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Oratorio Society 117 years old

ROCK ISLAND -- Olaf Olsson, an Augustana College professor, went to London in 1880 and heard Handel's ``Messiah.'' It was a mystical experience for him, and he wanted to bring that great music back to his small college in Rock Island.

He ordered the books from England, recruited some students and people from the community to sing, and got together a small orchestra. Handel's great work first was presented locally at Moline's First Congregational Church April 11, 1881.

That was the birth of the Handel Oratorio Society which has provided a mystical experience for other listeners for 117 years.

Professor Olsson was the son of a pious mother who thought it was sinful for him to love and play the violin as much as he did, but how could such sacred music be sinful?

The oratorio was fairly successful, according to accounts of the time, and it was presented again the next day and in June at graduation. This was when the founder of Bethany College, another Lutheran school in Kansas, heard the music and started the Bethany ``Messiah'' tradition.

Soon, the Handel Oratorio Society was doing other sacred works as well, and for years the custom has been to present a second work in the spring.

For its 100th anniversary, the society commissioned a work by Charles Wuorinen, ``The Celestrial Sphere,'' which premiered in April 1981.

The society has had 18 conductors. Donald Morrison, a leader of long tenure, attributed its longevity to the fact they never forsook ``Messiah.'' Many oratorio societies stopped singing it, and that spelled their demise.

Another long-termed conductor was Henry Veld, Morrison's predecessor. He was choral conductor in 1938, when the orchestra numbered 45 pieces. He held that position until 1965.

Serving even longer, Professor Brynolf Lundholm was accompanist and assistant conductor from 1928 to 1976, beginning in his student days.

``Messiah'' was sung in Moline's First Lutheran Church, and for many years the college's old gymnasium was the setting for the oratorio. Those were the days when ``novice'' singers like William Warfield and Leontyne Price were the soloists.

Roger Wesby succeeded Donald Morrison. The present conductor is Jon Hurty, who has strong ties with Bethany College.

``Messiah'' was not a Christmas piece in the beginning. It was usually performed in the spring.

Now, about 350 singers from the college and community begin to practice in the early fall for the three Yuletide performances: Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon. They are expected to sign on for the spring concert, as well.

Christmas is not Christmas without ``Messiah'' for many, and they are quick to rise for the ``Hallelujah'' chorus, emulating King George II, who was so moved by it that he sprang to his feet. When the king stands, so does everyone else, and that tradition crossed the Atlantic to us.

The singers who come together as the Handel Oratorio Society achieve a remarkable unity. Besides the skill and talent of their conductor, they rely on a powerful tradition to deliver their inspiration year after year.

-- By Julie Jensen (January 22, 1998)

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