Perfect Intonation: One of the foundations of Choral Excellence.
I suspect that the choristers of the New England Conservatory Concert Choir would tell me, “We love our Chorus Director….” Well that’s fine, but “love” has nothing to do with her doing her job properly, which she’s not doing. “Love” has nothing to do with choral excellence. “Love” has nothing to do with achieving perfect intonation in all voice sections, SATB. So let’s dispense with this “love” thing and how much you like her and get that out of the way from the start. Because the topic is choral excellence — doing a job that she’s paid to do by the Conservatory and not riding on her degree from Westminster Choir College — and not her personality and the affection you have for her.
I wish I could write as positively about the New England Conservatory Concert Choir as I have about the New England Conservatory Philharmonic and their performances, but unfortunately I can’t do that and be honest. Also, on this page I give examples of choral ensembles of all sizes from Chamber size to large-scale Orchestra Choruses which sing with perfect intonation. The size of the Chorus is irrelevant. Instead, it has to do with how they are trained. Some Chorus Directors are doing their job. Others clearly are not but remain in their positions. Why?
Isn’t the New England Conservatory Concert Choir and Chamber Singers the same choral ensemble that used to be called the New England Conservatory Chorus — which sang with perfect intonation under Chorus Director Lorna Cooke deVaron — and performed and recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops before John Oliver founded the Tanglewood Festival Chorus which replaced the New England Conservatory Chorus? (Some background on that: As the story goes, John Oliver went to Seiji Ozawa and told him, “We need our own Chorus.” Seiji said: “Go start one.” Shocked John Oliver did and named it the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to be the Official Chorus of the Tanglewood Music Festival, and later the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops.)
I don’t think Ms deVaron would be very pleased with the “sound” of her Chorus today, or rather the “sound” of her sopranos and altos sections. She’d likely ask: Who trained you? Some Chorus Director of an Opera Chorus?
Listening to their 1969 performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New England Conservatory Chorus under deVaron had a very, very bright sound but they did not have this fluttering and wobbling vocal effect — also known as needless noticeable vibrato; they don’t sound polished/refined — that one hears today in the Women’s section of the NEC Concert Choir.
The Women of the NEC Concert Choir sound like they’re trying to emulate an Opera Chorus, but the pieces they’re singing are NOT opera. The Women have this rough-sounding, unrefined, unpolished sound, almost as if they’re very nervous and it shows in their voices with this fluttery sound. Why “sing” like that? It’s awful. Dreadful. It sound shrill. It sounds very unrefined and even unrehearsed. They don’t sound polished and perfected. Do they sound like that because they can’t do any better? Mi amigo/My friend asked: “Or is this the Chorus where all others dump their worst choristers in?” Well no, the NEC Concert Choir is the Symphonic Chorus on campus. They’re supposed to be the best along with the Chamber Singers. You can hear this “sound” I’m talking about at around 1.08 in the video. It’s not a lovely sound by any definition, and I don’t know who would like it who has a well-trained ear in choral excellence.
(On another topic briefly, notice the vocal soloist for Mahler’s Third (video below) had to show up half naked obsessed with her cleavage and upper chest, like many/most? females are. That’s just the truth which most won’t want to hear. She seems to be saying, “I want all but my tits to show, and I’d like them to show too if I could get away with it!” I only bring that up because imagine if a guy showed up on stage dressed in a similar way. I think guys should. But no, he has to be covered up like a monk. There’s such a double standard in performance attire between the genders.)
Also, listening to a clip — which was all that’s available — of the New England Conservatory Chorus and Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 1969 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, the New England Conservatory Chorus sang with perfect intonation. They did not sound at all like the NEC Concert Choir and Chamber Singers sound these days. In the 1969 performance, there was no nervous-sounding fluttering, wobbling, shrill sounds from the soprano section. So what has happened to cause this relaxing of the highest standards of choral excellence in the Choral Department at the esteemed and renowned New England Conservatory?
As a Conservatory-trained musician myself, I expect the best from NEC. Unfortunately, I don’t hear the best at NEC when it comes to choral performances. You have to go elsewhere to hear the best.
I also listened to their performance of Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2 with the BSO with Chorus Director deVaron. Again, they sang with perfect intonation, so I don’t know what has happened to the NEC Choral Department since the days of its founder, Lorna Cooke deVaron. Well frankly, I do know. Let’s tell it like it is: The Women of the Chorus are not as good as they used to be. Period. They could be if their Chorus Director demanded it. The Men of the Chorus mostly sing with perfect intonation. With the NEC Concert Choir, it’s as if the Women and the Men were prepared by two different Chorus Directors, one who believes in perfect intonation and the other who clearly does not. So there’s this clash in sound; they don’t match.
