Posts Categorized: People

Darkness to Light: Burning Bright

By Kristine Jepsen

Decorah’s winter solstice concert, Burning Bright, celebrates 20 years of bringing light in the darkness and giving back to the community. Choir member Kristine Jepsen chats with founding members and directors as they reflect on years past and prepare for this season’s performance.

“Oooh, that one’s my favorite,” fellow alto Emily Neal whispers as we open our binders to “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Scottish tune about toasting one’s friends. We’re sitting in choir rehearsal for Burning Bright, an annual winter concert that brings together singers and instrumentalists in the Decorah area.

Kathy Reed, who co-directs Burning Bright with Otter Dreaming, settles at the keyboard, ready to prompt us, as late-afternoon sun slants in through First United Methodist’s stained-glass windows. We’ve sung this rollicking, bittersweet song before, and that’s all the more reason we want to get it right.

In the deep of this winter, the Burning Bright chorus, along with instrumentalists and youth and children’s choirs, celebrates two decades of offering “light in the darkness.” The concert – two performances, actually – is a handmade gift of obscure carols, folk songs, and sacred world music. Each year, the pieces reflect a theme, and in this anniversary year, it’s “Exultation.” Some pieces honor Christmas, but more centrally, Burning Bright – BB, as members say – is about the winter solstice, the night on which our hours of darkness turn toward light.    

“You said ‘I Am Christmas’ was your favorite song on the concert,” I whisper back, kidding, as the opening accompaniment unfolds. “I know,” Emily says with a happy sigh. “I love them all. For me, this is it. This IS Christmas.” I get what she means.

Burning Bright itself started with just one song – “‘Twas on a Night Like This,” arranged for soprano, harpsichord, and oboe, to the hymn tune of “When Christ Was Born on Earth.” The first-ever performance was called “Songs of Christmas: A Concert for Harpsichord and Voice,” says Decorah business owner Ellen Rockne, the “voice” in question.

A child of the Lutheran singing tradition, Ellen was already a chronic music organizer and accomplished soloist when she moved to Decorah in 1996. She crossed paths with Kathy Reed through their young children’s homeschool activities and soon shared her dream of a winter concert to warm the cold Midwestern nights. Kathy, who is formally trained in musicology and harpsichord performance, felt their synergy immediately.

“I didn’t move here because of the potential to combine these different aspects of my musical life,” says Kathy, who is now an instructor of music at Luther College, “but one day our kids’ group met up and someone mentioned trains, and then someone jumped in and said, ‘Hey! We know some songs about trains!’ and we all spontaneously started singing, and I thought, ‘OK, this is a place where people sing. That’s fun.”

Ellen, by her own admission, sings all the time. “I don’t even know I’m singing, but my now-grown sons say I never stop,” she says. “The disconcerting thing is that as the years pass, I find myself making up little songs about every little thing,” she says, laughing and rolling her eyes. “The other day, I caught myself singing a tune to the phrase, “Now, here is my tea….”

Otter first got involved with the concert in 2002 as a singer, and joined its administrative ranks soon after, Kathy says. “At dress rehearsal that year, we sang everything end-to-end and realized the concert would be three hours long – a major problem, since we really wanted a two-hour program. At some point, Otter mentioned as tactfully as possible, ‘You know, you could identify a number of pieces – say, 20 – that will fill out the time, more or less, and aim for that each year,’ and I thought, ‘Oh! Now there’s someone we need organizing this thing.’ And he was right: That target number is 19 pieces,” Kathy concludes. “We’ve stuck to it ever since.”

The goal with Burning Bright, Otter and Kathy say, is making the concert accessible both to participants – ranging from professional musicians to debut choristers – and a diverse audience. Often, this means making the sound intentionally less “perfect” and more faithful to a song’s historical roots. “OK!” Kathy says, presiding with a smile over a section of skilled sopranos. “Now that you know your line, let’s make sure it isn’t that ‘pretty’ ever again. I need more ‘hale and hearty’ from the beginning.”

“You mean, lusty?” a choir member pipes up, gambling for a laugh.

“No, no,” says Kathy quickly, in her quietly irreverent way. “I mean….”

“Musty?” another member suggests. “Fusty?”

“Well, I’m not going to say lusty,” Kathy presses with a wry smile, “but, with more vigor.”

