Since 1986, Lawrence University Professor of Music Rick Bjella has devoted 40 Sunday evenings a year to rehearsals with the White Heron Chorale.

Next month, Bjella will be recognized as the 2006 recipient of the Hanns Kretzschmar Award for Excellence in the Arts for his 20 years of dedicated service as artistic director of the 65-member mixed voice community choir of volunteer singers.

Bjella will be one of eight community award winners honored Thursday, April 20 for their outstanding efforts at the annual “Celebrating Our Volunteers” dinner at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton. The event, sponsored by The Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, Inc. and The Post-Crescent, has saluted deserving area individuals for their volunteerism since 1998.

The Hanns Kretzschmar Award for Excellence in the Arts “recognizes an individual for leadership and volunteer service in local arts organizations and activities; for long-standing commitment to the local arts community; and for noteworthy personal involvement in developing and promoting arts within the community.” Sponsored by Thrivent Financial For Lutherans, the award includes $5,000 to be donated to a charity of the recipient’s choosing.

“I was completely humbled by being nominated and then selected for this prestigious award,” said Bjella, who has served as director of choral studies at Lawrence since 1984. “There are so many people that have given and continue to give so much to this community to make the arts come alive in many powerful ways. I am honored to be considered among these fine men and women.

“The White Heron Chorale, which I am privileged to conduct, all give of their individual time and talent to make that organization flourish,” Bjella added. “Some members drive more than 50 miles one way for each rehearsal without a penny of compensation. These people are among my heroes.”

When the Chorale went looking for an artistic director in the mid-1980s, they wanted someone who combined good musicianship and sound vocal technique with an inspiring personality. According to Carol Jegen, one of the founding members of the Chorale, the search committee hit the trifecta in choosing Bjella.

“His enthusiasm for what he does was a perfect fit for a chorus of amateurs — those who pursue excellence because of their love for singing,” said Jegen in nominating Bjella for the Kretzchmar Award.

The White Heron Chorale will celebrate Bjella’s anniversary as the organization conductor with a concert of his favorite choral pieces entitled “How Can I Keep from Singing?” on Saturday, March 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel.

In addition to his work with the White Heron Chorale, Bjella directs Lawrence University’s Concert Choir, Chorale and Collegium. He’s also previously conducted the Vocal Jazz Ensemble, Chamber Singers and the Choral Society at Lawrence.
He is past president of the Wisconsin Choral Directors Association and is the current chair of the Repertoire and Standards Committee for the North Central division of the American Choral Directors Association.

Bjella has conducted in concert halls around the world, including Paris, Prague, London and Lucerne and has guest conducted more than 350 festivals and workshops in 25 states.