Sing Along With Rick
Led by Richard Hynson, the Bel Canto Chorus performs at the mighty St. Josaphat Basilica. And they want you to sing, too.
At 250 feet tall, the Basilica of St. Josaphat is an architectural landmark on Milwaukee’s South Side. To Catholics, it’s a special place to worship. To Richard Hynson, music director of the Bel Canto Chorus, it’s the only worthy location for the group to perform its annual program, “Christmas in the Basilica.”
Construction on the basilica began in 1897 under the direction of architect Erhard Brielmaier. Father Wilhelm Grutza, the pastor of St. Josaphat parish at the time, instructed him to build a smaller version of St. Peter’s in Rome, complete with a large central dome and cross-shaped floor plan. When it was finished in 1901, its huge dome was second in the country in size, only smaller than the United States Capitol.
“It is one of the treasures of Milwaukee,” says Hynson. “I’ve toured all over Europe and I have seen nothing that is any more beautiful than the basilica.”
It makes an appropriate venue for Bel Canto’s Christmas program, which includes spiritual songs. The huge space also adds resonant acoustics. Depending on the style of music, this can increase the singers volume and drown out certain parts, so the conductor must be aware of this. But Hynson says most musicians are adamant that the fidelity of the music is preserved by ensuring each section is heard at optimum level. Few music halls in the world are capable of producing such sound.
Hynson has chosen music that would work well in a large, echoing space. He considers the basilica almost like an instrument that can be tuned and played to compliment the choir by intensifying the sound.
“The building itself becomes a part of the musical experience,” Hynson says, “because of the way the sound is amplified and enhanced.”
Hynson has chosen a combination of popular and secular Christmas music, balancing upbeat, celebratory works with gentler ones reflecting on the child Jesus. The five musicians of Stained Glass Brass will join the choir again this year as accompaniment, along with organist Kevin Bailey. The Bel Canto Boy Choirs will also make an appearance to perform their own repertoire.
Many pieces in the program are arranged by Hynson and his wife, Michelle. Michelle’s newest is a mash-up of three traditional carols, “Joseph Dearest,” “People Look East,” and “I Saw Three Ships.” She calls it, “Joseph, Look East! Ships!”
Bel Canto will also be singing the world premiere of “Gloria” by British composer Gordon Thornett. Hynson saw potential in the piece when he came across it online several years ago. He worked with Thornett over the internet to modify it into “one of those pieces that could become a Christmas classic.”
But it wouldn’t be a Christmas concert without sing-alongs, and Hynson confirms there will be a few this weekend. Here, too, he feels, the audience becomes its own instrument — and as much a part of the music-making as the choir members and instrumentalists.
“I think that’s part of the giving of Christmas, that we allow ourselves to break down barriers and reach out,” Hynson says. “If we reach out through art, through music, through singing, we are sharing what is most precious about us,”
7:30 p.m. Dec. 13 and 3 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Basilica of St. Josaphat. Tickets range from $29 – $59 and are available online or by calling 414-481-8801.
Simple Gifts: A Holiday Sampler
WindSync does not perform like a typical wind ensemble. The five musicians stand rather than sit, play their music from memory, interact with the audience and even integrate elements of theatricality and choreography—at least, as much as you can when you’re holding a bassoon or horn.
So no traditional performance should be expected when the group stops in Milwaukee to perform “Simple Gifts: A Holiday Sampler” on Thursday. The program offers music from cultures across the globe and their respective holiday traditions. Selections range from Prokofiev’s “Overture on Hebrew Themes,” wind folk songs from Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja” and Copland’s “Simple Gifts.”
Each piece brings its own challenges for the musicians, but their performance of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” requires a bit of multitasking. Working with a choreographer from Houston Ballet, the group created a modified choreography sequence reminiscent of the actual ballet that lets them play while they dance.
“It’s very playful and really captures the spirit of the Nutcracker,” bassoonist Tracy Jacobson says.
Thursday’s show will also include arrangements of popular Christmas songs written by WindSync. Jacobson warns that their version of “Sleigh Ride” is a favorite to play. “We can get pretty wild.”
7:30 Dec. 11 at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $10 and $40 and are available online or by calling 414-766-5049.
Laude with Lionheart
With many local music companies focusing on the popular sounds of the season, Early Music Now presents “Laude: Joy and Mystery,” a collection of chant-like Italian devotionals from the 13th century. “Laude” refers to songs of praise and religious devotion dating back to the time of St. Francis of Assisi. The six-man chamber choir Lionheart will perform five lauda selections from Renaissance composer Innocentius Dammonis, each with biblical text honoring the birth of Christ.
5 p.m. Dec. 13 and 3 p.m. Dec. 14 at St. Joseph Center Chapel, 1501 S. Layton Blvd. Tickets start at $28 for adults and $10 for students. They are available online or by calling 877-546-8742.