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Bel Canto choruses add musical appreciation to holiday songs

The Bel Canto Chorus Boy Choir during rehearsal at The Basilica of St. Josaphat on December 7.  The boys and adults of Bel Canto will be performing  a Christmas Concert at the historic Milwaukee church on December 10 and 11.

The Bel Canto Chorus Boy Choir during rehearsal at The Basilica of St. Josaphat on December 7. The boys and adults of Bel Canto will be performing a Christmas Concert at the historic Milwaukee church on December 10 and 11. Photo By Jerry Luterman

Dec. 27, 2011

It's not just any holiday music, the powerful sound that bursts forth from the 100 or so members of the Bel Canto Chorus.

It's a community of voices brought together by a love of music that lifts the audiences and the singers, regardless of age, sex, race or religion.

At this time of year, the chorus has just completed a weekend of major performances, Christmas in the Basilica.

In the midst of what can often be a frenetic sea son of holiday preparation, Bel Canto Chorus and Orchestra director Richard Hynson said preparing for the concert gives him and the members a gradual build-up to the season.

"As a chorus member, we prepare two months in advance," Hynson said "All the elements of Christmas preparation are enjoyed week by week."

Keeping boys singing

The same is true for the Boy Choirs, under the direction of Ellen Shuler.

"With the boys, we start right away in September," Shuler said. "We want the boys to understand the history and meaning of the songs."

The Boy Choirs is new to Bel Canto.

"It was a treble group but, as the boys voices started to change, we added the choirs," Shuler said. "Now they can stay as long as they want to."

Hynson got started in choral music years ago when he was 8 years old and a student at St. Albans School, which is on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral. He was in its choir.

The Boy Choirs and the Milwaukee Handbell Ensemble joined the Bel Canto Chorus for its performance earlier this month.

While the 20 boys sang three standalone songs, the chorus performed 25 or 26 pieces, Hynson said.

Original music performed

Hynson composes music and his wife, Michelle, arranges songs.

"In 1999, we decided we had exhausted traditional Christmas music," Hynson said. "We started doing mostly our own songs. That's the way music groups used to be - they always performed their own music."

The chorus and Boy Choirs draw voices not only from the Milwaukee area but also from Northern Illinois. Hynson and Shuler are both from Thiensville and also lend their talents and voices to the Mequon United Methodist Church choir. Hynson also directs the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra; Shuler teaches music at University School of Milwaukee.

Much of the music the group performs over the course of the year is spiritual or church music, but the performers are of different faiths and backgrounds.

Marc Cohen, who is Jewish, has been singing with the chorus for a number of years. He is not uncomfortable singing Christmas music.

"The message of the Christmas season deeply touches those who are Christians," he said. "Our focus is on the beauty of the music. Music has the ability to transcend words. It crosses cultures and religions."

The chorus has sung music from Shabbat worship services, Russian Orthodox music and classic works of masses and requiems, Cohen said.

"Last year we sang an entire season dedicated to the Civil War," he said. "We really try to reach out and speak to what is happening in the community."

On Sept. 11, 2011, the chorus was part of the observation of 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States, singing Mozart's "Requiem."

Professionals and amateurs

There are 10 paid performers in the chorus, section leaders for the large group made up mainly of amateur singers.

Rebecca Whitney has been a section leader for seven years. She also is the part-time development director of the chorus.

Her husband is a bassoonist who plays in several local groups.

"For us the Christmas season is for making music," she said. "Music really helps make the holiday season for other people."

The music reaches out to people.

"Really what people are looking for is the beauty, mystery and the magic of Christmas," she said. "There is a longing for it that people sometimes don't even realize until they hear the music."

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