The “memorised” Chorus is an unfortunate gimmick used to “wow the audience” typically used by ensembles who apparently think they aren’t good enough — with few exceptions to that — to allow the music to stand on its own and speak for itself where the music alone “wows the audience.”
Hola a todos. Some shallow people and other people who know little or nothing about music are easily impressed or “wowed” by what’s called a “memorised” Chorus. In the context I’m writing about, it’s where a Symphony Chorus/Orchestra Chorus perform without their vocal scores or “from memory.” It’s not that difficult to do especially if the piece is very familiar — and assuming the music is tonal (like Beethoven’s Ninth – Choral Finale) and the Chorus is well-prepared by the Chorus Director — yet many people for some reason are so easily “wowed” by it. (roll eyes) I don’t know why. I don’t recall ever seeing a Chorus perform a lengthy work, such as an oratorio like Mendelssohn’s Elias/Elijah “from memory” and there’s no need for anyone to give that a try just because I mentioned it. No, it’s usually some relatively short piece like the choral section of Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, (“The Resurrection”).
This topic came up again recently when some people in the comment section under a symphonic choral performance on U-toob — and who are easily “wowed” by what’s known as a “memorised Chorus” — were gushing over how this Youth Chorus was able to perform the beginning of the piece “from memory.” At it turned out, it was a gimmick and the suggestion came from the conductor of the performance according to one of the choristers from the Youth Chorus who commented. He said that the conductor wanted something that would “wow” the audience. Tacky. Apparently the conductor didn’t think that their performance alone was sufficient to do that and to stand on its own. The conductor needed some gimmick to “wow” the audience. To justify the ticket prices? So the conductor said, “Why don’t you sing the beginning of the piece from memory?” So that’s what they did. The Youth Chorus performed the beginning of the piece without their scores or “from memory” and then later raised their black folders which were in their right hand and began using the vocal score from that point on in the performance. Apparently that stunt, that gimmick worked and “wowed” and stunned everyone in the hall. (roll eyes, honestly people!). Such shallow people, I swear. Apparently it never occurred to the conductor or the audience that memorisation comes relatively easily for the age group required for this Youth Chorus. In fact, that’s the ideal age for memorising pieces. That age range is when one’s memory is very “fresh.” So what’s the big deal about performing the beginning section of the piece “from memory” and then using their scores for the remainder of the work? Someone in the comments asked if the conductor had “coached” the Chorus and the chorister mistakenly said, “Yes and the conductor was amazing.” I thought: That’s not true. The conductor didn’t coach the Chorus. So I asked the chorister, “What happened to Simon Halsey, the Chorus Director? I’m very familiar with him. He didn’t prepare the Chorus?” (Simon is especially known for being the Chorus Director for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus in the UK). The chorister responded to me by saying, “Well yes, you are correct, Simon did prepare us and he was amazing.” I thought but did not write: Well why did you say earlier that the conductor “coached” the Chorus? Making minor adjustments and changes in a dress rehearsal with the Chorus is not considered “coaching” the Chorus. The young chorister seemed confused. And before I wrote my comment, I suspect Simon Halsey would have resented all of his work preparing the Youth Chorus being attributed to the conductor. Also, my research found that the conductor has no choral training in order to be able to prepare a Chorus. That’s what I had thought but wanted to confirm that. The conductor has worked with Choruses already prepared for this conductor by a Chorus Director, but this conductor’s training is exclusively orchestral with two degrees in violin. Again, no choral training whatsoever. So I questioned how this conductor qualified to prepare any Chorus. That’s like someone preparing a string section when they’ve never studied any string instrument.
So, because of this confusion, I feel I need to say the following:
The Chorus Director prepares the Chorus, not the orchestral conductor.
