Member Spotlight: Richard Hynson and Bel Canto Chorus in Milwaukee

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Conductor and composer Richard Hynson has served as music director of Milwaukee’s Bel Canto Chorus since 1988. Hynson delights in creating musicmaking events that draw performers and audience members into an intimate conversation. Chorus America’s Kelsey Menehan talked with Hynson about Bel Canto’s adventurous programming.

You believe that choral music making is one of the most exciting things that can happen in a community.

Absolutely. There is an abundance of music available electronically—you can’t get away from it—but the synergy that is created between audiences and performers is really what people crave. At Bel Canto we are focusing on the passion and intimacy of live performance. We have experimented with a variety of things that bring people closer to the music.

Richard Hynson
Richard Hynson

Tell us about some of your experiments.

In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, during our whole season we did music evocative of that terrible time in our history. I programmed works that were either world premieres or second or third performances. People loved the music, but what really got them to the performances was this season-long discussion about the civil war, about our country, about how the war affected communities. In one concert we offered historical dance. We learned what people were dancing during that period and were amazed at how many people responded to that.

You also did a very interesting event to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

We did an outdoor commemorative program. If we simply had put on a concert in a hall, it would have attracted six or seven hundred people and we would have considered that success. Instead we engaged the community. We involved the mayor, the lieutenant governor, spiritual leaders, other luminaries, and the local public broadcasting station. We held the event in a central park in the heart of Milwaukee. Because of that, we attracted 4,000 people to a concert of the Mozart Requiem, Barber’s Adagio for Strings and a number of other works. We reached tens of thousands through television.

That experience prompted us to pursue other things. This year, to mark the annual, national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we offered a commemorative performance experience. We interposed selections from King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” with a Shostakovich chamber symphony—a larger work from his String Quartet No. 8.

Many of the people at that concert had never heard live instrumental music like that. And we were able to bring King’s work to life in new ways by combining it with music that is compelling and emotionally evocative. We also had selections from Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass and spirituals. The program was so popular we are already getting requests for next year’s Martin Luther King performance. This has started what I hope will be ongoing performances and connections with some of the choirs in Milwaukee’s African-American community that Bel Canto, as a primarily white organization, has not been able to make connections with that have lasted. I’m really excited about the possibility of helping to bridge the gaps between what are still pretty separated communities in our city.

What are you hearing from audience members about these experiences?

The feedback is tremendous. We are adding new audience all the time. People say, “I have never heard anything like this. I’ll be back.” We go after emotional, transformative experiences that engage people on many levels. Often times they can’t even say why they were so moved. Mostly they are just overwhelmed with the experience of being so close to the music.

Bel Canto has also taken singing experiences to older adults. Tell us about that experiment.

We started our Senior Singers choir six years ago, gathering singers from the retirement communities around Milwaukee. There is a large body of therapeutic information about the powerful affect of choral singing, from the lowering of blood pressure, to increased pulmonary benefits, to reduced heart rate. People who sing in choruses take fewer medications and visit the doctor less. And then there is the social outlet, the camaraderie, the ability to grow as individuals while contributing to a greater whole.

I will take my own father-in-law, who is 90, to a Senior Singers rehearsal in a couple of hours. I am struck every time by the difference between the drive into rehearsal and the drive back. On the drive in, we are pretty quiet. By the end of rehearsal he is chatty and laughing. I put on the 1940s radio station and he sings along. His quality of life is changed during that rehearsal.

We are looking for ways to expand the program to community centers, churches, and schools where people can have an intergenerational experience. We have a boy choir as part of the Bel Canto ensemble and there is potential for combining these different generations not only in performance experiences, but in community musicmaking experiences.

How has Chorus America been helpful to you?

I was involved in Chorus America from the very beginning—before it was called Chorus America—and had the great privilege of being part of a training institute for young choral conductors. That two weeks of intense study in Philadelphia with some of the great conductors of the day is part of the reason I am an orchestra conductor and choral conductor today. It became clear to me that conducting was it for me.

Once Chorus America expanded into its national role as an advocate for community choruses, professional choruses and other groups not really served by the more academically focused organizations like ACDA, I went every year to the conferences. I believe Chorus America is absolutely crucial to the development of community musicmaking, especially community choral singing.

Any new projects up your sleeve?

There are choruses around the country that are doing things that I covet doing here—for example, a new way of doing community sings. The old way is to show up with your dog-eared copy of Messiah, rehearse a little bit, and then perform it. That kind of experience is great, but it is still self-selecting the general public out of it. If you’ve never sung Messiah, you are not going to show up.

But what if the sing focused on, for lack of a better term, the “great American songbook”— everything from campfire songs to John Denver and Bruce Springsteen? If you give people an opportunity to perform those songs, you have basically given them what I like to call “adult refrigerator art.” When our kids bring paintings home from school we put them up on the refrigerator. But as adults we are discouraged from making art.

Choral groups all over the country are the most powerful and organized example of adult refrigerator art. It doesn’t even matter how good they are. Some are as proficient as any professional ensemble and some are the “y’all come sing” kind of experience. The fact is they allow adult music making that is a direct, visceral, and kinesthetic engagement in the artist process.

As we continue into the 21st century, I think the big shift will be away from a single-minded focus on concert productions to more audience-engaged experiences. That is the kind of thing that will invite art back into the general public consciousness.

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