Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus 2020-21 season

I previously wrote about the symphonic choral arts situation down in the District at the Kennedy Center in this article. Then it occurred to me: What’s the Tanglewood Festival Chorus doing — if anything — as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? My research found that a season has been scheduled for them to appear with the BSO, but from all I’ve heard and read, coronavirus is expected to have a second wave in the Fall season, and the utterly inept response from these incompetent basura in the white house who don’t believe in science of any kind would make a second wave similar to the first wave, which we’re still in. So who knows how much of their 2020-21 season they will be performing in Boston. And in the EU, some major symphony orchestras are now performing in video format only (no audience) but only in chamber orchestral settings. I’ve watched a couple of them but find it uncomfortable to do so because it seems much too soon to be performing together. No one is wearing a mask on stage, they are distanced with each musician having their own desk. A string musician from another orchestra was interviewed and she said that all the strings in her orchestra could wear masks, but obviously the winds and brass could not. In the performances I watched from the EU, the winds and brass were especially distanced, but their air aspirations surround the stage, fall on the stage and production wiring. Does the stage crew wear gloves and face coverings when dealing with that? Are the musicians’ life really worth it? The same goes for the production crew. Who among them is asymptomatic and infecting the rest of them? Are they quarantined before and after performances? I can take a guess. No, they’re not. Orchestral management may take the temperature of musicians upon arriving but I suspect it’s all assumed that “everyone is healthy and COVID-19 free.” Quite a big assumption to make these days. All of this is why I have trouble watching them. And no one in the comments below the videos asks these question of the orchestral management, perhaps for the same reason I haven’t. I don’t think such a comment would be allowed. They’d delete it because one is questioning “sacrosanct orchestral management” and their decisions. And the COVID-19 infection rate is going up in the EU country where this is taking place. Here in San Francisco, our infection rate is rising and has been, The City has been put on the state’s watch list. Now that our infection rate is rising — and because stupid is in — fewer and fewer people are now wearing face coverings and following the guidelines. Insanity. Many (most?) Millennials think the guidelines don’t apply to them yet they are the age group that the virus is now targeting. That’s the group I often see walking around without any face covering with their precious phone permanently embedded in their hand. None of them forget their phone, just their face covering. Obviously they have their priorities in order. It hasn’t seemed to dawn on them that if you can’t breathe due to suffocation from COVID-19, how can you be on that phone? And to hear these people talk, there’s not a brain in that head. Embarrassingly stupid-sounding conversations. Absolutely nothing intellectual or intelligent coming out of their mouths. Mostly the word “like” every other word and uptalking. Uptalking is where one makes every statement sound like a question. So, for example, a female will say, “Hi, my name is Lisa?” I’m thinking: I don’t know, it is? You don’t know your own name, Ms Dense? So considering all that, maybe it is a lot to expect for these people to have the intelligence to wear a face covering.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has scheduled a full season for Symphony Hall for 2020-21, but they admit that some of it or all of it may be cancelled.  They say that the health of all involved in their performances (including the audience) is their top priority. Their Official Chorus, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus had some of their performances cancelled for last season, but none of those works have been rescheduled for 2020-21.  Maybe they thought it best to reprogramme those pieces when they know they will definitely be performing them. The full Tanglewood Festival Chorus has a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth — now you know that is so rarely performed by them, isn’t it? (sarcasm); it ends every season of the Tanglewood Music Festival. I suspect they may be performing the Ninth because it’s familiar to the audience and all the musicians on stage — it’s one of the Big Three that the public will still support — and because the 2020 Tanglewood Music Festival was mostly cancelled. Then they’ve programmed Haydn’s Te Deum, Shostakovitch Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Scriabin Prometheus, The Poem of Fire, for piano, chorus, color organ, and orchestra.  Other than the Haydn (which is rarely performed and the piece is only 8 minutes in length), there are no time-honoured symphonic choral works programmed, such as oratorios or cantatas.  The Men of both the TFC and the New England Conservatory Chorus have a performance of Shostakovitch Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar.  The Women of the TFC have Holst’s The Planets (will the Chorus be off stage?)  Aside from the Beethoven and Haydn, it’s mostly “odd ball stuff” as a friend of mine referred to it when I was telling him about their season. Well, they are certainly not major symphonic choral works, but I suspect Shostakovitch wouldn’t appreciate his works being referred to as “odd ball stuff,” but I get the point. My friend said: “Perhaps they programmed these pieces because if they are cancelled it would be no big deal.” It does remind me of their choral season for 2019-20, I think it was. It was similar programming of incidental music, that sort of thing, rather than repertoire consisting of major symphonic choral works entirely.