It appears that many people do not know that it is the Chorus Director and not the orchestral conductor for the performance that prepares the Chorus for performances. I’ve read this ignorance in U-toob comments. (There’s often so much musical ignorance in U-toob comments). Again, the orchestral conductor of a performance does not prepare the Chorus. In fact, the conductor usually doesn’t see the Chorus until the dress rehearsal on stage with the Orchestra, where he may make minor adjustments and changes to how the Chorus has been prepared by the Chorus Director. The conductor might make diction and phrasing changes. Here are two examples: “Chorus, put the t of the word et on the second beat rather than the half beat (eighth note) of the first beat where you’re currently putting it. And sopranos, carry that phrase over beautifully in one breath, don’t take a breath there, stagger your breathing.” They are the type of things that conductors make changes in. Things like that. Nothing major. Whereas a credible Chorus Director — like the ones I had the privilege of singing under — will have already drilled the Chorus on things such as this for example: “I need more hard “K” on the word “Kyrie” in the first movement so it doesn’t sound like “yrie.” I want that hard “K” of Kyrie to be heard in the last row of the hall. Spit the consonants throughout. I want very crisp diction.” Usually, but not always, the Chorus Director and the conductor have already consulted and gone over the score together so that the Chorus Director prepares the Chorus according to the conductor’s wishes. In other instances, they don’t talk at all before hand, or that’s the impression I got in some rehearsals with the Orchestra Choruses I performed with. Each performance is different in that regard. On occasion, a conductor may come to the rehearsal site of the Chorus and hear the Chorus just before the dress rehearsal. Conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos did that with us (the Choral Arts Society of Washington) for one of our performances in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the NSO, but as memory serves no other conductor did that with us that I remember. Conductor John Nelson came out to the University of Maryland to hear the University of Maryland Chorus in the season I sang with them before our Wolf Trap performance of the Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts with the NSO. I remember at the end of our rehearsal with Nelson, he said something very kind: “This is the best prepared Chorus I’ve ever worked with.” (I was sitting there thinking to myself: Well! Well of course it is. This is the superb University of Maryland Chorus with their stellar reputation. What did you expect? That’s why I’ve wanted to sing with them for years). But I’m sure John Nelson’s comment made Dr Traver’s day. I remember turning around and looking towards the back of the rehearsal room to see Dr Traver’s face, but I didn’t see him anywhere. But musically-ignorant people think that the orchestral conductor prepares the Chorus, which again, is incorrect. That’s why I get annoyed when the Chorus Director is not acknowledged and brought on stage at the end of the performance to have his Chorus take their bows. And I think Chorus Directors get pretty tired of preparing their Chorus for orchestral conductors and receiving very little, if any, credit for it. I know I would get tired of that. All of that work for weeks and not even acknowledged for it! Maybe that’s why some Chorus Directors retire before their replacement can be found along with rarely being given the opportunity to conduct both the Orchestra and Chorus. I won’t name names. There was one exception to this where Robert Shaw had both the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, so he prepared both the Orchestra and Chorus, technically speaking. Although did Shaw have the rehearsal accompanist Norman Mackenzie rehearse the ASOC quite a bit? I don’t know, I’m speculating, since Norman has been the Director of Choruses for Atlanta since Shaw’s death.
Back to the “memorised” Chorus: Assuming the Chorus consists of high-caliber experienced symphonic choral choristers and is well-prepared by the Chorus Director meaning they had weekly Full Chorus and weekly sectional rehearsals, it’s not that difficult to perform from memory because the human voice (meaning a chorister in this case) can only sing one note at a time. Just like most all other musicians can only play one note at a time. It’s not at all like pianists or organists who — depending upon what they’re playing — will be required to play up to 10-11 notes all at one time with every finger on a key and with the thumb of one hand on two keys as in some of the pieces by Sergei Rachmaninov. Try memorising Rachmaninov’s pieces with all those notes, and then get back to me on how “wowed” you are by how difficult it is to play or sing one note at a time from memory. I know from experience. This is not at all meant to come across as if I’m putting down other musicians. I’m not. Not at all. I have the highest regard for other talented and well-trained musicians regardless of the instrument(s) they play. I’m just saying that most musicians play or sing one note at a time, so with the repetitive rehearsal process and the drilling/repetitive work on measures, phrases, sections and pages that well-trained musicians go through in preparing a piece, it should be fairly easy to sing (or play) one note at a time from memory. Don’t you think? I should think so. But for a pianist, it’s a bit boring to play one note at a time (or even four notes at one time — as in a hymn — for that matter. I know from experience with my choral accompanying where I, the piano accompanist, had to play the soprano (or alto, tenor or bass) line for them as they rehearsed in sectional rehearsals. Or the Chorus Director would say to me, “Play all the parts so that they hear all the parts that are being sung at the time, but emphasise their notes only” which requires some skill.
Most musicians look like musicians and look fine when they’re performing without their scores. They really don’t look any differently than if they were using their score. They’re holding their instrument and playing it. There’s just no score there when they’re performing “from memory.”
But the same cannot be said about a “memorised” Chorus.
A Chorus does not look good when they’re performing “from memory.” When they perform with their scores, their eyes are moving back and forth from the score to the conductor and they’re turning pages (usually all choristers turn pages at one time since they’re all using the same edition). The choristers will sway or move some — which I enjoy seeing — it shows that they’re really getting into their music, feeling the rhythms and the beats just as the finest musicians in the Orchestra do. They look like they’re enjoying themselves. They don’t look like stiff, motionless robots or mannequins or statues like the “memorised Chorus” looks. When choristers use their scores, their score does not block their faces; they are very easy to see and they look like well-trained musicians, which they are.
The “memorised” Chorus; however, looks the opposite. Here’s what mi amigo/my friend said about that:
He brought this topic up while we were watching a symphonic choral performance where the Chorus performed “from memory.” They were performing the Verdi Messa da Requiem. We didn’t get too far into the Verdi because it’s too operatic for mi amigo/my friend, and I only like the choral sections. I’m not into screaming which one always hears in that piece where the vocal soloists mistake harsh screaming for singing beautifully, on pitch and musically. It’s awful. He did like the Dies Irae (Chorus) with the brass, which I’ve always liked too. I never performed the Verdi but I saw it performed live in the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra and the superb University of Maryland Chorus. The Verdi was one of their signature pieces along with Beethoven’s Ninth and the Mahler Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”). The Maryland Chorus used their scores so they never looked like a bank of statues or robots.
For the Verdi performance we watched part of, mi amigo asked me: Why would they perform without their scores? What’s the purpose of that? They don’t look like musicians. No where on their person is there any indication that they are a musician. They’re not holding an instrument (because their instrument is their voice, obviously). They’re not holding a black music folder or any vocal/choral score making them look like musicians. If you didn’t know, you might think they are a graduating class of a school (not wearing their cap and gown), or a portfolio picture of a corporation with an all-black or black and white dress code showing all the employees. The “memorised” Chorus stands rigidly “at attention.” They look very stiff as they stare straight ahead at the conductor. They don’t move around at all like they do when using their scores. Their arms are down by their side. Not even their hands move. Stiff and rigid is how they look. They don’t look relaxed as they regurgitate on cue what’s been drilled into them for weeks by the Chorus Director or at least that’s the way it looks when they’re not reading music from their scores. They don’t look like musicians. They look militaristic especially when everybody is wearing the same uniform which closely resembles that of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or DPR Korea) (Korean: 조선민주주의인민공화국. And depending upon the lighting in the hall, some of the all-black Symphony Chorus attire — the Women of the Chorus in black dresses and the Men of the Chorus in black pants, jackets and black tie — looks dark black while other sections of the Chorus have more of a greenish hue to their black attire and that’s where the DPRK look comes in. There they are standing “at attention,” no one is moving anything but their mouths, diaphragms and eye lids. All staring “at attention” and straight ahead in lockstep. Yes, it does look very militaristic. It looks stiff. It looks unmusical and unnatural. Because who normally stands like that? Like a statue? A bank of statues in this case. They don’t look like they’re feeling what they’re singing. They don’t move around and get into their music the way they do when they use their scores. And, they can resemble the North Korean Military Squad.
