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Small Town, Big Voices (Part 1): From 16 to 80 years-old, the singers of the Borealis Chorale and Orchestra in Grand Marais lift up hearts year after year

Dec 07, 2023 07:51AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Grand Marais Borealis Chorus and Orchestra singers from left to right: Thomas Stamps, Treg Axtell and Don Grant. Photo by Sarah Reller, 2016.

By Kimberly J. Soenen for Boreal Community Media - November 29, 2023

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series on the Borealis Chorale and Orchestra. Part two was published on November 30, 2023, and can be found here. 

WTIP North Shore Community Radio will be broadcasting the Borealis Chorale and Orchestra Concert, directed by Karina Roth. Tune in or stream on Christmas Day from 6:00 to 8:00PM or on Tuesday Classics  8:00 to 10:00 PM

Last year, I walked into a rehearsal for the annual Borealis Chorale and Orchestra holiday season concert in Grand Marais. The annual sternum-vibrating, soul-stretching concert by the cross-generational volunteer community choir has been an awe-inspiring experience for years.

I sat in a pew and marveled at the melding of voices, the various ages of the musicians and singers, and the level of talent. 17-year-old soprano voices soar over the trumpets and elevate the audience, while the baritones—some over the age of 70— anchor songs so elegantly.  The Chorus peppers spirituals in-between Handel and other songs, and stands out significantly at this time of year in that it includes singers and musicians of all ages and ability levels singing alongside one another.

A woman named Ora Wilcox started the organization back in the late 1950’s.  Ora was a pianist and piano teacher.  She started presenting Handel’s Messiah with the Symphonion Club of Cook County so the organization was originally known as the Symphonion Music Club of Grand Marais. For three years, Greg Jahnke, the high school band director in the late 1970’s conducted the Symphonion Club. BJ Muus was the director of the group for 30 years and he left a legacy that was hard to replace. Bill Beckstrand stepped up when BJ retired and changed the Symphonion name to “Borealis.” Bill conducted for about ten years until the Covid pandemic began, and then there were two years of silence. 

Karina Roth then stepped up as conductor/director.

Roth started learning the piano at the age of four and has been playing ever since. In addition to voice, she plays piano and organ and played oboe in high school. She also played the smallest bass drum in her high school drumline.  Roth competed in statewide competitions throughout junior high and high school. 

A graduate of Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, Roth specialized in a voice program that cultivated opera singers. It was there where she focused on accompanying skills, and also studied voice for a year. For kids interested in studying music, she recommends starting with either piano or a string instrument like violin or cello. Said Roth, “These instruments will lay a good foundation for reading music, understanding theory and developing an ear.  Then move on to voice, or percussion, or whatever brings you joy!”

Roth loves having kids involved in the Chorale and Orchestra project.  “This year they have a piece of music with some very difficult percussion accompaniment,” said Roth. “Martine, Naomi and their mothers Kristen Carlsgaard and Lisa Tracy, are the percussion ensemble.  They are very challenged by this music, and they are doing it with their mothers!  What an opportunity this is for them. It will make memories, I hope, that they cherish throughout their lifetimes.”

Philis Anderson, who played professionally in the Duluth Symphony and Thunder Bay Symphony years ago, is in the orchestra and is one of the oldest musicians in the group. She has been in the orchestra for 60 years. Anderson joined the Symphonion Club in 1963. At that time the Chorus and orchestra presented Handel's Messiah at Christmas time every year.  Through the years the director/conductor changed hands, usually from one local High School band director to another. 

“This annual event has been going for almost 65 years and the rehearsals and performances are so gratifying to me because we draw from a small community and seem to come up with very talented musicians and singers. It has always been that way through all these years. I am a “spry” 80 years of age. I still play my oboe. Having young people partake in certain pieces is a good start to bigger and better music things in their lives,” said Anderson.

A lifelong performing pianist, singer, jazz musician, band leader, composer, and arranger, 72 year-old Mike DeBevec has participated in the majority of the concerts since 1975. Coming from a Slovenian-American ancestry, his paternal grandparents were peasant farmers Slovenian immigrants who came to work in the mines on the Iron Range in 1903. He started singing in church choirs at the age of ten. He stated with humor that it’s in his DNA to sing in choir. 

Artist Erika Ternes is 42 years-old and will be playing trumpet and viola in this year’s Orchestra.

“I’m a violinist by training, but viola is more needed in Borealis, so I switched. It’s the first time I’ve picked up a trumpet since middle school!” When asked about what the Chorus means to her, Erika explained, “I was thinking recently of what a huge role Borealis has played in my life here in Grand Marais and in our family.”

Ternes continued,  “Ever since Alyssa Hedstrom showed up at my door the night after I moved in and said, ‘Hey, grab your violin and we’ll see if they need that or a soprano more,’ it’s been part of what anchors me to this community. Borealis has been part of the rhythm of our family for my girls’ entire lives, and it’s how we got to know Bill Beckstrand, who’s now their godfather. I even sang in rehearsal while my daughter Eva nursed once! After last year’s concert, my daughter Anja started calling Bethlehem ‘Mama’s church’ and it took quite a while to convince her it didn’t exist solely as a place for me to sing.”

37-year-old Elunia Steckelberg joined the Chorus her first winter living in Grand Marais. “Since it was an easy and inviting way to get back to singing in a choir, which I did a lot of in high school and some in college. I keep doing it because it provides a place for building community through art, and because I just love singing in harmony with other voices. My favorite part of being in the Chorus is when we bring it all together with the orchestra and fill the church with beautiful reverberating music.

When I reached out to one of the youngest members of the Chorus, Naomi Tracy-Hegg, who is 16 years-old as of this writing, I learned she is currently co-authoring a social science article about why people love choir. Tracy-Hegg will also contribute to the Orchestra as a percussionist this year. The introduction from the narrative for her paper illuminates why so many people are moved by singing together in a group. Neurologically, bio-physiologically, and emotionally, group singing has many physical and mental health benefits.

“I've had a lot of moments of joy in my life: biting into a surprisingly perfect apple, hugging my soft, sociable chickens, doing well in school, paddling over perfect reflections of the sky, collaborating with amazing people, spending time with family, playing music. But there are other, more elusive moments, in which something seems to click, in which different shades of happiness roll together into a perfect snowball of ultimate joy. In these moments, my heart races, time seems to slow down, and long afterward, I'm able to easily identify these as the best moments in my life, in which I was truly changed.”

“Choir makes my heart feel squishy and twinkly, and the Borealis Chorale, under the fine directorship of Karina Roth, was my introduction to it. Participating in Borealis has been a perfect culmination of happiness: getting goosebumps as we belt out See Amid the Winter's Snow, learning how to be a good chorister, building a community in our section and the choir as a whole, and laughing together (either at ourselves or at the baritones). Being in Borealis has been, and is one of, the highlights of my musical life—and, frankly, my life as a whole.”

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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