The Boston Pops Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus

“Fluttering and Wobbling Boston.” What is it going to take for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) to have a polished, refined soprano section that sings with perfect intonation? That seems beyond them. It takes work to achieve SATB perfect intonation. They brought in James Burton in 2017 and still they sound more like they did under John Oliver. I’m sorry to say that their soprano section is still wobbling, fluttering and screechy. If only James Burton could replace his current soprano section with the soprano section of the Hallé Choir of Manchester that he had back in 2009 for their BBC Proms’ performance, then the TFC would be on their way to achieving choral excellence. Burton still has his work cut out for him, as the expression goes.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus has been around for decades (since 1970) and their name has been printed on programmes and spoken by WGBH-Boston announcers probably thousands of times by now, yet reading some comments on line, some insipid people — who lack attention to detail — still don’t know their name or what to call them, which is really very disrespectful of the Chorus. By the way, Chorus (capital C) is for an choral ensemble; retain the capital C that’s used for their name, i.e. Tanglewood Festival Chorus, also known as the Chorus hereinafter. Whereas chorus (lower case c) is for the chorus of a hymn, the chorus of a song or some other type of musical composition that has a chorus section, such as the choruses of an oratorio which are sung by the Chorus on stage. Understand? Music critics and reviewers — and pretty much everybody else — are notorious for using the wrong word when writing about the performance of the Chorus. I guess they never learned the difference.

And in December 2022 (see the two Holiday Pops videos at bottom of page), their performances were catering to the lowest common denominator in Symphony Hall. Based on the antics and behaviour of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in that tacky arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas — of all the arrangements of that available, who would choose that arrangement? — is that why the Boston Pops didn’t even acknowledge the Chorus performing with them in the video descriptions? As if saying: Oh we’d really rather not say who they are quite frankly, if you don’t already know. Their performance from decades ago for Holiday Pops was drastically different. That was adult in nature.

“Pops” music is of course different than symphonic choral music, but the level of choral excellence is still expected to be the same.

In this performance (below), as for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC), the Men of the Chorus were singing with perfect intonation from what I could tell. It was a little hard to tell though because that awful soprano section was all I could really hear. The Men are much better than the Women, as was the case under John Oliver.

Will the Tanglewood Festival Chorus ever have a good soprano section? One that sounds polished and refined, singing with perfect intonation? Will the TFC ever have a soprano section that sounds as refined and polished — and singing with perfect intonation — as all of the other superb Orchestra Choruses heard in videos on this page?

I and others have been complaining about that soprano section for years. Read this review, for example:

“The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sounds a tad old-fashioned in comparison to Choruses that have come up in the digital era, stressing flawless intonation and purity of tone — this group (the Tanglewood Festival Chorus) has a few wobbly sopranos and are not particularly well divided in the sound mix, sounding sandpapery flat for the most part.” (Review of their recorded performance of Kurt Weill: Recordare; Luigi Dallapiccola: Canti di Prigionia, Release Date 1983, Source).

In this 2022 Holiday Pops performance (videos at bottom of page), the soprano section sounded thin (like middle-aged women’s voices; think podunk Church Choir voices), they sounded fragile, delicate, wobbling, fluttering, and they sounded screechy and thin on their high notes. They sounded awful. They did not sound polished and refined. The Women did not sound as good as the Men. If you could find a polished and refined Women’s Chorus singing with perfect intonation somewhere — although not likely to find that in Boston, from what I’ve heard from “wobbling and fluttering” Boston — and put them with the Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus you’d have a pretty good Chorus. The Men were also the best under John Oliver. They sang with perfect intonation and sounded very polished. I did occasionally hear cracking tenor voices — which one should not hear — on their high notes in Beethoven’s Ninth at the end of the Tanglewood Music Festival, but other than that, the Men were far superior to the wobbling, fluttering and cackling Women of the TFC. Well that’s still the case from what I heard in these clips.

I thought James Burton got rid of these dreadful soprano voices and choristers who had been kept in the Chorus past their voice’s “expiration date?” Apparently not.

Some history:

The Boston Pop’s Holiday at Pops concerts with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus have certainly been a tradition for decades in Boston’s Symphony Hall.

