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October 20, 2014

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At home or abroad, Las Vegas-based chorale puts valley’s best voices in limelight

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Steve Marcus

Debbie Hardin, center, and members of the Myron Heaton Chorale rehearse at Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Henderson on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. The chorale is scheduled to perform at the church Dec. 8.

Myron Heaton Chorale Rehearsal

Myron Heaton conducts the Myron Heaton Chorale during a rehearsal at Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Henderson Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. The Chorale are scheduled to perform at the church on Dec. 8. Launch slideshow »

Map of Christ the Servant Lutheran Church

Christ the Servant Lutheran Church

2 Pecos Road, Henderson

The Myron Heaton Chorale was only expected to last one tour across Europe.

Nearly 24 years ago, a group of choir members from churches throughout Las Vegas signed up to go on a music history tour throughout Europe with chorale director Myron Heaton. Instead, under Heaton’s direction and music connections, the chorale performed its way across Europe in some of the continent’s most famous cathedrals.

The seed to form a permanent chorale was planted during rehearsals, but it took the euphoria of singing across Europe to grow into a full-fledged idea. It was on the chorale’s return trip to the United States that Heaton suggested the members form a permanent group, and so it began.

They kept their mission simple: Do productive music, introduce Las Vegas and Clark County to high-quality music other than pop, and to maintain good stature by always following the rules.

“It was a wonderful feeling of being with somebody who has a passion in something as much as you do, which was music,” said Karen Williams, one of the founding members. “On the plane, it was more like we were teenagers, teens getting to know each other and doing something they wanted to do.”

When they returned, they filed for status as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization and became official.

Today, the Myron Heaton Chorale has added and changed members, but it has retained the familial spirit and high standards the founders set out to create. It is the second-oldest chorale in Las Vegas and one of only four chorale groups in the valley. Along the way, it has represented Las Vegas’ fine arts in cities across the country and around the world.

“In my experience … the optimist in me says we have something new and fresh to offer to the community,” Heaton said. “Hopefully they have appreciation for music.”

During a recent rehearsal, Heaton stands before the chorale group directing singers through a song they’ll perform in a concert at 4 p.m. Sunday at Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Henderson. Heaton’s hands rise and fall, manipulating the notes, and his fingers snap to keep pace as the baritones, sopranos and altos weave together to form a rolling wave of sound.

The chorale is made up of about 40 singers. Some are music majors and music teachers, while others sing as a hobby, but all have an extensive background in singing. All members must go through auditions to prove they can hit the right notes and read sheet music before they make the chorale.

After a minute of singing, Heaton waves his arms, causing the music to come to a crashing halt. His ears caught a wrong note.

“Woah, oof,” Heaton said. “That deserves a bowl of day-old moldy spaghetti sauce down your underwear. Is that tough enough punishment?”

Heaton has more than 30 years of choral conducting experience and is an elementary music specialist for the Clark County School District. He came to Las Vegas in 1984 to fill a vacant choral position at Community Lutheran Church and at the School District.

Heaton is a demanding director, but it’s a quality that makes him the chorale’s linchpin.

“He can get more out of a person than the person has any clue as far as to having that ability. It’s not demanding; it’s like he’s just pulling it out of, I don’t know, your soul,” chorale member Debbie Hardin said. “He believes in you and expects it, and you find it somewhere in you to give it.”

This week, the chorale’s goal is to clean up the rough edges before its performance, in which Christ the Servant Pastor Dave Drach-Meinel’s song “Majestic is Your Name” will have its debut.

The song is an expansion of composer Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” movement in the song “The Planets,” with lyrics from Psalm 8. Drach-Meinel composed the first part of the song to sing at his father’s funeral two years ago. His completed version being debuted by the Myron Heaton Chorale made it even more special.

“I handed it to (Heaton) and said, ‘Hey, can you proofread it for me and see if I made any mistakes or not?’” Drach-Meinel said. “He took it and said, ‘I want to premiere this.’ I said, ‘Sure.’”

Heaton said the chorale attempts to maintain the highest standards possible, singing high-quality music from all eras. The group has spent the better portion of two decades performing at famous venues around the world.

The group bills itself as the first nonsectarian chorale to sing at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It also has sung at the Salzburg Music Festival in Germany and performed in China. At each stop, Williams said the members’ goal is to debunk the notion that Las Vegas is all surface-level glitz and glamour.

“What surprises them more than anything is the quality of music from nonprofessionals,” Williams said. “People see us and think, ‘Well, how can you be from Las Vegas?’”

Through the years, Williams said the only change to the chorale has been the addition of better-quality singers from Las Vegas. Still, even as the quality of singers has improved, the values developed on that airplane years ago have remained the same decades later.

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