I had first titled this article, “Why doesn’t the New England Conservatory Concert Choir sing with perfect intonation?” but the answer to that seemed rather obvious. Is it because the Director of Choral Activities at NEC doesn’t believe in perfect intonation? Well that can’t be it because, again, the Men mostly sing with perfect intonation. Or perhaps she thinks that perfect intonation only applies to Men’s voices? That would be news to Robert Shaw, Margaret Hillis, Norman Scribner and Dr Paul Traver if they were alive. It will be news to Simon Halsey, Matthew Hale, James Burton, William Christie, Vance George and others. Or is the Chorus Director at NEC too damn lazy to do her job properly and doesn’t feel like putting in the effort to achieve the perfect blending of voices across all voice sections (SATB) as was the case with John Oliver of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus? Or, does the Choral Director feel — for some ludicrous reason — that sopranos and altos are exempt from perfectly blending their voices? Ludicrous. What is wrong with the woman?
Which makes one wonder: One might expect this attitude at a lesser known Conservatory, but how did this Choral Director get the job at an esteemed Conservatory such as New England where one would assume that perfect intonation would be a given?
This makes no sense what-so-ever, like many things these days here in the Century of Insanity.
Perfect intonation does take time, effort, and work to achieve. Absolutely. But so does everything else in music. And music is all about detail and being “nit-picky” — that’s a positive characteristic when striving for excellence — in order to achieve the highest standards.
Unfortunately, more and more lazy choral directors — particularly in the US — seem to be abandoning the concept of perfect intonation, preferring that their choral ensemble (particularly the soprano section) sound like an untrained, unrefined, unpolished, wobbling and fluttering Opera Chorus of 75-150 individual voices — with very noticeable vibrato — rather than a polished and refined ensemble of trained voices, trained in choral excellence: Perfect Intonation where each section of the Chorus sounds like one voice, and not 50 different voices (if you have 50 sopranos in the soprano section). One should not hear individual voices in a well-trained Chorus singing with perfect intonation.
A bit of history: It’s probably best if the reader read my article titled “Tangling with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus” before reading this article so you’ll have some framework and point of reference to understand this article better.
But for those too lazy to go read that article, let me say this: During my time writing that article, I listened to other choral ensembles in Boston. And I began to think/ask: Are they all trying to emulate/sound like the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC)? Why would they do that? At that time, the TFC did not sing with perfect intonation. Well, the Men of the Chorus did. The Men of the TFC were excellent under John Oliver, except for the occasional cracking tenor voices that the broadcast mics picked up in Beethoven’s Ninth. One should never have cracking voices in a well-trained Chorus. The Women of the TFC were another story! They were mostly dreadful. They had a lot of “dead wood” in the soprano and alto sections. They had women in the Chorus who should have been asked to leave years ago. They sounded rough, unrefined and unpolished, especially that soprano section. Absolutely dreadful the noise they produced at times. The soprano section was the worst with their fluttering and wobbling, cackling and shrill sounds especially in their high register. One especially heard these ugly noises in the highest notes in Mahler’s Resurrection or Beethoven’s Ninth. I had to turn them off because of the fluttering, wobbling, cackling and shrill sounds coming from the soprano section. But again, unfortunately John Oliver kept sopranos in the Chorus who should have been gone years ago. Their voices and musical abilities were not of the caliber one expects to hear from the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops. And many people noticed — including the orchestral conductor and orchestral members and music reviewers — but they skated around it and did not talk about it as frankly and honestly as I am. They didn’t seem to want to offend anyone by telling it like it is as I like to do.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus was one of my favourite Choruses when they were started. Then there was a long period where I didn’t hear them for various reasons. Years later, I remember hearing the TFC for the first time in years sing for Senator Ted Kennedy’s funeral in Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia. I heard wobbling and fluttering sopranos — they sounded like your aged, average podunk Church Choir women — and I remember asking: What has happened to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus? Has John Oliver lost his hearing? They didn’t sound like this in their early days. I began to do some research and found that other people grounded in choral excellence had noticed these ugly sounds and had written about it in reviews of the Chorus.