I watched their performance when I was in high school.  During those days, I looked forward to their performance over PBS from WGBH-Boston.  In those days, the announcer said it was a performance by the Boston Pops Orchestra and assisting the New England Conservatory Chorus, Lorna Cooke de Varon, Chorus Director.  I was particularly interested in the NEC Chorus since I was making preparations at that time to train at a Conservatory myself. Then, the next year the announcer (William Pierce from WGBH) — with his signature voice for the BSO — announced the performance by the Boston Pops Orchestra, and assisting the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, Chorus Director. Hmmmm. I wondered about that and in my mind I asked the television: What happened to the New England Conservatory Chorus who’s usually there and was there last year? Well, they got sent back down the street to the New England Conservatory — how did they feel about that? — and were replaced by the newly-formed Tanglewood Festival Chorus which was just started by John Oliver at that time — at the suggestion of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) conductor Seiji Ozawa — to be the Official Chorus of the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox MA. Tanglewood is the Summer home of the BSO. As the story goes: John Oliver went to Seiji Ozawa and said, “We need our own Chorus.” I wonder why John thought that? Did he not like the New England Conservatory Chorus? Lorna Cooke de Varon’s New England Conservatory Chorus — which sang with perfect intonation, even the soprano section — had quite a performance and recording legacy with the BSO in those days, up until the founding of the TFC.

When Oliver said to Ozawa, “We need our own Chorus,” Ozawa promptly said to Oliver, “Go start one!” John Oliver was stunned by that response since he was really just a young kid, a young guy and he didn’t expect that response from Ozawa. So John held chorister auditions and named his new Chorus the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC). It’s a really good name; I’ve always liked it. And I liked the TFC in their early days. As time passed, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus became the Official Chorus for both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops Orchestra and their performances in Boston’s Symphony Hall as well. I wonder how Lorna Cooke de Varon and her New England Conservatory Chorus felt about no longer performing with the BSO and Boston Pops? Losing the opportunities to perform with a major symphony orchestra in a renowned concert hall must have been disappointing as well as a shock. Although they had a good run for some time with the BSO. From what I’ve read, de Varon was also involved at Tanglewood as well as John Oliver.

In their early days, the TFC was one of my favourite Choruses, although my “choral ear” had not been trained by the finest Orchestra Choruses at that time (before my Conservatory days). I trained my “choral ear” on Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Simon Halsey’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus in the UK, as well as Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington and Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus. So considering that, it would be interesting to go back and hear what I liked about the Tanglewood Festival Chorus then and what I think about what I heard at that time today. In their early days, I think they sang with perfect intonation in all SATB parts.

But in December 2022, things were really quite different (see videos below). Particularly the maturity level. In high school, the performances I watched from Boston of the BSO and Boston Pops were very adult concerts. Void of any silliness. Just like it was in our elementary and high schools where I trained. Well, their performance in 2022 was the opposite, or at least one of the pieces was. I think this speaks to how dumbed-down and stupid the United States of North America has become and where “stupid is in” is celebrated. Intellectual is out and frowned upon. And that was confirmed by the rousing ovation for that tacky arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas performed by the TFC. What other tacky repertoire was on the same programme, and what other childish antics did the TFC engage in? I tried to find out, but oddly none of the programme was listed for these Holiday at Pops concerts on their website. In their performance of The Twelve Days of Christmas, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s antics/behaviour reminded me of what I would expect from an amateur Chorus. Or an amateur Children’s Chorus. Or a Kindergarten Chorus. Certainly not from a professional Orchestra Chorus, and not from the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And unfortunately the soprano section of the TFC sounds like what I’ve come to expect from them and what I expect the soprano section of an amateur Chorus to sound like.

For the Holiday at Pops programme that I watched in high school it featured Robert Russell Bennett’s, The Many Moods of Christmas, which I very much enjoyed. It’s a very nice medley of carols arranged differently than one has probably heard them where one carol flows into the other.  Years later, Robert Shaw and his superb Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus recorded The Many Moods of Christmas. They are a set of four suites of carols. And I believe the TFC only used two of them when I was in high school. Fast-forward to 2022, I think they should have stuck with those adult pieces, rather than the silly and tacky arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas that they used. That was embarrassing to watch. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing from the Official Chorus of the BSO. It was as if they were trying to be an amateurish “Show Choir” or something. It was awful, or at least that piece was with a part of the Hallelujah Chorus (from Messiah) stuck in there with new text added. Tacky. I assume that arrangement was chosen and the silliness and immaturity from some of the choristers was obviously deliberate and choreographed/planned ahead of time in order to “dumb-down” the repertoire to speak to a certain audience. It seemed to work considering the rousing ovation they received even before the piece ended. They liked that, did they? Well, that’s why that arrangement was performed and performed like that because stupid is in, stupid is fashionable in the United States of North American, even in Boston, for a holiday concert. Why should Boston be an exception to the dumbed-down state of things in the US?