I agree with him. Who wants to look anything like that description? Does one really want one’s Chorus to look like any of that? I should say not, but apparently some do or they have mindlessly adopted this “this perform from memory” shtick because — for some reason — they’re into this “memorised Chorus” gimmick. And again:
And what exactly is a Chorus trying to prove by performing without their scores? I’ve never understood that either. That they are supposedly better than others? Better than another Symphony Chorus?
As I said, one does not necessarily get a better performance with a “memorised Chorus.” This was one complaint I had with the “memorised” Tanglewood Festival Chorus during John Oliver’s tenure as Chorus Director. I don’t like to be hard on another queer boy unless it’s justified which it is in this case. Wasn’t John Oliver a queer boy? I think so. I liked his work with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in their early years. But later, John Oliver came up with this stuff about how you couldn’t see the chorister’s/singers’ faces when they were using their score. What rubbish! Some people come up with any excuse to justify what they’re doing, you know? To begin with, the vocal score is to be held so that the chorister can see/read the score and see the conductor at the same time. The score is not to be held where it blocks the face. So John should have trained his choristers on how to properly hold their scores if they were not doing so. So that’s on him as Chorus Director, and has nothing to do with the excuse he dreamed up for why a Chorus should be “memorised.” Then some TFC (Tanglewood Festival Chorus) disciples wrote to me saying how “Seiji Ozawa loved the memorised TFC” as if that justified their memorisation gimmick. Well, no disrespect at all intended to Seiji — he’s a superb musician — but I don’t care what Seiji Ozawa loved. I don’t worship other musicians/conductors, the way many people do (including conductor worshipping). I know from my experience how a “memorised” Chorus looks and they don’t look good/natural. I suspect if the TFC had used their scores all the time, Ozawa would still have loved the TFC since they are his creation essentially. He’s the reason they exist. He told John Oliver to go start a Chorus when Oliver said that “We need our own Chorus” at Tanglewood because in those days the BSO was using Lorna Cooke deVaron‘s New England Conservatory Chorus in Symphony Hall. (She died in 2018, by the way). And I bet “the man in the moon” would have loved the TFC too — until the TFC started their path of deteriorating choral excellence in recent years under John Oliver. And don’t some conductors love being constantly stared at — I mean, let’s face it; some conductors love the attention — which is what a “memorised” Chorus gives them. They don’t have anything else to look at so — like a bank of statues, a bank of mannequins — on the Chorus risers they stare nonstop at the conductor. I suppose that can be quite a head trip for a conductor, if he’s into that. I wouldn’t be if I were a conductor. I’d prefer that the Chorus use their scores.
In performances I see these days from the EU as well as from América del Sur/Sudamérica/South América where the Chorus is using their scores, I have no trouble at all seeing any choristers’ faces. They all hold their scores properly. I’m not sure about this, but did John Oliver go so far as to say that one gets a better performance “from memory?” If he said that, clearly that’s not true either as the “memorised” TFC deteriorated during his tenure. That’s because, in part, he kept longtime choristers in the TFC when they should have been asked to leave long ago due to the deterioration of their voice. After Oliver retired, the BSO hired superb James Burton from the UK to overhaul the TFC which he has done, or rather is doing to bring the Tanglewood Festival Chorus back up to the level of choral excellence expected of them as the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. Their level of excellence is to match the level of excellence of the Orchestra. That’s why orchestras have their own Chorus. And it looks like Burton might be ending the “memorised” run of the TFC. I should hope he does, so that the TFC start looking like musicians. In a clip I saw of them recently (Autumn 2019), they have improved — now singing with perfect intonation — and they used their scores with black folders and then put them down by their right side in the final few measures of the piece they were singing. James Burton has done an excellent job so far with them. As mi amigo/my friend said: “They are now listenable.” Hopefully James Burton will abandon that “from memory” nonsense along with that all-white dress code for the choristers that they have on occasion, or is that only at Tanglewood? It looks tacky. A friend of mine saw the TFC in their all-white get-up Chorus attire and asked me, “Is it a Klan rally?” Hahahaha. Well, you might come away with that impression, no? I’m not all that hot on all-black either but having the Chorus in all-black looks better to me than all white. Usually, an Orchestra Chorus — which the TFC is — dresses like the orchestral musicians and depending upon the Orchestra they are wearing all black (especially in the EU or in Australia) or black and white. But I’ve never seen all-white fortunately, except for maybe The Last Night of The Proms (I’m referring to the BBC Proms, for those who don’t know).