Then I heard the Boston University Symphony Chorus and they had a similar problem with their soprano and alto sections. Their Rachmaninov The Bells performance was quite good and they mostly sang with perfect intonation, the Men were better than the Women. In their performance of Mendelssohn’s Elias, their sopranos sounded like Tanglewood: fluttering, wobbling, ugly noises. This was especially noticeable in the chorus from Elias, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Holy is god the lord.” Why the difference in training? They were trained by Ann Howard Jones who worked with Robert Shaw. So one might think that Ms Jones would produce similar results to that of Shaw. Wrong assumption. She lied and told the students at Eastman School of Music that “Bob liked to hear individual voices.” That’s a lie. That’s absolute rubbish and she knows it’s rubbish. Anyone who has listened to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Robert Shaw knows that the ASOC sang with perfect intonation in all voice sections under Shaw. One did not hear individual voices at all. Period. Robert Shaw talked about perfect intonation in every choral workshop he gave at Carnegie Hall. She was sitting there in the front row of the Chorus on one occasion when he spoke about perfect intonation. The thing is: Ms Jones likes to hear individual voices and does not believe in perfect intonation (except maybe for the tenors and basses), so she was trying to ride on the coattails of Shaw to justify that. Is that why he told her “You’ll take it” (to get her out of Atlanta) when she told him about the job offer she had received at Boston University College of Arts? So that when Shaw died, Norman Mackenzie would become Director of Choral Activities of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and not Ms Jones?
Fact: The only time Robert Shaw liked to hear individual voices was for chorister auditions and for vocal soloists. In the Chorus? Absolutely Not! And Ann Howard Jones knows that. Unfortunately none of the students at Eastman School of Music called her on her lie about Shaw liking to hear individual voices in a Chorus. I would have stood and told Ms Jones: I have heard many recordings of Shaw’s ASOC and I’ve never heard individual voices in his Chorus, so can you please elaborate on your comment about Shaw wanting to hear individual voices? Call her on her lie.
Then I heard the NEC Concert Choir. Their soprano and alto sections seem to be trying to emulate the Tanglewood “sound” (under John Oliver). Why would anyone want to emulate that?
So I began to ask: Is this thing of wobbling, fluttering, cackling, shrill noises, and singing/screaming with noticeable vibrato a Boston thing when it comes to a soprano section?
Just because the Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus don’t sing with perfect intonation (before James Burton’s arrival), BU and NEC both think they shouldn’t either?
Well it makes it easy for the Chorus Director because s/he doesn’t have to do their job at working to accomplish perfect intonation. Just work on diction and let them wobble and flutter their way through major symphonic choral works. Dreadful.
I’ve heard the NEC Concert Choir in two symphonic choral performances with the NEC Philharmonia and neither time did the full Chorus sing with perfect intonation. Again, it’s as if the Men of the Chorus had been trained by one Chorus Director who did believe in perfect intonation for the most part, and the Women of the Chorus had a different Chorus Director who did not believe in perfect intonation. Again, the Men of the NEC (mostly) sang with perfect intonation. They were certainly better than the women, and because they mostly sang with perfect intonation the Men were the stronger voice sections and the more polished. Some musicians in the NEC Philharmonia must have thought to themselves: Why does our Chorus sound like that? Are the Women nervous? Is that why they sound nervous and fluttery with that quivering sound they make with each note?
“Everyone” in Boston is supposed to sound like the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the late John Oliver?
As for trying to sound like the TFC (pre-Burton) why emulate bad musicianship? Why emulate poor choral singing? Why emulate something that is not the highest of choral excellence, particularly the Women’s section?
But since James Burton’s arrival, from a brief clip I heard of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus pre-COVID, the TFC now sings with perfect intonation in all voice sections (SATB). This is what I had expected James would accomplish with the TFC based on his stellar work with Choruses in the UK, such as with the Hallé Youth Choir (Manchester) and their performances at the BBC Proms.
So when shall we expect BU and NEC to get it together and join the perfect intonation club? Not anytime soon? Not anytime soon if NEC keeps their current Director of Choral Activities. Or will she decide to do her job finally, and get the entire Chorus into perfect intonation?
I mean, don’t you want to be like the “new” polished and refined Tanglewood? If the goal in Boston is for “everyone” to sound like Tanglewood. Or do you want to sound like the “old” Tanglewood Festival Chorus of unpolished and unrefined cackling and shrill and wobbling and fluttering Women’s sections?
Just like with any orchestral ensemble, the size of the ensemble is irrelevant when it comes to perfect intonation.
