By Liz Henry.

In 1976, the dream of one woman spawned a musical embryo that would affect the lives of thousands of people throughout the years. Martha Gregory, a singer who was well trained through the Wesleyan Conservatory in Macon, GA and private studies in New York, organized the Hilton Head Choral Society and directed its first performance of the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah” on December 12, 1976.

Approximately 500 people attended that first performance at the Hilton Head Elementary School auditorium, setting a precedent for what would become a flourishing performing arts community on Hilton Head. A $500 grant from the Hilton Head Institute for the Arts enabled the HHCS to offer this musical gift to the community free of charge. The choir consisted of eighty volunteer singers and four guest soloists from Greenville. Gregory said the support they received from the community exceeded her expectations.

In just three short years, the annual performance of the “Messiah” became a wildly popular Island tradition. In addition to the evening performance, a matinee was added to accommodate larger audiences.

The Hilton Head community was quick to offer their support to ensure the annual performances continued. During the 70’s, funding for the arts often came from our local banks and other businesses.  Sponsors included The Bank of Beaufort, South Carolina Federal Savings & Loan Association, Citizens & Southern National Bank, Bankers Trust of SC, Southern Bank and Trust Company, First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Beaufort, Hall’s Nursery, and the Hyatt hotel in Palmetto Dunes.

Over the years, the venue for the annual “Messiah” concert continued to change: Planters Hall (Hilton Head Inn) in 1979; First Baptist Church in 1980-1983; Hilton Head Beach and Tennis Resort in 1984; and First Baptist Church in 1985-1986. The majority of regular season concerts since 1986 have been at First Presbyterian Church, though Holy Family Catholic Church has also welcomed the HHCS for some performances.

As the years passed, other directors assumed leadership, a strong board of directors was developed, and the Choral Society evolved, providing quality performances of varied repertoire, from the classics to pops. The singers are still enthusiastic volunteers who share a love of making music in a group environment. The audiences have grown – sellout performances are the norm.

Who knew, in 1976, that just one woman who loved choral music would create what would become the longest-running arts organization on Hilton Head Island?