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2018-09-01 / Shorts

At the Top of Their Voices

The State College Choral Society celebrates 70 years of making beautiful music.
Maggie Anderson

Photos courtesy SCCSPhotos courtesy SCCS

Six-hundred choral works by 1,750 singers performed before 44,000 audience members over 70 years: For the State College Choral Society, all of that adds up to something much greater than the sum of its parts.

“There are moments over the years that I remember as very emotional,” says Tom Penkala, general mangaer and 19-year member of the group. “You look around at the chorus members and there’s a tear in the eye here and there. We’ve had some pretty amazing experiences over the years.”

The nonprofit organization looks to keep those powerful performances coming in its 70th anniversary season, which kicks off next month with a “Festival of Psalms” concert and culminates in a gala performance at Eisenhower Auditorium in the spring.

“The big, big concert is Mendelssohn’s Elijah,” says Russ Shelley, music director for SCCS. “In this piece you have everything from a raging competition to the sweetest acknowledgement of the brevity of life. It is a wide pendulum swing in regard to what music can do to portray the subtleties of life experience. It really is amazing.”

The chorus is inviting the Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra and the State High Master Singers to join them onstage, creating a more than 200-person performance group fit for the grandeur of Eisenhower Auditorium — and the group’s enduring history.

“The State College Choral Society is the best-kept secret in town,” laughs Suzanne Neely, chair of the board and a member since she moved here in 2014. “There are so many people who have lived here for a long time that aren’t aware that we even exist let alone have the quality of music that we do.”


For Shelley, who has been music director since 2000, it’s about constant education — for himself as well as the singers.

“Every rehearsal is a voice lesson. Every rehearsal is a lesson in aesthetics. We’re getting a lot more than notes and rhythms. I learn every week.”

The choir’s membership is ever-changing but averages around 120 — much more than the 35 members of the Women’s Club chorus who asked men to join them for a performance in 1948, forming the State College Choral Society. Shelley would like to recruit younger members — and promises the audition is “completely painless.”

“It consists of a brief interview and a little bit of warming up just so I can hear their voice dexterity,” he says. “And then they sing ‘My Country Tis of Thee.’ The auditions take seven minutes.”

It’s more than worth it for what membership brings, says Neely.

“Musicians, and choral musicians in particular, are kind of a special breed of people,” she says. “They’re truly welcoming and it’s a diverse population of backgrounds and abilites and personalities all coming together for one purpose: to make beautiful music.” •SCM

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