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Bringing barbershopping back: Great Northern Union Chorus to perform Oct. 13 in Bemidji

The Great Northern Union Chorus performs "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish" during a recent competition. The group will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13 at the Bemidji High School Auditorium. Submitted photo.1 / 2
The Great Northern Union Chorus was chartered as a chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society in 1985 and won its first Land O’Lakes District Championship that same year. Submitted photo.2 / 2

BEMIDJI—Music fans who miss the once-vibrant Bemidji barbershop singing scene will have a chance to take a step back in time on Saturday, Oct. 13.

The award-winning Great Northern Union Chorus, based in Richfield, will perform a 7:30 p.m. concert at the Bemidji High School Auditorium. It's the second of four events in this year's Bemidji Concert Series.

"This is a performance for everybody," said Dwight Jilek, director of choral activities at Bemidji State University. "Their legacy is storied. Their musicianship is top notch. This literally is a group in our own area that is one of the best in the world, and we're going to have them in Bemidji."

Great Northern Union was chartered as a chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society in 1985 and won its first Land O'Lakes District Championship that same year. Since then, the chorus has appeared on the society's International Chorus Contest stage more than 20 times and placed in the top 10 each time, including eight top-five medalist finishes.

"It's some of the best singing you'll hear, combined with a full presentation. They have 'choralography,' as we lovingly refer to it on stage. They're moving, they're acting things out. Even if they don't typically come to events like this I would highly suggest that they come and they bring the family."

"Barbershopping" was popular in the Bemidji area for many years, with the Paul Bunyan Barbershop Chorus leading the way and spawning a few quartets. While the larger chorus went away sometime in the 1980s, one of the quartets, the Century Notes, continued performing into the new century before ending a 35-year run.

Don Papreck, the last director of the Paul Bunyan Chorus, sang tenor in the Century Notes, with Jerry Paul as baritone, the late Dick Dickinson as bass and the late Jack Drury as lead.

"We were a pretty close-knit group," Papreck said. "We traveled to England one year and to Ireland. We would go out to dinner once a week. We'd be at some restaurant, and while waiting for our food we would break into song. People would applaud us. It was really neat. I miss it."

BSU's Department of Music began the Bemidji Concert Series in 2001 to help reinforce Bemidji's reputation as a cultural center in northern Minnesota and to provide the Bemidji region with local access to world-class musical performances. This year's series began with a performance by the Juli Wood Quartet in September. The final two concerts will be Feb. 4 (the Hornheads, five horn performers) and March 31 (Daichi No kai Taiko, a drum group from Kobe, Japan).

In addition to the Saturday night concert, members of the Great Northern Union Chorus will spend time with area students. The group received money through the Minnesota Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment to tour northern Minnesota and work with young tenors and basses. On Saturday afternoon, members will be at Bangsberg Fine Arts Complex at BSU. They will work with campus ensembles and area high school students. The public also is welcome.

"It's a great opportunity," Jilek said, "to rub shoulders, literally, and sing with them. Not very often do you get to sing with a top 5 international barbershop chorus."

Jilek sang with one of the Great Northern members during their college days at Michigan State University, and that connection helped pave the way for the group's trip to Bemidji.

"I knew this is an area that would love the art," Jilek said. "Audiences love hearing barbershop quartets. It's a great way to get immersed in the vocal art."

Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for children and free for BSU students. Tickets are available in advance by visiting the BSU Department of Music offices in Room 201 of BSU's Bangsberg Fine Arts Complex, and will also be for sale at the door.