Someone will likely troll me and say, “But the Choruses you’re using as examples below are large.” And what does that have to do with anything? When it comes to perfect intonation, the size of the Chorus is irrelevant. And by the way, the Collegium 1704 Vocale is not large. They are a Chamber Chorus of approximately 20 voices.
Perfect intonation applies to 2 voices just as much as it does 200 voices.
Here’s an example of 5 voices singing in perfect intonation. Listen to the soprano section of Collegium 1704 Vocale. The soprano section consists of 5 voices yet they sound like one voice, as they should. The first time mi amigo/my friend heard this he said, “That soprano has a lovely voice.” I asked him: What soprano? He said, “The soprano singing that solo.” I said: No soprano is singing a solo there. What you’re hearing is the perfect blending of 5 voices of the soprano section. He was amazed. Hear it for yourself at 47.20 — or start a little bit before — in this video (Zelenka: Missa Omnium Sanctorum, ZWV 21). Also, please notice that the soprano soloist who sings with some noticeable vibrato in her soloist role completely turns off any noticeable vibrato when singing with the Chorus, so that the soprano section sings with perfect intonation. So when anyone says that a chorister or other vocalists cannot turn off their (noticeable) vibrato, that is absolute rubbish. It’s just a pathetic excuse to defend ugly noticeable wobbling and fluttering vibrato. Some times the vibrato is so bad that you can’t tell what pitch the person is aiming for.
It has been said that very noticeable vibrato is used by people who have pitch problems and other vocal problems. Think operatic singers/screamers. They use vibrato to cover up any vocal problems, and most people won’t know the difference! Many people gush with praise over choral ensembles not singing with perfect intonation. Clearly they have no ear or trained ear for choral excellence. Anything better than your average podunk Church Choir sounds fine to these musically-illiterate people. But please go to 47.20 in this video below to hear the perfect blending of soprano voices (it’s 5 sopranos) sounding like one voice. The camera only shows 2 of the sopranos rather than the entire soprano section:
Now why can’t all soprano sections sound like this, including the New England Conservatory Concert Choir? Why would any soprano section want to sound anything other than this polished, perfectly sung performance?
I’m talking about you NEC Concert Choir sopranos. What is wrong with the Director of Choral Activities at NEC that she’s unable to produce this perfection from her Chorus? Does she not have the training to do so? I don’t understand this. Or does she prefer the ugly, unrefined, unpolished sounds/noise of wobbling, nervous-sounding, fluttery noticeable vibrato from the Women of the NEC Concert Choir and Chamber Singers?
And one cannot achieve perfect intonation with any chorister singing with noticeable vibrato. Even one chorister can contaminate an entire section if that one chorister is singing with noticeable vibrato.
I should point out that the excellent NEC Philharmonia plays with perfect intonation.
So when will the New England Conservatory Choral Department catch up to speed by raising its standards to be on an equal level with their Philharmonia? Currently that is not the case.
The NEC Philharmonia is superior to the quality produced by the Choral Department. If the current Director of Choral Activities is unable to accomplish this, then NEC could hire James Burton from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus or Matthew Hale from the Hallé Choir to come over and do the job properly and get their monies’ worth out of the person holding the position of Director of Choral Activities at NEC.
Even though I was trained as a symphonic choral person and with experience in three major Orchestra Choruses, these days I’m becoming more and more hesitant to listen to a choral ensemble I’m unfamiliar with because I’ve come to automatically assume that they will not be singing with perfect intonation. And I don’t care to be annoyed. It’s with hesitation that I click on a Chorus I’m unfamiliar with. Also, even with some choral ensembles that I’ve heard before, they will sing with perfect intonation in one performance but not in another. Why the inconsistency?
It seems that more and more Choral Directors these days are not doing their job to achieve one of the foundations of choral excellence: Perfect Intonation. I can even forgive a little bit of sloppy diction (such as scattered s’s or plattered t’s) as long as the Chorus is singing with perfect intonation.
I have found that with the exception of France, choral ensembles in the EU are the most likely to be singing with perfect intonation. France is notorious for wobbling, fluttering vibrato with the choral ensembles I’ve heard from there, mostly in Paris. Their Orchestra Choruses sound more like an Opera Chorus with wobbling and fluttering voices, as if one is supposed to guess what notes they claim to be singing.
I’ve never heard an Opera Chorus sing with perfect intonation. Instead, I heard what sounded like 150 different voices. Not good. A commenter online was making a similar comment about the lack of perfect intonation from the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. Well I’ve come to expect as much from any Opera Chorus. I don’t think they’ve ever heard the term perfect intonation. It’s like you have a Chorus of 150 divas all trying to overpower each other. So they can be “discovered?”
