The award for the best Beethoven’s Ninth goes to the University of Maryland Chorus

The best Beethoven’s Ninth that was never recorded

I guess some readers are saying: Oh come on, you can’t tell me that a University Chorus performed the best Beethoven’s Ninth. Well, don’t take my word for it and the University of Maryland Chorus was not just any University Chorus by any definition. Most University Choruses do not serve as the Chorus for major symphony orchestras on a regular basis for decades as Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus did.

The classical music reviewer from The Washington Post in the late 1980s wrote this about The Maryland Chorus:

National Symphony Orchestra & University of Maryland Chorus

“…an excellent performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was presented to an overflow audience Saturday night at Wolf Trap. This excellence, however, was a last-minute development, and primary credit goes not to the National Symphony, which was the orchestra for the occasion, but to the University of Maryland Chorus, which came to the orchestra’s rescue. The Chorus—one of the best—celebrated its 20th anniversary and its 36th Beethoven Ninth by singing the final movement as well as I have ever heard it sung, live or on records.”
Source: National Symphony Orchestra & University of Maryland Chorus (Joseph McLellan)

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to perform the Ninth with Maryland since I only sang with them for one season before I moved to San Francisco, but I remember that during the years that I lived in and around the District of Columbia (hereinafter referred to as the District or DC), except for one occasion, it was always the University of Maryland Chorus that was selected for the Ninth, including when the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam performed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. They invited the UMD Chorus to perform with them. I was thrilled with their performance each time I heard it. It was choral excellence at its finest and I always waited with excitement for the choral finale when The Maryland Chorus was on stage. At Wolf Trap one Summer evening, the University of Maryland Chorus was invited to perform with the NSO for a choreographed Beethoven’s Ninth featuring the Béjart Ballet Lausanne. I’d never seen anything like that before and the Chorus was hidden from view before their choral entrance. A friend of mine who loved The UMD Chorus worked at the classical music records store over in Georgetown in the District. He would often say, “That Maryland Chorus can sing the shit out of choral music!” I first heard them with the NSO at Wolf Trap and then later in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The thinking of the day seemed to be: If you’re programming Beethoven’s Ninth, you must invite Dr Paul Traver’s superb University of Maryland Chorus. I remember being on the Concert Hall stage as a chorister with the Choral Arts Society of Washington (CASW) and we were performing the Ninth with the National Symphony Orchestra. I remember thinking to myself: Maryland is supposed to be doing this. They “own” this piece, not that the CASW didn’t perform it superbly (we did), but we were not The Maryland Chorus. Each Chorus is different. And there were probably some pieces that the CASW “owned” — such as RVW’s A Sea Symphony (I thought our Sea Symphony performance was glorious; our superb soprano section just soared through the Concert Hall), for example? Or Rachmaninov Vespers, maybe? — especially under Rostropovich when he took over because Antal Doráti’s contract was not renewed, or that’s the story I read, and his favourite Chorus was the University of Maryland Chorus.