The only time I’m usually “impressed” (if that’s the word) with someone performing “from memory” is if the artist is 70 or 80+ years of age and they’re able to play a piano concerto — such as the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 — “from memory” rather perfectly. What impresses me about that is not what you might think. It tells me that the pianist’s mind is still sound and that they haven’t lapsed into some stage of dementia at that age. That’s the reason I’m impressed by it. Or when a pianist plays a piece like the extremely difficult Schostakowitsch Piano Concerto No. 1 from memory. That’s not at all easy to do because of the nature of the piece while the trumpet soloist — there are two soloists in the Schostakowitsch — sits there with his score on his music stand because, per tradition, it’s considered acceptable for him to use his score in performance even though he’s only playing one note at a time. Yet it’s not considered acceptable for the pianist who is playing umpteen notes at a time to use his score in performance. Insane. What idiots dreamed up these insane performance rules? Well, for pianists they came as a result of god Franz Liszt. Pianists worldwide from henceforth and forever more had to do what The Holy and Invisible Trinity, god Liszt, did in performance, and follow his “from memory” gimmick. I guess he tried to “wow” his audience too. But other than that, memorisation doesn’t impress me really because if a musician plays something long enough and enough times — in some cases to the point of becoming sick of the piece — memorisation automatically happens on its own using various methods for memorising. There will probably be a few places that need special attention that didn’t quite “take” with repeated playing of the piece. I read that pianist Alicia de Laroccha had played the Ravel Piano Concerto in G so many times that — according to the person who wrote the comment — he didn’t find her performance that interesting because it was as if she was playing on automatic pilot from having played the piece too many times from memory. Maybe if she had used her score, seeing the notes and all the markings in the score in the hard copy — as opposed to seeing the score in her mind (one of the techniques of memorisation) — maybe that wouldn’t have been the case.
As far as memorisation goes: From my own experience locally in San Francisco with the many pianists I’ve enjoyed over the years who had memory slips during their performance, they would have had a better performance had they used their scores. “The fingers have a mind of their own in performance” is how one local pianist described it to me, and I know exactly what he was talking about. Things can happen in a performance that have never happened before. I’ve seen countless pianists locally in San Francisco over the years have memory slips, which would not have happened had they used their score, with or without a page turner. Is one better prepared when performing “from memory?” No, absolutely not and I can attest to that. For a solo piano performance I gave years ago, the concert manager did not listen to all of my audition tape, and because of that — she erroneously thought I was playing all one style of pieces even though I wasn’t — she changed my programme about 2-3 weeks before my performance and she wanted me to play “from memory.” Well, I had memory slips in my performance because this witch changed my repertoire (if only she had listened to the whole recording I sent her of my audition tape) and I didn’t have enough time for the new pieces to be solidly memorised. Like other pianists I had seen perform there and who had memory lapses, I felt like crawling under the piano at one point it was so embarrassing to me, although of course I improvised in the style of the piece while having my memory lapses. But I got through it. I also got the impression that most people in the audience did not notice the memory problems because at the end of the performance the audience was very kind to me and gave me a standing ovation which I very much appreciated in the dazed state I was in after performing. I was just relieved it was over. I may have regretted it was over if I had felt completely comfortable with the newer Rachmaninov pieces “from memory.” I played his Études–Tableaux. And my memory problems wouldn’t have happened had I been allowed to use my scores like some other pianists did at the same performance venue. They just ignored what she said about “from memory” although they had performed there before and I was new to this venue. So I didn’t want to be “blacklisted” from this venue because I didn’t perform “from memory.” And get this: the same concert manager whenever she performed used her scores. It was alright for her, but not for others. Ms. Hypocrite.