Again, it takes work to achieve perfect intonation, but once that’s accomplished it’s pretty much done from my experience in three major Orchestra Choruses in the States (Choral Arts Society of Washington, University of Maryland Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus).
So when I click on a symphonic choral performance from the New England Conservatory, I expected to hear perfect intonation. Being a highly-regarded Conservatory where one would assume perfect intonation is a given in the training, I was disappointed by their performance. I asked: Who trained this Chorus? And how did that person get hired by NEC? Nobody else applied for the job? Being a graduate of Westminster Choir College seems to be the most notable achievement of the Director of Choral Activities at NEC. This is not the first time I’ve been disappointed in a Chorus that she had prepared. Their Brahms’s EDR was equally disappointing. It started out good but then the soprano and alto sections came out of perfect intonation and started their quivering and wobbling routine. The nervous sounds they make. I had the same complaint about that performance that I have with their Haydn performance.
Again, if the NEC wanted the best for their Choral Department, they’d hire James Burton, the somewhat-new Chorus Director for the BSO’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Or Matthew Hamilton, although it would be a shame to take him away from his stellar work in the UK. Matthew does his job and does it exceptionally well.
Oh I’m sure many or most NEC choristers would say, “Oh but we love our Director of Choral Activities; she is awesome, so nice and all.” Well that’s fine, but she wasn’t hired to be “nice and all and awesome as a person” but rather to produce choral excellence. That’s what she’s there for! And that’s what’s missing at NEC. I’d suggest you raise your standards NEC choristers. She was presumably hired to do a job of producing the highest level of choral excellence for a renowned Conservatory, and she is not doing that based on two symphonic choral performances I’ve heard from her NEC Chorus (NEC Concert Choir and Chamber Singers).
The two performances I heard are not what I would expect to hear from any esteemed Conservatory. Therefore, something is amiss with the training. She’s good with diction, but has difficulty when instilling perfect intonation in her choristers, particularly her female choristers, specifically the soprano section in their high register.
I feel I’m repeating myself here throughout this article, but there are so many dense and thick people out there who seem to need a picture to be drawn for them in order for them to understand/grasp what one is talking about, and some of them may show up here. Especially what I call the Vibratobots. It’s a common problem these days. I suppose they think no one will notice that the Chorus is not singing with perfect intonation and perhaps some sloppy diction — except myself, other well-trained choristers, James Burton, Simon Halsey and a few others — and the Chorus Director may say to him/herself:
“They wouldn’t dream of letting me go just because my Chorus doesn’t sing with perfect intonation, if they even know what perfect intonation is! It’s too much work to try to achieve the perfect blending of voices. So I take the approach that I’ll just let them sing however they want — fluttering, wobbling, screechy, cackling, shrill — and few people will even notice. Most people will just think they’re supposed to sound like that — confusing symphonic choral music with opera — because they don’t know any better and they don’t have an ear for choral excellence. But I won’t be fired over it. And I don’t really care about my reputation because I suppose my reputation is secured as long as I’m on the Faculty at this Conservatory. The people who don’t know anything about perfect intonation will write comments about how beautiful and wonderful our performances are regardless, because they don’t know any better. Well-trained choristers will know but I don’t really care what they think. They’re in the minority. The fact is: Our choristers could stand up there on the Chorus risers behind the NEC Philharmonia and scream, and there would be people roaring in approval about how beautiful it is!” Well that’s true. There’s no shortage of stupid and ignorant people. Because most people don’t have an ear for choral excellence; they don’t know what to listen for in a symphonic choral performance. Anything that sounds just a little bit better to them than your average Church Choir is fine with them.”
And I suspect that’s the thinking of these Chorus Directors I have in mind. Or at least that’s the impression I get.
The thing is: The Director of Choral Activities at NEC does know how to — pretty much — achieve perfect intonation with the tenor and bass sections. They’re the best of her Chorus and the stronger voice sections. But when it comes to those sopranos especially, she seems inept. Either that, or she likes that fluttering, wobbling, shrill, those ugly screechy sounds/noise that her soprano section makes especially in their high register where, again, they sound similar to what the soprano section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was heavily criticised for under John Oliver. Why emulate that inferiority? Just because it’s the TFC? Are all choral ensembles in the Boston area trying to mock the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under John Oliver because they are the Official Chorus of the BSO and Boston Pops? If so, bad idea. Set your standards higher.
