In the fall of 1990, Ken Staton, former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UH Hilo, announced in West Hawaiʻi Today, a meeting for those interested in learning and performing choral music. Nearly 50 people showed up for the first rehearsal at the Central Kona Union Church in Kealakekua and the Kona Community Chorus was born. Ken’s friend, Mike Nolls was instrumental in bringing the group together. It was an all-volunteer chorus for the first several years.
The chorus’s first concert, Dec. 21, 1990, at Central Kona Union Church, featured performances of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Cantata and excerpt’s from Franz Schubert’s Mass in G, followed by some traditional carols arranged by John Rutter. From this stellar beginning, the chorus has usually presented three or four performances each year for the enjoyment of residents and visitors. As Christmas trees are decorated each December, the chorus presents the amazing and popular Part I from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Generally, a second program is offered, usually featuring other Christmas and winter season music. One or more spring concerts – featuring classical, folk, popular, and international music themes – have also been presented every year since 1991. Among the classical works presented have been Requiems by Mozart, Brahms, Fauré, Duruflé, and Rutter, and Masses by Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Beethoven, and Dvorák. The one-act Christmas opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and a program entitled “An Afternoon at the Opera” have also been presented, as well as Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and Bach’s Magnificat. International folk music has ranged from A to Z – Appalachia to Zambia, including the music of Hawaiʻi – from traditional chants to compositions by Michael Springer, Rodney Wong, and Jerre Tanner. Also notable in our Hawaiian repertoire is the Dorothy Gillett arrangement of “Kona Kai ʻOpua”.
Mr. Staton conducted the chorus until 2003 when the chorus’s name changed to Kona Music Society and Mark Barville became Music Director and conductor. Susan McCreary Duprey, an experienced choral director of the Windward Choral Society of Oʻahu (and daughter of the late John McCreary, a Honolulu organist who accompanied the chorus in concert several times) became Artistic Director in January 2010. In December 2011, the chorus started annual free “Joy to the World” Concerts which continue to be a huge hit with the Kona community. The chorus performed the Hawaiʻi premiere of Morten Lauridsenʻs Lux Aeterna in 2012.
On July 1, 2014, in anticipation of the celebration of its’ 25th anniversary, Kona Music Society was renamed Kona Choral Society. Also in 2014, the chorus performed Ramirezʻs Misa Criolla. Highlights of the 2014-15 year included a banquet attended by many long-time chorus members and supporters, most notably founding director Ken Staton, and the first performance ever in Kona of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at our season-ending Spring concert. Notable in February 2017, our annual free Black History Month Concerts began, with standing room only audiences. In addition, KCS performed the Hawaiʻi premiere of Dan Forrestʻs Requiem for the Living. Esteemed Guest Conductor Joseph Flummerfelt, a mentor of Director Duprey, directed the Mozart Requiem in May 2018, at the Mauna Lani Hotel & Bungalows.
The chorus was initially accompanied on the piano by Gloria Juan, music teacher at Kealakehe Intermediate School. Ms. Juan has accompanied the chorus for rehearsals throughout most of the intervening years and continues in that role today. Concert accompaniment has varied widely over the years, ranging from the initial piano-only through various guest organists to a wide variety of orchestras including from 6 to 30 instrumentalists. Orchestra musicians are recruited on a concert-to-concert basis from the Kona, Hawai‘i Island, and statewide pool of amateur and professional musicians. Soloists appropriate to the works performed are generally selected, where possible, from the chorus. Many wonderful and well-known guest soloists have also performed with us over the years, including Hawaiʻi operatic luminaries Buz Tennent, Quinn Kelsey, and Amy Mills.
Weekly rehearsals have been held on Wednesday evenings since the beginning. The chorus outgrew its initial venue at Central Kona Union Church and began practicing at the Konawaena High School band room in 1992, a brief stint at Kealakehe High, then in 1998 moved to Kealakehe Intermediate School Band Room, where it continues to meet.
The chorus has presented many performances at the Aloha Theatre, the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa (formerly, the Kona Surf Resort), and King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. Performances have also been held at the Lutheran Church of Holy Trinity, Mokuaikaua Church, St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, First United Protestant Church of Hilo, UH Hilo Theatre, several South Kohala resorts, HPA’s Davies Chapel, and the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea, Hawai‘i County’s pavilions at the Old Airport Park and Hale Halawai, and other venues around Hawai‘i Island.
Under the leadership of singer volunteer Sue Welter, the chorus has organized and conducted concert tours, beginning with a spectacular expedition of more than 100 people from Kona to mainland China in 1997. The chorus toured in and around Beijing, Shanghai, and Soujou and presented concerts of Hawaiian, U.S. Folk, classical and Chinese songs in Beijing and Shanghai. Ms. Welter has organized subsequent performance tours to Scandinavia and Australia, as well as non-singing tours to England, Alaska, Italy, and Scotland-Ireland. In 2012, many singers from Kona and the Windward Choral Societies combined (Nā Puʻukani) to take a performance tour to Europe, singing in cathedrals in Prague, Melk (Austria), and Vienna, including a riverboat tour down the Danube. Subsequent tours included a Hawaiian Interisland Cruise with performances on several islands, as well as major singing tours to Japan in 2016 and New Zealand in 2019. These tours have provided exciting international travel opportunities for chorus members and others in the Kona community.
In 1994 a Children’s Chorus was formed. The youth performances have been very popular, especially during the holiday season and for convention groups at West Hawaiʻi hotels. A Teen Chorus was later formed and directed by tenor Bernaldo Evangelista. Subsequently, Marinella Savarese directed the Youth Chorus, assisted and accompanied by Ms. Gloria Juan. Currently, Wendy Buzby is the KCS Youth Chorus Director. Rehearsals take place on weekday afternoons at Kealakehe Intermediate School chorus room. Youth from K through twelfth grade are invited to join the four Youth Choruses when group singing is safe.
Starting from an all-volunteer chorus that met its budget largely through car washes, the Kona Choral Society (KCS) currently raises funds to support its performances and professional staff through singer tuition, grants, private donations, and fundraising activities such as silent auctions, special musical events, and international tours. Ticket sales at performances provide only approximately 30% of the cost of the concerts.
As a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, KCS ceased in-person rehearsals in mid-March 2020 and was not able to present it’s Spring 2020 concert, nor travel to NYC to Carnegie Hall for an all-Hawaiian Tour Performance as Nā Puʻukani. In spite of all obstacles, Artistic Director Susan McCreary Duprey was able to maintain weekly online Zoom rehearsals with high engagement through Spring 2020.
Kona Choral Society will celebrate its 30th Anniversary this year, and KCS will resume online rehearsals in Fall 2020, hoping for the safe resumption of live gatherings soon. KCS looks forward to the day when performances can resume for the Kona Community. 2020 also marks the 10th year of Susan McCreary Duprey’s highly successful tenure with Kona Choral Society.