William Jon Gray enjoyed all the musical options available to him growing up in the Albany area in the 1960s, but there was only one genre that really stirred his soul.
"I was a classical music geek in high school," said Gray, a Delmar native and 1973 graduate of Bethlehem Central. "I liked the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, but when I was a teenager I became totally immersed into classical music and the great composers of the 20th century. That was the music that really fascinated me."
When he took over as director of the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society in January of 2016, Gray found a group of like-minded individuals who shared a deep love for choral music. That group of about 70 singers, a 27-piece orchestra, and the award-winning Burnt Hills High School Concert Choir will join forces today (Oct. 28) at 4 p.m. for a performance at the Immaculate Conception Church in Glenville celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I. "A Concert for Peace," which will also serve as a fundraiser for the Veterans and Community Housing Coalition, opens the Oratorio Society's 48th season.
"We wanted to honor the Armistice that ended World War I, and we also wanted to honor veterans and military personnel in this area," said Gray. "When I looked around the internet at all the annual concerts they have in Europe, where they call it Remembrance Day, all the classical musical organizations put together a concert featuring music and composers that would be appropriate for such an occasion. I also drew inspiration from a concert in Washington D.C. in 1973 when Leonard Bernstein conducted Haydn's 'Mass in Time of War.' It was powerful, and it was during the Vietnam War, but it honored military service while also having a theme of peace."
Haydn's "Mass in Time of War," composed in 1796, will be one of the major works performed Sunday, while also included in the program is "In Flanders Field," based on a popular World War I poem by John McCrae. Both the BHOS and the Burnt Hills High Concert Choir will open the event by singing the national anthem. Directed by Ann Derrick, the BH Concert Choir, consisting of around 60 students between grades 10 and 12, finished first in a team competition at the Toronto Music Festival in May earlier this year.
Gray said the inclusion of the high school group into Sunday's concert wasn't an attempt by him to recruit singers later in life. He just enjoys being connected to any talented singing group.
"I really enjoy doing what I can to draw attention to the very high-quality program they have there at Burnt Hills," said Gray. "Ann Derrick does a great job, the choral program is first rate, as is the instrumental department, and if I can help them get some very well deserved attention I'll do it."
Teachers like Derrick, according to Gray, are a huge part of any school program's success.
"I had a great teacher at Bethlehem Central, Magdalene York, and I can honestly say Mrs. York laid the foundation of my entire career," said Gray. "I didn't realize it at the time, but the experiences I had with her really formed my love for music. She was a world-class musician who happened to teach high school. It wasn't until I was a graduate student that I realized what a wonderful gift she had given me. At Burnt Hills, Ann Derrick and others are having that impact."
Derrick, an Iowa native who dabbled in New York City's musical theater world for a while before starting her teaching career in the Burnt Hills district 19 years ago, said getting to know Gray has been a wonderful experience for her and her students.
"The kids think that he is really neat," said Derrick, who has also taken Burnt Hills students to performances in Washington, D.C., Virginia Beach and Disney World. "We had our first rehearsal Tuesday night and it went very well. Dr. Gray gives plenty of insight and background into the pieces we'll be singing and our students really enjoyed that part of it. We want our kids to have great experiences, and they're really excited about performing with the Oratorio Society. Our singers make a pretty big sound themselves, but to have all 120 of us together, and to have those adults behind them caring just as much about the sound, makes for an awesome experience."
It was a Burnt Hills music teacher, Glenn Soellner, who formed the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society back in 1970. Gray was a sophomore at Bethlehem at the time, and he really did enjoy rock n' roll and all kinds of music.
"All of those Sixties' performers were formative for me," he said. "Along with the Beatles, the Stones and Presley, I also listened to a lot of rhythm and blues. I loved Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations were huge to me. But I got exposed to classical music because of wonderful teachers and because of the great things the Albany area offered musically."
Gray can remember how seeing the Albany Symphony perform inspired him to further explore classical music. He also fondly recalls traveling to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with his family to watch the Philadelphia Orchestra every summer. Those kind of experiences and a pleasant singing voice carried him to The Juilliard School in New York City where he got a degree in vocal performance.
"I had this idea that I wanted a life in music, but at that point I wasn't sure what that meant," said Gray. "Later I got my masters and my doctorate in conducting at Indiana University, and two years into my doctorate their they created a position for me and I ended up staying there for 20 years."
Gray eventually moved back to the Capital Region to help take care of his elderly mother, who has since passed away.
"When I got here two years ago the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society already had a long history of very good music directors that had put together very good concerts," said Gray, who remains director of the Music of the Baroque in Chicago. "This group has been in great shape for a long time. It's a great community."
The BHOS is calling its 2018-2019 season "One Spirit, One Voice." Other scheduled concerts include "Peace on Earth: Festival of Carols," at First Presbyterian Church of Glens Falls (Dec. 16) and Immaculate Conception of Glenville (Dec. 21); "A Cole Porter Celebration: A Choral Cabaret in 2 Acts," at Vista Ballroom at the Van Patten Golf Club in Clifton Park (Feb. 23 and 24, 2019); and the season finale, "One Spirit, One Voice," at Immaculate Conception of Glenville (June 9). A season's pass for all of the events is $110.