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History preserved by Oratorio Society

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These words stood as a warning about failing to learn from our mistakes, but from another perspective, perhaps repeating history is not as much condemnation as it is...

By Brian M. Rafferty

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

-George Santayana

These words stood as a warning about failing to learn from our mistakes, but from another perspective, perhaps repeating history is not as much condemnation as it is celebration.

This holds true with the Queens Oratorio Society, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a concert at Bayside High School May 19.

Founded by Queens residents who didn’t like the direction the New York Oratorio Society was headed, what was once called the Flushing Oratorio Society put on its first performance at Flushing High School May 12, 1927.

With two concerts a year and a treasure trove of musical inspiration from which to select, the Queens Oratorio Society has maintained not just its reputation for producing high-quality oratorio performances, but it has retained its members as well.

With nearly 80 members, Queens Oratorio is a cross-section of Queens residents, with many putting in decades of service to the group.

Paule, the daughter of French immigrants, is a resident of Bayside who has sung with the group since 1969. Veta is a Registered Nurse from Kingston, Jamaica, who now lives in St. Albans, who initially joined the group in 1987. Jeanette, who was voted Teacher of the Year in 1993 and sang with a group for Pope John Paul II at Shea Stadium, joined in 1973.

Jean, a grandmother of 12, joined in 1978. John, who lives in Flushing and has been with Oratorio since 1994, emigrated from Ireland. Thomas came to the U.S. from Bermuda, has served as organist and choir director for Cavalry AME Church in Oyster Bay, Bethany Baptist and Amity Baptist Churches in Jamaica, Friendship Baptist Church in Brooklyn and, for the last 30 years, at Dunton Presbyterian Church in Ozone Park. He has also been with Queens Oratorio Society for 40 years.

The list goes on. From a police lieutenant who has been on “Jeopardy” a number of times to retired teachers to new immigrants to the Queens-born-and-bred, The Queens Oratorio Society is the musical heart of the borough.

And as consistent and diverse as the members are, the material is equally impressive. Works selected for the spring concert include Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” Rutter’s Magnificat,” Brahms’ “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place,” Gounod’s “Sanctus” from the “St. Cecelia Mass” and, patriotically, “America the Beautiful.”

Oratorio originated in 16th Century Florence and grew, in great part, thanks to the Roman Catholic Church. Founded in the Biblical tale of the Passion, the musical style spread through Europe, with many nations defining it in their own way.

Oratorio had been a way to merge religious pieces into the theater, which at the time was considered low-class, and no place for religion.

When England’s Handel took to composing for oratorio, the style was uniquely and irrevocably altered. Though Handel’s “Messiah” is likely the most famous, many composers, all the way through the 20th Century, have ambitiously undertaken new versions of classic composition.

It is with history in mind that the oratorio style flourishes. And it is a celebration of history that will bring the Queens Oratorio Society to Bayside High School May 19 to celebrate three-quarters of a century.

And to offer another quote by Satayana, “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”

If we study history, and keep it alive through oratorio and other classic musical forms, maybe in another 75 years Santayana’s lessons will no longer be true.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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