Northwestern Press

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CONTRIBUTED PHOTOBel Canto Youth Chorus and the Bach Choir of Bethlehem in concert. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOBel Canto Youth Chorus and the Bach Choir of Bethlehem in concert.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTOJoy Hirokawa, director of Bel Canto, with Bel Canto Youth Chorus. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOJoy Hirokawa, director of Bel Canto, with Bel Canto Youth Chorus.

Passion for choral arts: Bel Canto Youth Chorus, Bach Choir of Bethlehem join forces for new voices

Friday, August 10, 2018 by KATHY LAUER-WILLIAMS Special to The Press in Focus

For the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and Bel Canto Youth Choir, formerly based in Red Hill, Montgomery County, a merger of the two nonproft choral groups has been a long time coming.

In 2012, Bel Canto sang with the Bach Choir for Benjamin Britten’s cantata “St. Nicolas” and the following year, members lent their youthful voices to the Bach Choir’s 2013 CD “A Child’s Christmas in Bethlehem.” Last year, Bel Canto singers performed in the Bach Choir’s performance of Leonard Bernstein’s iconic “Mass.”

Now the two groups have become one.

“This is a very big deal,” says Bridget George, executive director of the Bach Choir. “We’ve done some great collaborations with Bel Canto.”

On July 1, it became official. Bach and Bel Canto joined in a merger and the children’s choir became Bel Canto Youth Chorus of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.

George says that the 120-year-old Bach Choir had been discussing for years starting its own children’s choir or joining with an existing choir as a way to encourage young people to become involved in choral singing and promote the ongoing performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

George says that three years ago, the Bach Choir added the concept of starting a youth choir to its five-year plan when Joy Hirokawa, director of Bel Canto, approached her and said the youth chorus wanted to move from its home in Montgomery County to the Lehigh Valley and was interested in “coming under the Bach Choir umbrella.” Hirokawa had directed the choir since it started in 1993.

George says she was stunned by the request, but says the Bach Choir was very familiar with the quality of the youth chorus, which is made up of auditioned treble singers from five eastern Pennsylvania counties.

“They have a very good history and reputation of their own,” George says of Bel Canto, celebrating its 25th year.

George says the merger was the logical next step in Bach Choir’s educational outreach, which includes the Bach to School in-school program, Bach at Noon free community concerts, family concerts, choral scholars, and Zimmermann’s Coffee House, a showcase for young musicians at the annual Bach Festival.

“We wanted to have a stronger impact on the next generation of choral singers and advocate a life-long passion for choral arts,” George says.

She says Bach Choir president Hal Black and Bel Canto President Jennifer O’Donnell were excited about the possibilities that the merger presented to support singers of all ages.

In 2016, Bel Canto was one of four youth choirs highlighted in the Bach Choir’s Youth Choirs Festival.

That same year, the two groups entered into a memorandum of understanding and Bel Canto moved its offices to the Bach Choir offices in Bethlehem.

“We were still functioning as separate organizations,” says George. “But we were working together very closely.”

Black, George, Hirokawa and Greg Fungfeld, Bach Choir artistic director and conductor, were invited to the national Chorus America conference in Chicago in June to talk about the collaborative projects that led to the idea of a long-term affiliation.

For Bel Canto, the move to the Lehigh Valley has resulted in expanded recruitment of students and new performance and development opportunities.

“Bel Canto is thriving in the Lehigh Valley,” George says.

Staff was added in support of the merger. Silagh White joined the Bach Choir staff as Bel Canto administrator.

Bel Canto rehearses its concert choir at the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts in Bethlehem and the preparatory choir, made up of children in second through fourth grades, rehearses at Nativity Lutheran Church in Allentown.

George says that the merger provides many opportunities for mutual support of educational expansion for both choirs and for joint programming.

Bel Canto will be part of at least one Bach Choir concert a year. For the upcoming season, Bel Canto will take part in Bach Choir’s Youth Choirs Festival in February and will perform a commissioned work in the Saturday morning concerts at the 112th Bethlehem Bach Festival in May.

“Greg [Fungfeld] really wants them to be spotlighted this year,” George says. “It will be a year celebrating both their 25th year and the merger.”

One of Bel Canto’s initiatives is to host a three-day choral workshop for Lehigh Valley middle schools in March. The workshop will feature guest artist Rollo Dilworth, Chair of Music Education and Music Therapy and Professor of Choral Education at Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University.

“Together, we cultivate a lifelong passion for the choral arts,” George says.

The Bach Choir has launched a new ticketing system that allows the printing tickets at home for concerts of the Bach Choir and Bel Canto.