If none of these songs or techniques sound familiar, that’s by design. “This is never going to be a concert of familiar carols,” Kathy explains, though often there is one audience sing-along. She prepares pieces for the Burning Bright choir that resonate with her, sometimes arranging songs to fit the group. She did this for the Mary Chapin Carpenter lullaby, “Dreamland” – another piece to be revisited on the 2018 concert – by writing it for men’s voices, instead of a solo woman’s.

“Now Otter,” she continues warmly, “is a composer. He will come across a text he likes and write all four parts for it, or vice versa. He’s also more familiar with world music, bringing in pieces from Africa, from Syria, from musical traditions I’m not as fluent in.”

This is how Burning Bright keeps musicians and audiences coming back: By stitching together a colorful mix of lesser-known music, and welcoming darker themes – fear, grief, loss – along with those of light, hope, and joy.   

“One of the most rewarding and touching things for me,” Otter says, “was performing a short, very personal piece I composed reflecting on the deaths of several friends and family members. I received a thoughtful card from someone who had been in the audience that year, thanking me and telling me how it had helped her to accept her own mother’s death.

“I’ve also been blindsided by emotional reactions to pieces related to my daughter’s arrival in my family and in the community,” he continues. “One Stephen Foster lullaby, ‘Slumber My Darling,’ that Kathy arranged for tenor and bass voices, took me by tearful surprise at the first performance of our concert. I knew it was coming in the second concert and wasn’t expecting the same emotional response, but – surprise, again!”

On a lighter note, Burning Bright members gladly anticipate being caught off-guard by the wit of founding member-singer and sometime-banjo accompanist Dale Kittleson. Known for telling dad jokes when rehearsals get tense, Dale has reportedly encouraged chuckle-inducing costumes and lyrics, such as to the 2017 performance of, “Farewell, my friends, I’m leaving FaceBook…,” a satirical anthem about digital-device dependence. On another concert – without the knowledge of, let alone permission of, the conductors – Dale orchestrated a coup in the bass section. As the song’s verses lilted along, Dale and his cohort stood up and sang their part, “…five for the oxen standing by…” – in their highest falsetto.

“The entire church just erupted in laughter,” Dale says of the packed-to-capacity audience (almost always the case for Burning Bright performances). “I can’t remember who was conducting, but their jaw was on the floor. Then we basses sat down like nothing at all was out of the ordinary, and the sopranos, who followed us in the song, were cracking up, but somehow the beat went on. Now,” he says, with mock seriousness, “in what other group can you pull that off and know, even before you risk it, that your fellow performers will not excommunicate you?

“But that’s all concert stuff – the things the audience sees,” he continues. “Really, I keep coming back for this,” he says, gesturing to the rehearsal that’s just ended, “the privilege of getting together with this group – of catching up with really quality people and working hard on a rich program every year.”

Close to show-time each season, the Burning Bright choir is joined by local instrumentalists – bass, violin, guitar, clarinet, hand drums, recorder, harp, and more. Retired Luther College librarian and professional mandolin player John Goodin was among the first to perform on the concert. He now arranges music for mandolin and writes manuals for Mel Bay Publications – along with scouting out a reel or jig to play on the concert with Decorah violin teacher/performer (and professional vegetable grower) Erik Sessions. Their duet has become a Burning Bright tradition, almost always ending in a blazing, fast-as-they-can-play finale that rouses thunderous applause.

“Here in Decorah, musicians are treated with great respect,” John says, “but the Burning Bright audience is the best. Most years we don’t even know what we will play until the last week or two, so it’s a little bit like stage-diving – where you know that the audience will catch you.”

Proceeds from ticket sales for each Burning Bright concert go to non-profit organizations – usually shedding light on underserved populations at home or abroad. In addition to Decorah Community Food Pantry, the flagship beneficiary each season, choir members nominate and vote on charitable organizations with which they have personal involvement. 2018 beneficiaries are: Neighbors Helping Neighbors of Decorah; Northeast Iowa Peace & Justice Center; Re-Member of Pine Ridge, South Dakota; and The New Hope Jeremiah Project of Cape Town, South Africa.

So it happens that, each midwinter, a concert in the spirit of true community comes together. Performers wear no robes or formal dress – just “jewel-toned” concert attire that might “glow” in the soft light of the chancel. Adult singers steward younger ones, making sure they can see the conductor and be seen by the audience, amidst their shuffle into place, their sly little hands waving to family in the pews. There will be moments, without doubt, when the music makes space for sadness, doubt, or hurt – making the rising aura of peace and joy feel whole and true.

