Spotlight on Grinnell Oratorio Society


Ohana Sarvotham

The Grinnell Oratorio Society provides a musical outlet for students and community members alike.

Krista Spies, Staff Writer

This Friday, Grinnell students and community members have the opportunity to witness a hundred-year-old campus tradition. The Oratorio Society choral group, performing on April 14, has connected members of the College with those of the community since 1901.

Josh Boggs, visiting assistant professor of music, serves as director of the Oratorio Society for the 2022-2023 school year. What sets it apart from other musical groups on campus, he said, is the makeup and function of the group.

 Not only does the ensemble include College faculty, staff and students along with members of the town community, it also is “an intergenerational group,” Boggs said. “We have members sometimes as young as in their teens to members who are bordering 90 years old.”

We have members sometimes as young as in their teens to members who are bordering 90 years old.

— Josh Boggs, Director of Grinnell Oratorio Society

“Anything that the College can do to interact with the community more is so crucial,” Boggs said. “Choir is a perfect example of something that is very accessible to community members and faculty, students and staff. The traditions are really similar. A lot of people grew up singing, and it’s also something that is relatively inexpensive. We have a voice, and it’s free.”

Regarding the group’s repertoire, Boggs said that the name Oratorio Society implies larger-scale works. Often, the singers are accompanied by instruments, such as during the fall semester of 2022, when the group performed a portion of “Handel’s Messiah” with the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra and the Grinnell Singers. 

However, for the concert this week, Boggs brings his experience in sacred acapella music by creating a repertoire of entirely unaccompanied pieces that include sacred choral music, Renaissance music, the modern American choral piece “Wondrous Love” by Robert Shaw and more. The centerpiece of the program will be a mass by Hans Leo Hassler.

According to Boggs, at the choir’s peak, it had approximately 80 members. Though the Oratorio Society utilized virtual concert spaces during the COVID-19 lockdown, the group also experienced a reduction in members and participation, which Boggs said was difficult to weather. 

“The hardest thing with COVID is getting people to commit to weeknight activities regularly. Having to give up another weeknight is obviously a choice that people have to make, but I’m really glad that they do,” he said. Now at roughly 30 singers, the group is meeting and rehearsing for the first year as “normally” as it had done pre-lockdown.

Larry Anderson, a tenor singer in the ensemble, is a part of a group of community members from Newton who travel regularly to Grinnell to practice and perform in the choir. He said that the music is challenging, and the Society is about “the pleasure in making music together.”

Boggs added that the Oratorio Society rehearsals are “a bright spot in my week because it is still very connected to my job here at Grinnell, but it’s really refreshing to interact with lots of new faces and people who look forward to this being a time when they can come to our campus and make music with us.” 

During a rehearsal for their upcoming concert, the members of the choir warmed up and then practiced the pieces in order of their performance program. They excitedly discussed the best positions for them to surround the audience with sacred choral songs, involving placing themselves in seats among the crowd. One warm-up exercise included repetition of the simple phrase “I love to sing,” a declaration that encapsulates the infectious energy of the Oratorio Society.

The Grinnell Oratorio Society will perform this Friday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m. in Sebring-Lewis Hall in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts.