New Chorus Director for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Hola a todos. I told mi amigo/my friend that I was writing about the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. He asked: “Why are you writing about some squeal-y Chorus?” (smile). I knew what he meant by that since we had talked about the problems with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sometime ago. I said to him: Well, they have a new Chorus Director. That’s why I’m writing about them and maybe he will make positive changes to the Chorus because of his own high choral standards.

If you’ve read mi diario personal/my personal diary (pink barrio) for sometime, you may have noticed that I haven’t written favorably about Boston’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). And that’s because they’re not as good as they used to be, in my opinion, like so many other things these days.

But maybe that will change now that the BSO has hired James Burton from the UK to be the Chorus Director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus as well as the BSO’s Choral Director. That latter title is curious. The BSO created that new title (“BSO Choral Director”) for James Burton and I’m not sure what that means since the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) is the only Chorus that performs with the BSO. So it would seem to me that by default Burton is automatically the “BSO’s Choral Director” as Chorus Director of the TFC, no? But then after thinking about it, just like with TFC’s founder and former Chorus Director, John Oliver, I assume Burton will be working at Tanglewood as a choral expert/specialist — and working with other guest choral ensembles at Tanglewood — in his role as the BSO’s Choral Director, and not in his role as Chorus Director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus or anything having to do with them.

For those who don’t know, Tanglewood (which is in Lenox Massachusetts) is the second/Summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — and they perform there when they’re not in Boston’s Symphony Hall — and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was formed by John Oliver to serve as the Chorus for the Tanglewood Music Festival. Oliver retired as TFC’s Chorus Director in 2014.

A little history: Before the TFC was founded, the New England Conservatory Chorus (Lorna Cooke de Varon, Chorus Director) performed with the BSO. They had quite a legacy with the BSO — similar to the superb University of Maryland Chorus and the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center — and the BSO and the New England Conservatory Chorus made many recording together of their performances. Later, BSO conductor, Seiji Ozawa, asked John Oliver to form the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and they became the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I bet it made their day when Lorna Cooke de Varon and the New England Conservatory Chorus learned they would no longer be performing with the BSO.

TFC was one of my favourite Orchestra Choruses at that time. But hearing them in recent years, something changed with them. Or did John Oliver’s hearing give out in recent years? Something happened. Maybe they were doing too much opera repertoire? Which would be better left for Opera Choruses to do, rather than a Symphony Chorus. In the last couple of years or so I heard them perform and could not listen to their shrill-sounding soprano section with that god-awful wobbling, fluttering, almost-nervous-sounding vibrato they sing with. Jesus, who likes that sound? (People with no ear for the finest of choral excellence). And at the end of their Beethoven’s Ninth performance at the Tanglewood Music Festival a couple of years ago, the audience screamed with approval and applause. Apparently their audience can’t tell the difference between screaming and singing (choral excellence). Or was most of the audience drunk from sipping wine for hours on the lawn, so anything sounds good to them?! In that performance, the soprano section sounded unrefined and like they were cackling especially on the highest notes of the Beethoven. It sounded awful. I thought while listening to them: What’s happened to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus? It made me wonder that perhaps some of the sopranos shouldn’t be in the Chorus — vocally past their prime? — and it made me wonder if those choristers are all that John Oliver could get these days considering the commitment required for chorister membership in the TFC. Again, the soprano section did not have a smooth, refined sound like the rest of the Chorus which I found very odd because the soprano section did not “match” the rest of the Chorus, if you know what I mean by that. As I remember, the altos had a similar problem but they were not nearly as annoying/bad as the sopranos. The tenors and basses did not sing with vibrato at all. Their strong tenor section was mostly excellent. I say “mostly” because with them I heard some straining and cracking voices in their upper register of the Beethoven. Not good, and not what one expects to hear from a superb, well-trained Orchestra Chorus.