Listening to the TFC, I was asking: Why do they never sound like the finest Orchestra Choruses that I’ve heard? In part, because of that wobbling and fluttering noticeable vibrato and some screechy sounds from the soprano section. The same ugly sounds and noise that one can hear from the soprano section of Boston University’s Symphony Chorus (their performance of Mendelssohn’s Elias comes to mind with wobbling and fluttering in the soprano section, and where one could hear individual voices) and the New England Conservatory Concert Choir (their performances of Brahms’s EDR and Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, had the same problems. Neither of their soprano sections sing with perfect intonation either, especially the NEC Concert Choir. It seems to be a Boston thing. Are they all trying to be like the TFC? Why would you do that? Why emulate a soprano section that sounds as bad as Tanglewood’s? They like wobbling, fluttering and screechy soprano sections in Boston it seems, as if they’re trying to emulate an Opera Chorus instead of being a Symphony Chorus/Orchestra Chorus singing with perfect intonation in all voice sections (SATB).

One might think that they need younger choristers in the soprano section of the TFC. Well, again, it depends upon how they’re trained. The choristers I’ve complained about at BU and at NEC are young choristers and — because of the way they’re trained, or lack of — they wobbled, fluttered and cackled their way from the Mendelssohn, Brahms and Haydn pieces I mentioned, as if they were trying to be like the soprano section of the TFC. Why? Just because they are the Official Chorus of the BSO? Why emulate a lack of choral excellence? That makes no sense what-so-ever.

James Burton’s Choruses in the UK didn’t sound like that. They were well-trained in choral excellence. His soprano section matched the “sound” of the rest of the Chorus. There was no wobbling, fluttering, noticeable vibrato or cackling from his soprano sections. As you can hear in this performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.2 in B flat Major ‘Lobgesang’, from the BBC Proms. The Mendelssohn begins at 1.03.38 in the video immediately below. And clearly the BBC “presenter” does not know any Deutsch/German since he mispronounced the name of the piece. Good to see that he’s prepared [roll eyes/sarcasm intended]). He couldn’t learn to pronounce one Deutsch word correctly? In this performance of over 200-voices, James Burton prepared the renowned Hallé Choir. You can see him at 2.07.00 in the video below when he comes out to take his bow. He was the Choral Director for the Hallé Choir based in Manchester. And you can also see Gregory Batsleer who prepared the Hallé Youth Choir. They both did a superb job in preparing their Choir for this performance. One will notice — if one has any ear at all for choral excellence — that the soprano section of the Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir fortunately sound nothing like the soprano section of the TFC. That’s because the Hallé Choir is well-trained, including in perfect intonation in all voice sections (SATB). And again, the size of the Chorus is irrelevant. You will hear no wobbling, fluttering, cackling or screechy sounds from the soprano section of the combined over 200 voices. Someone might say: But the soprano section of the Hallé Choir is much larger than the soprano section of the TFC. Well again, what does that have to do with anything? Perfect intonation applies to any size choral ensemble or section of a Chorus:

Or why can’t the TFC sound like this:

This is a performance of Händel’s Zadok the Priest with the Hallé Choir and Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Hamilton, and I presume he prepared the Choir. Notice that the Choir sings with perfect intonation in all voice sections, including the soprano section. One hears no wobbling, fluttering or screechy sounds from this soprano section. Tanglewood, take note.

