Bel Canto Chorus Sings of Christmas

Annual concert at Basilica of St. Josaphat offers old favorites and a Midwest premiere.

By - Dec 7th, 2021 12:06 pm
Richard Hynson. Photo courtesy of Bel Canto Chorus.

Richard Hynson. Photo courtesy of Bel Canto Chorus.

“Christmas in the Basilica,” a decade-long concert tradition presented by the Bel Canto Chorus, returns to the Basilica of St. Josaphat with four performances December 10, 11, and 12. Members of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir and Basilica organist Lee Gwozdz are special guests.

Bel Canto’s 2021 holiday repertoire combines familiar Christmas choral music, carol singalongs accompanied by organ and brass, and four examples of contemporary compositions based on early texts. Music Director Richard Hynson describes the concert as “musical Christmas cards for the community.”

The program includes the Midwest premiere of the energetic Magnificat composed by Fredrik Sixten. Written in 2009 for chorus, organ, and brass, the three-movement work interprets the Virgin Mary’s hymn of praise to God after she learns that she will give birth to his son. The text, taken from the Gospel of Luke, was likely written in the first century CE. Sixten, a Swedish composer, organist, and choral conductor, cites a range of influences for his work, ranging from J.S. Bach to Swedish folk tunes and jazz.

The chorus will sing three other recently-composed settings of Latin texts. The program opens with Lara G. Hoggard’s stately arrangement of Personent Hodie, pairing a 14th-century text with a 16th-century melody. Slovenian composer Andrej Makdor’s setting of the 16th-century text O Magnum Mysterium recounts the wonder of the animals surrounding the manger. O Salutaris Hostia, composed by Ēriks Ešenvalds of Latvia, is an ethereal interpretation of words written in the 13th-century.

Members of two Milwaukee Children’s Choir ensembles directed by Artistic Director Rachel Maki, the Lyric Chorale and Milwaukee Youth Chorale, will join Bel Canto singers for two pieces and sing several on their own. All singers and instrumentalists will join the audience in carol singalongs.

The Basilica setting provides a visually stunning but acoustically challenging venue for this annual concert. Because the reverberation is long, “the building becomes part of the instrument,” Hynson explained. “I look for pieces that allow the voices of the singers to be enriched by the reverberation.”

2021 marks the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the community choral organization known today as Bel Canto. The chorus remained active throughout COVID closures, producing several virtual concert events that combined recordings made by a core group of masked and distanced live singers with others who rehearsed online and submitted home videos of their singing. Because of that continuity, Hynson said, Bel Canto was able to retain most of its singers and add new voices.

“Christmas in the Basilica” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 10; 12 noon and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 11, and 4 p.m. Sunday, December 12 at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, 2333 S. 6th St. Tickets for both the live and streamed performances are available through the Bel Canto website or by calling the box office Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at ​414-481-8801, ext. 1. Audience members must be masked and show evidence of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the prior 72 hours. Performances also will be live-streamed.

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