With the Orchestra Choruses I had the privilege of singing with (Choral Arts Society of Washington (National Symphony Orchestra/Kennedy Center Concert Hall), University of Maryland Chorus (NSO/Kennedy Center Concert Hall) and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Davies Symphony Hall)), all sections of the Chorus “matched.” I’ve never been a chorister in any Chorus where the sections did not “match.” That’s unheard of from my choral experience. We had no section (SATB) that had some fluttery/wobbling annoying vibrato as if they’re trying to be an Opera Chorus and not what they are: a Symphony Chorus. The Symphonic Choruses I sang with were of the same caliber as Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Hillis and Shaw had no vibrato with any of their sections. All sections of both the Chicago and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Choruses had a very smooth, polished and refined warm choral sound (and impeccable diction). And there was absolutely no cracking voices or straining for notes. The same was true for Simon Halsey’s CBSO Chorus (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus) in the UK when I was paying close attention to them. All of their sections matched. The same with Stephen Hill’s BBC Symphony Chorus.

I don’t understand the thinking of some Chorus Directors these days where they have three sections of their Chorus (it’s usually the altos, tenors and basses) singing without vibrato and one section (the sopranos) singing with vibrato. WTF is up with that? Is this something new? It’s not how I was trained.

I’m beginning to wonder if this annoying vibrato with sopranos and altos is a “Boston thing,” because the Boston University Symphony Chorus has the same problem. Or are they trying to emulate unrefined Tanglewood? If so, don’t, por favor. Not a good idea. I couldn’t listen to the Boston University Symphony Chorus’ recent performance of the Fauré Requiem because of, again, the annoying fluttering vibrato from their soprano section and some from the altos. But their tenors and basses fortunately had absolutely no vibrato whatsoever. They sounded beautiful, very smooth, polished and refined. But unfortunately, the women of the BU Symphony Chorus certainly did not sound refined. They had this unpleasant “rough”/non-smooth sound to them. It was as if they (men and women) were prepared by two different Chorus Directors with two very different perspectives/preferences: Vibrato for women. No vibrato for men. Loco./Crazy. And what they ended up with for the final performance was a non-homogeneous-sounding Chorus with a smooth/refined-sounding men’s section and a rough/unrefined-sounding women’s section. Damn odd and unpleasant to listen to, at least for me and mi amigo.

So maybe James Burton will correct these things. The Chorus he prepared for the BBC Proms did not sing with vibrato. They had what I call a “British sound.” A very bright sound with no vibrato. You can hear them here in Felix Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang (which the ignorant BBC Radio 3 announcer didn’t know how to pronounce correctly. Sigh. They don’t have a German consulate in London that he could call to check the pronunciation with, or does he enjoy sounding ignorant on the air? Others commented on this as well). Again, none of the SATB sections of the combined Hallé choral forces sang with vibrato in this performance below, so maybe James will use the same standards in Boston, hopefully. I would give him a least a year to make changes. It usually takes awhile for new people to make changes. Here’s their performance from the BBC Proms:

The Hallé Choir
The Hallé Youth Choir
The Hallé Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder, Conductor

Maybe James will also end that silly tradition that the TFC has of performing without their vocal scores. Who were they trying to impress by not using their scores? There’s something about a large group of people (150-200+ voices) not using their scores all staring straight ahead looking at the conductor which makes them look like a motionless bank of lobotomised robots regurgitating on cue what’s been drilled into them. That’s how the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under John Oliver looked to me and mi amigo/my friend. He’s noticed it too. To me, a Symphony Chorus that performs with their scores looks much better. It looks like they’re actively engaged in reading music and interpreting the score. They don’t look like mindless robots, and the score does not get in the way of seeing the faces of the choristers. I’ve had no problem seeing the faces of the Boston University Symphony Chorus. They use their scores (good) as they did in this Rachmaninov performance. I give other examples of problems with the TFC in the article at this link. Also, in this Rachmaninov performance (link immediately above) no section of the BU Symphony Chorus had annoying fluttery vibrato. That’s why it’s most curious and unfortunate that they used vibrato (as I said earlier) in their more recent Fauré Requiem performance. That performance was conducted by Scott Jarrett. Does he like that wobbling sound, or did another Chorus Director prepare the women and he didn’t feel comfortable asking them to turn off that tacky and annoying vibrato? Fluttery vibrato was also used some years ago (again) by the women when the BU Symphony Chorus performed Mendelssohn’s Elias at Symphony Hall with the BU Symphony Orchestra. That performance was conducted by Ann Howard Jones formerly of Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

James Burton has an excellent background. I’m familiar with him as former Choral Director at the Hallé Orchestra, and music Director of the Hallé Youth Choir. You can read about him at that link above.

Mi amigo asked me: Why did the UK let James Burton get away to come to Boston? Well, I suspect the answer to that is: dinero/money and the salary the BSO offered him, which may have included paying all expenses to move him from the UK to The Cesspool as well as arranging for his work Visa. Although, one wonders why he would want to live in the US, especially under El Hombre Naranja/The Orange Man who’s now in power in the District of Columbia.

It’s telling that the BSO felt they must go to the UK to get a qualified Chorus Director, isn’t it? This also speaks to the dismal state of things here in The Cesspool/los Estados Unidos and the dying-state of classical music here and the complete lack of respect and interest in music education in the US. As of this writing, The National Endowment For The Arts as well as The National Endowment For The Humanities are being completely eliminated from the US federal budget proposed by El Hombre Naranja. El hombre has no respect for culture or the arts — both are way over his enormous head and beyond him since all he thinks about is dinero/money — and the same goes for the rabid proudly-ignorant (redneck) trash that worship him and serve as his devout boot-licking cult-mentality followers. A really pathetic situation. Contrast the US to Britain, where they have a superb National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Choir and they’re so outstanding that they perform every Summer for the BBC Proms. We have nothing like that here in The Cesspool. Nor do we have anything like the Proms, nor will we at the rate things are going. Chau.—el barrio rosa

UPDATE: After publishing this article, someone identifying himself as a chorister from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus disagreed with my article down in the comment section. He wrote:

“Conductors loved the memorized TFC (Seiji Ozawa’s original idea)…

Awhile back I read an article about the TFC and according to that article (which you can read here), it was John Oliver’s idea as I stated in the article. This is from that interview:

“Michael: Was the standard of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus from the very beginning to sing without a score?

John: That came later. The first time we sang without a score was Tosca, in the mid ‘80s. The lights were out for a lot of the time on a staged piece the Boston Symphony Orchestra was performing, so the chorus had to memorize the piece. The same thing happened the next season with Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arch au bûcher, so that, too, had to be memorized. I said to myself, if those two pieces can be memorized, why not Symphony No. 9? They sing it every year. So I asked them to do that. I don’t remember exactly how it evolved, but there were objections from a certain segment of the chorus. It was a lot of work, God knows, but on the other hand, the people who were proud of it gradually outnumbered the naysayers.”

I read another article awhile back about the TFC wherein John Oliver talked about this again and how the TFC usually perform from memory. In that article, I got the impression it was his idea — and not Seiji Ozawa’s idea — as Oliver talked about how one needs to see the faces of the choristers (as if their scores hinder that), and that’s why I addressed that in this article. It doesn’t really matter whose idea it was — I still don’t like it for the reasons I stated in the article — but if it were Seiji Ozawa’s idea, Ozawa didn’t have the same memorisation standard in this performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus he conducted in Nihon/Japan where this excellent Japanese Chorus (their name is not listed) perform with their vocal scores. They also sing without vibrato. In this performance, everyone uses his/her score except Ozawa. Pleased to see Argerich using her score. I think more pianists should be using their scores:

12 comments on “New Chorus Director for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus

  1. San Francisco Resident

    This was reported in the local media about the SF Symphony Chorus celebrating Vance George’s birthday before he retired as Chorus Director. He walked into the room and they sang this schmaltzy rendition of Happy Birthday to him. When it was over he thanked them and said in his usual dry way, “we won’t be needing that vibrato anymore” to which the SFSC erupted into laughter. I was reminded of that story after reading this article and the comment from the TFC chorus member. As pink barrio responded – serious musicians do care about vibrato and we had the highest respect for Vance George when he was here. Just wanted to say that.

    My own opinion is that I don’t mind vibrato with soloists as long as it’s not too wild. I’ve heard some soloists where I couldn’t distinguish which pitches they were singing because of their overuse of vibrato.

    Reply
  2. Wes in Arlington

    Hola pink barrio – as always, appreciate your passing mention of my alma mater (UMD) and the fabulous University of Maryland Chorus which I can confirm didn’t sing with vibrato.

    Don’t know if it’s okay to say this but I agree with Conservatory Student that the guy from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus seemed overly defensive and seemed like he got too emotional by some things you wrote and only read bits and pieces of the article. He wanted only glowing praise.

    I haven’t heard the TFC in years….used to see them during the holidays with the Boston Pops over PBS.

    Do you have an absolutely fabu and favorite chorus you’d like us all to hear? I’d like to hear an example of what you consiider the absolute best today…since we know who you don’t like …:-). Thx.

    Reply
    1. el barrio rosa Post author

      Hola Wes, “Do you have an absolutely fabu and favorite chorus you’d like us all to hear?” Yes! Here:

      I also wrote about them awhile back:
      Fauré – Requiem Op. 48 – Collegium Vocale and Chapelle Royale, Orchestre des Champs-Élysées (Herreweghe)

      Even though this Chorus is smaller in size than the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, one could still get the same stellar results with a Chorus the same size as the TFC by selecting additional choristers just like the ones in this superb performance.

      Gracias for your comment. Chau.

      Reply
      1. Wes in Arlington

        Hola and thanks for the response. I watched that perf. when you put it on before. It is exquisite. Had the same effect on me as before – brought tears to my eyes. You definitely know the best….your training and experience shine through. Thx.

        Reply
  3. castro local

    this brings to mind something that happened to me yrs ago and a learning experience. i bought a recording of orff’s carmina burana. not knowing how to choose the best performance i bought one that featured an opera chorus. i don’t remember which one but i hated it. i took it back to the classical music store and asked to exchange it. the clerk asked me “why did you buy a choral work sung by an opera chorus?” he was very knowledgeable and educated me on how to select a good recording. he recommended seiji ozawa’s recording with the new england conservatory chorus and bso that he had in stock. i got it home and loved it. he said “the general rule” is choral works should be performed by symphony choruses and not opera choruses because of the vibrato factor and demonstrated in the store what that was with his own voice. it was at that time that i learned about vibrato. fascinating. i haven’t gone wrong since.

    Reply
  4. Robert Seaborne

    My personal opinion is that vibrato is a tool used to cover up bad singing. I have noticed that I personally like a clear continuous smooth voice that shows off the professionalism of that particular choral ensemble. I can’t stand vibrato and wish it would stay with the opera choruses. Thanks for the excellent articles. It’s hard to find a good blog about choral music.

    Reply
  5. Bruce Harris

    I don’t know who this commentator is (no name is attached to the report)or what his/her musical background is but I patently disagree with his musings. I’ve sung with symphony choruses all over the US and a few abroad as well and I feel vibrato has nothing negative or positive to do with good choral singing. It’s the chorus that sings with feeling, good diction, and with a thorough understanding of the words they’re singing that gets through to the audience. This commentator castigates everyone, from the old TFC to John Oliver to the new TFC without giving a single solitary musical example of what is getting him/her so musically upset. When a chorus sings without a score, not only is it an amazing musical feat to memorize not only one’s own part but how it meshes with the entire vocal ensemble and the orchestra, but on the contrary, to be at the conductor’s beck and call to make immediate musical and emotional adjustments while the performance is ongoing based on the many nuances that make a powerful performance is a tour de force.. Conductors loved the memorized TFC (Seiji Ozawa’s original idea) because it gave them that freedom of expression and the chorus was so responsive to their every request. Vibrato? Who cares about vibrato! We don’t sing with vibrato when we sing Gregorian chant or Renaissance madrigals but this is a symphony chorus, some singers have a natural vibrato and some don’t. Some conductors want the chorus to sing hashed, some don’t. Everyone has their own sense of balance, yet the chorus tries to be flexible and adjust to all BSO conductors regardless of the piece being sung. The B Minor Mass is obviously a very different piece than the Busoni Piano Concerto but in both cases, TFC adjusted well to the conductor’s instructions and requests and did an excellent job.

