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The Great Northern Union is a men's chorus based in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. They perform 4-part harmony, particularly in the barbershop style. Officially, they are the Hilltop, Minnesota chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, and are very active in competition. Following the 2011 Barbershop Harmony Society International Chorus Competition the GNU took home the silver medal, taking second to the Masters of Harmony by a margin of only .2%.
The Hilltop chapter was founded in 1986 by a dozen men in the Twin Cities area who were interested in founding a chorus based upon singing excellence and service to the community.
They won their first District contest in the fall of 1986 and made the trip to their first International contest, held in Hartford, Connecticut, in July 1987, where they placed 8th. Their infectious energy and clean sound made them the surprise of the contest. The chorus again won District in the fall of 1987, and traveled to their second International contest in San Antonio, Texas in 1988, where they placed 7th. The chorus's third International was less successful, and with a stronger field the chorus sank back to 8th place in Kansas City, Missouri.
The 1990 contest in San Francisco yielded the chorus's first medal, a 5th place bronze. This cemented the reputation of the GNU among the top choruses in the Society and set the foundation for much future success. The 1991 contest in Louisville continued the upward climb, with the chorus placing 3rd.
In 1992, the chorus reached 100 members and took a brand new Broadway package and a brand new conductor, Concordia College, Moorhead graduate Dean Haagenson, to International in New Orleans, bringing home yet another medal, placing 4th. The leadership of Haagenson led the chorus to Calgary, Alberta in 1993 and brought the gentleman another 4th place medal.
1994 marked the first time since 1989 that the chorus did not win a medal, dropping to 61 members and placing 8th behind a much improved field of competitors. After conductor, Dean Haagenson's, decision to retire from conducting to focus on raising his family, Roger Williams made a triumphant return to the chorus and attempted to bring the group back together spiritually and musically. With half the members they had at their peak, the decided not to try to win back older members but focus on improving what they had and performing a fun new package. In 1995 they went to Miami with a parody package making fun of lawyers and once again wowed the crowd, winning another medal and placing 5th. They slightly modified the package for 1996 and went to Salt Lake City, barely missing the medals and placing 6th. The next few years they hung just out of the reach of the medals, placing 7th in 1997 in Indianapolis, 8th in 1998 in Atlanta, and 7th in 1999 in Anaheim before returning to the top 5 (placing 4th) in 2000 in Kansas City, achieving their highest score and growing to 80 singers. The next two years they placed 6th, and in 2002, Roger Williams announced his final retirement.
The fall of 2002 saw the debut of the chorus's new director, Peter Benson, who moved from North Dakota for the job. They did not win their district for the first time in the chapter's history, but still won a wild card invitation to Montreal in 2003, where they placed 9th. The following year they again received a wild card to Louisville, and rose to 7th. The fall of 2004 brought the GNU back into the winner's circle in the Land O' Lakes district, winning the right to compete in Salt Lake City, where they won yet another medal, placing 5th with their second highest score in the chorus's history.
They traveled to Indianapolis once again in July 2006 for their 20th consecutive appearance at the International contest (a Society record). GNU placed 8th in that competition, but continue to hold their ground as one of the Top Ten barbershop choruses in the world. The chorus opted to decline International competitions for 2007 in Denver and 2008 in Nashville to focus on concerts in the community, a Midwest tour, and recruiting more members. In July 2009, they returned to the International stage in Anaheim and placed an impressive 3rd, earning yet another bronze medal by edging out perennial medalist Sound of the Rockies from Denver by a narrow margin. Anaheim also brought GNU its highest score yet achieved, a 92.1%.