The Park Rapids Classic Chorale starts its 30th season with the Christmas concert “Oh! How Beautiful the Sky,” 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8 at St. Johns Lutheran Church.

The 45-member chorus is directed by Dr. Melanie Hanson with assistant director Sarah Bowman and accompanist Cheryl Steinborn.

Past directors over the years have included Patricia “Patty” Bjorklund, Linda R. Short, Calvin “Cal” Hedegaard, Garrett Lathe, Erich L.Knapp, Jim Wheeler, and others.

Genesis of a chorus

Several current members of the Chorale have been with the group since the beginning. They and a few others got together recently to share their memories.

In the years leading up to 1989, a community chorus got together from time to time to perform pieces like Handel’s “Messiah.”

Shortly after that “Messiah” performance, “there were four of us that were going up to Bemidji to sing with the Bemidji Chorale,” said Dave Keller, who serves as president of the Chorale board. “Patty came to us, and she was interested in starting one here and wanted to know what we thought of that. We all said, ‘Yeah!’”

Anita Hannemann recalled that the group got a lot of encouragement and support from Allen Undem, who may not have sung with the group but was “an instigator, at least.”

Once the group got going, it more or less replaced the on-again, off-again community choir. In early days, they sang at Riverside United Methodist Church. Early programs included a memorable Christmas concert of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian Carlo Menotti.

“We sold tickets, which we all hated,” said Keller.

“We sold tickets for a long time,” agreed Thom Peterson.

Then-treasurer Linda Meyer recalled how charging admission meant having to report taxes. “If we would do it as a donation, we didn’t have to,” she said.

Eventually, the singers prevailed on Bjorklund to collect a freewill offering instead.

“I remember a conversation about us wanting to encourage families to enjoy classical choral literature,” said Peterson. “The whole thing about tickets – we were afraid it was inhibiting a lot of families from coming. So, we said, let’s try it without. We doubled our money!”

Marvel Haynes added that they used to pass around a little box at rehearsals, putting in their pocket change to fund the chorus, “because we were very poor.”

“It was very shoestring,” Keller said.

“A lot of times, we bought music ourselves,” said Haynes.

“The community has been so supportive,” said Keller. “It’s just amazing. Our concerts are filled with appreciative audiences. They donate funds so we can continue.”

Though the Chorale sought support from grants in the past, it no longer does so. Keller said, “It’s just our concert take. It’s heartwarming, how much easier it is to perform to a receptive audience. It makes all the difference in the world.”

30 years of joy

Charter members included Haynes and her husband Stuart, an accomplished musician. When they moved to the area from Southern California, “we were at loose ends,” said Marvel. “He had just retired. And this really filled a void for music for us.”

Amazed that it’s already been 30 years, Haynes recalled singing the whole spectrum from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem to Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”

Peterson called music “one of the most emotional highs of my life,” and said he has always gotten more out of being in the Chorale than he has put in. “It’s been a great experience,” he said, “and it’s been a great gift to the community – very well received by everyone.”

Keller said having a group like the Chorale “is a rare opportunity, especially in a small town, both for the singers and for the community. … It’s just a rare gift.”

Saying he has heard it said that singing “keeps your mind fresh,” Keller added, “I hate to think what it would be like if I wasn’t singing all the time. It’s always inspirational. It’s a high every week.”

Keller also values the variety of pieces they have sung, from heavy stuff that at first seemed impossible to pull off to light and easy pieces like “Frosty the Snowman.” “It’s just endless, the wonderful literature that we do,” he said.

“For me, it was a wonderful chance just to be a singer,” said Hannemann.

Donna Neumann, a member of St. Johns who got pulled into the Chorale while attending a church meeting, said that when she and her husband moved here from the Chicago area, she feared she would never have any musical opportunities again. “I may as well put my flute away,” she thought. And now? “Wow!”

