BY KATE LOTT | PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
In his 31 years as the director of Bel Canto Chorus, Richard Hynson’s enthusiasm for conducting live choral music has grown in proportion with the success and reputation of the ensemble.
“It’s been a wonderful long-term experiment,” he says. And while the experiment continues, one certain result is that Bel Canto’s 10-year tradition of Christmas in the Basilica is firmly established as a Milwaukee holiday tradition, drawing thousands each year to the majestic setting of Basilica of St. Josaphat.
Hynson discovered music at a tender age as a boy soprano in the celebrated Washington National Cathedral choir in Washington, D.C. He fell in love with singing and enjoyed success as a child performer, starting down the path toward a professional singing career. After graduating with a degree in voice performance, though, he realized that despite his skill, “I simply didn’t have the instrument to make it professionally.”
Hynson’s career then took a serendipitous turn. Encouraged by a friend, he enrolled at Westminster Choir College and, as he puts it, “stumbled into conducting.” He honed his conducting chops working with world-renowned ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony, and then decided to pursue academic music. In the midst of his graduate studies, a chance opportunity as a temporary rehearsal conductor for a local chorus led to professional stints with that group and a local orchestra. Hynson quickly realized that the combined work of conducting, repertoire development, fundraising and organizational development was a scintillating mix. He
When Hynson was offered the opportunity to come to Milwaukee to lead Bel Canto, already established as southeast Wisconsin’s longest-running musical organization, he jumped at the chance and never looked back.
“Making music in a dynamic community like Milwaukee is a privilege,” he says. “There is a deep and broad tradition not only of choral singing, but many genres of music and performance. It’s an arts-making and arts-appreciating community.” In addition to leading Bel Canto, Hynson also served as music director of the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra from 2006-2015, is in demand as a guest conductor, and is music director for Gathering on the Green, the popular Mequon summer music festival.
A teacher at heart, Hynson relishes the chance to positively affect so many. Membership in Bel Canto generally hovers around 90 singers, and through the years that number has added up to hundreds of voices — and hundreds of lives impacted. Hynson is quick to credit his wife and musical partner, Michelle, assistant conductor and accompanist for Bel Canto and an accomplished teacher and performer in her own right, as an essential source of Bel Canto’s influence. The couple’s musical partnership has not only improved the quality of the group’s vocal production, but also built a robust community. “We know our singers as individuals, so we can respond to them that way,” says Hynson.
Bel Canto’s diverse repertoire often reflects historical and social issues. The group has partnered with other community groups to present music in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, for example, and has focused on music of the Civil War era as well as the immigrant experience. “Art can comment on issues of social justice, and bring us understanding,” says Hynson. “Its purpose isn’t to change minds, but to give us the chance to reflect.”
Hynson does believe in the power of singing to change lives, however. “For some members, being part of this group has literally been lifesaving. Many of our singers organize their lives around making it to rehearsal every Wednesday; it’s that important to them.” And in an age of political division that sometimes seems insurmountable, Bel Canto is a bastion of democracy. “There are very liberal and very conservative folks who have sung together, side by side, for years,” says Hynson. “The choral experience transcends those differences.”
Bel Canto has presented classic choral works, commissioned original pieces, and become renowned for its sensitive interpretation of 20th century choral repertoire. But for Hynson, the universality of the choral experience itself is the group’s greatest strength. “There’s a reason that after 9/11, the first thing Congress did was to gather on the steps of the capitol and sing. It’s a deeply rooted human need and means of expression. In singing, we offer our best in service to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
In a world where digital music is almost inescapable, Hynson aims to give audiences unique experiences that can’t be had through technology. “As humans, we’re wired to respond to and embrace music. Participating in a live choral concert, as performers or audience members, allows us to transcend time and achieve a kind of mindfulness.”
Hynson has no plans to retire his baton any time soon. At a recent concert, his expression of joy and admiration as he led featured soloists, orchestra and singers said it all. “With music, it’s actually quite simple,” he says. “We join together to do
something beautiful.” MKE