Four decades, 450 works by more than 100 composers, 300 “alumni,” six music directors, and 70 current dedicated members: The Oratorio Chorale has a long and diverse history as a vital part of the cultural scene in midcoast Maine. The Chorale is based in the Brunswick area, rehearses in Topsham, and performs in locations from Bath to Portland, with most concerts in the Bath-to-Yarmouth area.
The Chorale is managed by a volunteer Board of Directors made up mostly of singer members and has active programs for recruitment, community outreach, marketing, and fundraising.
The Oratorio Chorale was founded in 1974 by Bowdoin College alumnus and music scholar C. Russell Crosby, in part as an extension of the Bowdoin College Chorus and the old Brunswick Choral Society. Within the larger chorus was an auditioned 20-member Bach Choir and orchestra, selected to perform works such as the Christmas Oratorio.
Founding director Russell Crosby died in March 1977 and was succeeded by Carroll “Sonny” Googins and then by Robert Mills. George Emlen became the group’s first salaried music director in the fall of 1979. The chorus then numbered about 65 members and the group took on larger works, performing with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival, and the Brunswick Regional Youth Orchestra.
In 1984, the Chorale joined forces with the Bowdoin College Chorus when Professor Robby Greenlee took over as director. Highlights of the Chorale’s history under Greenlee included participation with the PSO in Holst’s Planets and the first-ever staged performance of Otto Luening’s Evangeline.
The two choruses reverted to their former status in 1986, and Peter Frewen was selected as music director of the smaller and now fully auditioned Oratorio Chorale. During Frewen’s tenure, the Chorale performed a wide range of music from the Renaissance to the present day. Highlights have included performances of Mozart’s Requiem with internationally known soprano Barbara Bonney; Maine premieres of Ronald Perera’s The Outermost House, with author Henry Beston’s daughter, poet Kate Barnes, as narrator; Bryan Johansen’s Lux Aeterna, with PSO principal cellist James Kennedy; and Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale. The Chorale’s first commissioned work, Pravasa, Travels of the Guitar, by Vineet Shende, premiered in spring 2013, with a preview at the Portland Conservatory of Music’s Back Cove Contemporary Festival.
Following Peter Frewen’s retirement in June 2013, the Chorale selected Emily Isaacson as his successor. A native of Brunswick, Maine, Isaacson is a Williams College graduate and has earned master’s degrees from Edinburgh University and the University of Oregon. She is currently a doctoral candidate in choral conducting at the University of Illinois. Isaacson is also director of choral activities at Clark University in Worcester. She and her husband and two-year-old daughter live in Portland, Maine.
Under Isaacson’s leadership, the Chorale has expanded its membership and now performs five or more concert programs per year and offers summer workshops for interested singers in the community. Additional programs include a salon series in collaboratio with Victoria Mansion, sight-reading salons open to interested singers, and school outreach programs planned in conjunction with concert programs.