History of the LOS

A Brief Recounting of the History of the Laurel Oratorio Society
Dani Duniho

In April 1969, the Laurel News Leader printed a photograph of forty black-clad singers and a dramatically poised conductor. The caption read: "Area residents who attended Brahms' German Requiem at St. Philip's Church last week were startled at the thoroughly professional quality of all aspects of the performance. The newly-organized choral group plans other ventures, inspired solely by love of good music." There have been many events and changes in Laurel and in that chorus since then, but the original comment still applies.

That first concert was organized under the auspices of St. Philip's Episcopal Church, with participation by choir members from many other Laurel churches. The chorus had assembled in response to the desire to have Brahms' Requiem heard in Laurel. There were several false starts in finding musical leadership for untrained singers in a complex work, but Earl Rivers, Assistant Director of the Soldier's Chorus, U.S. Army Field Band, took it on with great success. The organist for that first performance was Jean Tukiewicz, then, and still a well-known area musician.

Effort rewarded with an enthusiastic community response, the chorus presented Handel's Messiah during the following holiday season, and then Mendelssohn's Elijah. They were on their way! Jerry LeDoux became the new conductor in the fall of 1970, with his wife Virginia as accompanist. They gradually augmented organ accompaniments to the concerts with other instruments; by the time Bruce Miller became music director in early 1973, it was not unusual to find the chorus with its own small orchestra. During 1973 the group officially incorporated, taking the name which had been somewhat humorously adopted a year previously. There was an official logo, printed stationery, and a great feeling of organizational maturity, seeing that it was possible to be an actual oratorio society! That name, taken from the musical term "oratorio" describing semi-operatic works combining solo voices with choral commentary, has been the source of both confusion and smiles over the years, with others calling it an "oratorical," "ontonica," "ontorio," and even once, an "anatomical" society.

In 1974, the LOS brought the renowned composer Virgil Thompson to Prince George's County for a retrospective of his work, with the composer conducting portions of each concert. Later that year, Todd Duncan, the orginal "Porgy," was the guest host of an Oratorio Society concert performance of Porgy and Bess with the Prince George's Symphony. A new Magnificat was commissioned from Gregg Smith, who provided words of encouragement and the last pages of the music approximately 30 minutes before its concert premier at Laurel High School.

During this period, the chorus gave frequent outdoor concerts sponsored by the Laurel Shopping Center Merchant's Association. A memorable recording of one of these reproduces the raindrops which fell steadily on the microphones as well as on the singers, the piano, the flutist, etc.

Marc Tardue took the LOS podium in September 1974, and was music director for more than 10 years. He introduced the singers to Monica Otal, Associate Conductor and Accompanist. (Ms. Otal just completed her 20th season with the LOS and is a vital part of the musical leadership for the Oratorio Society by providing accompaniment, conducting, and singing various soprano roles in performance.) The chorus became vocally polished, and it was a period of operatic flourishes, including Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis, and Christ on the Mount of Olives; Verdi's Requiem; and Orff's Carmina Burana - with Bach, Dvorak, Bruckner, Haydn, Bernstein and a host of other great composers on the performance roster as well. In addition to studying and presenting the best of choral literature, LOS became the launching pad of wonderful young singers, many of whom have gone on to illustrious careers, even at the Metropolitan Opera. Many established singers were guest artists in Laurel as well. New works were commissioned from Robert Weisser, Carolyn Bock, and E. Earle Ferguson. In 1979, the LOS finished its 10th season with an anniversary performance of Brahms' German Requiem.

Mr. Tardue's guest conducting schedule was busy, and often took him far from his Laurel rehearsal hall. The chorus welcomed several guest conductors; Laurel musicolgist, conductor and composer Carlyn Bock; New York City Opera assistant Timothy Shaindlin; and the metropolitan area's Chales Callahan. In 1985, Mr. Tardue was appointed music director for an orchestra in France; his final concert in Laurel was a concert performance of Saint Saens' Samson and Delilah, with guest artists from the opera stages of America and Iceland. Then County Executive Parris Glendening, County Council Member Frank Casula, and Mayor Robert J. DiPietro hosted a gala post-concert reception honoring Tardue and the Laurel Oratorio Society.

The LOS baton was passed to J. Ernest Green for the 1985-86 season. Maryland composer E. Ray Sprenkle wrote Star-Splitter for the Oratorio Society in 1987. Following on its previous successes in league with the Annapolis Symphony, Prince George's Symphony, Prince George's Philharmonic, and the Peabody Conservatory Orchestra, the Society joined the U.S. Air Force Band and Singing Sergeants, with the Maryland Boy Choir, in a holiday extravaganza at DAR Constitution Hall.

A December 1989 performance of Handel's Messiah presented the Laurel Oratorio Society's new and current music director. Walter G. Edmonds, while honoring the group's history of excellence, added new concepts to the repertoire. Jazz and Broadway have found their way into the chorus, and in 1995's Pops Concert fundraiser there were highlights of Disney movie scores! Usually about 40 singers perform the pops concerts - for the major performances, our numbers have grown to 90-100 singers for each performance. Classical standards, new and old, are still very much present. Charles Deering's The One Child was premiered in 1991. The 25th anniversary of the LOS was celbrated with a well-received performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah in the fall of 1993 and the Verdi Requiem in the spring of 1994. Walton's Belshazzar's Feast concluded the 1994-95 concert season, showcasing a difficult work which is seldom available to communities other than the largest cities.

The Laurel Oratorio Society has become a major musical entity in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan area. Gathering always enthusiastic reviews, it has presented hundreds of musical works of all periods, often with symphony orchestra and outstanding guest soloists. Supported by local businesses and corporations, religious and civic groups, government entities, and hundreds of individuals, its members have successfully influenced artistic life, not only in Laurel, but in its environs, by presenting and encouraging others to present the very finest of choral literature. This has been possible due to the talent, energy, and devotion of the Laurel Oratorio Society's music directors and members through these 32 years. Ultimately, it is the accomplishment of a community environment which welcomed and supported the LOS. Many thanks go the the City of Laurel, Maryland State Arts Council, and the Prince George's Arts Council for their support of the Laurel Oratorio Society.