Capital Region Scrapbook: Octavo Singers to raise voices, perform Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’

Schenectady's Octavo Singers, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, will perform Men

Glorious sounds can bring glorious feelings.

That’s what George Moross thinks when Schenectady’s Octavo Singers are in full voice.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to perform something,” said Moross, who’s been directing the venerable choral group since 1970. “There’s nothing more gratifying than to turn around at the conclusion of the ‘Messiah,’ tired as hell, sweaty, knowing that we’ve done a great job. . . . We’ve hit it and you turn around and the audience is standing and making an awful lot of noise.”

Another one of those moments is expected Saturday, when about 80 Octavo sopranos, tenors and baritones perform Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” The group’s annual spring concert will be held at 7 p.m. at the First Reformed Church at Union and Church streets. Soloists will be Debbie Rocco, Richard Miller, Kara Cornell and Keith Kibler.

Admission is $18 for adults, $15 for seniors and $8 for students (with identification). Tickets are available at the door or by calling 344-SING.

Depression years

The group is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Local residents began raising their voices during the early 1930s, as a way to put the Great Depression in the background. The Schenectady Recreation Department, working with funds provided by the federal Works Progress Administration, promoted low-cost recreation that included choral groups that met at several schools.

Young music teacher Gordon Mason was the man in charge, and his new friends sang just for fun. When WPA funding ran out, the singers could have closed their music books and stayed home. But they didn’t.

Men and women, baritones and sopranos, wanted to keep spirits and voices high. They founded the Octavo Singers, and soon put public concerts on their list of projects.

The first concert was held Oct. 2, 1934, with 55 singers on stage. The following January, the group began singing Handel’s “Messiah,” and began an Octavo tradition. The famous oratorio is performed every winter season.

“In the early years, the ‘Messiah’ was sung each January, with concerts made up of various smaller numbers in the spring and fall,” reads an informal history of the group. “There were a variety of guest performers — violinists, dancers, dramatic readings and singers.”

By the mid-1940s, Octavo members were performing major works such as Haydn’s “Creation” instead of miscellaneous choruses. The Union College Memorial Chapel became the group’s frequent home for performances in 1947.

Audience members could count on long pieces that singers had practiced for weeks, and they could also count on George Mason. He conducted every Octavo concert for 36 years until his retirement at the end of the 1969-70 season. He died in 1971.

Moross took over the director’s spot from Mason, and has been at center stage during Octavo shows for 38 years now. Moross, who lives in Glenville, likes the group’s “glorious sound,” and also enjoys working with people, teaching them music and teaching them to love what they’re doing.

Some members have participated for decades. Piano accompanist Elinore Farnum joined in 1972. Tenor Mel Wigler joined in 1967.

“As the years went on, as I got older, it made me feel younger,” said Wigler, 67, who lives in Colonie. “I just loved the music.”

He also loves the fact that singers stick together and help each other out.

“I never learned to read music — I still haven’t learned,” Wigler said. “But I sit next to the tenors who can read music and I just love the classics. We’ve done everything from opera choruses to all kinds of classical works by great composers over the years. I just like the interaction of singing, of being with people.”

New member

Karim Cruz-Neal, 27, a first soprano, joined the Octavos last fall. She earned a music degree from Union College in 2002, and likes the chance to express herself vocally. She also enjoys the social factor that comes with Octavo membership; there are always breaks during rehearsal, and time for conversation.

“We just get into groups and chat,” said Cruz-Neal, who lives in Ballston Lake. “Sometimes, we celebrate birthdays.”

Pat Angerosa, 56, of Glenville has been an Octavo singer for the past two years. “Our daughters, Beth and Jennifer, were in choral groups all through high school and college,” she said. “I kind of waited for my turn.”

Alto singer Angerosa loves the camaraderie. Seems like everyone does — and everyone keeps coming to rehearsals and shows. “I sing next to a wonderful man named George Rehbein,” said Mel Wigler. “He’s 90 years old, and he’s got a wonderful voice.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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