canada, and Bermuda and has conducted both orchestra, operatic ensembles, and choral groups in a range of music from symphonic to jazz, blues and spirituals, to more contemporary pieces. Milton was even part of a performance, both as coach and director, for a production of Leonard Bernstein’s theatre piece “Mass” at the Vatican in Rome for Pope John Paul II’s Jubilee Celebrations in 2000.

Earlier he had conducted the California premiere of Bernstein’s “Mass” at the University of California Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall with the Oakland Symphony in 1974; as well as the premiere of his own theater oratorio “Espying” at the Banff Festival of Fine Arts with director and choreographer Norbert Vesak. Milton has conducted and taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, California State University East Bay, Notre Dame de Namur University, the Banff Festival Musical Theatre Division, College of San Mateo, and Skyline College.

It might seem apparent by now that Milton’s professional musical credentials would fill a couple of newspaper pages — I’ve only scratched the surface here — so you’ll just have to believe me when I say, he’s a pro. And when there are still many Washingtonians who have no idea where the Long Beach Peninsula is, my obvious question to him was, “How the heck did you find us?” He flashed his broad smile, “My former wife Janet Williams grew up in Chehalis.” Ah, guided by a local.

Meet and greet

He and Janet have stayed friends and now share a five acre property near Oysterville — “Just us and the bears,” he says — so he’s getting used to all the tasks that go along with Peninsula property. Milton arrived last July 4th — so he’s managed to live through one of our (albeit tamer) winters. And he’s already looking forward to working with the Bayside Singers.

He’s clearly not a neophyte when it comes to challenges. He shares with me that on Feb. 26, 1995 (“I’ll never forget it,” he says) he had a stroke that took out his whole left side. “I had wondered in those days since the stroke, ‘What am I going to do now?’” he says. But he had a director friend who came to his bedside a month after the stroke when Milton didn’t have the use of his hands, and very little use of his voice, and said, “I want to hire you to sing the bass solos in my December Bach Magnificat concert. I have every confidence that you can do it. I won’t take no for an answer.”

Well, that friend provided a goal for him, something to aspire to. And Milton used the information he had about the physics of the human voice and body, and he took it step by step, day by day. He learned again from the beginning to walk, to talk, and to sing. With all his work in that year and a half after his stroke, he regained nearly 100 percent of his abilities.

As we continue to talk, I’m taking in again the remarkableness of someone as accomplished as Milton wandering onto our little spit of land and taking over the baton from Barbara to lead the Bayside Singers. What are the chances, really, that a conductor, professional singer, and composer would land on our shores — again?!

Milton has begun making some decisions about what pieces might be included in the first concert he directs — which will probably take place in the first part of December. There will also be a chance for interested community members to get to know a bit more about Milton at a “Meet and Greet,” Friday, Aug. 30, at Ocean Park Lutheran Church, from 2 to 4 p.m.

For those who might want to consider joining the singers, Milton also says, “There are no formal auditions at this time. Rehearsals are on Tuesdays, from 1 to 4 p.m., starting Sept. 10. Anyone interested in singing should try and make it to the Meet and Greet to introduce themselves to me personally. If that isn’t possible, come to the first rehearsal. I’ll take the time to speak with you and tentatively assign you to a voice part. I’m very excited about getting started.”

I end our tête-à-tête saying, “We’re so honored and lucky to have you here.” And Milton answers, again, with that big smile, “Well, we’ll see about that, won’t we?”

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