Since singing is thought to spread the virus, this too seems risky for the TFC and all others.

I did a double-take when I saw the Men of the New England Conservatory Chorus listed for the season because they became the New England Conservatory Concert Choir back in — I think it was 2003-4 — and the New England Conservatory Chorus is not on the NEC’s website. Only two choral ensembles are listed for the Conservatory. So I don’t know who the NEC Chorus is, or have they changed the name back?  I prefer the name New England Conservatory Chorus, which was the Chorus that had a long legacy with the BSO including many recordings under the late Lorna Cooke de Varon before the founding of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus — by John Oliver with Seiji Ozawa’s support — to be the Official Chorus of the Tanglewood Music Festival and the BSO and Boston Pops Orchestras.

I have been highly critical of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the latter years of the late John Oliver. The Chorus declined in quality, especially the soprano and alto sections. The tenor and bass sections were the best. But James Burton from the UK — he’s a superb Chorus Director and Orchestral Director (as I recall he has a Masters in Orchestral Conducting from the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore) — was hired by the BSO to raise the level of choral excellence back up to the standards expected of them as the Official Chorus of the BSO. I’ve only heard a brief clip of them from a Symphony Hall performance, but they had indeed improved and were singing with perfect intonation (the perfect blending of voices without any noticeable vibrato). They still had the “Tanglewood sound” (as I call it), so it’s not that Burton has completely changed them. So far, he’s just done what needed to be done. Some Chorus Director reject the idea that their Chorus has a “sound” where others assert that they most certainly do. I remember Margaret Hillis saying that her Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus did not have a “sound,” which I disagreed with. To me, she was in denial. Chicago had a signature “sound.” The same was true for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Shaw and their signature “sound.” Now the choral “sound” did change slightly or a little more so depending upon the piece they were singing. I remember talking with one guy in my Anglican parish about Chicago and he said he didn’t like their “sound.” He said, “they sound like they’re singing through hay.” Not something I agreed with, but anyway. But with the TFC under Burton from the clip I watched, fortunately gone were those dreadful, awful, screechy, wobbling, fluttering shrill sopranos and wobbling altos. The Chorus was smaller in size in the clip I watched, so maybe he got rid of the dead weight, those people who had been in the Chorus for years and years and whose voice had long ago reached the “Sell By” date, but John Oliver allowed them to stay in the Chorus to its detriment. Perhaps he had become friends with some of the longtime choristers. That’s one problem with becoming too close to your choristers. That approach works okay with a Community Chorus, I suppose, where the standards are usually not that high. But that approach is not good when your Chorus is supposed to be of the same level as the major symphony Orchestra you perform with. And the BSO and Andris Nelsons had noticed. How could you not notice if you have any hearing at all with those dreadful sopranos especially when they started screaming and cackling on the top notes of Beethoven’s Ninth. It was awful. I remembering thinking: What has happened to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus? They were one of my favourite Orchestra Choruses in their early days. I enjoyed their holiday performances over PBS with the BSO where they performed “The Many Moods of Christmas” by Robert Russell Bennett with the BSO. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus also performed “The Many Moods…” under Robert Shaw. The TFC was featured in the BSO recording of the Berlioz The Damnation of Faust (Ozawa). They were excellent in that.

Due to copyright laws (and I think union rights), the BSO no longer make their performances available On Demand, so I’m not sure when I will hear the TFC again, if they are able to perform for the 2020-21 season. Chau.—el barrio rosa