South Metro Chorale practice

Artist Director Mark Bilyeu applauds members of the South Metro Choir during a practice for their upcoming holiday show, “A Very Whitman Christmas.” The show caps off the choir’s 20th anniversary with a celebration of the bicentennial of poet Walt Whitman’s birth.

South Metro Chorale Artistic Director Mark Bilyeu decided to mix things up for the community choir’s 20th holiday concert in Savage.

“I wanted to create concerts that were more thematic-based and less large masterworks in a goal of making it more inclusive for both members of the chorus and members of the audience,” Bilyeu said.

Bilyeu turned to the works of 19th-century poet and humanist Walt Whitman, finding a wealth of music dedicated to Whitman’s prose. When he began weaving the Whitman works in and out of more traditional holiday offerings like “Silent Night,” he knew the end product would be perfect for the choir — equal parts celebration of artistry and family.

With the addition of several Prior Lake High School band students, the chorale had its holiday program.

“I think it’s an experiment that’s proven to be quite exceptional, if I do say so. I’m pretty proud of it,” Bilyeu said.

Members says that they’d expect nothing less of the choir or its director.

“Everybody and their uncle are having a Christmas concert, and they’re all going to be pretty similar,” Bill Gurnon, a member of the chorale for over a decade, said. “This one’s not that.”

“To go to a Christmas concert and sing contemporary music, you know, not the traditional Christmas carol stuff that you might expect, that was a real pleasant surprise,” he added.

The South Metro Chorale for two decades has been a gathering place for local singers and musicians — sometimes on their second, third or fourth choir. It’s because of these previous musical experiences that many members say they knew right away the group was special — both in its members’ talent and sense of community.

“There’s such a joy in the rehearsal, which is something that I worked hard to cultivate, but it’s something that was there before I got there,” Bilyeu said. “It’s something that I think is quite unique.”

When Pam Kontney saw an ad for chorale auditions in the Shakopee Valley News six years ago, she said she knew she needed the choir in her life.

“I was in the process of going through a divorce, and this really was a blessing that it came into my life when it did because I needed to get back in with a choir and singing again,” Kontney said.

“I’ve never once felt like I wasn’t wanted there or that anyone was better than me,” she added. “It was a very open, family kind of feeling.”

Bilyeu said the program perfectly captures the group’s work and creation together.

“We end the concert with a real bang with a Whitman work about the joy of life,” he said.

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