My experience in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus

Hola a todos. I’ve never formally written about this particular symphonic choral experience — like I’ve written about the other two Orchestra Choruses — in part, because it was shorter than my experience in the two other major Orchestra Choruses I was fortunate to be a chorister in. They were: Norman Scribner’s superb Choral Arts Society of Washington performing regularly in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra, and Dr Paul Traver’s superb University of Maryland Chorus performing regularly in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and at Wolf Trap with the National Symphony Orchestra.

I also burned-out during my tenure in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, which in hindsight, was unfortunate. I did very much value the experience and felt very fortunate to be in the Symphony Chorus, and having the opportunity to perform with the San Francisco Symphony in a major Symphony Hall (Davies Symphony Hall). But some things were going on in my personal life at the time which were distracting from the experience. And because of those things, I didn’t feel that I was fully engaged, or into it as I had been originally because they were interfering with my being the most productive chorister.

There was also the problem of being required to perform certain symphonic choral works that I/one was not really into. But that’s always the case and part of it. Does any chorister ever have a season where most of their favourites are on the programme at one point or another? I don’t think so. You might get one favourite during the season, if that. Many choristers wait for their favourite symphonic choral works to be performed. During my Orchestra Chorus experience, I kept waiting for Mendelssohn’s Elias and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. As luck would have it, the University of Maryland Chorus was invited to perform the Beethoven with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam with Claudio Abbado conducting — they gave a glorious performance!; that was choral excellence at its finest I can tell you that — in the Kennedy Center when I was in the Choral Arts Society of Washington and before I joined The Maryland Chorus. And in some cases, a chorister can have a long wait, except for the annual and perfunctory Messiah performances of course. That’s about the only work that is predictable for the season’s repertoire (pre-COVID of course). Most Choruses are afraid to not programme Messiah in favour of a less-performed symphonic choral work, such as maybe Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hodie as one example. (Related: Not Messiah again?) Most of my favourite works I never got to perform with a major Orchestra Chorus. I really liked some of what we did perform and had favourite parts in other works, but I wouldn’t have said, “I must be in the Symphony Chorus to sing this work” because none of my favourites were programmed when I was a chorister. In some cases, they were programmed after I left the Chorus. A couple of years after I left the University of Maryland Chorus they performed William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the NSO in the Kennedy Center. But at that point I was already living in San Francisco and with the SFS Chorus.

I was also in the Symphony Chorus when the Chorus was in somewhat turmoil, a transition. The former Chorus Director had been either fired or asked to leave, depending upon which story you’re told about that situation.

Orchestral management then brought in Margaret Hillis (Founder and Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus) to serve as interim Chorus Director. Well I was elated about that since she had been one of my choral mentors for a number of years and I continued to train my “choral ear” on her Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus, so I knew I had to audition for the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The thing is: I had auditioned for the Chorus under the Chorus Director who had been asked to leave or was fired and in that audition I mentioned Margaret Hillis to him and that I knew he had studied with her. Well, in hindsight I asked: Did that kill it for me? Perhaps because I was not accepted upon my audition. No, I was not accepted and that blew me away. I was shocked. The people who knew me were blown away as well. They asked: How on Earth could you have been in the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the University of Maryland Chorus — both are superb Orchestra Choruses with the highest of standards — and then be rejected by the SF Symphony Chorus? Yeah well, it didn’t make any sense to me either. They said: Something’s not right here; I smell politics. After I was accepted into the Symphony Chorus by the new Chorus Director Vance George, I mentioned my first audition to some of the longer-termed choristers. One chorister said: You mentioned Margaret Hillis in your audition with the Chorus Director who was let go? You probably shouldn’t have done that. Ms Hillis didn’t think that highly of him. She felt he was using her name to advance his career. Oh, really? Politics indeed. But I didn’t know any of that upon my first audition. So apparently some politics were involved in my first audition. I then auditioned under Vance George, the newly appointed Chorus Director, and was accepted. He held the chorister auditions and not Ms Hillis. Who knew that the mention of Ms Hillis would sink an audition for you? I don’t remember mentioning her name in my audition with Vance George, although I don’t think it would have made any difference with him since he and Ms Hillis worked together very closely initially in our rehearsals.

