Westmoreland Choral Society retains a core of dedicated members of all ages
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Perhaps as great an achievement as the Westmoreland Choral Society attaining its 40th year is that several members also are marking their fourth decade with the organization, joined by many others who have performed for 20 years or more.
"People don't always have that commitment," said John Smaligo, board vice president and a tenor with the group, for whom membership is a family affair with wife Mary, a soprano, and son John, a bass.
The Greensburg-based choral group was founded in the spring of 1971 by Oren Hopkins and Linda Stainton, two former members of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh who felt that there was sufficient talent in Westmoreland County to organize a local group.
They were encouraged by the success of the recently organized Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, and by support from Seton Hill College faculty.
William Dovenspike was the founding director and his wife, Arlene Dovenspike, first accompanist. In September 1976, Marvin Huls, professor of music at Seton Hill, became music director, a position he retained until last fall. Bill Peters replaced Mrs. Dovenspike as accompanist for two years, until he was replaced in January 1978 by Edgar Highberger.
Thomas Octave became the third music director in the organization's history when Mr. Huls retired, and Nancy Finke Sheehan became the fourth accompanist upon Mr. Highberger's retirement.
Mr. Octave, an Oakmont resident, is on the faculty of Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, and serves three other music director appointments. He has degrees in music, with a concentration in voice, from Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne universities.
Ms. Sheehan directs the choirs at Christ's Lutheran Church, Murrysville, and teaches piano and organ at her Plum studio.
Mr. Smaligo said he was a student of Mr. Huls at Seton Hill and joined the choral society because of him.
Mr. Octave is also good for the group, Mr. Smaligo said, in his unique way. "He has the respect of the group. I appreciate his energy. I appreciate the joy that he brings. That joy is catching. It's very motivational."
The society's budget is approximately $50,000, Mr. Octave said, a number he hopes to expand through fundraising and grant-writing efforts. The chorus has 80 members and performs four concerts each season, between fall and a spring pops event. It is governed by a 12-member board of directors including active singers and community members.
Over the years, it has sung in Williamsburg, Va., Washington, D.C., and overseas, in addition to local performances at Greensburg's Palace Theatre and Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, and in the Saint Vincent Basilica.
Choral members include men and women, college students from Seton Hill and Saint Vincent, professionals in a variety of occupations, and retirees. They range in age from their 20s to 80s, Mr. Smaligo said, and come from throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.
The society's mission statement is "To study and perform quality choral music; to unite people through their love of great choral literature; and to nurture appreciation of and educate youth in the art of choral music."
But the social side of the group is important too.
"The people are outstanding, not just as musicians," Mr. Smaligo said. "The people themselves bring us joy as well. Their trademark is commitment and compassion.
"On Tuesday nights you enjoy each other's company, before and after [practice] and during breaks. Joys and sorrows are shared as we catch up."
The group meets weekly from late August or early September through the final concert, culminating in a May annual banquet. They rehearse four nights of each concert week.
At Christmas, 70 members and spouses attended a banquet at Mr. Smaligo's church, and last summer the society held a get-acquainted picnic to meet Mr. Octave.
Mr. Smaligo first joined the organization in the mid-1980s, and then lived away for 20 years. He and his family moved back to Greensburg 21/2 years ago. "The first thing we did when we came back was join the choral society."
Two concerts remain in the 40th anniversary year, "Music that Celebrates THE SPIRIT!" and "From the Silver Screen to the Great White Way."
"Music that Celebrates THE SPIRIT!" will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church, 300 S. Main St., Greensburg. which Mr. Smaligo said is "very Gothic with a large nave and beautiful windows." Accompaniment will be provided by the Pittsburgh Festival Orchestra.
The first half of the program will consist of African-American spirituals. The second will feature composer in residence Nancy Galbraith's "Missa Mysteriorum (Mass of Mysteries)." Ms. Galbraith is professor and chair of composition at Carnegie Mellon University and has practiced her profession for three decades.
Mr. Smaligo said the "Missa Mysteriorum" is "challenging music. What I've appreciated is how the group has grown with this piece." He will sing the solo tenor role during "The Creed" of the Mass.
Tickets are $10 presale, $12 at the door, $5 students.
A second performance of "Missa Mysteriorum" will be given at 4 p.m. Sunday at Mount St. Peter Church, 100 Freeport Road, New Kensington. Admission is by donation, and money collected will be sent to Japan for earthquake/tsunami relief.
The season's final concert, "From the Silver Screen to the Great White Way," will take place at 8 p.m. May 14 at the Seton Hill University Performing Arts Center, 1 Seton Hill Drive, Greensburg.
The program will include music from the movies and from Broadway, including the musical "Wicked" and three Robert Page arrangements of Stephen Sondheim songs. The winners of the Young Artist Competition, local high school students, will also perform. Tickets are $10 presale, $12 at the door, $5 students.
For tickets or information, call 724-853-2763 or visit www.westmorelandchoralsociety.com.
First Published March 31, 2011 6:05 am