Does the Director of Choral Activites like that the soprano section sounds weak as compared to the more powerful tenor and bass sections singing with (mostly) perfect intonation?
Someone will rush to their defence by saying: They’re just students. And the fact that they are students is moot. Student Choruses all over the world are trained to sing with perfect intonation. So let’s put that excuse to rest.
For those who don’t know, James Burton (who holds a Master’s Degree in Orchestral Conducting from the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore) is a highly-regarded choral clinician from the UK. He prepared his Hallé Choir — singing with perfect intonation; a straight tone — and other Choruses for the BBC Proms.
Clearly, Matthew Hamilton is doing his job. He’s the splendid Chorus Director of the Manchester’s Hallé Choir. And his refined conducting style is how I was trained to conduct at the Conservatory where I studied. Rather than to wave and flail your arms around as some conductors do. And listen to the very clear runs in the Zakok. That’s how the runs in the Haydn should have sounded from the NEC Chorus rather than slurred/blurred over. Listen to their soprano section of the Hallé Choir. Not a wobble or flutter in the bunch and a very secure and strong soprano section sound as opposed to the weak with fluttering and wobbling, unpolished, unrefined soprano section sound of the NEC Concert Choir and Chamber Singers. Also, Matthew’s background is what I would expect to read as the background of the Director of Choral Activities at NEC:
“Choral Director at the Hallé since 2015, Matthew Hamilton is also a regular collaborator with other leading choirs across a broad repertoire. Other posts he holds are Associate Director of the London Symphony Chorus and Musical Director of the New London Chamber Choir. As a guest conductor he has appeared with groups including the BBC Singers, Netherlands Chamber Choir, Choeur de Radio France, ChorWerk Ruhr, BBC Symphony Chorus, CBSO Chorus and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. His orchestral work has included concerts with the Hallé, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Manchester Camerata.
He read music at Oxford, before studying composition at the University of Manchester and choral conducting at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. He participated in masterclasses with some of Europe’s finest professional choirs, including the Berlin Radio Choir and Netherlands Chamber Choir, and in 2010 won the Bramstrup Conducting Award (Denmark).”
Well, not that long ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra made a very intelligent decision and hired James Burton from the UK to bring the Tanglewood Festival Chorus back up to the level of choral excellence expected of them as the Official Chorus of the BSO. Pre-COVID, I saw a brief clip of one of the TFC’s most recent performances under Burton and they were indeed singing with perfect intonation (except for the soprano section’s High C) in all voice sections (SATB) as I thought would be the case with James. The TFC looked smaller in size than under John Oliver, because I read that approximately one-third of the Chorus had left or failed Burton’s more stringent audition, so he was pretty much working with mostly new choristers, I think. But they have improved under Burton as I thought would be the case.
Take this performance of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung. This is the second symphonic choral performance from NEC that I’ve been disappointed in, mainly because of the Women of the Chorus. The other one was their performance of the Brahms’s EDR. The Director of Choral Activities at NEC is a graduate of Westminster Choir College. Well, that’s good but personally I expect more than that at a major Conservatory. I looked over her background, and quite honestly for a Conservatory such as NEC, I would have expected her to have trained under Margaret Hillis, Robert Shaw and or other highly-regarded Chorus Directors of the past generation, as well as some choral clinicians from the EU. But I didn’t see any of that in her background. Much of it was minor stuff by comparison. So, maybe that explains the following:
Mi amigo/My friend trained his choral ear (through me) on Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Perfect Intonation. Today, mi amigo can instantly recognise Atlanta under Shaw whenever he hears them. For this performance of the Haydn from the NEC, he said the following:
The Women of the Chorus in this performance sound almost podunk in places, as if they’re sight-reading the score. It was certainly not one voice (perfect intonation). It’s as if Ms Chorus Director does not believe in perfect intonation for Women, only for the Men. (He sounds like me). The Women sound under-powered, screechy, fluttery and wobbly. The Men are much more powerful in sound than the Women. If one would ask me about my opinion about the Chorus Director, I’d have to say she is not doing her job properly. Or, she rejects one of the foundations of choral excellence: Perfect Intonation (the perfect blending of voices) for Women’s voices. How could she possibly find the Women’s performance (“sound”) acceptable? It’s certainly not what I expect to hear from a highly-regarded Conservatory.