“I love the chorale,” said Neumann. “I don’t want to make a choice between band or chorale. But it’s Monday nights, and there’s never a reluctance to go, or say, “I think I’ll stay home tonight.” Even if you’re sick, you come, only to sit and listen.”

Compared to larger cities, where singing is left up to professionals, Neumann said, “For us to be able to blend, and to meet the people we have met, and to do so many different kinds of music has been just awesome.”

Meyer said she has been singing in choirs since fifth grade, when she belonged to a children’s group in Chicago. “I love to sing,” she said, recalling how Bjorklund recruited her from their church choir. “I’ve been here ever since. It’s been great.”

Her favorite memory is a Chorale trip to Italy, when they sang Franz Xaver Biebl’s “Ave Maria” at the Pantheon in Rome. “It would give you goosebumps,” she said. “It would just ring.”

Longtime member John Kisser said that after singing with the Fargo-Moorhead Master Chorale for 25 years, “that was the thing I was going to miss the most when I moved here.”

Two of his former chorus-mates were in the group by then, and they told him, “Come right away.”

“What a great way to meet people in the community,” said Kisser. “I love this group. It’s about the music, and enjoying each other, and doing what we’re doing. We don’t go away in the winter because I’m singing in the Chorale.” After a pause for group laughter, he added, “I hear about that periodically.”

Deane Johnson was also one of the Chorale’s original members. “A lot of the pieces have been special,” he said. “One thing that’s been special is the variety of different personalities that we’ve had as directors over the years.”

Johnson has played a number of instruments with the Chorale, even buying them and learning to play them just for a concert.

“He’s just amazing,” said Keller.

“I think your native flute was absolutely the top,” Haynes told Johnson.

A younger member, Jordan Goodwater sang with the Chorale when he was a senior in high school. Then he moved away. Years later, after landing in Staples, he decided to check up on the group and is now in his second season since rejoining.

“It’s so much fun to be back,” said Goodwater. “I love it all.”

A newspaper ad led Amanda Primus to join the Chorale six years ago. “I like the challenges of all the pieces,” she said.

Johnson said, “Another thing that’s been special is, a lot of us have family members that have been with us (in the Chorale). My wife and daughter have both been in it.”

“Our daughter has been in it,” Peterson said. Other couples have sung together as well, the group recalled.

Members range from high school students to folks in their 90s. “There might be, in the community, a thought that you’d have to be a more mature person,” said Goodwater. “But it’s a fun way for people to get out and meet each other.”

Favorite attractions

Pieces the singers fondly remember singing with the Chorale include John Rutter’s Requiem – which Peterson said he wants sung at his funeral – as well as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Durufle’s “Ubi caritas” – “Wasn’t that a gorgeous piece?” Hannemann asked – and a full Mozart program, Stephen Paulus’ “Pilgrims’ Hymn,” and a piece the choir sang last spring, “Considering Matthew Shepard,” in memory of a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998.

More than one chorus member said that was the concert for which they received the most positive audience response. “It was hard for us to sing,” said Haynes, while others described the piece as “very emotional.”

Goodwater said this year’s Classic Chorale Christmas program is a “great mix” that Hanson picked from some of their most best-loved performances of the past.

“Our concert will be a real audience pleaser,” he said. “It’s all music people will enjoy listening to.”

The audience will even get a chance to sing along, Primus added.

The program includes Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” arrangements of “Silent Night,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Savior of the Nations, Come,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Great Joy A-Comin’!” and N.F.S. Gruntvig’s hymn “Oh, How Beautiful the Sky.”

Also in store are Chris Rice’s “Welcome to Our World,” Craig Curry’s “Echo Christmas Joy,” Steve Heitzeg’s “Little Tree” with words by e.e. Cummings and “What Sweeter Music” by John Rutter. Soloists include Bowman, Bill Weeks and soprano saxophonist Michael Hanson.

Refreshments will be served following the concert.

The Chorale also plans to perform a spring concert on April 24 and 26, 2020.