Or like this:

Hallé Choir – Charles Villiers Stanford: The Blue Bird. I played this piece for my friend who trained his “choral ear” on the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and he said about the Hallé Choir, “Not a wobbler there.”  Are you listening Tanglewood?  Probably not. Or New England Conservatory fluttering/wobbling/nervous-sounding Concert Choir soprano and alto sections, the same with the BU Symphony Chorus or the Choral Department of Shenandoah Conservatory?**  Or Ann Howard Jones?  Or all the other Chorus Directors who don’t achieve perfect intonation with their Chorus or Choir, particularly with the soprano section. (** I heard one of the choral ensembles at Shenandoah Conservatory wobble and flutter their way through the folk song, “Shenandoah.” It was awful. I’ve never heard a folk song sung like opera. Folk songs are sung without any noticeable vibrato. There was one comment under the video. The person wrote, “Vibrato much?” Yes, exactly. I thought: Well good, someone else noticed.)

Or, why can’t the TFC sound like this superb Chorus from Leipzig performing Brahms’s EDR with the hr-S in Frankfurt? This Chorus is often invited to perform with the hr-Sinfonieorchester Frankfurt because they are a model of choral excellence (perfect intonation and very clear diction, as two examples). Listen to their soprano section, singing with perfect intonation. There are no fluttering, wobbling or screechy noises from them. And that tenor section, one of the best!:

Or this superb performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis from the Nederlands with Cappella Amsterdam (singing with perfect intonation in all voice sections) and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century:

Or this superb performance of the Mozart Requiem in d minor, K. 626 from Caracas, Venezuela with the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela (it is the apex of the nation’s system of youth orchestras but now it’s no longer a youth orchestra due to the rising age of the musicians), Simón Bolívar National Youth Choir of Venezuela, and Gregory Carreño, Conductor. The National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Choir are outstanding ensembles. The recording has some distortion in it at times. Just ignore that. The Choir sings with perfect intonation in all SATB sections, and Venezuela has some of the best tenors in the world. Listen to that tenor section. My favourite part of this performance is the “Amen” of the Lacrimosa dies illa movement. Notice that the strings use pedal point bowing for the “Amen” to keep the string sound going. Gustavo Dudamel has been the Orchestra’s artistic director since 1999. Unfortunately, I do not know the name of the Director of the National Youth Choir who prepared the Choir for this performance.

Or this superb smaller Chorus with its own Orchestra, Collegium 1704 (that I wrote about here) based in the Czech Republic:

All of the above video performances are examples of choral excellence where the Chorus is singing with perfect intonation, particular with the soprano section. Not a wobble or a flutter in the bunch! They can do it, why can’t Tanglewood? Well again, James Burton can only do so much with what he has to work with in Boston. I guess the BSO and Boston Pops Orchestra have finally learned that. It has to do with who and what auditions in, “Fluttering and Wobbling Boston.” Which is now how I think of Boston, I have to admit: Fluttering and wobbling women’s voices (TFC, Boston University and New England Conservatory). Dreadful noise and sounds — wobbling and fluttering — from their Women’s voices. Even the finest Chorus Directors or orchestral conductors cannot turn a podunk Chorus into one of these Choruses above. And most people don’t know that the orchestral conductors have zero to do with the Chorus to begin with. They usually only see the Chorus for the first time of a performance at the dress rehearsal on stage and only make minor changes or fine-tuning at that time, if needed. The Chorus Director does all the work in preparing the Chorus, not the orchestral conductor, unless they’re one-in-the-same on the odd occasion. That’s the way it was when I was in Orchestra Choruses in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (Choral Arts Society of Washington and University of Maryland Chorus) and in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall (San Francisco Symphony Chorus).

By the way, James Burton started in Boston with the TFC in February of 2017. Two years later, when the COVID pandemic began, the TFC had the best symphonic choral season planned that I saw of any Orchestra Choruses in the US but they didn’t get to perform any of it. From online: “James Burton was appointed Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and to the newly created position of BSO Choral Director, in February 2017.” He’s also on the faculty at Boston University (BU) as Director of Orchestral Activities and Master Lecturer. I wonder what Burton thinks about the wobbling and fluttering soprano and alto sections of the BU Symphony Chorus? They don’t sing with perfect intonation either, at least not consistently, not all the time. Trying to sound like Tanglewood, are you?