Ms Hillis had been contracted for a year as I recall, but I don’t think she was here that long, flying back and forth from Chicago to San Francisco and back to Chicago each week. A rather grueling schedule.

It was my opportunity to finally work with Ms Hillis. Before that, I had considered moving to Chicago to have that opportunity. I had admired her for years and her work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus and her Chorus being awarded with one Grammy Award after the other in the “Best Choral Performance” category.

I have to say that personality-wise, Margaret Hillis was a disappointment for me. I found her to be “cold” to the choristers, or at least that’s how she came off to me. When she first arrived, I spoke with her briefly during our rehearsal break and later came to regret doing so — I complimented her; I told her how I felt about her being my choral mentor — at our first rehearsal and because of her dead-pan response to me, I regretted having said anything to her. I sort of felt like a fool standing there to tell you the truth and felt embarrassed as she just sort of starred at me after I praised her and told her how wonderful I thought she was and her Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and she didn’t really say anything. I couldn’t understand it. Her cold or lack of response to me sort of “popped my bubble” and my feelings about her.

At the time, the SFS Chorus was struggling with the administration to pay the choristers, just like the orchestral musicians are paid. The SF Symphony could not give stellar symphonic choral work performances without their superbly-trained Symphony Chorus. The Chorus helps to make money for the Symphony so why shouldn’t the choristers be paid as well? That doesn’t seem equitable, just or fair, does it? Why reduce the best choristers around to second class musicians? In the end, that struggle produced 20% of the Chorus being paid, which I think remains the case today, so not much as changed since then. I never considered auditioning for a paid position because I assumed that they would go to those choristers who majored in voice and had a “solo voice” in addition to their “chorister voice.” I never thought of myself as a vocal soloist — even though that was part of my training — and didn’t feel comfortable in that role. I majored in piano at the Conservatory where I trained and had a 3-year double minor in pipe organ and voice. I had a couple of friends in the Chorus who were paid choristers but it was really never talked about. Sometimes Vance would ask that the paid choristers stay for a bit after rehearsal, and none of the paid choristers ever looked down on those of us who were not paid. We were all treated equally. Since the majority of the Chorus was not paid. At the time, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus was fully-paid as I remember. But a year or so ago, I read that the CSOChorus was not fully paid. Did something change with them or were they never fully-paid as we had been told? I think only about 80% are paid now.

I remember when many of the choristers were turned off by Ms Hillis when she stood before the Chorus during one of our rehearsals and decided to get involved in the dispute between the Chorus and orchestral management. Her comments were not well received. In my opinion, she should have remained neutral and stayed out of it. She made comments supporting orchestral management. Bad idea. She said, “professional does not mean paid.” Oh that’s rich! I wish that one of the long-term choristers would have stood and said, “Well, since that’s the case, Ms Hillis, I’m sure you won’t mind donating your time as Chorus Director since, as you say ‘professional does not mean paid’ correct? And you wouldn’t want to be paid and not let the rest of us be paid, correct? I’m smelling hypocrisy at a high level. I love calling people on their hypocrisy.

So as time passed and I was on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall and because of rehearsal and performance burn-out (along with some other things going on in my personal life), I came to realise that the choristers were really thought of as second class musicians, and the Symphony Chorus Director gets all the credit on stage, although nobody knows who he is either really any other time. The orchestral conductor gets all the credit, all the fame — his name is a “household word”; not the name of the Chorus Director — and the orchestral conductor gets all the credit for the performance, even though he doesn’t prepare the Chorus. I think most people think that the orchestral conductor prepares the Symphony Chorus and is entirely responsible for their performance. That’s not true at all. That’s the job of the Chorus Director. In fact, the orchestral conductor can only do much with the Chorus he has to work with. He can’t make them out to be stellar when stellar choristers are not chosen by the Chorus Director.

In the case of Vance George, he chose the best of those who auditioned and only the finest choristers were in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. That remains true today. When the Chorus Director comes out on stage to ask the Chorus to rise and to be acknowledged, I suspect many of the audience asks: “Who’s he? Oh, he’s just the Chorus Director.” No, he’s not “just the Chorus Director.” The level of excellence you just heard is the result of his or her fine work in preparing the Chorus, as well as the artistry and high skill level of all of the choristers selected from stringent auditions. Only the finest choristers are accepted into an Orchestra Chorus.

