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Bel Canto art

WATERLOO | The phrase “bel canto” translates as “beautiful singing” in Italian, but for their Nov. 16 concert at First Congregational United Church of Christ, Bel Canto Cedar Valley chorale is focusing on American chorale music.

“Every piece we’re performing has been composed or arranged by Americans, and all the texts are written by American poets,” says Alice Pruisner, artistic director and founder.

The concert will feature musical theater, folk/hymn and American spirituals.

“We’ve gone back to the beginning with William Billings, considered the first American chorale composer, then move through American choral music with pieces by Aaron Copeland and others, including a recent Wartburg College graduate. We wanted to explore pieces that are recognized and some that will be obscure to listeners.

Conner Koppin, an award-winning young composer and 2013 Wartburg graduate, sang with Bel Canto for about a semester while completing his student teaching assignment at Cedar Falls High School. He left after finding a job, but members have kept in touch. Pruisner is impressed by his “fabulous work,” and is thrilled that he agreed to write a commissioned piece.

Koppin’s composition, “The Simple Things of Nature,” is based on text by famed Italian actress Elenora Duse (1858-1924). She is credited with the quote, “If the sight of blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive … .”

It is the third piece commissioned by Bel Canto in its three-year history. Pruisner, who grew up in Cedar Falls, established the chorale group to fill a void left in the community since the Les Hale Chorale disbanded in 2006.

The 41-member chorale is drawn from throughout the Cedar Valley and performs smaller chorale literature rather than masterworks. “Pieces are shorter in length, sung a capella or accompanied by a small group of instruments rather than Mozart’s ‘Requiem,” Pruisner points out.

This concert opens with a choir improvisation on the hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing,” first published in a collection of Sunday school songs in 1869. The musical theater set features “More I Cannot Wish You,” arranged as a vocal jazz ballad, and the concert ends with the Moses Hogan arrangement of “The Battle of Jericho.”

A board of directors was formed last year, which has taken some of the organizational burden off Pruisner’s shoulders. Bel Canto has applied to become a non-profit organization after incorporating last year, which will allow the group to apply for grants and accept tax-deductible contributions.

A small ensemble within Bel Canto is presently being formed to perform at area events, and the entire chorale will perform at the March 2015 Iowa Composers Forum at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

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