    In short, I don’t know what the musical experience of this commentator is but I feel he is talking about some other organization than TFC.

    Reply
    1. David in Breuckelen

      “I don’t know who this commentator is (no name is attached to the report)or what his/her musical background is……”

      Did you read the article, TFC chorister?

      Musical background from the article:

      “With the Orchestra Choruses I had the privilege of singing with (Choral Arts Society of Washington, University of Maryland Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus), all sections of the Chorus “matched.”

      “This commentator castigates everyone, from the old TFC to John Oliver…”

      You didn’t read this part?: “Later, BSO conductor, Seiji Ozawa, asked John Oliver to form the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and they became the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra…TFC was one of my favourite Orchestra Choruses at that time. “

      Your question, “Who cares about vibrato!”

      Ah, I think that tells us all we need to know. End of discussion. The article points out that the best choral directors (did) do care about vibrato namely Hillis, Shaw, Burton and the others listed.

      Reply
    2. Conservatory Student

      “some singers have a natural vibrato and some don’t”

      Correct, and depending upon the chorus, they’re asked to turn it off. My roommate is in one of the choral ensembles here and she has a natural vibrato but she turns her vibrato off in the chorus because the director doesn’t want any vibrato. She’s told me that sometimes she and others forget to turn vibrato off and the director reminds the section or the full chorus that he wants no vibrato. None of our choral ensembles sing with vibrato except the opera chorus where you’d expect vibrato.

      Many people don’t like vibrato even with solo singers. I don’t care much for it. I was reading a review about a choral concert in New York City and the reviewer spoke well of the chorus but didn’t speak very well of the soloist because of her “excessive vibrato” as she described it.

      A chorus director can’t achieve the perfect blending of voices – a pure tone – with vibrato and that’s what this article is addressing with Tanglewood’s soprano and alto sections.

      Have to say you seem a bit overly defensive.

      Reply
    3. el barrio rosa Post author

      Hola Bruce,

      You asked:

      “Vibrato? Who cares about vibrato! We don’t sing with vibrato when we sing Gregorian chant or Renaissance madrigals but this is a symphony chorus…”

      I find that attitude troubling and most unfortunate and it’s what I expect from choristers in an amateur Chorus, and not an all-volunteer professional Symphony Chorus like the TFC. I can’t believe any serious musician/chorister would ask, “who cares about vibrato?” when the use of vibrato (or not) determines the sound of the Chorus as I pointed out multiple times in the article. And when one has a soprano section, for example, with choristers wobbling/fluttering at different rates of vibrato there is no way possible to have perfect intonation (the perfect blending of voices) from that vocal section. I would hope you wouldn’t use vibrato for Gregorian chant or Renaissance music and I suspect a Chamber Chorus of the TFC sings that repertoire and not the full TFC. Your comment also tells me that TFC choristers are able to turn off their vibrato — as has been my experience with choristers — therefore why don’t they keep it off permanently and raise the standard levels of the Chorus back up to where they were when the Chorus began? In the early days of the TFC, they did not sing with vibrato. That’s why they were one of my favourites. You are correct that the TFC is a Symphony Chorus, so leave that annoying vibrato to an Opera Chorus.

      Gracias to everyone for their comments. Chau.

      Reply
  6. D8

    I don’t have your trained ear to understand all this but found it fascinating to read nonetheless. Always enjoy the music performances you write about but I probably don’t listen to them in the same way you do. You listen to performances as if you were the chorus director and you know what the best sound like. Hoping this new guy Burton makes the necessary improvements with the TFC.

    Reply
  7. David in Breuckelen

    Hola. I don’t know much about music but I do know this much – I do know what vibrato is and I don’t like it. It’s one reason I don’t like opera divas and opera choruses, so I can understand what you’re saying about the women’s voices of Tanglewood and BU’s Symphony Chorus.

    Reply

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