One of the peeves of most Chorus Directors is that they rarely have the opportunity to conduct a performance with both the Orchestra and Chorus. Instead, they’re always preparing the Chorus for someone else. That gets old. It’s true that some Chorus Directors don’t necessarily have that much experience with conducting an Orchestra — and that can be problematic — where others do. A few come to mind: Norman Scribner was good with an Orchestra. James Burton (Tanglewood Festival Chorus) has a Master’s Degree in Orchestral Conducting from Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. Dr Paul Traver (University of Maryland Chorus) was excellent with an Orchestra and conducted the Smithsonian Chamber Players annually at the Maryland Händel Festival which he founded on the University of Maryland at College Park campus when they accompanied The Maryland Chorus.

As I said, I was also tired of the rehearsal hours, the hypocrisies, and the lack of recognition and the thinking that “they’re just the Chorus” that prevailed.

So, I left with some bitterness about the whole experience, and feeling a bit let down. Reality had also set in: The audience will applaud (wildly) for the Chorus when we take our bows, but from my experience as a chorister, being a chorister in an Orchestra Chorus was not something that most people seem to think was anything special. Or, they didn’t know anything about it so said nothing so as not to appear ignorant.

I met some wonderful people in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and became good friends with some of the choristers, in part, because we had the Symphony Chorus as the catalyst that brought us all together. I have some fond memories about many of the choristers, and I wonder where they are today. I think today (2021), the Symphony Chorus consists of an entirely different group of choristers. I believe Vance said in an interview that the average stay of a chorister in the Symphony Chorus was two years/two seasons. That sounds about right to me. And if I’m not mistaken, their rehearsal schedule these days (pre-COVID), is even more intense than the one we had. Pre-COVID, I think they were rehearsing 3 nights a week, rather than 2 nights. We had sectionals on Monday night and Full Chorus on Tuesday night.

I had been feeling this to some degree when on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage with the Choral Arts Society of Washington. We had a very busy (grueling) performance schedule in those days with the NSO and guest international orchestras. The University of Maryland Chorus had frequent performances with the NSO and guest international orchestras as well; they had quite a legacy with the NSO in those days under Doráti. But these days (pre-COVID), the Choral Arts Society, The Washington Chorus and (maybe) the University of Maryland Concert Choir have one engagement per season with the NSO. The Choral Arts Society of Washington had roughly 5-6 engagements per season with the NSO and guest international orchestras when I sang with them. In other words, the number of symphonic choral pieces that the NSO and other major symphony orchestras has been drastically reduced. The same for the San Francisco Symphony. The last season before the COVID pandemic, the Boston SO and their Tanglewood Festival Chorus had the best choral season I saw anywhere. I had wondered whether that was because of the influence of their new, superb Chorus Director James Burton who was hired to bring the TFC back up to the level of excellence expected of them as the Official Chorus of the BSO. In a brief clip I heard of the TFC under Burton, the Chorus was singing with perfect intonation in all voice sections (SATB) which was not the case under the late John Oliver.

Vance George, who became our permanent Chorus Director, was/is a wonderful guy. The nicest guy. Not at all arrogant despite his many accomplishments. That’s one indicator of a true artist. I have nothing but positive things to say about Vance. He’s not part of my bitterness. And he served as Chorus Director for decades and brought and kept the SFS Chorus up to the level they are today. Also, the guy who ran the Chorus, Greg B. (the Chorus Secretary), was the nicest guy. (No, Vance did not run the Chorus, that was Greg. Vance was the Chorus Director). Greg, on occasion, had to deliver some bad news to a chorister, but one had to remember that Greg had nothing to do with the decision. He was merely the messenger so one should have no hard feelings towards Greg.

As for Margaret Hillis, well, she was good with a Chorus — I don’t think there’s any doubt about that and she was highly-regarded as one of the best of that generation with her Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus — along with Robert Shaw and his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus — but Ms Hillis’s people skills could have been better. I read that some of the Chicago SO Chorus choristers felt she was “too nit-picky.” That’s what they said about her. I disagree with them. I doubt they said that when they were raking in one Grammy Award after the other in the Best Choral Performance category. Choral Excellence requires being “nit-picky” and then some! Well for that matter, the highest level of excellence in music requires being “nit-picky.” So take that! Chau.—el barrio rosa