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Hallelujah times 50 at Oak Park High

Brad Hale — Oak Park High School class of ’78 and a bassist who has played in the school’s perennial performances of Handel’s “Messiah” — knew the gym where the musicians performed last weekend would be, just as it is every year, packed to capacity.

What’s more, this being the 50th performance of “Messiah” during the school’s year-long celebration of its 50th graduating class, Hale knew there was no way that everyone who wanted a seat was getting one.

“Let’s put it this way: I told my wife to stay home,” Hale said with a grin.

Hale was part of the alumni orchestra and chorus that, along with current Oak Park students, presented part of the iconic piece Saturday night, a show the group assembled during just one 3 1/2-hour rehearsal that afternoon.

Hale said that rehearsing the music was less an issue than reaching out to the alumni and getting everyone in the same place at the right time.

Chris Droegemueller, the school’s vocal music director, said the school had prepared for about 100 performers but close to 600 alumni participated in this year’s “Messiah” performance.

And with graduates at different ages and different capacities, Hale said, it fell on the performers to organize responsibilities in such a way that accommodated everyone.

The oldest performers graduated around the time the annual “Messiah” performances began in the 1960s, Droegmueller said.

For Hale, the perennial “Messiah”performance bore special weight this year. Conductors leading the players and singers stood on a podium facing a group of pictures — portraits of Joyce Stuermer; Jim Chandler; the bassist’s mother, Barbara Hale — all late conductors who led past performances.

Excerpts from the piece have been presented since the school’s founding in 1965, a tradition that began with Stuermer.

In 1969, Bill Grace was tapped to lead the Oak Park High School music department alongside Chandler, which he did until 1993. During his tenure, he expanded the “Messiah” programs to its current selections.

While leading the group through the afternoon rehearsal, Grace took the conductor’s podium preparing to direct the musicians — more than a few of them former students of his — and uttered barely a word before a spontaneous standing ovation took over the gym.

When he took over the vocal music program, he said, the unspoken terms of employment encompassed not only the supervision of 500 singers but the responsibility for the “Messiah” tradition.

“If you’re going to be smart, you don’t change tradition,” he said. “I’d have been killed if they ended it.”

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