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The Augustana Choir in 1931, the year it debuted at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. (See full-size image.)

Augustana returns to Orchestra Hall April 18

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Erin O'Leary

A once in a lifetime experience — twice

Performing at Orchestra Hall will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most Augustana singers and musicians, but not all.

Some, like senior Erin O'Leary, were part of the music program in 2008 when the college last performed there. O'Leary, a music education major from Arlington Heights, Ill., sings with the choir and plays violin with the orchestra.

"I felt proud and honored to be on a stage where so many famous musicians have performed," she said. "One of my most memorable musical experiences as a young music student was attending a Chicago Symphony concert at Orchestra Hall. The concert in 2008 was a special experience for me because I was a performer on that stage rather than an audience member.

Dana Gustafson

"What I am looking forward to for the upcoming concert is having many of my family members attend the concert. Since my family is from the Chicagoland area, like many Augustana students, it is an opportunity for them to see me perform without having to travel very far."

Fellow senior Dana Gustafson, who plays the French horn in the band and orchestra, is blogging about her experiences as the ensembles prepare. Her first Orchestra Hall memory was of her father taking her there for a children's program to learn about the instruments in the orchestra.

"Having the opportunity to perform in Orchestra Hall is extremely special to me because I have grown up attending CSO performances," she writes. "I come from a very musical family and my family has had season tickets for CSO performances for as long as I can remember."

At one time, choir students performed in Orchestra Hall every year. The separate men's and women's choirs were there in the 1930s and 1940s on their spring tour. Their debut as a joint choir at the hall in 1931 was a benefit for the Swedish-American Relief Committee of Chicago. The 1932 performance, attended by 2,000 people, benefited the Luther Leagues. "There was a large audience, which testified its satisfaction by encoring every number on the program," noted one Chicago newspaper in 1932.

Chicago was skipped in 1943 and 1944 due to "travel conditions" probably caused by wartime gas rationing. After that, Orchestra Hall appears less often on the yearly schedule as the choir played at other Chicago venues and began touring the East Coast (playing Carnegie Hall at least twice), Detroit, Minneapolis and other large cities.

When Augustana College musicians first took the stage at Chicago's Orchestra Hall, the now-venerable structure was only 22 years old and the college a mere 66. That was in 1926.

Excellence has a way of sticking around, though, and the two institutions will meet again in 2010 as Augustana celebrates its 150th anniversary with a concert on the same stage. The college's Symphonic Band, Symphony Orchestra and Choir will perform at 3 p.m. April 18.

Augustana's pride in its musicians is no less than Chicago's pride in its hall. But Augustana's came first.

The college began making music for audiences in 1881 with the newly formed Handel Oratorio Society. Orchestra Hall didn't hold a tune until December 1904.

The two came first together when the men's chorus sang there in 1926. However, on March 18, 1931, the Augustana Choir as we know it today made its world debut at Orchestra Hall. Until that date, the men's and women's choirs had never performed as one.

This time around, Augustana singers and musicians all will enjoy the honor of performing at one of the world's great halls.

Bringing back Bartók

"For the orchestra to have an opportunity to play in the hall which is the home of the Chicago Symphony is a rare pleasure," said Daniel Culver, Symphony Orchestra director and co-chair of the music department. "The hall itself is well-known for its wonderful acoustic. The orchestra will be able to play in a venue which will enable it to sound at its best."

The orchestra will perform Béla Bartók's Dance Suite. "Bartok is a fitting piece to perform in the hall," Dr. Culver explained. "In 1953, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony presented the Dance Suite for the first time to American audiences."

Symphonic Band program

The Augustana Symphonic Band will perform Symphony No. 8 (2008) by David Maslanka and the Festival Prelude for orchestra and organ (1913) by Richard Strauss.

"The Maslanka work was performed on tour by the band with great success," said band director Dr. James Lambrecht. "It is a powerful work that will sound fantastic in the spacious acoustic environment of Orchestra Hall. The Strauss, likewise, is a work that will sound fabulous in that setting."

Choir selections

The choir will sing Praise to the Lord, Cloudburst, Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal, Go Lovely Rose Alleluia, and Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel.

Choir director and department co-chair Dr. Jon Hurty said he chose each piece for a different reason, but all the selections are a part of the choir's tradition, or feature the choir in a way that alumni and friends will recognize.

"All of these pieces are appealing to listeners, but also a challenge to the ensemble," he said. "There is also a significant variety of sound — something that the Augustana Choir always strives for in performance."

The best possible experience

The three directors all look forward to making music in a hall renowned for its acoustics and watching their pupils react to it.

"The students will find the acoustics unlike any other hall in which they have performed," said Dr. Lambrecht. "The sound on stage is almost austere in its clarity, but as the sound moves out into the hall it expands into a warmth of sound that envelopes the audience."

"The acoustics are great. The experience of being in a world-class performance hall is just different," Dr. Hurty said.

Of course, the entire experience will be something students will never forget.

"The privilege of performing in one of the world's great concert halls, steeped with all the history and memories of performances by one of the world's greatest performing ensembles — The Chicago Symphony Orchestra — will leave the students with a 'once in a lifetime' sort of experience," said Dr. Lambrecht. "Sitting on stage where some of the greatest musicians in the world have performed is truly an awe-inspiring experience for both the students and the conductors alike."

"The students will be able to sing in one of the great halls in the United States and they will be featured as a significant part of the 150th celebration," said Dr. Hurty. "They will also be singing for a very large group of alumni, friends and family. All these things are what makes this a particularly unique experience for them.

He said part of his job on the big day is to keep the students focused on the music — "and to help them to have the best experience possible."

 Orchestra Hall 2008