There's good music where town and country meet
Mix together a good number of farmers, and add a hair dresser, banker, medical doctor, nurse, accountant, judge, X-ray technician, Catholic priest and nun, and the result is?
Beautiful music, and a group ready-made for travel anywhere.
"We're covered when we go on tour,'' laughed Heather Fluck, in reference to the mix of vocations that are represented in the Woodbury Singers of Renville County.
Fluck is among the 47 residents of Renville County who are part of what is certainly one of the state's most unique arts groups. Ever since 1994, they've been allied with the Woodbury Chorus and Orchestra.
The Renville County members -- known as the Woodbury Singers of Renville County -- join their counterparts from Woodbury to perform all across Minnesota and parts of western Wisconsin, and, sometimes, beyond. They've toured Europe seven times now, performing everywhere from atop a tour boat on the Rhine River in Austria to churches in Ireland and Iceland.
If the connection between rural Renville County and the Twin Cities suburb of Woodbury seems like a long stretch, it's nothing compared to what started this all: Composer G.F. Handel. His composition "Messiah" was performed in Dublin, Ireland, in the year 1742 to raise funds for the less fortunate.
The Woodbury Chorus and Orchestra has kept that tradition ever since its formation and its performance of Handel's "Messiah" in 1984.
Every performance is given as a fundraiser with the freewill offerings going to food shelves in the cities where they perform. To date, their work has raised nearly $250,000 for food shelves, or enough to buy more than 1.2 million meals, according to estimates of the group.
All of the vocalists, orchestra members and bell ringers that comprise the combined arts group are volunteers. They donate all of their time, travel and expenses for equipment and formal attire.
"It's a great group for all of the right reasons,'' said member Gladie Hagen of Olivia.
She and other members can add a few other great reasons for what they do as well: "No one has ever accused this group of not having fun,'' said Fluck.
But most of all, they all love music. "When we're not singing, we all go through withdrawal,'' said Hagen.
Locally, it's up to Richard Alton to make certain that rarely happens. Retired from a 35-year career as a high school band and choir director, Alton directs the Woodbury Singers of Renville County at weekly rehearsals in the Olivia library.
Since 1987, the Woodbury Chorus and Orchestra has been under the direction of Gerrit Willem Lamain.
By virtue of that role, Lamain had an ulterior motive when he visited St. Mary's Catholic Church of Bird Island as a salesman for the Johannus Organ Company of the Netherlands in 1994.
Lamain was always on the lookout for churches with the right acoustics and beauty to host performances by the chorus and orchestra he led, and he found it in St. Mary's. He mentioned the idea of bringing the Woodbury Chorus and Orchestra to Bird Island to church organist Jan Prokosch. Eight Renville County volunteers joined the Woodbury performers to present Handel's "Messiah" in the church in December 1994.
Things might have gone no farther were it not for the late Pat Kadlecek. The Olivia music teacher led the eight Renville County volunteers as they prepared for the opportunity to perform with the Woodbury group. Kadlecek took on the challenge of directing and leading what became the Woodbury Singers of Renville County until her death in December 2005.
"This would never have happened without her,'' said Bob van der Hagen of Bird Island, a member of the group. He and his wife, Dottie, have been part of the group since its start in Renville County, and have witnessed what he termed its evolution.
Over the years, the Renville County component of the combined group has grown in both numbers and talent to be very much the equal partners of their Woodbury-based friends, said van der Hagen.
Naturally enough, not all of the Renville County members can make it to every performance of the Woodbury Chorus and Orchestra. Their 2008-09 concert season runs from September through April and includes 14 performances in cities ranging from Red Wing and Mora to Worthington and Richfield.
The performances are held in churches, with some exceptions. A school building served as a venue in one western Wisconsin community because the churches in the community it didn't get along, the local members said.
Each year also includes a performance in Renville County. The Lenten season performance alternates between St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Olivia and St. Mary's in Bird Island.
The European tours occur every other year, and have created some of the most lasting memories, according to the local members who have been able to make them.
Here and abroad, their performances can range from classical and religious music to patriotic and even popular tunes. They vary from emotion-evoking works like "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace'' and "The Holocaust Cantata: Songs for the Camps,'' to upbeat and patriotic collections with "America the Beautiful'' and a light-hearted "Stars and Stripes Forever'' with kazoos.
The fun that comes with making music and good friends keeps many with the group, but Hagen said there is one thing above all others that keep the musicians going. At every performance, she said, "you just think of all the people you are helping.''