And unfortunately — at least to my knowledge — even though The Maryland Chorus performed Beethoven’s Ninth over 38 times (what other Chorus can say that?), no recording was made of any of their performances. Ugh. I cannot express how that disgusts me. I later asked Dr Traver about that — by the way, he was the nicest guy and an outstanding musician — and he said, “The catalogue is full of recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth so who would buy it?” I said to him: But those Choruses don’t necessarily perform it in the stellar way that the University of Maryland Chorus perform it. He said: It doesn’t matter. They (the customer) doesn’t know that. They will likely select a recording by a celebrity conductor and internationally-renowned Orchestra. Most people unfortunately couldn’t care less who the Chorus is. Most people are not “choral people.” What Dr Traver said was spot-on. That’s very true. He was being very realistic. To many people, the Chorus is often seen as second class musicians by the public. For me, for Beethoven’s Ninth, the Chorus and who trained the Chorus is the first thing I look for. And for those who don’t know, the orchestral conductor does not train the Chorus. That’s the job of the Chorus Director. Usually, the dress rehearsal on stage is the first time that the orchestral conductor sees and hears the Chorus for a particular piece. Orchestral mis-management too often see the Chorus as second class musicians as well. Although from my experience, the orchestral musicians have respect for their Chorus or a guest Chorus. The musicians of the NSO were always very nice, warm and inviting to us when the conductor announced at a dress rehearsal, “We’re happy to have with us for this performance the Choral Arts Society of Washington (or) the University of Maryland Chorus.” The orchestral musicians would all turn around and look at us — we were seated on the Chorus risers behind them — with big smiles and they would warmly applaud us because were were part of what hopefully would make their performance absolutely stellar having been superbly trained by the Chorus Director (Norman Scribner–Choral Arts or Dr Traver-UMD Chorus). And on the Kennedy Center stage, so many legendary symphonic choral performances were lost as soon as the baton was lowered during those years because they were never recorded. The University of Maryland Chorus was almost the Official Chorus of the NSO at that time, but the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Oratorio Society of Washington also had engagements each season with the NSO and guest (inter)national orchestras. It was quite a busy era for symphonic choral music at that time, unlike these days where it’s rather dead in that regard where we are down to The Big Three (pre-COVID). But in those days, interestingly up in Boston WGBH-TV was recording the BSO and New England Conservatory Chorus or (later on) the newly-founded Tanglewood Festival Chorus for broadcasts as well as commercial recordings. The New England Conservatory Chorus had quite a legacy with the BSO before the Tanglewood Festival Chorus became the Official Chorus of the BSO. I’m not sure why the same was not done down in the District, but it was not. I never saw any microphones hanging above the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. I don’t know for a fact, but I suspect it had to do with musicians’ union rights. Although you would think the musicians’ union rights might be the same in Boston as they are in DC, but perhaps not. I just know that for our dress rehearsals, there was a big clock on stage beside the podium, and the conductor would stop us — both Orchestra and Chorus — in the middle of a measure to honour the union musicians’ clock and the break they were due for. You’d hear part of the Chorus completing the measure a cappella to resolve it as we walked off the Chorus risers to back stage.

Some years ago, the University of Maryland at College Park — the campus where the renowned University Chorus was of the School of Music — “retired” The Maryland Chorus and the University of Maryland Concert Choir replaced them as the symphonic choral ensemble on campus. But I have to say that they don’t seem to do much in comparison to the constantly-in-demand University of Maryland Chorus. The UMD Concert Choir has performed with the NSO and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras on occasion, but not nearly as often as the University of Maryland Chorus performed with the NSO. Reading that somewhat hyped article at that link, it’s rather relative isn’t it? The Kennedy Center says:

“This year, the University of Maryland Concert Choir celebrates its 16th consecutive season of collaborations with the National Symphony Orchestra. Since 2003, the ensemble has since performed works such as the Durufle Requiem, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Mass in b minor, Haydn’s The Creation, and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, among many others, with the NSO and these concerts mark the ninth appearance for the ensemble in performances of Handel’s Messiah.”

When was “This year?” I’ve followed the UMD Concert Choir in recent years and they had only one engagement with the NSO every year except for one season where they had two engagements and the Choral Arts Society of Washington and The Washington Chorus each had one engagement that same season, fewer engagements for them as well. (When I was in the Choral Arts Society we had several engagements per season with the NSO and or a guest (inter)national orchestra; this is indicative of the decline in performances of symphonic choral works unfortunately). If I’m remembering correctly, the UMD Concert Choir had no engagements with the NSO for the 2020 season, after having 2 engagements the season before (including the Carnegie Hall performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater). But my point is: Even if they’ve had one symphonic choral work per season with the NSO, that’s still much less than the number of invitations that the University of Maryland Chorus received from the NSO back during the days of Antal Doráti where the UMD Chorus “practically lived” in the Kennedy Center. Some of the other choral ensembles — the Choral Arts Society, as one example — were jealous that Maryland was getting so many engagements. Well, they only took what they were offered! They were the Chorus for the Official Kennedy Center Souvenir recording. And I’m quite aware it’s a different time for (symphonic) choral music. It’s just that pre-COVID, you would think that being the symphonic choral ensemble on campus, that the UMD Concert Choir would perform a major symphonic choral work at least once a semester or at least once a year with the UMD Symphony Orchestra, no? To my knowledge, they’ve not done so for some odd reason, which is sort of mind-boggling since they have this relatively new performing arts centre on campus that is, in part, specifically designed for such performances, isn’t it? The article (link above) says:

“It [the UMD Concert Choir] maintains a rigorous schedule of concerts both on and off campus. At the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the UMD Concert Choir has since performed repertoire as diverse as Bach’s Weihnachts Oratorium, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, and the Verdi Requiem.”

A rigorous schedule of concerts? Really? Why were none of them recorded? The CSPAC has that a capability doesn’t it or can be made so for the performance, no?

