Heartland Men’s Chorus Offers Up Kansas City Traditions

Kellie Houx | KC Studio

KC StudioThe Heartland Men’s Chorus has a new artistic director and he plans on capturing all the positivity he can when it comes to hometown pride during his first outing as director. The season opener is called Kansas City Christmas. New Artistic Director Dustin Cates is getting about 150 members ready to presents “more sparkle than the Plaza lights.” The concert includes new arrangements of holiday favorites by five local composers, including an arrangement of some of Handel’s Messiah choruses set for men’s voices. There will also be special guests from the worlds of local politics, drag, pop and classical music. The season opener is 8 p.m. Dec 5, 8 pm. Dec. 6 and 4 p.m. Dec. 7.

Cates is not unfamiliar with the Heartland Men’s Chorus. He was the guest director for I Am Harvey Milk, an oratorio by Broadway composer Andrew Lippa celebrating the life and legacy of the civil rights hero. “I love the concept of social justice that is part of this group’s DNA. HMC really strives to make the world a better world. The better world can include enjoying the holiday season.”

Cates is native to Kansas City. He holds a Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, and a Master of Science in School Leadership from Baker University. He is a member of the National Association for Music Education and American Choral Directors Association. He serves on the Alumni Board for the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance and the UMKC Chancellors LGBTQIA Advisory Board. Cates is the President-Elect of the Kansas Choral Directors Association, a group that awarded him the Kansas Outstanding Young Choral Director Award in 2009. He was previously a teacher at Raytown South and Shawnee Mission South, including supporting a significant theater program that staged two musicals annually. He worked for six years as Director of Choral Activities at Olathe East High School and is a member of the music ministry team at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection.

Kansas City Christmas“I also went to college with Joe Nadeau (the previous HMC artistic director) so I knew a lot of the wide variety of music and the work of the organization,” he says. “Changing from teaching to serving as artistic director hasn’t really changed my excitement. Whether it is with the kids or the community singers, I knew I wasn’t losing anything. I knew there would be incredible purpose.” With the Dinner of Note in early October, Cates started building relationships. He also ventures out on calls with prospective donors, seeking support.

As the group prepares for Christmas, Cates makes sure that the men find a positive environment. “Rehearsals are a place where everyone can feel comfortable, emotional and vulnerable. If I show these traits, we all rise in these qualities and the music gets better.”

With Christmas, the men are working on music that is a veritable potpourri of sacred music, holiday favorites and a few farcical tunes. “There really is something for everyone,” Cates says. He has brought in five composers. Jacob Narverud has a master’s degree in conducting from the UMKC Conservatory and Cates and he met through the Kansas City Chorale. His contribution to the performances are the choruses from The Messiah, arranged for men’s voices. Soprano Sarah Tannehill will perform with the group. Eugene Butler is another composer who specializes in providing choir music for high schools, churches and colleges. Lyndell Leatherman orchestrates and composes. He has combined the traditional I Saw Three Ships with a humorous piece called Pirate Song. “We are calling this area the Songs of the Sea –son,” he explains. “The first half will be more lighthearted. The second half will include Mark Hayes, one of the biggest choral composers. He may even play with the chorus. His piece is an arrangement of I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Then there is John Leavitt as well. He has several Christmas pieces in his repertoire.”

Cates promises the traditional pieces, but even a few of those will be turned on their collective heads. As an example, there is a Variations on Jingle Bells that has a Sound of Music feel. “With each number, we are featuring a Kansas City artist, composer, performer or more. Christmas in Kansas City features the pop stylings of Dustin Rapier.” A drum line, most likely from Park Hill South, will join the chorus on an arrangement of Little Drummer Boy.

Kansas City ChristmasThe campy parts will have chorus members dressed as monks for Christmas in the Cloister. This opens the second half, he says. “It’s irreverent and continues with Christmas Tree Angel with drag queen Genewa Stanwyck trying to climb onto the top of a Christmas tree.”

Like most parents of a 3-year-old, Cates and his husband have seen and listened to the music of Frozen a lot. “We have a parody with DeDe Deville channeling her best Elsa,” he says. “Then we have a little more fun with Hanukkah in Santa Monica, written by the great parody and humor composer Tom Lehrer.”

Cates vows that the chorus will continue the driving concept of TLC – tears, laughter and chills. “Any good choral programming has to include laughter, some high art, some emotion … it is about crafting a program that is robust and provides a full experience.” The concert will run about two hours.

With the shows scheduled for early December, Cates hopes to attract some choral lovers who want to help kick off their holiday season. “As a former audience member, I know that the holiday performance set the mood for the season. I want to provide fun music and a great show that becomes a tradition for others. We want to be included in all those thoughts about what is traditionally a Kansas City Christmas.”

Personally, Cates and his husband Dr. Raymond Cattaneo celebrate St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6. Plus Cates loves Christmas trees. There are at least eight decorated throughout their home. “We have too many to mention,” he says. “This year, I am thinking about adding one where all our medals from various races are the ornaments and the bibs with our race numbers are turned into the tree skirt. As a high school choral director, I loved preparing for the big holiday concert. It’s my tradition and with the Heartland Men’s Chorus, I get to continue that tradition.”