Hola. I’m sorry I’m having to write this. I was very sorry to hear that Norman Scribner died unexpectedly from a heart attack this past Domingo/Sunday at his home in the District of Columbia. I had the opportunity and privilege of being in his Choral Arts Society of Washington (one of the major Orchestra Choruses there) when I lived in the District in the mid-late 1970s. Norman was the first choral director to give me the opportunity to be in a major Orchestra Chorus which performed regularly in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The Choral Arts Society of Washington (CASW) grew out of what began as The Norman Scribner Choir which had been formed for performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (the work was partly intended as an anti-war statement) for part of the opening of the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the District.
I remember going to the CASW audition in Satterlee Hall in upper NW on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral. I don’t remember much about the audition. What I do remember was feeling absolutely thrilled when I got a phone call a few days after the audition which went something like this:
“Hello, this is the Choral Arts Society of Washington and we would like to invite you to sing with us this season.”
Oh! That was the call I had been waiting for. That was a dream come true for me. One of my goals in music was to have the opportunity to perform with the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the University of Maryland Chorus and with major orchestras in the Kennedy Center, including the National Symphony Orchestra, the resident orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. And because of Norman, he made that possible for me and I will always remember him for that. I enjoyed a couple of seasons with the Choral Arts Society before auditioning and being accepted by Dr Paul Traver for his University of Maryland Chorus.
Norman required and expected the highest standards for his Choral Arts Society. At that time, the members of the Choral Arts Society were so skilled, so good and such good sight-readers that even if one did not know the choral work being prepared, just from our sight-reading the piece one got a very good sense of how the piece was supposed to sound. Even the sight-reading sounded glorious! Often when the Chorus would sight-read a choral work it sounded like it was almost ready to be performed! Being in the CASW was intenso and I began to feel that as we moved through the many months and the selected repertoire for each season. At one point I remember feeling like I was living in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with all the rehearsal and performance requirements. It was a positive experience but at one point I felt as if I were burning out. That happens with some people and I think the average stay in an Orchestra Chorus is between 2-4 years, if I remember correctly what Vance George (former chorus director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus) said in an interview. There were also choral politics involved which I talk about in this article. There wasn’t much of a commute for me to rehearsals. I lived in the District so I took the Metrobus up Wisconsin Avenue to rehearsals, which were twice a week. We had sectionals on lunes/Monday and full Chorus was on martes/Tuesday. My weekly commute out to the University of Maryland at College Park for rehearsals was a different story. That was a lot more complicated and I knew that would be the case before I auditioned. The commute was the main reason I had waited to audition for The Maryland Chorus. I didn’t own a vehicle and the metro was in its early stages of being built at that time (the metro was mainly in the downtown area of the District) so I took the Metrobus out to Maryland. It took awhile to get out there, especially in the snow. I remember at least one occasion of having to run across the campus in the snow to the School of Music for rehearsal. I don’t think I would do what someone does today. I read that at least one chorister who sings in the Choral Arts Society comes from as far away as Charlottesville in central Virginia. That’s about a 2.5 – 3 hour drive one way to the District line. Then from there, she has to drive all the way up Wisconsin Avenue to the same rehearsal location I went to decades ago. And then after 10.00pm (end of rehearsal) she has to drive all the way back to Charlottesville. I don’t think I would do that and wouldn’t have done that in the 1970s. That’s too much of a commute and none of the choristers of the Choral Arts Society are paid. But with many major Orchestra Choruses (Choral Arts Society of Washington, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, etc) I’ve read that many people do commute far distances to have the experience of performing with the Chorus. The same is true in other countries such as with the National Youth Orchestra and Choir of Great Britain. The members of both the Orchestra and Chorus come from all over Britain and they perform in various concert halls, including at the BBC Proms.
By choice, the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) does not have its own Orchestra/Symphony Chorus and at the time I sang with them there were mainly three major Orchestra Choruses which got invited to perform regularly in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with them and guest national and international orchestras. They were the:
University of Maryland Chorus
Dr Paul Traver, chorus director
Choral Arts Society of Washington
Norman Scribner, chorus director)
Oratorio Society of Washington
Robert Shafer, chorus director
(The Oratorio Society of Washington is now called The Washington Chorus with chorus director Dr Julian Wachner)
Norman retired as director of the CASW in 2012 and after an extensive search for a new director they chose Scott Tucker from Cornell University to replace Norman. Someone might be asking: Is the CASW as good today as they were when you sang with them? I don’t know. I haven’t heard them. I would imagine they would say they are. When I sang with them, I remember our “sound” being compared with the London Bach Choir and the Münchener Bach-Chor.
