During a rehearsal on Jan. 16, 2023, in Manhasset, members of the Mineola Choral Society talk about their upcoming winter concert. The concert, planned for Feb. 5 at Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Mineola, will be a celebration of the community choir's 75th anniversary.  Credit: Howard Simmons

It’s Monday night at 8:30 and the Mineola Choral Society is rehearsing for a milestone performance. At the moment, the singing has paused.

The group has just run through a section of a composition in which the word “joy” repeats several times. The newly installed artistic director and conductor, Meg Messina, seizes the opportunity to share a note. She reminds the singers to really enunciate.

Her message: Don’t be wishy-washy about expressing “joy.” “Say it with a lotta j,” she instructs. “A lotta j.” The chorus repeats the section, punching the consonant with all their collective might. Messina is pleased, and so are the singers.

On Feb. 5, the Mineola Choral Society marks its 75th anniversary season in an afternoon concert at Corpus Christi Church in Mineola (See “Music to your ears”). It’s a momentous occasion, and the group can hardly wait.

“After the past three years, we’re ready to celebrate,” says Messina, who joined the group in August. “We are ready for joy.”

The party has already started, judging by the happy vibe tonight at Church of Our Savior Lutheran in Manhasset. The choir’s usual weekly rehearsal at Mineola High School was relocated because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

“After the past three years, we’re ready to celebrate,” says...

“After the past three years, we’re ready to celebrate,” says conductor Meg Messina, who is also head of Mineola High School’s choral department. Credit: Howard Simmons

By all accounts the singers — about 60 of the 80 members made it that night — were delighted to be performing together, their voices blending into gorgeous harmonies. It’s what these women and men from 30-plus Long Island communities and New York City love doing. It’s what the society has done for decades, while performing Classical masterworks and contemporary favorites.

The cause for delight is amplified because COVID-19 had silenced this choral society — and others — in early 2020. Singing was deemed dangerous because it propels tiny droplets into the air beyond the then-recommended  6 feet of safe social distancing.

“Choirs became ‘ground zero,’ the scariest place to be,” Messina said. “We’re trained to aspirate into each other’s eyeballs.” In a program note, she points out that the group “is a particularly unique ensemble in that it seems to have survived a pandemic that extinguished a great many community ensembles.”

It wasn’t easy for the choral society, which funds expenses, including the director, soloists, orchestra and publicity, from ticket sales to its annual spring and winter concerts, and from grants and donations.

“For the 2020-2021 season, there were no rehearsals and no performances,” said Karen Zalewski, the group’s board president. “We had Zoom meetings with any members who wanted to take part. We chatted and sang along to recordings of some of our previous concerts.”

Meg Messina, the new artistic director and conductor of the Mineola Choral Society, leads a rehearsal at the Church of Our Savior Lutheran in Manhasset. Credit: Howard Simmons

Monday night rehearsals resumed in September 2021 for a winter concert set for January 2022. Practices were reduced from two hours to 90 minutes, social distancing was observed, and singers wore masks. But when COVID-19 cases in New York spiked in December 2021, rehearsals were canceled, and the show was postponed for safety’s sake.

“We resumed rehearsals in March of 2022 and performed our first concert since COVID on May 1, 2022,” said Zalewski.

At the practice on Monday, a few members wore face coverings, but most didn’t. Following guidelines from New York State Health Department and the CDC, Zalewski said, “mask wearing is optional.”

As the story of the pandemic — along with vaccines, variants and future developments — continues to unfold, the chorus is back at full strength thanks to recruitment efforts and auditions. “Some members chose to sit this season out and hope to return as they wanted to refrain from crowds,” said Zalewski. Members range in age from midteens to mid-80s. At concerts, the singers perform with an orchestra.

Board President Karen Zalewski. Credit: Howard Simmons

‘Love the music’

Cathie McCullough, 65, of Hempstead, a member for more than 30 years, sang in high school and college choruses and is the group’s secretary. “I joined because I wanted something to do,” she said. “I was a stay-at-home mom, and I just needed to get out of the house. I stuck with it.”

She doesn’t wait a beat to tell why. “I just love the music and the camaraderie and performing with an orchestra,” she said. “In an ensemble of choral music your voices all come together and make a more powerful and emotional moment.”

Paul Larrow, 65, a social worker who lives in the Bronx, has sung with the society for about five years. Work and life come with stress. Singing “is my therapy,” he said, adding that team spirit is “great” and the music is “awesome.”

For 16-year-old Zoe Meredith, who’s home-schooled in Bayside, Queens, it’s her first time singing with the group. She’s the youngest member of the society.