I completely agree with his assessment. I would also add: the runs in the choral writing of the Haydn were not clean. They were not articulated. The voices were sliding around from note to note. The notes in the runs were blurred or slurred over. It sounded like all the choristers were merely sliding up and down the scale (per the score, of course) rather than having been trained to precisely articulate the run passages as well-trained Choruses are trained to do. How did this Chorus Director get hired by NEC? Is she the only person who applied for the job?
Riding on the coattails of Westminster Choir College?
Fire her and hire James Burton or Matthew Hale. It’s time that NEC raise the level of choral excellence at the Conservatory.
As for the Haydn, this is how the oratorio should sound. This is perfect intonation here in this performance. Listen to this glorious soprano section sounding like one voice. You will hear no wobbling, no fluttering, no screeching, no weakness. This performance is by the Academy and Chorus of the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood (unfortunately it’s sung in English, but from a choral standpoint this is how it should sound.):
The performance from the New England Conservatory features the combined choral ensembles of the New England Conservatory Concert Choir and Chamber Singers — which I’ll refer to in this article as the Chorus or the NEC Chorus — with the superb NEC Philharmonia, conducted by David Loebel.
As for David Loebel, he is one conductor who really conducts, as opposed to “waving his arms around” as too many conductors do.
Being a symphonic choral person, I’ve always liked the choral sections in Die Schöpfung (for the stupid people: it’s an oratorio; not an opera), but I have never been hot for the soloist passages. And at times, the Chorus sings beneath the soloist(s). That can be beautiful, if the soloist is singing beautifully and is not screaming — as too many vocal soloists do these days — or annoying.
Good to see the New England Conservatory perform Die Schöpfung in Deutsch, and not English, and the Chorus’s Deutsch diction was excellent. I will say that for them and the Director of Choral Activities.
I remember awhile after writing my article critical of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, a guy wrote me claiming to be a chorister in the TFC. He asked me: “What’s wrong with a little vibrato?” He gave himself away right there, but I played along for awhile. What’s wrong with “a little” (noticeable) vibrato? Well, one would think he would already know that. “A little vibrato” prevents perfect intonation — the perfect blending of voices — one of the foundations of choral excellence. That’s what is wrong with vibrato! And he should have known that if he were a well-trained chorister. For example, with the finest Choruses who sing with perfect intonation, if one of the choristers is asked to do a solo, he or she may turn on some vibrato for the solo part, but after stepping back in the Chorus, he or she knows to turn off said vibrato. You don’t use that in the Chorus. It only takes one chorister singing with (noticeable) vibrato to ruin the perfect blending of voices.
Now someone will likely troll me — perhaps even some of the choristers from the NEC who won’t like what I’ve said about them — and ask me, “Well how should the soprano section of the NEC Chorus sound, according to you.” Well to begin with, it’s not “according to me.” It’s according to choral excellence which the finest choral clinicians follow. I’m merely following how I was trained at the Conservatory where I trained along with my years in major Orchestra Choruses where all three Choruses sang with perfect intonation: Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington, Dr Paul Traver’s renowned University of Maryland Chorus and Margaret Hillis’s/Vance George’s San Francisco Symphony Chorus.
The NEC Chorus — and particularly the soprano section should sound like any of these Choruses on this page. All sing with the perfect blending of voices in all voice sections (SATB). They are all trained in choral excellence. All of these Chorus Directors are doing their job properly.
The NEC Concert Choir has performed the Brahms’s EDR, but from a choral standpoint it didn’t sound like this stellar performance from Frankfurt. It could have possibly if the Chorus Director at NEC had done her job properly: (The Chorus in this performance — singing with perfect intonation in all voice sections — is from Leipzig: the MDR-Rundfunkchor):
Or Cappella Amsterdam:
Or Collegium 1704 Vocale from the Czech Republic:
You will not hear any wobbling or fluttering in the high register of the soprano section with any of these Choruses. You will not hear any “nervous-sounding” fluttering or shrill sounds, screeching or cackling noises with any of these choral ensembles.
The problem with the NEC Concert Choir and Chamber Singers is that their “sound” is not consistent, unfortunately. It’s too bad that the Women of the Chorus can’t sing consistently with perfect intonation. In this performance of the Haydn, the soprano section sings with (close to) perfect intonation when they’re singing lower in their register. But when they’re in their high register they come out of perfect intonation and have this fluttery, wobbling sound. I’ll assume that’s how they were trained. So there is no consistency in their sound across their vocal range. They have the same problem that the Tanglewood Festival Chorus had and was criticised for under the late John Oliver. That’s why I’ve asked: Is the NEC Chorus trying to emulate the “old” TFC under John Oliver? If so, bad idea. Why emulate that? If you’re going to emulate them, wait until superb James Burton has completed his revamping of the TFC and brings them back up to the consistent level of choral excellence expected of them as the Official Chorus of the BSO. I heard the TFC in a brief clp pre-COVID and they were now singing with perfect intonation, even the soprano section.
