State College Choral Society to close 70th anniversary season with ‘epic’ gala concert

The State College Choral Society will mark the close of its 70th anniversary season on Sunday with a gala concert at Eisenhower Auditorium.
The State College Choral Society will mark the close of its 70th anniversary season on Sunday with a gala concert at Eisenhower Auditorium. Photo provided

This year, the State College Choral Society celebrates its 70th anniversary and will wrap up its season with an encore performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” which was last performed by the Society in 1997. The gala concert takes place Sunday at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium.

“Some believe that Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ is possibly one of the greatest oratorios ever written. It is a marathon of full-throated singing for the chorus, alternating with tender, quiet musical moments of great beauty by both the choir and the soloists,” said Suzanne Neely, chair of the Choral Society board.

Neely’s background is in arts administration, spending her professional career working for a symphonic chorus in Washington, D.C., and later a presenting organization managing classical music concerts at The Kennedy Center. Moving to State College in 2013, she joined the State College Choral Society shortly after. She’s spent the last 13 years volunteering on the board.

“(The) Choral Society last performed this work over 20 years ago, and due to its magnitude and the performing forces involved, the work isn’t performed as often as it should be,” she said. “Several years ago, when our artistic director (Russell) Shelley and the board started looking ahead to this anniversary year and thinking about what would be impactful programming, we determined that for such a milestone, we needed repertoire that epitomizes the Choral Society’s long history and mission of performing significant choral masterworks. ‘Elijah’ does just that to close out our 70th anniversary season.”

Shelley, who is also the head of the music department at Juniata College, in addition to his work with the State College Choral Society, concurs.

“Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ has been called the consummate oratorio. It is the perfect piece to celebrate Choral Society’s significant heritage. Collaborating with (the Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra) and the (State College Area High School Master Singers) highlights our commitment to the larger community. ... As the consummate oratorio, ‘Elijah’ signifies the collective history and future promise Choral Society continues to steward.”

The addition of the State College Area High School Master Singers brings the number of choir members to nearly 200 and the Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra lends 37 players to the stage.

For those that maybe have never attended a State College Choral Society performance and who pick this landmark concert as their first, Shelley says to expect “drama, drama, drama” and that “Mendelssohn captures the full spectrum of human emotion through the stories found in the work.”

Tom Penkala, the Choral Society’s general manager since 2007, calls the performance “one not to be missed” and “a masterpiece for soloists, chorus and orchestra.”

“It will be epic and a fitting gala concert to close our 70th year anniversary season,” Penkala said.

“Music allows us to express the complex subtlety of human feelings. We hope our audience unpacks those feelings throughout the concert and walks away with more of a sense of what it means to live in community,” Shelley added.

Neely provides a similar sentiment, noting that “the emotions of the various characters, including Elijah himself and the chorus, range from solemn and prayerful to defiant, angry and vengeful, from weary and desperate, to encouraging, hopeful and celebratory. This masterpiece of choral music encompasses so much musically, it’s an experience like no other. If we have done our jobs well as performers portraying these characters, I hope the audience leaves exhilarated — from witnessing this emotional journey of the story of ‘Elijah.’ ”

The concert will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at Eisenhower Auditorium. Visit www.scchoralsociety.org/ for more information.