“I had 18 people show up,” the classically trained singer said of that fateful day in 2007. “We sang ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and a few barbershop quartets; it was pretty wobbly.”
Flash forward five years and the Anna’s Bay Chorale has been transformed into a pool of 160 accomplished singers, ages 14-86, from all over Mason County, growing their choral skills under the tutelage of the talented tenor from Point Pleasant, N.J.
Blegen’s dreams of building community through music, and teaching children the joys of classical music, are coming true in ways he never imagined.
A gigantic case in point: the Anna’s Bay Chorale has been invited to be the anchor choir to perform Handel’s Messiah in the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Thanksgiving weekend in New York City.
Blegen’s eyes light up with joy when he recalls the May 3 email inquiry from Lincoln Center officials, inviting the chorale to perform on one of the Big Apple’s most prestigious musical stages.
“My reaction was that it was a joke,” he said. “We had just completed our big children’s concert, and I thought it was perhaps someone’s way of complimenting us on the quality of that concert.”
Turns out it was no joke. Folks at the Lincoln Center had seen a YouTube video of the chorale performing the Messiah in 2011 and were duly impressed.
“Anna’s Bay received this invitation because of the quality and high level of musicianship demonstrated by the Chorale,” Lincoln Center artistic director and principal conductor Jonathan Griffith said on the music center’s website.
As the Union-based chorale prepares for the trip – it needs to raise $100,000 to send some 75 singers and a supporting cast of 20 – Blegen remains in awe of what it has accomplished.
“I never had any artistic expectations when I started this choir,” said Blegen, 44. “It was what I was doing to fill my own cup.”
If you’ve read this far, you must be wondering how Blegen, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive and performer in the Los Angeles and New York master chorales, landed in Union.
Blegen was drawn to the region by his partner, Eric Blegen, who’s the deputy director of Harmony Hill, a nonprofit retreat center near Alderbrook on Hood Canal.
“I settled into the community not knowing how an openly gay couple would be accepted,” Blegen said.
Any fears he may have had washed away over time as this Jersey Shore transplant of Puerto Rican-Irish descent spread his infectious love of classical music into the public schools and rural areas of the county.
He has made lasting friendships with Mason County residents from all walks of life, joined the Skookum-Shelton Rotary and co-founded the Union Tourism Association.
In 2003, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington, completing his Master of Music program with honors in 2006. Then he turned his considerable energy full time to his nonprofit music center.
“He was out to show that Shelton is more than a bunch of loggers and home to a state prison,” said longtime Skokomish Valley woodworker Blase Gorney, an old UW classmate of mine and a member of Anna’s Bay Chorale.
This fall, Blegen returns to the UW to pursue his doctorate degree in choral conducting. But he vows to keep the music center programs, including the chorale, moving forward.
On July 12, Blegen brought part of the chorale to Post Office Park in downtown Shelton for an evening Music in the Park concert that drew an overflow crowd to a hear a performance of rousing rock-and-roll songs such as Queen’s “Somebody to Love.”
For me, and the chorale, the highlight of the night was hearing Blegen for the first time sing to his choir, a haunting rendition of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. There weren’t too many dry eyes in the choir after that gift of song.
“I’ve never been sung to before,” said Shelton High School senior Jordan Hanson, one of more than 20 students headed to New York City as part of the traveling chorale.
After hearing that voice, I could understand why the Olympia Symphony Orchestra picked Blegen to be the tenor soloist for its performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia Oct. 14. It’s just another in a cavalcade of good news events for the Blegen’s, including adoption of their 15-month-old son, Gus, last year.
“We’d been trying for 12 years to a adopt a child,” Blegen recalled.
I asked Blegen if he came from a musical family. The answer used to be no, until his mother shared a family story with him two years ago as they relaxed over drinks after the chorale’s 2010 Messiah performance in Shelton.
It was then he learned his grandfather, long deceased, was an accomplished musician in a rural Indiana town and dreamed of forming a community choir of his own.
His grandfather’s dreams have come true.