The Athens Choral Society, a diverse group of volunteer singers, will celebrate its Golden Anniversary in May 2021.
“The Athens Choral Society started in 1971 with just a handful of singers mainly from the university, and here we are 50 years later with 90 singers,” says director Stephen Mitchell.
Members credit Mitchell with turning the singers into a serious community choir. The music director for First United Methodist Church in Athens, Mitchell took on the chorus in 2005 during a time of transition.
“I’ve always been a proponent for community singing and volunteer singing so I was very much attracted to a community chorus,” says Mitchell.
Pianist Sara Lorusso joined the ACS as accompanist only weeks before Mitchell. She recalls meeting him for the first time. “He walked in and that was the first time I ever saw him, and I thought to myself, ‘What is he going to be like?’ And then he started conducting and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, He’s wonderful!’”
The duo has been together for 15 years and has taken the choir to a new level of organization and cohesiveness. Mitchell credits their teamwork for bringing unity to the chorus of many people with various abilities and talents.
“My favorite thing definitely is watching people from all walks of life who just love to sing come together,” says Mitchell. “There is nothing worse than the first rehearsal and there’s nothing better than the concert—just to see what happens in those 15 weeks is really, really rewarding for everyone.”
Over the years the chorus has fluctuated in membership but currently has approximately 90 singers who perform regularly. Two of the original members, Mary Hutcherson and Sara Braucher, are still singing with the ACS five decades after its founding.
Historian and founding member, Hutcherson has kept scrapbooks from the beginning, recording concerts, musicians and singers over the years. However, she hardly needs the reference recalling directors and compositions from memory.
“In the winter of 1971, I saw a poster saying they were organizing a community chorus. The founders were Bob John and Jewel John, Albert Ligotti and his wife Arlene and Dr. Daniel Politoske. Mr. Ligotti taught trumpet; he was late of the Metropolitan Opera. Our first concert was in May with choruses from the Messiah and Brahms’ Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes, which we did in English,” remembers Hutcherson.
The ACS boasts an impressive musical pedigree of faculty from the University of Georgia music department. The relationship between the ACS and UGA has been important to the success of the chorus. The university’s music program has evolved into a full music school with a state-of-the-art concert hall. Mitchell, who maintains good relations with UGA, says that the growth of the music school has benefited musicians and singers in Athens, and the ACS regularly performs its concerts at UGA’s Hugh Hodgson Hall.
Hutcherson says before the formation of the ACS, the only place for an amateur to sing was in a church choir. The founders expected about 30 people in the beginning, but the number rose quickly to 75.
“There were that many people in this town who wanted to sing larger works of music.”
Braucher says of the early meetings that, “When we got there, it was overflowing, so many people that we were not really counting on, and we were thrilled.”
Hutcherson and Braucher also have seen the ACS through a variety of venues, including schools, churches and theaters. The choir has rehearsed in almost every denomination’s sanctuary in Athens and has performed at the Morton Theater, the Classic Center and Seney-Stovall Chapel.
Regarding his success with the choir, Mitchell says he keeps singers challenged and motivated by selecting works that are different and new to Athens. “There’s a fine line between working them too hard and just hard enough,” he says. Mitchell also recognizes that relationships and community are important to keeping the group strong.
“The break we take is as important as the music rehearsal because they get to know each other, and the relationships make them want to come back,” Mitchell says.
For some members like past president Jim Evans, ACS relationships take on a new meaning. “One of the tasks of the president is to welcome the audience to each performance, and I decided I was going to make a point of telling the audience at every performance that I met my wife in the Choral Society. I like bragging on that. It’s a nice way to meet somebody, I think.”
Braucher agrees that it’s the people that keep her coming back. “Friendships,” she says when asked why she stays with the Choral Society.
Both the relationships within the choir and the relationship with the community keeps the ACS thriving. Every year the ACS performs two concerts without charge.
“It is important,” says Mitchell, “that we offer concerts free to the community to make it accessible.” The only show that requires a ticket is the summer fund raiser to support local charities.
“People love the summer show. It’s a real change from the other two shows,” says Mitchell. After the exhaustion of 33 back-to-back concerts over a decade, Mitchell brought in Greg Kirby, who had Disneyland experience, to direct a summer show with Disney music. He was clearly the natural choice. Five years later, Kirby is still at the helm. “He did a great job. It’s been a great team.”
Many people think that being a skilled singer is a necessity for joining the ACS, but the only requirement is enthusiasm and a love of music. The choir is non-audition and all volunteer. Everyone is welcome.
“I think there are a lot of people in Athens who are still looking for a place to sing and just don’t know about us or are not sure if they’d be good enough for the Athens Choral Society,” says Mitchell, “and my answer is ‘Yes, you are.’ Anyone who can talk can also sing. The community we’ve built is a really safe place to come and sing.”
This year promises to be an exciting year for the ACS as it marks its half century as a voice in Athens. Mitchell says that the community can participate in the celebration with ACS by joining the chorus or just coming to the 50th anniversary shows.
“We’d love for people who have ever sung with us to come back and sing with us. We’d love to have people who have never sung with us sing for the first time for our 50th,” says Mitchell. “They can certainly contribute financially to the organization, and for a non-singer they can just attend a concert. Nothing pleases us more than a full audience.”
At 50, the Athens Choral Society is as strong as it has ever been, and the ACS is poised for another 50 years of bringing music to the Classic City. Braucher says, “I hope it continues. I hope it continues to be a friendly group. I hope it continues to be a welcoming group.”
Says Mitchell, “I am so proud of the Athens Choral Society.”