Swiss Choral to present classic Handel work on 85th year
A Swiss Choral Society that has deviated from its traditional concert format in recent years will on Friday night, Nov. 24, return to its roots with its performance of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”
While “Messiah” was presented in full each of the first 25 years of the Swiss Choral Society, which debuted in 1923, this year’s performance will include only on the first movement of the oratorio, which focuses on themes associated with Advent and Christmas. The Society will be joined by a 10-piece chamber orchestra made up of largely of players from the South Dakota Symphony. And, as has been the case throughout the Swiss Choral Society’s history, the concert will feature men and women from the larger community joining together in a sacred work — but this year with a twist.
This year’s annual day-after-Thanksgiving concert includes an “extra” that is a first for the longstanding society: The adult chorus that numbers 44 will be joined by high school students from Freeman Academy and Freeman Public that add an additional 40 voices to the choir.
The students will participate in portions of the 60-minute movement, joining the adults in three of the seven choruses that are part of it — including the famous “Hallelujah” chorus.
“For the last couple of years we’ve really been thinking about ways to engage younger people of the community in Swiss Choral,” said Brett Eisenbeis, both the rehearsal pianist for “Messiah,” member of the orchestra and a member of the committee the past two years. “That’s been on our minds, so this year we decided to outright invite as many as we could.”
Organizers acted on that by contacting Mindee Birnstiehl and Amy Hofer Vetch, chorus directors at Freeman Junior-Senior High School and Freeman Academy, in June and asked them if they would be interested in inviting their respective students to take part in the performance. Both quickly accepted.
“The kids are really busy, but both Mindee and Amy wanted their students to be part of this,” said Daniel Graber, who is leading the chorus through “Messiah” and has become the resident Swiss Choral director since making his debut in 2009. He also serves on the executive committee alongside Eisenbeis and Patrick Hofer. “Hopefully this will be something they remember forever.”
Birnstiehl noted how busy her students have been — they spent much of their fall preparing for their Pops Concert, All-State Chorus and Dec. 4 Christmas Concert — but that this was too important to pass up. Twenty-six of her 63 singers in the high school mixed chorus have been preparing “off and on” since the start of the school year.
“The Friday after Thanksgiving is a hard time for a lot of people to commit, because many people are out of town for family Thanksgivings,” Birnstiehl said, “but I feel very good about our participation numbers.”
Hofer Vetch found herself in the same time crunch as Birnstiehl, especially with Freeman Academy preparing for the major musical “Jane Eyre” that played last Friday and Saturday. But the 14 chorus members who signed on for “Messiah” worked on the piece in sectionals at the start of the school year and then supplemented their learning through recordings that were sent to the students.
“They have enjoyed listening to recordings and digging into the parts,” Hofer Vetch said. “There are some very challenging passages for each vocal line … but, on the whole, when it all comes together it is a powerful and moving experience.”
Graber and the adult members of the chorus were joined by the students for the first time during rehearsal Sunday night, Nov. 19, and the director said it was an exciting sight and sound.
“They did their work and were very well-prepared,” he said. “The students add a lot of sound, which is fun. And it was pretty cool to see that choir loft completely packed out. When a director has to set up chairs (for overflow), that’s a good problem to have.”
While the student participation is a boon for Swiss Choral in that it brings numbers, sound and a youthful presence to the performance, it also benefits the greater good.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our community and the two schools to come together for an exceptional experience,” Hofer Vetch said. “To be able to sing with model adults and a chamber orchestra in one of the most well-known oratorios of all time is exciting and an event they will remember.”
“Not only is this music a staple in the chorus world, but having the opportunity to sing and be accompanied by some of the best string players in our state will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of these students,” she said. “It is typical that our high school students do not always fully comprehend what an awesome opportunity this is for them; I can only pray that someday they will look back and realize how special this really was.”
While the students will bring a lot to the table during Friday night’s performance, “Messiah” will be anchored by the 44-member adult chorus, which includes four soloists: Whitney Fretham of Sioux Falls, soprano; Lonna Beshai of Yankton, alto; Gregory Billion of St. Paul, Minn., tenor; and Joshua Hofer of Freeman, bass.
In addition to the vocalists, “Messiah” will be presented with support from a chamber orchestra that will feature four violins, a viola, cello, keyboard, timpani and two trumpets.
Organizers expect it will be a moving experience that will make the 85th year of the Swiss Choral Society a memorable one for the adults, students and larger community.
“We’re constantly looking for ways to keep Swiss Choral alive and afloat,” says Graber, who has been part of a number of “alternative” Swiss Choral Society events in recent years, including the 2016 hymn sing and the chorus’ participation in the opera, “The Flying Dutchman” at the Washington Pavilion the year before. “Of course, ‘Messiah’ is a hallmark work of art, and to involve the local high schools, these students are getting an experience they might not ever have again.”
“For them to be able to collaborate with musicians of this caliber, I hope they at the very least appreciate the opportunity they have to do this, and just a few miles from Freeman,” says Eisenbeis.
And who knows, he says. Singing in “Messiah” might have a lasting impact on at least a few of them in the same way Swiss Choral had a lasting impact on Eisenbeis when he was in high school.
“My family has always been involved,” he said, noting that his grandmother, Anette Eisenbeis, was a soloist in the mid-1950s and served as secretary in the 1980s. “For me, that makes it even cooler.”