The debut performance of the Burlington Choral Society, then known as the Burlington Oratorio Society, took place in December 1976. The concert featured Handel’s Messiah, Part I, under the direction of its founding director, the late Prof. Francis Weinrich. Burlington Free Press reviewer John D. Donoghue wrote, "Oratorio is not so popular today as it was earlier...but there’s a lot of glorious music that should be heard. Praise to the Society for filling that need." Over 37 years later, the Burlington Choral Society is performing twice yearly to its largest audiences ever. It seems Mr. Donoghue was not alone in his love for the music of the great oratorios.
Weinrich formed the group in conjunction with former UVM music chair, Prof. Frank Lidral. In its early years the BCS boasted rosters of 30 to 50 singers, drawn from the "town and gown" community. It was typically accompanied in the early 1980s by organist John Henzel, F.A.G.O., who came to Vermont as Music Director of the First Congregational Church in Burlington. Upon Weinrich’s retirement in 1983, Henzel took up the baton and began the practice of employing orchestral accompaniment for most concerts.
Playing the organ at Mr. Henzel’s directorial debut was Thomas Strickland, then Music Director at St. Paul’s Cathedral, who himself became Music Director of the BCS when Mr. Henzel stepped down in 1988. Strickland expanded the musical offerings of the group, and led the BCS for seven years until he moved to Chicago in 1995. Prof. David Neiweem became the BCS’ fourth Music Director in the spring of 1995 and held that position for 17 years until his retirement in April, 2012. Today’s performance is the chorus’ fourth concert under the baton of its Artistic Director, Richard Riley.
Over the past three-and-a-half decades, the BCS has grown in size and stature, and has performed many of the greatest works of the choral repertory, including the well-known oratorios, masses and requiems of all the major classical composers, as well as less familiar works such as Mendelssohn’s St. Paul, Artur Honegger’s King David and Benjamin Britten’s St. Nicolas Cantata.
First performances included the world premieres of Michael Hopkins’ From Revenge to Forgiveness, David Neiweem’s cantata The Choir Immortal and Patricia Julien’s Stars. The BCS has collaborated with many other groups in the state and region, including the Essex Children’s Choir, UVM’s Concert Choir and Catamount Singers, the Champlain Valley Oratorio Society of New York, and the Vermont Symphony and Vermont Philharmonic Orchestras. The group has won grants from the Vermont Arts Council and many other granting organizations for choral music based on the excellence of its mission and performances.
The BCS is "owned and operated" by its membership. Auditions are accepted during August and January.