“When I look back and think of the beautiful voices and musical talents that each person has added to the Burning Bright concert, it makes me realize how unique each year is depending on who we are lucky enough to have performing,” says founding singer Betsy Peirce. “Vocal jazz scats, rich trained voices, tuba, and oboe – it’s so fun coming to the first practice each year, discovering new people who add to our tapestry of sound. The love that flows from the choir, to our directors, to the audience and back again is as palpable as it is audible – the joy on their faces as they listen – that makes it worthwhile.”

Like Burning Bright founder Ellen Rockne, Kristine Jepsen grew up in the Lutheran singing tradition and so loves performing on this winter concert. Outside of the alto section, she writes for literary journals and small businesses – more at kristinejepsen.com.

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Beneficiaries of Burning Bright Concerts Through the Year

Decorah Community Food Pantry
Decorah Public Library Youth Programs
Decorah Volunteer Fire Department
Domestic and Sexual Abuse Resource Center
Decorah Power
NAMI NE Iowa (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
Partners in Health, Haiti
Heart River of Hope, Mandan, North Dakota
Thistle Farm & Magdalene Residence, Tennessee
Project Care
Path to Citizenship
Thunder Rode Therapeutic Riding
Mother Health International’s Uganda Ambulance Fund
Decorah Community Free Medical Clinic
The Northeast Iowa Peace & Justice Center
Rushford Flood Relief Fund
Winneshiek Farmers’ Market Association
Postville Community Support
St. Bridget’s Catholic Church Hispanic Ministry Program, Postville, Iowa
Greater Area Pantry, Calmar, Iowa
Sunrise Foundation, Nicaragua
Postville Children’s Health Fund
Decorah Diversity Appreciation Team
People for Animal Welfare (PAW) of Northeast Iowa
Decorah Community Education and Arts Center

Exultation: Celebrating 20 Years of Burning Bright – a concert to benefit:

Saturday, December 15, 2018 at 4pm and 7 pm

First Methodist Church
302 W Broadway St
Decorah, IA 52101

Advance tickets recommended – available at Oneota Community Food Co-op .

Probituary – A Notice of Life: Eleanor & Tilford ‘Tip’ Bagstad

Interview by Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2018 Inspire(d)

Eleanor and Tip Bagstad were both born on Norwegian-speaking farmsteads in the coulees of Vernon County. Eleanor recalls the farm life, tending nine acres of tobacco, playing piano, as well as playing “teacher” with her eight siblings. Tip grew up in Timber Coulee, and farmed his whole life, in addition to “two or three other jobs… always”. Tip also ski-jumped as a youngster, including a trip to the National Jr. Ski Jump Competition in the early 1950s. At age 48, Tip picked up the fiddle and started learning old time tunes by ear. Eleanor played piano most of her life, and family friend Beatrice Olson, a retired dairy farmer, also happened to be an accomplished accordion player. The trio started playing in 1982, after being invited to play at a Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center meeting. A small article was written in the local paper, asking “Could it be, ‘The Norskedalen Trio’?”

The trio went on to play all over the upper Midwest for three decades, including Westby Syttenda Mai, many trips to Nordic Fest in Decorah, community dances in La Crosse, and The Yankton Old Time Fiddlers festival. The group was invited to perform at the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. and the Wisconsin Folklife Festival in Madison, WI. They contributed several tracks to the album Deep Polka: Dance Music from the Midwest, put out by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and also produced their own albums.

Tip also took up Acanthus and chip carving later in life. He was awarded a gold medal in carving at Vesterheim Museum’s National Exhibition of folk art in 2000. The couple has two daughters, Bonnie and Kimberly, who are both accomplished in regional health care fields. Eleanor and Tip’s 62 years of marriage are a testament to hard work and the courage to take on new challenges at every step of life.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Tip
– My Dad always used to say that it isn’t always what you make in the year, its what you have left at the end of it.

Eleanor – We were always told from home to be friendly when you meet people.

Tip – It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice!

What did you want to be when you grew up? What do/did you do?
Eleanor
– I always knew I wanted to teach. When we were little we’d all play school, and I always liked to be the teacher! After normal school, I went on to teach at 5 of the country schools in Vernon County, and played and taught piano too.

