Retirees Urged to Join Syracuse University Oratorio Society

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

John F. Warren Syracuse University Oratorio Society during a recent presentation. Photo provided

Although not specifically targeting older adults, the Syracuse University Oratorio Society tends to attract retirees who have more time to practice and perform vocal music. Conductor John F. Warren estimated that about one-third is retirees.

The group combines community adult singers with SU students and they frequently perform with Symphoria.

It all started in the 1970s when Cornelia Yarborough, a professor of choral music education at SU, and Christopher Keene, conductor of the then Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, collaborated to organize a chorus to sing Messiah. George Frideric Handel’s oratorio sounds best with a robust choir and Yarborough organized a chorus including community members to reach the size needed.

That formed the beginnings of the Syracuse University Oratorio Society, which has performed many times with SU and now performs with Symphoria.

Participants must audition for a place in the group. Of the 110 vocalists involved, most have sung publicly before in school choirs, church choirs or other groups. About 20 to 25 of them are SU students.

“Community members range from one high school student to quite older adults,” Warren said.

He believes that joining a group like this of like-minded people who enjoy music can be very fulfilling. “And then there’s the chance that we perform with Symphoria. There’s nothing like singing with a professional orchestra. It’s exhilarating. We work hard for a number of weeks leading to the performance and it’s rewarding.”

The group performs about four times annually, typically performing Messiah each December. The oratorio is 105 minutes long. They also perform shorter works throughout the year, such as Holst’s Planets, Debussy’s Nocturne, or a compilation of opera’s “greatest hits.” Sometimes, soloists are needed to augment a particular work.

The Syracuse University Oratorio Society often performs at the Civic Center in Syracuse, but sometimes performs at area churches, depending upon the concerts. Their concerts produced in conjunction with Symphoria are ticketed events, but occasionally, the group offers free admission concerts on SU’s campus.

Participants pay dues of about $50 each year. Warren said that they receive instruction on vocal performance and reading music, although “most of these singers are well-experienced and have some good training.”

The Syracuse University Oratorio Society rehearses on Mondays from 7 to 9:30 p.m. As performances draw closer during a concert week, that schedule includes additional rehearsals, including one with the orchestra.

The group members provide their own “concert black” clothing for performances and receive a list of suggestions as to what that might look like. Typically, the group participates in one performance per event.

The Syracuse University Oratorio Society hosts an audition every August.

Anyone interested should email Melissa Rashford at