Let’s Move Quad Cities celebrates the spirit of Quad City area residents who promote movement and fitness. For the holidays, we welcome guest blogger, Jon Hurty, conductor for Augustana College’s A Christmas Messiah Concert, December 10-12.
Conducting is Why I Move
By Jon Hurty, D.M.A, Augustana College Director of Choral Activities, Henry Veld Professor in Music, Director of Campus Chapel Music
Tell us about your journey to becoming a conductor.
I started conducting when I was in high school.
The organist at our church was fantastic at playing the organ, but didn’t really like to direct choirs. She asked me if I would be interested in directing and showed me the basic conducting patterns and said—“OK, now you just do that in front of the group.”
How would you describe the role of the conductor?
What we do on the podium is about 10% of the job. Mostly, we spend a lot of time selecting music, working with the ensemble in rehearsals, organizing rehearsal times, and interacting with singers and other performers.
For each concert, I probably spend 15-50 hours of rehearsal and an equal amount of planning and preparation.
Tell us about Augustana’s December Messiah concert. What can audiences look forward to?
This year will be the 135th anniversary season of the Handel Oratorio Society. It is one of the longest running Quad City performance traditions—if not the longest.
The piece has amazing music—many of the choruses are some of the most popular classical music of all time and even people who don’t always listen to classical music often know many of the pieces that are in Messiah.
There are about 200 performers—including students and community members from all walks of life.
Most of the orchestra players are either Augustana faculty members or professional players. The soloists are nationally known soloists who sing all over the United States and other countries.
Recently, we have been doing a slightly shorter and more focused version of Messiah, which concentrates mostly on the Christmas story. It lasts 75 minutes and we don’t even do an intermission—so it goes by really fast.
We understand Augustana’s performance is one of the longest continuous performances of Messiah in America?
Since the Messiah was first performed at Augustana in 1881, it is one of the longest continues performances of the piece in the U.S.
In 1879, Olaf Olsson, who was a professor of theology at Augustana College, traveled to England and heard a performance in London. He founded Augustana’s Handel Oratorio Society to begin annual Messiah performances.
Why do people stand for the Hallelujah Chorus? How do you feel at that moment?
No one knows exactly how tradition came about, but the “official” version is that King George II was so moved by the glory of the music that he stood in reverence and therefore we should all do the same.
While it happens every year, and I can’t see it because I am facing away from the audience, however I can see the excitement on the faces of the singers when they see the whole audience stand.
We understand you travel all over the world to conduct in Asia, Europe and Africa.
I just got back from my seventh trip to China, where I gave lectures on western choral music, taught conducting and guest conducted two choirs. I have also toured with my choirs to China, Scandinavia, Italy, France and Germany.
Having the opportunity to share our music with other cultures and also learn from them about their music, cultures and experiences is one of the great opportunities in my work.
Sharing music, singing with others, and interacting with a wide variety of people has shown me how wonderful and close we can become when we know others personally and through music.
What do you like to do when you are not conducting?
I love to spend time with my wife, Sonja. She also works as a teacher and conductor so we have a lot of opportunity to work together.
One of my main hobbies is cooking.
While I think my work is fairly active and healthy, I also play tennis, run, downhill ski and have started riding my bike to work most days.
Where are you originally from and why have you made the Quad Cities home?
I was born in Arizona, where I spent most of my childhood, until attending college in California.
I first moved to the Midwest to attend college in Kansas where I sang in the college choir, completed a degree in vocal performance, and met my wife, Sonja. We got married and moved back to Southern California to finish our master’s degrees and then moved to Illinois where I completed my doctorate at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
It was always a dream of mine to be at Augustana as my dad and grandfather had attended the seminary here and a number of other family members had attended the seminary or graduated from Augustana.
We have loved raising our two kids and living in this community for the past 20 years.
In addition to the Messiah, Augustana offers a series of holiday concerts and programs called Christmas at Augustana on the first weekend in December as well a beautiful candlelight program of Lessons and Carols in the Ascension Chapel during the third week of December.