Tip – Well, my brother and I did construction work for several years, building many tobacco sheds and such. I hauled milk in the coulee for a few years when we were first married. I later took a job leading up habitat restoration crews for the Wisconsin DNR. For 17 years I led crews to restore trout habitat. Our crew helped create the LUNKERS structure, and several trout stream restoration ideas. I also always had cattle on the farm.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you want with you?
Well, probably food and water. Maybe our instruments!

If you could eat anything every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?
We like lutefisk and lefse, but not every day! We enjoy if for special occasions though. And we’ve often had good trout to eat over the years.

Tell us about…

Your wedding day:
We were married June 2, 1956 at Coon Valley Norwegian Lutheran church. We had 600 people at the reception as we both had a lot of relatives. It was an afternoon wedding, and of course at that time there was no dance, as it wasn’t allowed – we just had a big reception in the church and then everyone went home.

Your First Job:
We’ve both done many things, but both of our families raised tobacco. Eleanor’s family had nine kids, and nine acres of tobacco, which is a lot of tobacco. It was a big job, growing, tending, and harvesting. And then there was the work in the tobacco houses – Bekkedal, Lorillard, King Edward – we did that for years.

Your favorite memory:
We’ve been fortunate to travel to Norway three times. Our daughters came along as well, and they spoke Norwegian because that’s all their grandparents spoke. And of course playing music all over the Midwest for 30 years – so many great people.

Community Builder: Greg Wennes

Community Builder: Greg Wennes – Sunrise Care Facility, Spring Grove, Minnesota

Story and photos by Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d)

It’s a sunny Thursday morning, and Greg Wennes is waiting in a plastic lawn chair, under the mature trees shading Sunrise Care Facility, just “Sunrise” for short. It’s a farmhouse on the outskirts of Spring Grove, Minnesota – known by locals as the Gilbertson place. As many as 10 men, all recovering alcoholics or addicts, can eat, sleep, work and find community and support here. They may stay weeks, months or years as they transition between formal rehabilitation treatment and regular, productive lives.

When Greg, owner-operator of Wennes Communications Stations, helped found Sunrise in 1988, it was among the first of its kind in this part of the Driftless. And while these days he’s a guy who has the glow of wintering in warmer places and who drives a glittering burgundy motorcycle, among other classic rides, he needs you to understand this about him first: He’s a recovering alcoholic, a lifelong condition.

There was a time when he himself came home from residential treatment to find his house empty but for a mattress and a dying spider plant, his wife and kids gone. He’s been to the depths, and he knows what it takes to climb out (and stay out), one handhold at a time. Sunrise was founded to provide the footing.

“Drinking is a lonely occupation,” he says, “but ‘sober lonely’ is incredible. It’s one of the most difficult parts of recovery.”

Opening a care facility isn’t the easiest thing in a tight-lipped Scandinavian community, where people keep problems to themselves, but beneath any public stigmatization that existed, Greg and other founders quickly assembled a broad base of support, across medicine, recovery treatment policy, public health, law enforcement, and ministry. The home opened as a non-profit with significant help from the Tweeten Foundation, previous owners of the local hospital. Renovated twice to date, Sunrise operates with resident fees paid privately or subsidized by state and federal public health systems. Supporters aspire to add a private wing for women soon, too.

“It takes an alchie to know and help an alchie,” Greg says of his friend and colleague Greg ‘Gregor’ Rostad, using recovery slang for an alcoholic, as opposed to a ‘normie’ (an un-addicted person). Gregor, also a successful business owner, is in his fifth year as administrator on-site at Sunrise, a job layered with management, mentoring, discipline, and compassion. “It takes being both an achie and a business person to make this place work,” Gregor says. Above all, he has to keep inevitable social challenges from trampling the bottom line.

Residents, each with his own private room in the stately farmhouse, make meals together in teams. They coordinate clinic and therapy visits, run errands in Sunrise’s two shuttle vans, and perform all the maintenance of the house and five-acre grounds. They also host and attend recovery meetings, both on-site and at other meeting spaces around the region. Friends and family can sign in to visit, and it’s common for residents to walk the mile or so into downtown Spring Grove to shop on their own, enjoy the view of neighboring pastures, and get a breath of normal, small-town life.

“Anyone can quit drinking,” Greg says. “The question is, ‘How do I learn to live and function in society as a sober person?’ Our goal is to provide a sober, safe sanctuary.”

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To join the conversation, Greg and Gregor recommend Facing Addiction (facingaddiction.org), a resource hub for those living with addiction or wanting to support someone who is. To learn more or support Sunrise Care Facility, visit sunrisecarefacility.com.