These days, with the occasional exception, I’m more and more getting the impression that things are not as good as they used to be in this regard. For example, I know from listening to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus that they are not as good as they once were. The CAWS was a superb Chorus in the late 1970s. At that time they were a very young-looking Chorus and we had many choristers who were students from the local universities. As I remember, the Choral Arts Society was as “young-looking” as the University of Maryland Chorus. But just like with Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the CAWS now looks like an older Chorus from the pictures I’ve seen of them. And because of that, I suspect their “sound” has changed some because older voices sound differently than younger voices.
Norman was very down-to-Earth, never arrogant despite all his accomplishments. He was very friendly and enjoyable to work with. For some reason, one thinks that people like that will never die because they’re such good people. But the way it seems to work instead is that the good people die and the bad people seem to live on forever, if you know what I mean. I won’t name names. Some thoroughly corrupt and sleazy politicians who should be rotting away in prison come to mind. There’s one in particular I’ve noticed that seems to be propped up because of heart transplant surgery, even though he already looks well-embalmed whenever I have the misfortune of seeing that man’s snarly face! You might be able to come up with a few names yourself. Norman would appreciate this I think, and I say that based on what I wrote in this article.
I remember when Norman would announce the repertoire for the coming season that was always a special event. It was always a major symphonic choral work with a major national or international visiting guest orchestra. He would say:
We’re doing the massive Berlioz Requiem in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (KCCH) with the Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus with Michel Plasson conducting, to which the room erupted into a roar of excitement and approval
We’re doing Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) by Haydn in the Kennedy Center with the ________ orchestra (I don’t remember which orchestra it was) and conductor. I think Norman conducted The Seasons, so maybe that was with the NSO. That was a fun piece to perform, one of my favourites and our soprano section was splendid. Ever since serving as piano accompanist for my high school Chorus, I’ve always paid special attention to the soprano section of a Chorus and therefore I paid close attention to our soprano section in the CASW, especially on their highest notes. No vibrato at all but rather a flute-like sound, more like English choir boys/girls. Our soprano section was wonderful.
Norman would continue:
We’re doing the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem with the Cleveland Orchestra and Lorin Maazel, conducting. (I presume we were filling in for the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus which was not touring with their orchestra. If I’m remembering correctly, Lorin Maazel was difficult to work with even though we were superbly prepared by Norman).
We’re doing The Bells by Sergei Rachmaninov with the _________ orchestra (again, I don’t remember which orchestra it was) and Mstislav Rostropovich conducting.
We’re doing Ralph Vaughan William’s A Sea Symphony with members of the National Symphony Orchestra and I’ll be conducting.
Anyway, it went something like that. Everyone always looked forward to hearing what the repertoire would be for the coming season. I always wanted to do Felix Mendelssohn’s Elias (Elijah) with the CASW but unfortunately we never performed that while I was with them.
Whenever we had our one orchestra rehearsal before a performance in the Kennedy Center with the NSO, the orchestra members were always welcoming. The conductor would say, “We would like to welcome the (either) Choral Arts Society of Washington (or the) University of Maryland Chorus” (whichever one it was) and the orchestra members would look back at us on the chorus risers and smile and applaud us.
Performing with Norman’s Choral Arts Society of Washington was a very positive experience and I thank Norman Scribner for giving me that opportunity.
From what I’ve read, a memorial service for Norman will be el 9 de abril/the 9th of April at 10.30a in Washington National Cathedral (WNC). So I’m assuming that maybe there will be a private burial or cremation before his public memorial, no? I don’t know. The funeral home handling this called this event at WNC a “funeral,” but on WNC’s website they call it a “memorial.” I would guess that the Choral Arts Society (either Full Chorus or the Chamber Chorus) will perform for the memorial. I say that because a group of choristers from The Maryland Chorus performed for Dr Traver’s funeral.
I wrote more about my experiences in the Choral Arts Society in my article about the University of Maryland Chorus at that link. Chau.—el barrio rosa