Our History


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Condensed from an article by Dorothy Hoos, 50-year member of The Cantata Singers written for the 50th Anniversary Booklet

          The Cantata Singers was founded in 1964 by Dr. Robert Finster, organist and choir director at Grace Episcopal Church in Elmira, to perform a jazz mass. The concert was very successful - one member of the audience said the church was so crowded it seemed like they were “hanging from the rafters.” They gave the singers a standing ovation. Following the successful concert the Cantata Singers organization was formalized in the fall of 1964 with the official objective of performing great classical, sacred choral music.

          In the early years concerts were performed four times annually as part of Evensong at Grace Church. Additionally a Bach Festival was added at the conclusion of each season. The group sang many J.S. Bach cantatas as well as his Mass in B Minor, using soloists from within The Cantata Singers. Dr. Finster was well known for his Bach organ recitals as part of the Festival.

          After Bob Finster’s departure, Fred Thayer, a Cantata Singers member and a vocal music teacher at Elmira Free Academy, volunteered to direct. Fred also chose great choral music such as Vivaldi’s Gloria and Hodie Christus Natus Est by Willan. Fred accepted a position at Lycoming College in Williamsport in 1971 and we were fortunate to have another Cantata Singers member step forward to become director - Robert Herrema, vocal music instructor at Elmira College.

           The following year, Elmira experienced the devastating Flood of 1972. Bob was taking a course that summer from Robert Shaw, and being “the brash young man he admitted he was,” managed to offer a ride to Shaw because Bob had the only car with air conditioning. During the ride, Bob told Robert Shaw about the flood, and he offered to come to Elmira and direct The Creation. The Cantata Singers sponsored the performance, arranged for financial support, recruited 175 singers from a wide area, and formed
a sixty-piece orchestra. It was in the 70's when the decision was made to perform just three concerts a year. We were sorry to lose Bob Herrema in 1975. He accepted a position with Marywood College in Scranton and remained there until he retired.

           William Payne had been our accompanist. A search committee was formed, and when Bill indicated that he would love to become our director, the committee decided to give him a chance. That “chance” lasted fourteen years. Bill’s strong point was that he really cared and loved being our director. We sang many wonderful sacred choral works under his direction including the “complete” Handel’s Messiah - all three sections with every repeat. Bill found it best to resign due to serious conflict with his day job; thus, our first concert of the 1988-89 season was his last. The second concert of that season, in March 1989,
was directed by Dr. Kent Hill, who had presented organ concerts as part of our Bach Festivals for several years.

          The 1989 Bach Festival was directed by Thomas J. Folan, who was working on his Master’s degree at Ithaca College. Tom was engaged the next year and served as our director for five years. Tom's tenure ended when he moved to the Rochester area in 1995 and we hired Michael Kreuger for the 1995-96 season. Michael  accepted a position in the western part of the country and moved at the end of the year.

          Will Wickham, a long-time member of The Cantata Singers, was engaged for the 1996-97 season and is now in his eighteenth year as director. Will has introduced us to many different composers as well as his own compositions. Influenced by Will’s inspiration and foresight, The Cantata Singers changed its constitution to include fine quality secular choral compositions. Coming full circle, Will selected a Dave Brubeck jazz piece, La Fiesta de la Posada, for the 2013 Christmas concert, which marked the beginning of our 50th Anniversary Celebration.