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Small Town, Big Voices (Part 2): From 16 to 80 years-old, the singers of the Borealis Chorale and Orchestra in Grand Marais lift up hearts year after year

Nov 30, 2023 08:57AM ● By Content Editor

Photo: Karina Roth singing during a past concert alongside singer Ella Hedstrom. Photo by Sarah Reller.


By Kimberly J. Soenen for Boreal Community Media - November 30, 2023

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series on the Borealis Chorale and Orchestra. Part one was published on November 29, 2023, and can be found here.

At 33 years-old, singer Hannah Miller reflects on her experience, and what participating gives to her health: “Resonance with others, creative use of voice, and honest, careful listening; this is what, for me, defines living in community.” Hannah performs in theater and works in the health field.  “Singing in a choir helps me hone these skills and gives me an avenue to apply them as I connect to the music and to my neighbors. Singing is a physical practice as well as vocal. And this concert requires stamina from the musicians and singers. At a more personal level, something happens to my body and mind when I’m singing in a group,” said Miller. “It’s a nimble, charged awareness of my physical body and of the space around me that feels like swimming, like stargazing, or meditating, except I feel myself even more explicitly a necessary part, a contributing voice. It’s a feeling I can bring back to these other ways of ecologically belonging to this earth, to be able to recognize full presence and participation.”

At 63 years-old, Barb Lavigne reminds us that this concert may be one of the only classical music performance opportunities we have in Cook County. “I value the community it brings together. I’m 63 years old and I started playing with the group when I was 23.” She continued, “I started playing the flute in 5th grade at my little Catholic grade school. My first flute cost $80.00 and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. $80.00 was a lot to my family but my parents, neither of whom went to college, were classical music fans. You never know what might inspire a young person. We need as many chances to come together as we can generate. Music is just a wonderful way to listen and cooperate and have fun doing it.”

Mike Debevic also underlined the shared sentiment about the importance of true in-person connection and coming together.

 “So you see, what we now call Borealis Chorale is the lifeblood of our little community, the central event in our and my Christmas season, and a very important connection spiritually to my neighbors, friends, and townspeople, joy is evanescent, music is the salve that God gives us for our wounds, and this concert is both. We all realize the importance of what we pass on, so the youth of the community give us the energy it takes to participate.  The repertoire is always challenging, always both staying the same and changing.  And so, with our hard work, and for the hard work, we all come together.”

Steve Frykman, a 76 year-old baritone, reflected on all his years in the Chorus and what it means to him at the end of each year. Said Steve: “The overall experience —because I’ve been doing it for over 20 years since around 2000 —is for the journey. I learn things and respond differently every year so each year is different. I did not have a lot of choir experience but I always sang. I‘ve always sung Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. I can’t do justice to it professionally, but I love the music. I was not coming at it from a “churchy” point of view but from a feeling of music appreciation. At first, I thought: ‘If I get to sing some Handel live with a choir at least once in my lifetime that would be gratifying.’ They have not kicked me out yet so I hung on for 20 years. We work hard and the directors are amazing as to what they can achieve with us.”

 Women singing together of the Borealis Chorus and Orchestra. Photo by Sarah Reller.

Chel Anderson, who is now 70 years old and has been performing in the Chorus since 1992 says, “Choral singing is a musical, emotional, and spiritual (whatever your spiritual path may be) experience like no other. Experiencing the multi-dimensional connections among the singers, instrumentalists, music, and audience is deeply moving and meaningful, knowing each is finding their own particular meaning in the experience.         

She adds: “My love of singing began as a toddler, sitting under my grandma’s piano bench as my extended family’s adults and eventually older cousins sang together—everything from popular music of (their) times to carols. Eventually, I was singing with them. Church and school choirs and a small ensemble in high school cemented the pleasure of being part of choral music. Singing alone in the garden or the woods or around home also is fun and part of self-care. Music as a form of self-expression feels fundamental to being human; singing is possible anywhere anytime—such a pleasure and the essence of simplicity. 

I asked Chel about the benefits of having teenagers and performing alongside elders.

“Mutual inspiration, learning together, an opportunity to try something new or a new challenge in a supportive environment; experiencing the wider community (folks outside one’s typical network) as part of a collective endeavor. Participation of the young is key to the future of this community tradition and similar ones everywhere,” said Anderon.

“The Borealis Chorus and Orchestra annual concert as a singer has been an evolution for me. Singing for people is fun. However, dogma is about words. But when you sing there is a vital spiritual event occurring. There is more truth conveyed in music than in words,” Frykman noted, adding: “The words are important in chorale music, but there is a life in the music that is in itself very spiritual.”

“I think what I love about music the most is that it brings people together.  There is something really special about a community coming together to work on a gift to share with another part of the community.  When people sing together, and harmonize, there is actually a very therapeutic effect on the group as a whole,” Roth has observed.

This year and in the future, the organization will be reaching out to the wider community for volunteers to help the Women’s Circle of Bethlehem Lutheran Church who have been essential to the community reception following the concerts.

“Bethlehem Lutheran Church offers an amazing acoustic space, and being in the middle of that space with all of the music that is happening is like the most wonderful sound bath,” Roth said. “Add to that the spiritual nature of this event, the spirituality that each person brings to the group, and it really feels quite transcendent to me.  I feel very blessed to be able to participate in this event. This group of people works so hard!  We have only 8 rehearsals so we often do mostly music that the group has learned in past years, with a few new pieces to keep it fresh.  There are sectional rehearsals before the large group rehearsal and this really helps people learn their voice parts.” Roth adds.

As the world outside of Cook County quakes with violence and divisiveness, and hearts weigh heavily around the world from isolation, loneliness, disconnect, and distress, the voices and musicians of the Borealis Chorus and Orchestra uplift, elevate and summon our shared human experience.

When performance night arrived last year, I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with friends, families, and children squirming around the pews and in the aisles with anticipation as the strings tuned and woodwinds warmed up with the brass. The buzz of exuberant conversation echoed throughout the church, exciting longtime and new attendees alike with the magic that was about to take place. I settled myself in the pew and looked to the front of the church.  

Roth walked from the back of the church to the conductor’s stand and she greeted the audience warmly with a welcome. The children stopped squirming and some stood on their tip-toes to see the Chorus and Orchestra. People stilled themselves to listen.

At just five feet tall, Roth stepped onto the conductor stand. Then, the singers straightened their postures collectively standing at attention all at once on the risers. The musicians raised their instruments. And then—anything but “the smallest”—she raised her baton, and the music began.

Borealis Chorale and Orchestra

2023 Performances

Friday, December 8 at 7:00p.m.

Saturday, December 9 at 7:00p.m.  


Bethlehem Lutheran Church
417 First Avenue West
Grand Marais, Minnesota 


Free and open to the public. All ages. Free parking. Wheelchair accessible. All abilities welcome.


Kimberly J. Soenen is a writer and producer specializing in Health Humanities and healthcare industry investigative reporting.

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