SWISS CHORAL REHEARSALS START SUNDAY
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
“It’s time to sing again.”
That comment from Dan Graber is at the heart of the decision to bring back the Swiss Choral Society, a musical tradition in the Freeman community that dates back nearly 100 years and historically features a sacred oratorio presented the evening after Thanksgiving.
Swiss Choral rehearsals for Handel’s famous work, “Messiah,” are set to begin this Sunday evening, Oct. 16 at the Salem-Zion (North) Mennonite Church starting at 7 p.m.
They will continue every Sunday evening through Nov. 20, with a performance scheduled for Friday, Nov. 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the church.
This will be the first assembly of the Swiss Choral Society since 2017, when adults from the community were joined by students from both Freeman Academy and Freeman Public in a rendition of “Messiah.”
“We talked this summer and thought that now is the time,” said Graber, who serves on a Swiss Choral Society committee with Brett Eisenbeis and Patrick Hofer.
And since “Messiah” was presented by the Swiss Choral Society every year from its formal start in 1932 through 1956, Handel’s classic was the obvious choice.
“I’ve really tried to reach out to people and encourage them to sing and the response has been great; people are excited,” said Graber, who will direct the choir. “We are cautiously optimistic that people will come out and give some time to this.”
“Messiah” will be accompanied by a string quartet from the South Dakota Symphony and this year’s Swiss Choral performance is being sponsored by Rural Manufacturing.
The reintroduction of Swiss Choral this year marks a new beginning for an annual tradition rooted in the strong vocal customs of Swiss Mennonite settlers. The society’s roots actually predate the formal organization in 1932 and go back to 1915, when Freeman Junior College professor U.S. Amstutz assembled a chorus consisting of students, faculty and community members to present an outdoor public concert under a tent on Main Street.
Amstutz left the community after the 1915-16 school year and nobody picked up where he left off until 1929, when Henry J. Miller organized a chorus made up of men and women from the Salem Mennonite and Salem-Zion Mennonite churches to present “Messiah.” Three years after that the Swiss Choral Society was established.
For 75 years the annual day-after-Thanksgiving concert thrived, with as many as 100 people taking part in the rehearsals and the performance, but interest began to wane after 2010. That prompted organizers to think creatively; in 2015, Swiss Choral singers teamed up with the South Dakota Symphony to present “The Flying Dutchman” at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls, and in 2016 a hymn-sing stood in for the traditional November concert. And the following year a concerted effort was made to bolster attendance by inviting Freeman’s two high schools to sing with the group.
Swiss Choral officials elected not to organize a musical offering in 2018 and 2019 and Covid-19 impacted any renewed effort in 2020 and 2021.
“We knew that if we’re going to get this going again, it needs to happen this fall,”Graber said, “and it didn’t take much to get it off the ground.”