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Choir Director Cory Groves points out some instructions to the percussion section at a recent Christmas Cantata rehearsal of the Onalaska Methodist Church choir.

Greg Kirscher

Call it Christmas magic, but through his 20 years of directing the Onalaska United Methodist Cantata, Cory Groves has seen it happen time and again at the final rehearsal.

“All the little pieces come together that Saturday morning,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s just magic – the orchestra parts are just jaw dropping.”

On Dec. 17, the choir will continue 40 years of Cantata tradition with the performance of “Adore Him,” by Ken Bryars at both the 8:30 and 11 a.m. services.

The choir whose 55 members hail from 8 local churches will blend their voices with a 25-piece orchestra comprised of musicians from the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra, the West Salem Jazz Band and the jazz group, Grumpy Old Men. Sandy Koster provides the piano accompaniment.

The beginning overture sets the stage with excerpts from holiday carols and Handel’s Messiah.

“It starts with waiting,” explained Groves. “A few songs are anticipatory – minor key sounding. Then we move to the actual birth which is a little more upbeat.”

The visit from the three kings moves the production into songs of worship and adulation. Middle schoolers Ellie and Paulie Browne, the youngest choir members introduce a contemporary praise medley with the song, Jesus, You’re Worthy of Praise.

“We finish up with gospel stuff that’s really wild and makes you want to move,” said Groves. “The finale pulls together every song in the Cantata.”

Groves also added that a powerful narration weaves its way throughout the Cantata. Narrator Mark Bertrang’s rendition of One Solitary Life backed up by Derrick Clark on the Cello is the story of Jesus and his impact on humanity.

Musical styles cover a wide variety including traditional holiday, contemporary praise, middle eastern folk, native American reggae and southern gospel.

Doug Mahlum of Holmen who sung at his own wedding as well as with the Coulee Chordsmen and the Coulee Region Gospel Choir brings to the choir a lifetime of experience. Having sung with the Methodist Choir since 1956, he will perform a Native American solo arrangement of Noel.

“I grew up with music, my mom and dad sung in the church,” Mahlum said. “Music has been the focus of my existence at the church.” Mahlum likes the Cantata because its uplifting. “We’re getting out the message of the birth of Christ…It’s such an inspiration.”

Although Trina Schlifer is a first-year singer with the Methodist Choir, and on occasion assists with piano, she’s logged 20 years of singing experience with the Coulee Region Gospel Choir. Having played the piano since she was eight, the Choir is an extension of her musical interests.

“This has been on my bucket list for several years,” said Schlifer. “I’ve known other people who’ve had a wonderful experience and wanted to try it.” Schlifer will join Kimberly Gatica with solo parts in the piece, Glory to God.

Veteran Director Cory Groves brings his 30 years’ experience as a music teacher with the Onalaska School District to the choir. He’s also logged 20 years with the West Salem Jazz Band and plays with the jazz group, Grumpy Old Men.

Groves is affable, mild-mannered and quick to smile. Especially when he recalls the early days when he and Ruth Grannum, now Managing Director of the Coulee Region Gospel Choir struggled with a small choir and an orchestra comprised of one flute.

Grannum remembers those days a time of camaraderie. “It was a great experience,” she said. “It was a good group and we always had fun. Choirs are like families wherever you are.”

Characteristically, Groves downplays his own contributions when he speaks of overcoming budgetary as well as logistical and vocal challenges. Instead he’s quick to point out the contributions of others like the booth technicians, SSE music which took over sound chores for the last 7 years and the church folks who dig a little deeper when red ink appears on the books. But when he steps to the director’s stand at rehearsal, there’s no denying who’s in control.

Over the years, Groves has even gone a few rounds with mother nature. Like in 2010 when he had to drive to La Crosse to pick up his soloists stranded during a ten-inch snowstorm.

But Groves is also reflective about his work. “Part of it is glorifying God and giving thanks,” he said. “I had 30 years in education and this is a way to give back.” And just perhaps add a little magic of his own.

Admission to the event is free but an offering will be taken. The church is located at 212 4th Avenue North in Onalaska.

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Coulee Courier and Houston County News editor

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