Overall, the tenor section of the NEC Concert Choir is superb; I heard no struggling with these tenors — other choral ensembles would love to have that tenor section — and the tenors do indeed come the closest to sounding like one voice along with the basses. Their diction is excellent. But with this Chorus, the women are my least favorite. This is not what one expects to hear from a well-renowned and highly-regarded Conservatory. Someone may justify it by saying, “but they’re students.” That they are students has nothing to with it. Many student choral ensembles sing with perfect intonation. Any choral ensemble can be trained to sing with perfect intonation, such as the Choir of Men and Boys in Anglican Cathedrals, or regional Boy and Girl Choruses. Listen to the boy choristers of St Thomas Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. They’re students. They sing with perfect intonation where they sound like one voice. It has to do with their training, not what they’re doing in life, students or not. There are other choral ensembles with the same problem. They’re not students. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus under John Oliver was not students in the main. All the Orchestra Choruses I sang with sang with perfect intonation. There were some students in the Chorus but, again, that had absolutely nothing to do with the training. A Chorus Director doesn’t say: Well since this is a student ensemble, we should expect less; we shouldn’t strive for choral excellence. Only a lazy Chorus Director would say that.
It’s as if the Men of the Chorus were prepared by a different Chorus Director — who believes in perfect intonation — than who prepared the Women, who does not believe in perfect intonation, or rather does not strive for the perfect blending of voices when the sopranos are singing in their high register.
Bottom line: The Women do not sound as polished and refined as the Men of the Chorus do.
Also, for anyone interested, they used the Editions Peters Urtext score for the Haydn.
The best known chorus from this oratorio is probably, “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” and in that overall all sections (SATB) sound fine, especially the tenors and basses. Maybe that’s because the soprano section does not have choral writing in their upper register in that particular chorus.
In the Haydn, as for the vocal soloists, I would have preferred that they be seated back on either side of the Chorus preferably at an angle so that they can see the performance they’re a part of, like the rest of us. I don’t know who came up with the ludicrous idea of parking vocal soloists on the edge of the stage for symphonic choral performers with their back to all the other musicians on stage is per (silly) tradition, but it makes no sense logically. They sit there staring out at the audience unable to enjoy watching all the other musicians on stage. One of the many ridiculous traditions of the classical music genre. I also found it odd that the audience for this performance gave the vocal soloists an ovation as if they’re rock stars or something. Damn odd really. They’re just the vocal soloists. Who are they any different than the choristers? They were not given the same ovation. Again, the classical music genre has some very outdated and weird traditions.
Here’s a superb Chorus (and Orchestra) and tenor soloist performing the Berlioz Grande Messe des morts. The Chorus sings with perfect intonation in all voice sections. Wouldn’t the Director of Choral Activities at NEC like her Chorus to sound like this Chorus? (Please ignore the awful, tacky ads that G**gle runs throughout the performance. G**gle is the lowest of lows. Just corporate trash). Imagine if live performances in Concert Halls and elsewhere injected ads into the performance on some big screen where the performance stops in the middle of a measure for another tacky and irrelevant ad. Corporate trash.
This performance is from May 2017 took place in Cologne Roman Catholic Cathedral:
Hector Berlioz: Requiem ”Grande Messe des Morts” WDR
Tschechisch Philharmonischer Chor Brno
WDR Rundfunkchor Köln
Tenor: Andrew Staples (He’s excellent)
Conductor: Jukka-Pekka Saraste
And finally, I have a question: Why does the audience at NEC wildly scream, roar and applaud the vocal soloists-screamers and conductor when they walk out on stage as if they’re rock stars? They’re just the soloists and conductor and no more important than the other musicians on stage? Did they give the same rock star welcome to the Chorus when they walked on stage? I suspect not. The juvenile-sounding rock star welcome is not what I expected to hear from a renowned Conservatory with mature students and Faculty. One does not hear this type of welcome in a Concert Hall, so why this sports team-style yelling in Jordan Hall? Chau.—el barrio rosa