I sometimes read “How could he remember all those notes?” in U-toob comments under piano concerti videos. Well, again, if a musician works on something long enough it because rather automatic-pilot, although one must always be alert to a piece sounding “automatic” or on auto-pilot. You don’t want that.
And there are rules or traditions in the classical music field of when it’s considered “appropriate” for one to use his or her score. Don’t let me get started on that ludicrous thinking other than to say that the musicians who play the most notes are — by tradition — not allowed to use their scores in performance. Insane. But the musicians who play one note at a time — which is the majority of musicians — have the luxury of using their score for solo performance if they want. That mentality seems rather ass-backwards doesn’t it? Logic and critical thinking skills would dictate that those playing up to 10 notes at a time as in Rachmaninov can use their score if they want, because most musicians should be able to handle playing one note at a time. But traditions don’t often run on or operate on logic, but rather some silly rule that some nut dreamed up and it stuck.
But back to symphonic choral performances and the “memorised Chorus.” What sparked this article, in part, was a comment I read online under a performance of Beethoven’s (over-performed) Ninth. The Ninth is currently one of The Big Three, you know, or maybe you didn’t? In the comments, some woman was so impressed (roll eyes) and weak-kneed because the Chorus sang “from memory.” I wanted to ask her: Why are you impressed with that? What’s the big deal about that? The odd thing is that she claimed to have performed the Ninth “a few times.” Really? I question that. Because if she had, she would know that Beethoven’s Ninth Choral Finale is pretty straight forward and if she were in the soprano section she would have the melody line, so what’s the big deal about performing “from memory?” For Beethoven’s Ninth, pitch accuracy and avoiding the tendency that some Choruses have to scream rather than sing beautifully should be the focus, especially those measures where the soprano section has to float effortlessly and very quietly up on that high A making sure their pitch perfectly stays in tune (does not sag and go flat) with the rest of the Chorus and Orchestra. It would be hard to have a memory slip in the choral section of Beethoven’s Ninth and the choral section is relatively small by comparison. I performed the Ninth two or three times with the Orchestra Choruses I performed with, and I know it well from hearing it — don’t we all? — and I don’t know how anyone could have a memory slip in that. If it’s been well-rehearsed, it should be no big deal. So it makes me wonder what type of chorister this woman was who was gushing over this “memorised Chorus” on U-toob? Or did she make the whole thing up? Or did she perform it with some University Chorus and Orchestra and not a major symphony Orchestra and Chorus? There’s one University Chorus that I mention often because I like to keep their rich legacy alive — and I had the privilege of performing with them for one season — and that’s the stellar and renowned University of Maryland Chorus, which was not at all your average or typical University Chorus by any means. The Maryland Chorus (as they were also known) performed the Ninth over 38 times with (inter)national Orchestras in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, at Wolf Trap, in Baltimore’s Symphony Hall and elsewhere. During the Antal Doráti years of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) and due to their frequent performances with the NSO, some might have thought that the University of Maryland Chorus was the Official Chorus of the National Symphony Orchestra. (Although the NSO has never had their own Chorus). The thinking seemed to have been at that time: If you’re doing Beethoven’s Ninth and you want a stellar performance, you must have the University of Maryland Chorus. They were choristers at the University of Maryland’s School of Music College Park campus outside the District of Columbia. One reviewer from The Washington Post wrote about one of their performance:
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)
And I thought one of their performances that I heard in the Kennedy Center was the best, live or on records/CDs. Now keep in mind, The Maryland Chorus had performed Beethoven’s Ninth close to 40 times as of that writing, yet they still used their scores (as they should have) and consistently produced stellar results of choral excellence. Wonderful Dr Paul Traver (Founder and Director of the University of Maryland Chorus and one of my choral mentors) did not have this silly head trip going on about a “memorised Chorus.”
