His first noel

The Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus welcomes a new artistic director and a new take on Christmas music.

Artistic director Ben Riggs leads the members of the Twin Cities Gay Mens Chorus in vocal exercises. Riggs started as the artistic director in August.

Ichigo Takikawa

Artistic director Ben Riggs leads the members of the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus in vocal exercises. Riggs started as the artistic director in August.

by Lucy Nieboer

This will be the first year with Ben Riggs leading the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus for its annual holiday concert. Although he’s excitedly anticipating his formal debut, he admits there will undoubtedly be opening-night jitters.

“Being new to town, choir-singing is so beloved here that there is a raised standard of how choirs are supposed to sound,” Riggs said.

After finishing his doctorate in music at the University of Colorado and directing several choirs around the state, Riggs moved to Minnesota to direct the chorus.

As the choir’s brand new artistic director, Riggs was thrown into an unusually busy year out of the chorus’s 32-year history.

With smaller concerts all over the state, the chorus was very vocal in speaking (or, in this case, singing) out against the proposed marriage amendment, which would’ve constitutionally banned same-sex marriage in Minnesota if it hadn’t been voted down on Election Day.

From Bemidji to Rochester and everywhere in between, the group worked tirelessly to energize supporters of the “Vote no” movement.

“What you have going for you with singing — it creates a pretty strong emotional response in the singer and the listener. That connection is so valuable in changing people’s minds about things,” Riggs said.

Post-election season, the group replaced pieces focused on equality and activism with their holiday repertoire.

This will be the 27th Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus holiday concert for baritone David Bryce, and he still enjoys the familiar Christmas songs.

“Every year we try and find new things — whether it be a rework of a familiar piece or a piece that hasn’t been done in ages — it gets brought out and reworked and presented at our Christmas concert,” Bryce said.

The chorus is working on a jazzy rendition of “Joy to the World.” Belting soloists’ voices soar over the group’s layered backdrop of “oohs” and “ahs.”

“I’m trying to take some pieces that will be familiar to people but do arrangements of them that people have never heard before,” Riggs said.

The ensemble’s cohesive sound is a result of diligent vocal work and a strong familial sense among the members.

Second tenor Royce Vagnier joined the choir as a way to meet people when he moved to the Twin Cities 18 years ago. He’s kept up the weekly hobby for the sense of camaraderie he feels with other singers.

“It feels like a family so everyone takes care of each other. We have fun, and we make beautiful music,” Vagnier said.

This inclusive environment fosters a celebration of differences. Riggs compared the group to a church in terms of its sense of community.

“A lot of the guys don’t have churches of their own to go to or they’ve been turned out of churches — some of them in unfortunate situations,” he said.

“We’re not a religious organization, but I think you get the same kind of feeling that you get when you go to the same place every week at the same time.”

He explained that the holiday season is the perfect time for those who are religious and those who aren’t to join together and appreciate each other with music.

“It’s going to be our version of Christmas Eve for some people who might not have it elsewhere,” Riggs said.