When Ann Howard Jones had the BU Symphony Chorus (their Mendelssohn’s Elias performance as one example), I saw a video of her speaking at Eastman School of Music (as memory serves) and she stood up there before the students and lied and said that Bob (Robert Shaw, whom she worked with in Atlanta) liked hearing individual voices (he did not!) — just because she does so she was trying to ride on Shaw’s coattails — in order to justify the ugly fluttering and wobbling sounds, very noticeable vibrato that she likes from her soprano and alto sections at BU. The tenors and basses at BU sang with perfect intonation. Anyone who has listened extensively to Robert Shaw’s outstanding Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus (ASOC) knows that what she said is a very transparent lie. Let’s tell it like it is and not sugar-coat lies. The ASOC sang with perfect intonation. One never heard individual voices — nor should they — from the ASOC. One only heard individual voices as soloists. Period. It disgusts me when people lie about others (especially someone like Robert Shaw who is not here to defend himself) to justify what they like, a lack of choral excellence for the Women of the Chorus in this instance.

At the end of that performance (Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang, which the BBC “presenter” mispronounced; glad to know he’s prepared [sarcasm intended]), conductor Mark Elder showed that he was certainly impressed by the choral excellence of the Hallé forces. He seemed almost as if he were mesmerised by the Choir’s superb performance. And then it was if he remembered, oh I have to go to the soloist. Them.

I showed this video (above) to a friend of mine who knows a good Chorus when he hears one. He trained his “choral ear” on Robert Shaw’s superb Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, because I played their CDs often and he began to instantly recognise them and choral excellence. He heard no wobbling, fluttering, cackling, or screeching from the Hallé Choir or Hallé Youth Choir. He heard solid perfect intonation from all voice sections (SATB). Then he sort of got off on another track. Because the video has an annoying translation of the Deutsch/German text that the BBC felt the need to add for some reason even though this was a secular setting and secular performance, my friend said, “People will think you’re proselytising.” What? Because of the translation? Well, I’m an Anglican athetist and this is a Concert Hall — the Royal Albert Hall in London — performance having nothing what-so-ever to do with organised religion, other than the text being sacred. And most of the works we performed when I was in major Orchestra Choruses were of a sacred nature (text-wise), but there was absolutely nothing religious about our performances. It received applause, just like any secular work we performed on the same programme. It was not a religious event at all. It was a secular event despite the text. Even when a performance is held in a parish or cathedral church, it’s not a religious event. That too is secular despite it being in a church because there is no Liturgy, no priests, no acolytes, incense, nothing Liturgical. There may be priests in the audience but they are there as members of the audience rather than in their liturgical role. And people applaud at the end of the performance in churches. I tried turning off the closed caption feature on this video, but the text kept reappearing. But no, I’m not promoting any religion by using this video as an example of the choral excellence — and that’s the point — that James Burton achieved back in 2009 in the UK. But Burton can only do so much with what he has to work with in Boston He doesn’t have the same choristers in Boston that he had in Manchester. I suspect he wish he did, at least when it comes to that TFC soprano section he has to work with now. Ugh.

It used to be that the tenor section of a Chorus or Choir was typically the worst section. These days, from my experience, it’s the soprano section. They can have sounds that remind one of untrained, feeble, Church Choir women’s voices.

These days, the finest Orchestra Choruses singing with perfect intonation in all voice sections are in the European Union. They understand perfect intonation, unlike Boston University’s Symphony Chorus (the Women) or the Women of the New England Conservatory Concert Choir. These Chorus Directors are not doing their damn job. As I’ve written before, is this a “Boston thing” where the other choral ensembles in Boston are trying to emulate the soprano section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus just because they’re the Official Chorus of the BSO and Boston Pops? Why emulate bad choral singing no matter who does it? In the EU, they understand perfect intonation especially in the Nederlands, Copenhagen and Deutschland. Then you go to the US, and you wish you were back in the EU because of the ugly sounds of noticeable vibrato in Boston, for example. What’s the turn-on/appeal with wobbling and fluttering vibrato? So the listener can’t tell what pitch/note they’re singing?

Typically, noticeable vibrato is used to cover up pitch and vocal problems. If you can’t sing on pitch and have vocal problems, turn on some vibrato, start wobbling and fluttering and sounding as though you’re nervous (like the soprano section in the NEC Concert Choir), and nobody will know the difference, especially most of the audience who know nothing about music or voice/choral training. They’re just there to be “entertained” and or fall asleep. They’ll just think you’re being an Op-rah screamer. Sigh.