The article also says: “The ensemble performs a wide range of a cappella and concerted music, from medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony, to masterworks of the 20th century and premieres of contemporary compositions.”

Why would the designated symphonic choral ensemble on campus be performing non-symphonic choral music? I mean, they could do that on occasion but I should think they would be focusing on symphonic choral works as The Maryland Chorus did. There is no shortage of symphonic choral works to be performed and recorded. One would think such repertoire would be repertoire reserved for the UMD Chamber Singers or another choral ensemble on campus.

The article also says:

“Music Director Edward Maclary became Director of Choral Activities at the University of Maryland in 2000. Under his guidance, the choral program at the University of Maryland has risen to national and international prominence.”

I am tired of reading hyped revisionist history which seems to be common these days, so I’m going to set history straight: No disrespect intended to Dr Maclary, but the choral programme at Maryland — particularly with the University of Maryland Chorus — had already risen to national and international prominence under the late Dr Paul Traver. How else would Margaret Hillis have known about them? It was Margaret Hillis who recommended the University of Maryland Chorus to conductor Claudio Abbado when he called her asking for her recommendation for a Chorus in the DC area to perform with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The Maryland Chorus performed in the EU on many occasions because of their international prominence then. They performed for the Halle Festival. They recorded Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the EU with Antal D. and the European Symphony Orchestra. I have the CD of that. Why do I get the sense that someone is trying their best to ignore the late Dr Traver’s legacy — I mean he was the Founder and Director of the University of Maryland Chorus and they were the Official Chorus for The Maryland Händel Festival which Traver started in the School of Music — and not recognise his accomplishments and acknowledge him for bringing the University of Maryland’s School of Music and its choral programme to international prominence? In fact, his name and achievements are no where mentioned in the article above. The same thing happened with Chicago when the new Chorus Director for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus took over. The accomplishments of the late Margaret Hillis were ignored and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus was hyped as being “taken to new realms” or something like that under the new Chorus Director. Why couldn’t they bring themselves to say that “the standards of choral excellence that one expected under Hillis would continue under Wolf?” What “new realms” could there possibly be that didn’t take place under Ms Hillis? I forget the exact language they used for hyping the new Chorus Director. What new realms could there possibly be after Hillis’s CSO Chorus won Grammy Awards in the Best Choral Performance category eleven times? Yet the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus have only won a Grammy Award in the Best Choral Performance category one timeNOT eleven or more times — under the new Chorus Director. What happened to the “new realms?” Pre-COVID and with fewer symphonic choral works being programmed by orchestras, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus didn’t have that much to do these days. I’ve looked at their repertoire for each season and thought: That’s all they’re doing? I think they’ll be bored sitting around with not much to do in the big scheme of things. A Chorus of their caliber could sight-read those pieces and make them sound “performance ready” in no time. Related: The down to The Big Three. I remember that for the 2020 season, James Burton’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) had the best symphonic choral season that I saw anywhere — perhaps because of Burton’s influence? — all of which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the TFC had improved under Burton from a brief clip I heard of them pre-COVID.

The University of Maryland’s School of Music could have been doing the same thing that the New England Conservatory has done. NEC recorded their performances — orchestral and symphonic choral — and uploaded them to U-toob. Boston University’s School of Music recorded their performances in Symphony Hall with the BU Symphony Chorus and BU Symphony Orchestra. Why hasn’t Maryland done the same thing with both Orchestra and Chorus to give them online exposure and an online presence? Oddly, I don’t see them doing much. And as the appointed “symphonic choral ensemble” on campus one would think they would be performing symphonic choral works on a regular basis on campus, no? They would own the copyrights to their own performances. And with a Chorus of that skill level — assuming the UMD Concert Choir is of an equivalent skill level as the University of Maryland Chorus — it doesn’t take an entire school year (two semesters) to prepare for a performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater which the UMD Concert Choir performed with the NSO in Kennedy Center and in Carnegie Hall.

When the University of Maryland Chorus was around, they had several (at least 4) engagements some seasons with just the NSO. They’d have three nights in a row of Beethoven’s Ninth, then later in the season 3 nights in a row of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, later on in the same season they’d have 3 nights in a row of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”). The Maryland Chorus was very much in demand and they accomplished it all superbly. All in one season, plus other engagements with other major symphony orchestras. So why so little from the UMD Concert Choir? Even on their own campus where they have their own University Symphony Orchestra? I don’t understand this.

You can read much more about the University of Maryland Chorus here. Chau.—el barrio rosa