SIDNEY — The Community Choir and Community Orchestra will join forces Sunday, Nov. 27, to present a performance of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah,” at 3 p.m. in the Connection Point Church of God, 1510 Campbell Road.
The concert is free and open to the public. It continues a holiday tradition in Shelby County going back more than 50 years; although there were a few years here and there during which performances went dark.
The latest group is led by conductor John Streb, of rural Miami County. He picked up the baton two years ago. The project had been dormant for about four years when some orchestra members approached him to get it started again.
In the 1970s, the same thing had happened to Paul Workman, formerly of Anna and now of Gold Canyon, Arizona.
“‘The Messiah’ had been sung by the Inter-county Chorus,” Workman said by phone Friday. “The chorus was led by Stan Coffelt, a Sidney High School choir director. We’d been singing in that.”
Coffelt taught in Sidney from 1955 to 1971. When he left for a teaching position elsewhere, the Inter-county Chorus’s “Messiah” performances ceased. A few years later, “some people got a hold of me,” Workman said.
Workman stood on the podium for 20 years.
“I always told (the singers) I had the best seat in the house. They sang right into me,” he said. “It started as the Shelby County Choral Society. The first place (we sang) was St. Jacob Lutheran Church in Anna. Then we started doing it in Sidney.”
Performances were in the Sidney First United Methodist Church one year, the St. John’s Lutheran Church the next. In various years there were also concerts in St. Marys, Wapakoneta and New Bremen. The group met four times for rehearsals. The choir numbered from 80 to 100 people.
“We always had a nucleus and then were adding people,” Workman said.
One of those people was Gail Shively, of Sidney.
“I came from Tiffin,” she said of her move to Shelby County in the early 1970s. “They had an annual “Messiah” with a choir and a full orchestra. I sang in that. So I went to see the one in Anna. I was sitting there quietly singing along. My husband said, ‘Why don’t you join this group if you’re going to sing?’”
She did and continued the annual activity until a few years ago. Cheryl Christman accompanied the choral society on the organ for all of the Workman-led performances. One year, Workman added a string quartet and a harpsichord to accompany the soloists.
Another time, an Anna native, Julie Gulden, who was then teaching music in a high school in Marysville, brought her student choir to join the group for the “Messiah” sing.
“We had 110 people that year,” Shively remembered. “It was really great. They all showed up on a bus. We had to figure out where to put them all.”
The Shelby County Choral Society eventually changed its name to the Gateway Choral Society. Shively served as its president for many years. Among her other duties, she was responsible for getting programs printed for distribution to the audience. There was a St. Jacob performance when the programs showed up late.
“I was in the kitchen making supper and there was a knock on my back door. A farmer neighbor, Ned, came in to say that our dog was going crazy because a deer had come into the back yard.” Apparently, the dog had frightened the deer and the deer had broken its neck in trying to jump the fence to get away and had fallen into the yard. Shively had to find someone to kill the deer and haul it away.
“In the meantime, everybody (at the church) was saying, ‘Where are the programs?’ I left other people to take care of the deer and all that and rushed to the church with the programs,” Shively said.
She was happy when the orchestra became an annual part of the concert.
“It added so much to ‘The Messiah,’” she said. That was Phil Chilcote’s doing. Chilcote had joined the choir to sing a performance in New Bremen and received the baton from Workman in the mid-1990s. He continued to lead the annual event until 2009.
Chilcote also changed the look of the concert. The chorus and orchestra dressed in black, with the men in tuxedoes or suits. Soloists wore formal dresses and tuxes.
“I thought it was such a fabulous chorus,” he said. Chilcote expanded the repertoire to include some additional songs.
“I felt the choir was so good, they were too good not to do other things. So two-thirds of the concert was the ‘Messiah’ and then other Christmas things,” he said. The singers performed not only in Sidney but in churches in Troy and Piqua, as well.
“I absolutely loved doing it,” he said. But when the busyness of people’s lives began to get in the way of rehearsals, the choral society disbanded — until Streb gave in to musicians’ requests and renewed “Messiah” performances in 2014.
He, too, had a history with the ensemble. He had played tuba in the orchestra for several years when Chilcote conducted.
The 2016 choir numbers about 45 and the chamber orchestra sports 23 players. They will have had five rehearsals. Streb has had coaching assistance this year from Maureen Joines, of Sidney, who has overseen choral rehearsals as Streb rehearsed the instrumentalists. At the practice sessions, each ensemble has rehearsed separately for an hour before they came together to go over the sections they’d learned.
“I feel like every year, we have to relearn stuff. We have to knock the rust off,” Streb said. “The more the choir sings and they come back year after year, we’re teaching less and refining more. There are different levels of skill, but everybody works hard. That’s all you can ask. This is a labor of love. It really is because this is a major piece of music. I think this year is going to be a very good performance.”
The most famous part of the oratoro is the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Handel did not write it as part of the Christmas section of the composition. It ends the Easter section. But all three Sidney conductors have included it in the local concerts. It contains Streb’s favorite moment of the work.
“There’s a grand pause a couple of measures from the end where we stop. And it resonates in the church. It gives you chills,” he said.
People attending are welcome to take their scores and sing along. That’s what Shively now does. She’s come full circle and is back to contributing to the alto section from the front pew in the audience.
Streb hopes that audience will be a large crowd that will fill the church.
“Hopefully, we’ll start that tradition this year,” Streb said.
The performance is already intrinsic to the season for some.
“For me and a lot of other people, ‘The Messiah’ is like decorating your tree. It’s just a part of Christmas,” Shively said.
That’s why Streb agreed to get a community chorus and orchestra going after the hiatus.
“A few of us didn’t want to let this go,” he said. “It kind of signals the beginning of Christmas.”
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