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QC Choral Society marks 70 years of beautiful music

The Queens College Choral Society is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year with a spring performance on May 14. The concert will feature the premiere performance by the Choral Society of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” an 1823 work that is considered a turning point in music writing. The thought-provoking piece sheds light on Beethoven’s complex spiritual views. 

“One of the reasons I chose it for the 70th anniversary was because it was a landmark work and this is a landmark year,” said James John, the Choral Society’s music director.

John, who became the fifth music director of the Choral Society in September 2002, creates the programs for the concerts. He is an associate professor, adviser to the graduate program in vocal performance and director of choral activities at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. He conducts the Choral Society and also teaches choral conducting.

The Choral Society has 130 members ranging from the ages of 15 to more than 80 years old. Five of the members are high school students who are part of the group through a high school outreach program. About 85 percent of members are community members and the remaining 15 percent are Queens College students.

“It’s one of the few kinds of organizations on the planet that brings generations together like this,” John said. “I love the music and I love its breadth of age and background. It gives it kind of a unique spirit.”

The May 14 concert will include not only the 130 members of the Choral Society, but also about 100 additional people from the other two choirs at Queens College and about 60 members of the college’s orchestra.

According to John, the purpose of the Choral Society is to “perform major works of of chorus and orchestra.” In addition to that, the group has sometimes sung original works by Queens College staff.

The Choral Society was founded in 1941, four years after Queens College was established, by John Castellini, who was the music director for 32 years.

The group’s first performance was Dec. 19, 1941, just 12 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The first performance featured Handel’s “Messiah” (which was performed during last December’s concert) and was held at Jamaica HS. Castellini received an award for organizing 25 consecutive years of “Messiah” performances, according to John.

Larry Eisman, the group’s fourth music director, held his position from 1978 to 2001. In the 1970s, the group faced financial challenges, which caused membership to dwindle, but Eisman stepped up recruitment efforts and revitalized the group, according to John.

John has also brought something new to the Choral Society’s traditions. Every two years he organizes a concert with the QCCS, the Queens College Choir, and the Queens College Chorus. The first concert that combined all three choirs was Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” in 2006.

Although the Choral Society has been funded by Queens College since its founding, that only includes their music director and rehearsal space. Choral Society members pay dues of $85 per semester, with the exception of students singing for credit, who are exempt from dues, and recent graduates, whose dues are half price. According to John, membership dues and ticket sales alone do not cover all their costs, so the group also hosts fund-raisers twice a year, which help them make ends meet.

The Queens College Choral Society practices every Wednesday evening to prepare for its two annual concerts, which are in May and December. The group is open to new members with some experience in choral singing.

If You Go

Queens College Choral Society: “Missa Solemnis” by Beethoven

When: May 14, 8-9:30 p.m.

Where: Colden Center Auditorium, Queens College, 65-30 Kissena Blvd., Flushing.

Cost: $20. Seniors, students, and alumni $18. Queens College students $5.

For Tickets: Call the Kupferberg Center Box Office at 718-997-3080, purchase online (with a $1 surcharge) at kupferbergcenter.org/qcchoralspring.htm, or contact Emily John at ejharpist@aol.com for group discounts.

Website: qcchoralsociety.org

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