Five decades ago, an Omaha music director decided everyone should have a chance to experience Georg Frederic Handel’s “Messiah,” whether they be bricklayers or barristers.
Leota Sneed Strong already led one large community choral group, the Omaha Symphonic Chorus. She also directed school and church choirs. So what’s one more?
She assembled a large group of singers — also from a variety of careers and backgrounds — to prepare for a public performance of Handel’s oratorio about the life of Christ, found a venue large enough for the concert and presented “Messiah” during the holiday season in 1969.
Two of them — Omahans Sharon Struve and Gloria Taber — have been with the choir since the beginning.
“Our first concert was in the Civic Auditorium,” said Struve, a longtime chorus board member. “They set up big risers for the chorus, and the orchestra was in front. I remember all the electrical cords for the lights on stands. It was just a maze.”
The group has evolved from its days in the Civic’s expansive arena, through years at the Orpheum Theater and the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall and, finally, to the Holland. Several directors have come and gone. The current director is Paul Koenig.
In the last several years, it has expanded its community involvement to concerts at various nonprofits such as the Open Door Mission and the VA Medical Center and outreach to the underserved Hispanic population. That dovetails with increasing educational opportunities for high schools and homeschoolers, including dues waivers for teens who want to be in the chorus.
Struve credits the group’s current growth spurt to board president Amanda Patrick, one of the young people the chorus is trying to attract. Patrick, a certified public accountant who is the mother of 2-year-old twin girls, joined the choir in 2009 after studying music at Midland University.
“She pushed for more professionalism,” Struve said, seeking grants and overseeing a multi-year growth project.
Patrick said the results have been gratifying. Programs now are printed in English and Spanish, and concerts feature interpreters for the hearing-impaired.
Special presentations outside the Holland have been particularly popular.
“We went to the Siena-Francis House and did excerpts (from Handel’s score),” Patrick said “Afterwards, I asked someone, ‘Have you ever sung for such an appreciative audience?’ ”
Most members join the group for a simple reason: They love to sing and, especially, love “Messiah,” best known for the iconic Hallelujah Chorus.
Taber was in her early 20s and serving as an organist at two area churches when her music teacher, widely known Omaha pianist Thelma Stenlund, invited her to a Voices of Omaha rehearsal. Now it’s a yearly event — she could only remember one time she missed, when her late husband was ill.
“I fell in love with it,” Taber said.
Taber’s daughter, Dawn Gencarelli, went with her mom to rehearsals as a child, and by age 11, she was begging to join the chorus. Taber said no the first time she asked, but when Dawn was 12, she relented. Gencarelli has been participating in the holiday concert for 37 years.
The two have great memories of singing together, along with some funny moments, and one big scare.
Taber remembers various artistic directors and their quips, such as Thomas Brantigan (who also is a former conductor of the Omaha Symphony.)
“He used to say ‘My tempo will be determined by how much coffee I have in the morning,’ ” Taber said.
And both women talked about the time a chorus member fell off the Joslyn stage. Former director Greg Zielke kept going while continually glancing sideways to see what was going on. Paramedics eventually arrived, but the person who tumbled wasn’t seriously hurt and the concert went on.
“The violins were like ‘We’re still playing until you stop us,’ ” Gencarelli said.
Neither one wants to stop performing each year. Taber, 75, said her voice is not as strong as it once was, but she can still hit the high notes and sing Handel’s elaborate vocal runs.
And she’s thrilled she’s been sharing it with her daughter all these years.
“I’m so glad she wanted to go with me to those rehearsals,” Taber said. “I’ll do it for as long as I can.”
Gencarelli, meanwhile, is cherishing each performance, because she knows time their time together is precious.
“I wonder what it will be like for me when the time comes ... how I will handle it,” she said. “But I’ll deal with that when the time comes.”