I read this story in an article awhile back: When Andris Nelsons became the conductor of the BSO, he heard the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for the first time, he said, “So this is what US Choruses sound like?” It wasn’t meant as a compliment. Well, it’s what some US Choruses sound like, unfortunately, when the Chorus Director is not doing their job properly and or who has choristers in the Chorus who shouldn’t be there. At that time, John Oliver, was the Chorus Director of the TFC.

Why can’t the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) sound like the Groot Omroepkoor/Nederlands Radio Choir which you can hear here in their performance of Mendelssohn’s Elias (listen especially at 15.26 to the end of that chorus in the video at that link). Or why can’t the TFC sound like the MDR-Rundfunkchor from Leipzig in Deutschland which you can hear here in their performance of Brahms’s EDR?  Or why can’t the TFC sound like the Chorus (Cappella Amsterdam) in this performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis from Amsterdam? They are three excellent Orchestra Choruses that come to mind. And I could list others. Then in the US, it comes down to lazy Chorus Directors not doing their job properly and or accepting choristers who should not be accepted, because it takes work, more effort to achieve perfect intonation in ALL voice sections.

Again, the size of the Chorus is absolutely irrelevant when it comes to perfect intonation, one of the foundations of choral excellence. When trained properly — and it has to do with the training — a Chorus of 20 voices can sing with perfect intonation just like a well-trained Chorus of 250-voices. Robert Shaw’s 200-voice Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus sang with perfect intonation. One never heard individual voices in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, other than soloist voices.

The Boston Pops Orchestra performed well, very professionally and as expected without any childish antics or bobbing up and down holding cards with numbers on them — and they’re mainly members of the renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra with many members on the Faculty at the New England Conservatory down the street.

If I were in the TFC, I would have felt embarrassed first, by our soprano section. I never felt that way about the Orchestra Choruses I had the privilege of being a chorister in: Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington had an excellent and soaring soprano section. The same for Dr Paul Traver’s superb University of Maryland Chorus and for Margaret Hillis’s/Vance George’s San Francisco Symphony Chorus. All three soprano sections sang with perfect intonation and were polished and refined because all three Chorus Directors did their job properly, as well as in the selection of their choristers. They only chose the finest choristers. The soprano sections of the Choruses I sang with sounded the opposite of how the soprano section of the TFC sounds. Then, I would have been embarrassed that we were required to perform in such a childish manner. I would be standing on the Chorus risers thinking, “What has this Chorus turned into?” Is this the behaviour that one expects from the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra? I don’t see the professional orchestral musicians behaving like this, using childish antics. So why the (professional) Chorus?

One wonders: Although I saw none of the orchestral musicians looking at the TFC, were the members of the Boston Pops Orchestra also embarrassed by the behaviour of members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and disgusted by how low things have degraded and stupped to in order to cater to the lowest common denominator and please the dumbed-down sheeple in Symphony Hall? All of the orchestral members seem to ignore it completely, rather than be complicit in it the antics. I guess they saw the antics from the Chorus in the dress rehearsal on stage, and that’s where the eye rolling took place? Did anyone think: Maybe we should go back to inviting the New England Conservatory Chorus — if they were still around — to perform with us. At least they acted adult on stage, and their soprano section didn’t sound like the one we have. They sang with perfect intonation. Suggestion: Whatever you do, don’t invite the NEC Concert Choir to perform with you. Didn’t they replace the NEC Conservatory Chorus when they were “retired?” The NEC Concert Choir’s soprano section — with wobbling, fluttering and a nervous sound — is just as bad as that of the TFC’s, if not worse. You might as well keep what you have now!

I liked James Burton’s piece, “On Christmas Night,” what little we got to hear of it (second video below), except for that thin-sounding soprano section with their wobbling and fluttering, which can be quite typical with middle-aged women’s voices, I’ve noticed. That’s not always the case, but when I see a Chorus with many older women, I do become concerned before I even hear them based on experience of hearing such Choruses. To repeat: They don’t sound refined and polished and will start wobbling and fluttering.

“What’s wrong with a little vibrato?”