“I grew up in a Classical music household. We all play instruments,” she said, adding that, like her father, she’s a big Bob Dylan fan.

She’s proud to be in the group and confident about the way the performance is taking shape. “It’s sounding fantastic. We have very, very skilled singers,” she said. “There’s a lot of people much older than me, but there are all ages here, and there’s a really warm feeling. It’s a community. Music brings people together.”

Diane and George Graf of East Williston say they are...

Diane and George Graf of East Williston say they are excited about the choir’s 75-year milestone. “We have a director who is taking us to a new level,” says George. Credit: Howard Simmons

Diane and George Graf of East Williston echo that sentiment. Married for 20 years, they’ve both been members of the society for nearly half of their lives. Diane, 85, is the board vice president and used to work in a hospital pastoral care department. George, 78, is the choral society treasurer and a former marketing communications manager.

“We’re still going strong, oh yes,” Diane said. “We love singing.” So much so they didn’t allow the coronavirus to mute them. While the Mineola Choral Society was hushed by the pandemic, they joined The Self-Isolation Choir, a virtual group. They used the isolation period to work remotely with the global chorus on Handel’s “Messiah,” which was first performed on May 31, 2020. It was done again a year later.

It was a great experience for the songbirds. But nothing compares to singing live with the choral society. In her four decades with the group, Diane has seen it grow from 25 members and a single piano accompanist to 80 members and a full orchestra, composed of local musicians.

“When COVID hit, it was very depressing to consider that this may not go on,” she said. “We were very focused on getting back together and starting again.”

Like other choir members, while they’ve been making music, they’ve also been making a network of friends. When they’re not singing together, they socialize with other members.

Fitting for a chorus whose members all lend their individual voices to a song to create the united sound, potluck dinners are one way they gather.

Last summer McCullough hosted a backyard gathering with about 40 chorus members. “Everybody brought something,” she said. Harmony can be delicious in more ways than one.

Marking milestone

The Grafs, like other veteran members, see the 75th anniversary as a time for acknowledging the past and looking for the next chapter. “What’s really special now,” he said, “is that we have a director who is taking us to a new level.”

Messina, who’s 44 and lives in Massapequa, assumed the baton from Thomas Jones when he retired after the May 2022 concert. She has spent her life immersed in music. She is the head of the choral department at Mineola High School, where she has taught for 20 years. She earned her doctorate in education at Hofstra University in 2019.

She wasn’t a member of the Mineola Choral Society, though she’s had a number of experiences with them. Each year the society gives a vocal excellence award honoring a graduating Mineola High School student.

“Before I had kids,” she said, “I used to come in and sing for them when they needed an extra alto. During the last two or three years of Tom’s tenure here, if he couldn’t do rehearsal for whatever reason, I came in and subbed for him.”

Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” the concert centerpiece, resonates deeply and personally for her. It was love at first hearing as a student at the University of Delaware. Because of it, she said, choral music education became her major. For her debut concert with the choral society, it brings her life full circle.

In the piece, written in 1715, Vivaldi treats each section “as a separate emotional experience,” she said. “The final movements of the ‘Gloria’ are the trickiest.”

Accompanist Karen Faust Baer rehearses with the Mineola Choral Society. Credit: Howard Simmons

Facing the challenges of a new piece of music is what makes choruses tick. “When you become a choir, you share so many things together,” said Bellmore-based choral society accompanist Karen Faust Baer, 72, a pianist and Juilliard graduate who has taught at Adelphi University.

Working on a complex piece of music is its own sort of journey. “You build it and blend it and refine it as a group,” she said. “You do it all together. This group is filled with hard workers.”

Sticking to a weekly practice schedule demands commitment and devotion. “Sometimes on Monday night, and it’s dark and it’s cold, we ask each other, ‘Do we really want to rehearse?,’ ” said Diane Graf. “Then the minute we get there and start singing, we forget all about being tired. We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Music to your ears

The Mineola Choral Society begins its 75th anniversary season on Feb. 5, at 3 p.m. at Corpus Christi Church, 155 Garfield Ave., Mineola. Tickets are $25 at the chorus website — mineolachoralsociety.org — and at the door.

The show features Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” with additional works showcasing a range of choral styles and composers. They include G.B. Martini’s short Baroque piece “Lord, My God, Assist Me Now,” John David and Peter Knight’s quietly uplifting “You Are the New Day,” and Elaine Hagenberg’s harmoniously rich “O Love.”

There will also be a special appearance by the Mineola High School A Cappella Singers.

DON'T MISS THIS LIMITED-TIME OFFER1 5 months for only $1Save on Unlimited Digital Access