John Rommereim, Director; Marlys Grimm, Collaborative Pianist
We are excited to begin rehearsals of the Grinnell Oratorio Society again in the fall of 2021! As of this writing, the details are being worked out, but we are optimistic that we will be able to gather in person safely. Please sign up if you would are interested in joining us. We have an exciting program lined up for the fall. We’ll be repeating some of the selections that we prepared but were unable to perform in the spring of 2020, together with some carefully chosen additions. We are pleased to collaborate with the Grinnell Children’s Choir to perform “How Can I Keep From Singing” — a perfect way for singers of all ages to celebrate our first opportunity to make music together in person. The concert includes Adolphus Hailstork’s uplifting piece, “Wake Up, My Spirit,” Charles Stanford’s “Beati quorum via,” “My Lord, What a Mournin’” by James Lee III, “Die Wasserfee,” by Joseph Rheinberger, two pieces with organ, Jonathan Dove’s ebullient work, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” and a hauntingly beautiful, deeply meditative piece by Arvo Part, “Salve Regina.”
In 1901, Edward Scheve (1865–1924), a composer of symphonies, concertos, oratorios, and chamber music, established the Grinnell Oratorio Society as an outgrowth of the music conservatory that was then part of Grinnell College. In 2010, the Grinnell Community Chorus was renamed the Grinnell Oratorio Society as a way to draw attention to this proud history. The choir performs a wide range of repertoire, roughly alternating between major works and mixed programs. Among the major works they have performed are Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Mozart’s Requiem and Grand Mass in C Minor, Verdi’s Requiem, Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, Craig Hella Johnson’s Considering Matthew Shepard, Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, and Carol Barnett’s Bluegrass Mass. The choir rehearses Monday nights, and it draws together students, faculty, and staff of the College, people from the town of Grinnell, and nearby cities such as Newton and Malcolm. The Grinnell Oratorio Society strives to be a cultural resource that links Grinnell College and the people in the surrounding community.
2019–20 and 2020–21 Seasons
In the fall of 2020, we performed a splendid concert that included Mozart’s Requiem and John Rommereim’s Convivencia. Here’s a video excerpt from the Mozart. At this writing the video has 46,000 views on YouTube! In the spring, our plans were interrupted by COVID, of course, as was the case for everyone. We made a virtual choir video of Charles Stanford’s lovely motet, “Beati quorum via.” In the fall of 2020, we experimented with rehearsals using the low latency platform Jamulus. We struggled mightily with this, and had occasional successes, but in the end, we found that we had too many technical frustrations. One highpoint of the fall of 2020 was our virtual choir version of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” which we titled, “2020 is gone. Ha. Le. Luya!” The video included members of the Des Moines Symphony.
We had a memorable and rewarding season that year, starting with our fall performance of Craig Hella Johnson’s Considering Matthew Shepard. This was such a powerful event; we had numerous people who reported to us that it was the most significant choral concert they have ever attended. One audience member even was moved to write several beautiful poems in tribute to the concert. “Considering Matthew Shepard” has quickly become one of the country’s most treasured choral works since its premiere in 2016. The work centers on the shocking story of Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who in 1998 was beaten and left for dead for being gay. At that time, Johnson was profoundly affected by the news of Shepard’s death, as were so many were others worldwide. Yet his artistic response took many years to develop, as he contemplated and processed this deeply troubling story. Eighteen years later, Johnson finished composing what Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, called, “By far the most intricate, beautiful and unyielding artistic response to this notorious anti-gay hate crime.” Here is a recording of the final movement from our concert. In the spring of 2019, we performed Mozart’s Grand Mass in C Minor together with the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra in Herrick Chapel. The Mass in C Minor, like the Requiem, includes some of Mozart’s finest music.
In the fall of 2017, we performed Joseph Haydn’s Mass in a Time of Trouble (Also known as the “Lord Nelson” Mass). The concert also included Caroline Shaw’s recent work, To the Hands. Caroline Shaw is the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music — and the only woman to ever receive that award. Her piece focuses on the issues of refugee resettlement and homelessness. Rather than charging a fee for the performance materials, Shaw provides them for free with the strict stipulation that the ensemble must make funding efforts to contribute toward the resolution of these problems. The musical work uses phrases from the poem inscribed in the Statue of Liberty and holds them up to the listener as a provocative challenge. The choir was accompanied by a professional orchestra and soprano soloist Michelle Monroe, alto soloist Lisa Neher, and bass soloist Nicholas Miguel, and tenor soloist Jeffrey Brich.
In past years, the Oratorio Society has performed many of the masterpieces from the choral literature, such as Beethoven’s Mass in C Major, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Magnificat, Orff’s Carmina Burana, Verdi’s Requiem, Brahms’s German Requiem, Duruflé’s Requiem, and Britten’s monumental War Requiem.
In addition to performing these monumental works, the choir also has expanded its activity beyond the confines of classical music. In the spring of 2012, for example, the Oratorio Society participated in thrilling performances of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts in collaboration with the Grinnell Jazz Ensemble—and a professional tap dancer. In the 2012-13 season, we presented The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, by Carol Barnett, in collaboration with an outstanding bluegrass string band from Minneapolis, Monroe Crossing.
The Oratorio Society is a valuable resource for our community — and the more involvement we have, the greater the impact will be. Unlike most choruses of this type, there are no dues charged for the Oratorio Society; the College supports the ensemble as a service to the community.
Recording of the Oratorio Society singing “Let Our Mouths Be Filled,” by Sergei Rachmaninov