When singing “from memory,” I have seen some choristers when performing symphonic choral works having what appeared to be memory slips. The camera showed them and they were all standing in SATB sections meaning they were not mixed up. In other words, other than the “border” between the soprano and alto sections, a soprano was not standing next to an alto or vice versa. And even though the choristers on either side were singing, the chorister having the memory slip couldn’t seem to get back on track by hearing the choristers on either side of her. I saw that at the BBC Proms. I thought: Why isn’t she singing when the choristers around her are? I assumed she was having a memory slip.
Awhile back, mi amigo and I watched a Chorus performing “from memory” without their scores. Then we watched another performance with another Chorus using their scores. Before the video loaded mi amigo/my friend asked me: Do they use their scores in this performance from Copenhagen? I said: Yes they do. After the performance began, he immediately said about the Chorus: “Oh they look much better. That looks much better using the scores.” Absolutely. They look like musicians, like performers as opposed to stiff singing statues.
Then recently, I had the following experience online with that woman I mentioned up above who was gushing over the “memorised Chorus” for Beethoven’s Ninth. I decided to express a short version of the views I’ve expressed here in this article under that performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. Again, in that performance the Chorus did not use their scores. She responded to me:
“I don’t disagree with what you say, but the fault isn’t memorization, it’s direction. Show choirs sure don’t appear stiff and robotic. While I’ve always held my music folder and “engaged” with the music, I’ve also memorized every performance so that I never have to take my eyes off the maestro. I have an eidetic memory, so it’s how I learn best. “
I responded to her with the following: I stand by what I said. The fault is indeed with memorisation. It has nothing to do with direction because when the Chorus uses their scores they do not look as I described. (Dense woman). And this performance is about Beethoven’s Ninth featuring an Orchestra Chorus/Symphony Chorus. That’s what I was talking about. I wasn’t referring to a “Show Choir.” Being a symphonic choral person, I wasn’t even sure what a “Show Choir” is. That’s not my experience or interests. I may have heard the term before but I had to look it up. A “Show Choir” is in Broadway musicals and that sort of thing. Well, that’s not at all what I’m into, Ms US Midwest commenter. I told her that the finest musicians do indeed take their eyes off the conductor. They don’t stare at conductors non-stop. Does she ever blink? I mean, who could stare non-stop at a conductor without going insane? Look at some of the finest orchestral musicians. They mostly look at their scores and glance up at the conductor every now and then, they don’t constantly stare at him, they can see him (or her) in their field vision so there’s no need to constantly stare at any conductor. What is wrong with the woman? (Dense). The finest choristers do the same; they don’t constantly stare non-stop at the conductor. And with the finest musicians, they can perform a piece without a conductor as I saw recently for a conductor-less performance of the Brahms First Piano Concerto. It was superb. But get this part that Ms Midwest commenter wrote: “I have an eidetic memory, so it’s how I learn best.” Well isn’t that wonderful, mi amor. I’ve never known any serious musicians — none that I’ve ever worked with — to brag to me about their “eidetic” memory or their memory in general or anything else. The finest musicians that I’ve known are very humble and modest. I never brag about anything, memory or otherwise. I talk about my musical experience but hopefully it never comes across as if I’m bragging because that’s not at all how I mean it. To me, her comment came off as the usual amateurish comment, and that we’re into two very different things. She’s into “Show Choirs” and I’m into Orchestra Choruses which are two very different ensembles. Her response annoyed me. I asked myself: Did I just experience one of the know-it-all Classical Music Snots? That’s how it felt. And again, except for harpists, pianists and organists — pianists play up to 11 or 12 notes at a time in some Rachmaninov pieces, for example — most musicians play or sing one single note at a time. So after enough rehearsal, practise time and drilling, one should be able to “regurgitate” one’s musical performance “from memory” regardless of one’s eidetic memory, just keeping in mind that one does not necessarily get the finest performance “from memory.” Chau.—el barrio rosa