Years ago, some guy who claimed to have some association with the TFC, asked me, “What’s wrong with a little vibrato?” What’s wrong with a little vibrato? Are you sure you were in the TFC considering you’re asking me a question like that? What’s wrong with “a little vibrato” is that it prevents perfect intonation, the perfect blending of voices. Well-trained choristers know that, and then we have you asking a question like that. Choristers can sing solo passages with some noticeable vibrato but when they step back in the Chorus, they know to turn off their noticeable vibrato, which they do. Because the Chorus they’re performing with is well-trained and sings with the perfect blending of voices in each section (SATB).

Perfect intonation is one of the foundations of choral excellence, and one cannot achieve perfect intonation when there are fluttering, wobbling, voices singing with noticeable vibrato and screechy, shrill noises in a section. It only takes one or two voices to ruin an entire section.

About Soprano Sections: If there are going to be ugly sounds/noises coming from any section of a Chorus, these days it will inevitably be from the soprano section. Some sopranos seem absolutely unable to control their voice, again, especially older sopranos.

At least Keith Lockhart, the conductor in this performance, does beat time unlike many conductors I see these days who look like trying to swim laps on the podium. Where did they train in conducting? And with their insipid conducting style how on Earth did they get where they are? Because of music politics, that’s how. Whereas Keith Lockhart looks like he would be easy to follow his conducting.

They’re using their vocal scores. About time! Excellent.

It was good to see the Tanglewood Festival Chorus using their scores. I had hoped that Burton would abandon that silly John Oliver tradition of — what was known as — the “memorised Chorus” where the TFC looked like a graduation class picture or Kim Jong Un’s military, or a bank of robots on stage regurgitating what had been drilled into them on cue. They no longer look like that using their scores. They look like they’re actively engaged in reading music and watching the conductor. They no longer look like a bank of statues, or trying to resemble a graduation picture or…

With the COVID pandemic continuing (even though most people want to believe that it’s over), I had wondered how the TFC would be performing since singing is one of the major ways of COVID transmission. It was good to see at least some of the choristers concerned about their health by wearing face masks. I guess those not wearing masks don’t care what they get infected with, including COVID, since people with the complete series of 5 jabs are still getting infected daily. Many people flippantly say, “I’ll take my chances.” With your health? You enjoy feeling badly or being sick? Then there’s the flu and colds which a face mask can help to prevent as well. I didn’t see any of the orchestral members wearing face masks.

In summary: Stupid is in, in the United States of North America. And the arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas — and what other tacky pieces were on the same programme? — used in this performance was a way of trying to dumb-down classical music in order to make it more “appealing” or “palatable” to the US Pop Culture sheeple. That’s how I see it because that’s what orchestral management is doing all over the country, in all major US cities from what I’ve seen. You should see what the San Francisco Symphony is doing for the 2022-23 season. Lots of fluff, accompanying film scores, “Teen Night” and other eye-rolling stuff. (Generation X doesn’t have any interest in the San Francisco Symphony. Nor do Millenneals for that matter.) But it’s ultimately an effort in futility, in my opinion. Because Pop Culture is not and will not be interested in classical music no matter how much it’s reduced down and made stupid.

And classical music is the genre that Holiday at Pops generally falls under. How much of the rest of the performance and the repertoire chosen fit this description?

Also, as is often the case, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was/is ignored. Not credited in the videos above. As of this writing, I noticed there is no mention of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in these video description from the Boston Pops. So I suspect most people who watch the videos would have no idea what Chorus this is. Although anyone familiar with the Boston Pops should know that the TFC is the Official Chorus that performs with them. But this omission: Was that deliberate, with them asking, “Why does our Chorus sound like they do, particularly the soprano section? They never seem to get better and stay better, no matter who we hire to prepare them. Maybe we shouldn’t even mention them in the video description!” Or, was it the usual oversight of not mentioning the Chorus and treating them as Second Class Musicians, which choristers worldwide pretty much have come to expect. I know I do. When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was on strike, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus was never mentioned or even invited to take part in the strike. Earlier, I started to say choristers are used to being omitted or neglected, but they never get used to it. I didn’t. When a Chorus is not acknowledged for their performance, it’s very disrespectful of the Chorus. (Related: It’s Chorus, not chorus.)

Previously: Tangling with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and New Chorus Director for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, also Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus 2020-2021 Season.