That’s usually what is said disrespectfully about the Chorus: “They’re just the Chorus.” I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say, “They’re just the Orchestra” or “He’s just the conductor.” No, it’s usually just the Chorus that is treated as second-class musicians by some orchestral mis-management and the musically-ignorant public who can’t hear the difference between the finest Orchestra Chorus and one’s podunk Church Choir.
When did vocal solo worshipping become a silly fad or the norm? The fact is: Vocal soloists sit on their ass the majority of the time during a symphonic choral work because the Orchestra and Chorus are the genuine stars since they perform the majority of the work, not the soloists.
The vocal soloists — in some cases better known as screamers (especially the soprano “soloist” — sing (or more accurately scream) on occasion within the piece. Usually the person whose “role” is the name of the piece (as in Mendelssohn’s Elias) does the most singing of the four vocal soloists.
I watched a performance from the Nederlands (Amsterdam specifically) of Mendelssohn’s Elias performed by Radio Filharmonisch Orkest en Groot Omroepkoor (Dutch)/Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Great Broadcasting Choir. The Orchestra’s Chorus was well prepared and sang with perfect intonation throughout, mostly. I say “mostly” because the only time I heard some wobbling voices were, as usual, in the soprano section. That is standard for soprano sections these days. It seems that at times sopranos have the most difficult time controlling their voices for some reason, and that’s especially true for soprano soloists as well.
The approximately 60-voice Chorus sounded much larger than they really are. I asked mi amigo/my friend who watched some of the performance with me about the size of the Chorus and his guess was 150 voices. Perhaps it’s the acoustics of the hall or the stage design that makes them sound larger than they are? Being partial to very fine tenor sections, I have to say they certainly have a fine tenor section and they have a lyric tenor sound to my ear. A really excellent tenor section. For those who don’t know, the tenor section can be the weakest section of a Chorus even with some Orchestra Choruses, but not in this case. And overall, they have an excellent soprano section. They were soaring on their high notes. The soprano soloist with the short red hair from the Chorus should have been the soloist for the entire performance. She was not a screamer. She has a lovely voice and is able to control her voice. She sang with a tasteful, minimal amount of noticeable vibrato.
At the end of the oratorio, most of the soloists were all-smiles and acting almost giddy especially the female in the blue dress — except for Sebastian who seemed more mature and seasoned about the whole thing; he seemed more matter of fact about it and I didn’t sense from him that he thought he was part of the “stars” of the performance — as if they thought they were the stars, the darlings of the performance and being applauded. They were just the soloists after all, all they did was sing alone or with the other three soloists. What the big deal about that that causes the audience to treat them as rock stars? And they were of course seated on the front of the stage where they couldn’t see any of the performance because their backs were to all the other musicians. And they had to look out of the corner of their eye to see the conductor. What a ridiculous tradition of seating the vocal soloists nearly in the lap of the audience in the front row. What nut came up with that? Was that god Liszt too? They should have been seated in the back on the left side of the Chorus as the soloists were for another symphonic choral performance, Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang, Op 52.
I’m not big on soloists, but the bass soloist was alright, although he had occasional pitch problems. Maybe he couldn’t hear the Orchestra that well, I don’t know. The lyric tenor was superb and my favourite (Sebastian Kohlhepp). He has a lovely voice with minimal vibrato. And what vibrato he uses at times I don’t find offensive. The alto was okay from what I heard of her. But the soprano? When the four were all singing together, the soprano — as is so often the case with soprano soloists — overpowered the three others. I could barely hear the alto at all when Ms Soprano got going. And of course she felt her voice had to wobble and border on screaming at times. She drowned out the other three at times as if, she too, couldn’t control her voice. If one cannot hear the 3 other voices of the people you’re singing with, you’re singing too loudly. You’re supposed to be listening closely to them to blend your voice beautifully with their voice (not overpower them), rather than thinking that you’re the only vocalist (screamer) on stage. That’s something she seems to have missed that in her training. She was supposed to be blending her voice with the 3 others, not sticking out as Ms Diva Soprano Soloist. When the four sang together it reminded me of Beethoven’s Ninth and the quartet in that which always sounds like a train wreck with one soloist trying to out-scream the others. Usually the soprano wins out, followed by the tenor. With this quartet, it was a mess as well. Even though this was oratorio and not opera, they also felt they had to sort of act out their role and sway and the soprano voice was all that you could really hear. Mi amigo agreed and asked: Was she having some form of an orgasm? Or was it construction workers cutting steel we were hearing?
As for the conductor, oh good lord don’t get me started on him. He occasionally beats time, I suppose you could say. But he conducts like he’s taking swimming instructions and trying to swim. He thinks that’s conducting, does he? That’s not how we were trained to conduct at the Conservatory where I trained. We were trained in the conducting style of Robert Shaw (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus) and Margaret Hillis (Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus) and others of their caliber where you mainly conduct within the frame of the body rather than arms flailing all over the place. Neither Shaw or Hillis et al looked like they were doing swimming laps and bouncing their arms up and down when conducting. Instead, when conducting, the right hand mostly beats time and the left hand is at the same time involved with cues, releases, entrance cues, dynamics, and many other score indications. But that’s not how this guy conducted at all. I’ve seen a lot of different styles of conducting these days, but this guy’s was the most unusual. He also didn’t use a baton, which of course is a personal preference. But when the conductor is not beating time and looking like he’s trying to swim laps by bouncing his arms up and down through most of the oratorio, a baton might be helpful. The Chorus was watching him closely. Were they still trying to get used to his “unique” style of conducting of waving/bouncing his arms up and down in swimming stroke motions. But the reality is that this Orchestra and Chorus really didn’t need a conductor. I think they could have performed the piece without him quite frankly. They were all professional musicians. More about the conductor: His conducting is what he’s known for. Really? I don’t know why. He’s known mainly as an “English conductor.” Astounding. But since 1998 he’s been teaching choral conducting in Deutschland. Apparently they’ll hire anybody! What is there to teach using him as an example of conducting? It should only take a matter of minutes for any conducting student to get the hang of bouncing your arms up and down and acting as if you’re throwing or pushing something at the Orchestra and Chorus. I found him to be a lame and pathetic example of a conductor and I’ve been seeing more of that type lately. There was another conductor in the same hall with this same Orchestra and Chorus whose conducting style was not much different than this guy’s style. I didn’t know what anyone saw in him either and he was this Orchestra’s principal conductor for many years. The thing is, with conductors like this, I rarely see the orchestral musicians looking at them. I mean, why bother? There’s not much there to see. Just play on your own stellar musicianship as a guide and stay together as an ensemble, which seems to be what this Orchestra does. They’re all intently looking at their scores for the most part, except for attacks and releases.
Although I’m not positive, but I think the Orchestra’s Chorus is an all-paid Chorus.
Many people these days engage in conductor or soloist worshipping, and that was seen in some of the comments for this performance. Some people only worshipped the vocal soloists on the stage, as if the Orchestra and Chorus were not there and didn’t perform the majority of the piece.
The reason I titled this “They’re just the soloist” is because that’s what is usually said about the Chorus by people who are willfully-ignorant about Orchestra Choruses and tend to equate them with one’s podunk Church Choir. No comparison can be made between the finest Orchestra Choruses and one’s average Church Choir. Although many people don’t have a trained choral ear for hearing the difference between the two. Chau.—el barrio rosa
Related: Conductor Worshipping