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Fearless Singing

The Greek mythological figure Orpheus was considered one of the primary poets and musicians of antiquity. He often is credited with either inventing or perfecting the lyre. His singing and playing reportedly could calm wild animals, inspire rocks and trees to dance, and alter the flow of rivers. Pindar, a Greek lyric poet born in the sixth century B.C., called Orpheus "the father of songs."

For 17 years, the Tucson-based men's choir Sons of Orpheus has honored that legacy. The group, which is 40 members strong, is kicking off its performance season with a gala spring concert on Sunday, April 6.

With this and other smaller concerts this spring, the group is preparing material for its fifth tour of Europe. In July, the Sons of Orpheus will perform in Salzburg and Prague, and at the Leipzig International Choral Festival.

In European countries, choral societies traditionally are called Orphéons in homage to Orpheus, said Grayson Hirst, founder and artistic director of the choir. Hirst, a tenor, also is a professor of voice at the UA.

In fact, in 19th-century France, Orphéons were "devoted to the needs of the laboring class" and "promoted as a symbol of democracy itself," according to a 1979 paper by musical historian Jane Fulcher.

Which is significant, because Sons of Orpheus draws its membership from all walks of life, Hirst said. The singers can be conservatory-trained or amateurs. They range from businessmen to students, from doctors to engineers. They are men of science and of the cloth.

The choir's repertoire is broad, drawing from classical choral literature from all periods and styles, including religious music and opera, as well as popular forms such as musical theater, folk, cowboy music and pop songs. The group performs in English, Spanish, Russian, Welsh and other languages.

In the upcoming season, the emphasis is on "lots of German, Czech and French material. We're fearless," Hirst said.

This weekend's concert will include music by Puccini, Wagner, J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, as well as a collection of Russian folk songs, performed with the Arizona Balalaika Orchestra in traditional costume.

Much of the choir's material over the years has been arranged by its members, Hirst said.

For instance, in the upcoming concert, the Sons of Orpheus will perform Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Featuring a clarinet solo by Christopher Hutchinson, who otherwise sings tenor, the arrangement (by bass Thomas Wentzel) also boasts the rest of the choir playing kazoos. Hirst founded the Sons of Orpheus in the fall of 1991 with the aid of a University of Arizona Fine Arts Incentive Grant award. He praises the commitment and support it has received from its members and the community since then. Among its funding sources are the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Tucson Pima Arts Council, with funding from the State of Arizona and National Endowment for the Arts. The choir also gives back to the community, having performed concerts to benefit such charitable organizations as the PICOR Foundation, the Primavera Foundation, the Patronato of Mission San Xavier del Bac, Shalom House, Multiple Sclerosis Society, Welcome Wagon, Junior League of Tucson, the Community Food Bank and Save the Children.

In 2001, the Sons of Orpheus released its first CD, Arizona for the Holidays, on which it partnered with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus. Proceeds from the sales of that recording support the work of Casa de los Niños.

Although the April 6 concert is the first ticketed event of the Sons of Orpheus' new season, the choir also performs regularly for smaller communities around Tucson. This year, it is doing similar concerts in satellite communities such as Tucson Estates, SaddleBrooke and Heritage Highlands. Even after singers leave the Sons of Orpheus, they often remain part of the organization, Hirst said.

Many former members still contribute to the group's success. As it turns out, one Orpheus singer-emeritus, Maurice Magee, is helping out in a big way. Magee recently donated $10,000 to establish an endowment for the choir through the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, Hirst said.

This weekend's performance will be dedicated to Magee. The Sons of Orpheus will perform their 17th Annual Gala Spring Concert at 3 p.m., Sunday, April 6, in the Proscenium Theatre at the Pima Community College Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. General admission is $15; students can get in for $12. Call 206-6986 or visit the group's Web site for more information.

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