Review: Beethoven’s Ninth – San Francisco Symphony and Symphony Chorus

(After this article was posted, it was updated with a paragraph about Pink Floyd and his backup singers to make a comparison).

Hola a todos. Here in San Francisco, the San Francisco Symphony and Symphony Chorus performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in d (Choral) last month (diciembre/December 2018) in Davies Symphony Hall.

It seems that the public’s interest in symphonic choral works has dwindled considerably from the days of where works such as Mendelssohn’s Elias/Elijah was a mainstay in the repertoire, or oratorios in general for that matter. Here, in our dumbed-down US society, we seem to be down to (what I call) “The Big Three” on the “classical pops” list: Beethoven’s Ninth, Orff’s Carmina Burana and the annual, ubiquitous and perfunctory performances of Messiah (at the neglect of many other holiday choral works, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hodie). Which brings to mind that there’s another “Big Three” and that’s the ubiquitous performances of the Anglican canticle settings by the late English composer Herbert Howells that are over-performed in Anglican parish and cathedral churches. Those “Big Three” settings are the Collegium Regale Service (King’s College), St Paul’s Service, and The Gloucester Service. All are superb pieces but the man wrote others and unfortunately those three have become over-performed at the expense of Howells’s many other beautiful but neglected settings. (Lazy?) Anglican choirmasters seem to say, “We’ll do what we already know and have performed umpteen times. Nobody will know the difference!” The same goes for 2-3 of his anthems (“Like as the hart” and “Take him earth for cherishing” come to mind). But that “Big Three” is for another article.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus also recently performed Messiah — I don’t even need to give the name of the composer for that do I? It’s Händel, by the way — but I didn’t hear that. No disrespect intended to the SFS Chorus, but if I don’t hear that warhorse Messiah again it will be fine with me. (I much prefer to hear Zelenka’s Missa Divi Xaverii ZWV 12 performed by Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704 instead. By the way, the vocal soloists in this Zelenka performance were superb, and they were chosen from the Chorus the way it should be in my opinion. They’re not screamers. They sing on pitch. They have lovely voices and are real artists. Why can’t all vocal soloists sing like these fine soloists?)

With their performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, perhaps it was the mic’ing as far as the sound problems were concerned. I don’t know, although I suspect the sound I heard was what it was in the hall. Because the tenor and bass sections were superb, followed by the alto section. It was the soprano section that bothered me. What is going on with soprano sections these days? I don’t get this.

When I was in Orchestra Choruses, our soprano section was superb and always sang with a lovely straight-tone (no noticeable vibrato) giving them perfect intonation. And favouring the soprano section, I was always closely listening to them especially when they were up the stratosphere in the top of their range. That was the case with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the University of Maryland Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. But as is the case with the troubled (I’m being polite) Tanglewood Festival Chorus — which is currently undergoing a much-needed overhaul led by Chorus Director, James Burton, from the UK — at times it sounded like the soprano section of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus was screeching and screaming in their upper register. I heard some shrill sounds rather than beautiful singing. When the tenors were in their high register, they didn’t sound like they were screaming or shrill, and I didn’t hear any ugly shrill sounds. I heard impeccable German diction from the tenors, well, from the men in general including their perfectly trilled “r” on the word “Brüder” (which means “brother”). The German diction was superb from the Chorus.

As a former chorister in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus when superb Vance George was Chorus Director, I remember that when one is in the Chorus one thinks that unfortunately most people listening to us don’t even notice the diction that we worked so hard on with the language coach and or Chorus Director — or notice much of anything really for that matter unless they are another serious “choral person.” But being a “choral person” with years of Orchestra Chorus experience myself, let me assure you choristers in the SFS Chorus that I noticed your excellent diction, and your (mostly) beautiful singing and hard work. It may have gone unnoticed by many people who don’t have a clue about the talent, skill level, musicianship and amount of work involved to be in the Symphony Chorus. But let me assure you, you’re very much appreciated by me because I know what’s involved from having done it myself. As I’ve written before, there was a time where I felt like I was living on the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with our performance demands in the Choral Arts Society with the National Symphony Orchestra and other (inter)national orchestras. So muchas gracias.

A brief aside: It sounded like the Chorus — per the conductor’s wishes I presume — made some of the quarter notes into eighth notes with the final t’s in the diction coming a half-beat earlier than they normally would. I don’t have the score before me but when we sang the Ninth here (SFS Chorus/Vance George) under conductor Kurt Masur (who held the word “Gott” at the fermata for a day and a half – I loved that and the soprano section was up on their High A with no struggling at all!), and when I sang it with Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra, I remember those notes that I’m talking about being quarter notes. This is not a complaint, just an observation. Sometimes conductors do change note values for diction purposes so that a consonant lands on a certain beat. I was just curious.

The problem with this performance by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus was that I detected some unevenness in the soprano section. I also heard a slight bit of wobbling vibrato on a couple of occasions from the tenor section. It seemed that the quieter the tenors sang is when the vibrato reared up. And it sounded like just one voice that had turned on vibrato. I heard the same thing at one point from — what sounded like — one voice in the alto section.

With Beethoven’s Ninth if one is not careful, the choral section can come off as screaming because the soprano section especially is often in the top of their register, which is where I think a darker-tone in the soprano section would be helpful and could possibly eliminate any shrill and or hints of possible screaming sounds. The soprano section of the SFS Chorus has a rather bright sound from the broadcast I heard. I think the Chorus overall has a brighter sound now than they did under Vance George. That’s just an observation. As I remember, when I was in the Symphony Chorus we sounded more like Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus (warm, dark tone) when Solti was CSO conductor. And Vance George was a protégé of Margaret Hillis. The Chicago Symphony Chorus under Ms Hillis/Solti sang with an open-throat dark tone and the same for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Robert Shaw. They both sang with a straight-tone or no noticeable vibrato.

At least to my ear, one thing I noticed about the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Shaw is that he had the bass, tenor and alto sections as the dominant sections, and the soprano section just sort of laid up above or floated up above the other three sections. In other words, the soprano section was not the dominant section as it was in this performance by the SFS Chorus. And I never heard any hint of screaming or shrill sounds from the ASOC at any time. The soprano section of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus had a very polished, refined, pure-tone and controlled sound with perfect intonation, which one expects from a major Orchestra Chorus such as the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. As of this writing, it must be said that the SFS Chorus is clearly the better Chorus when comparing it to the TFC.

As for the vocal soloists in this performance, sigh, don’t get me started on them. Who chose them? Ah, dreadful. I know a 90-year old woman and she and her group of about 10 people have stopped going to the Symphony because of screamers like these vocal soloists I’m about to write about. She said that it didn’t used to be like this. She said, “they just scream at you; none of us like it in our group. It’s no longer enjoyable.” I understand. I can’t stand them either.

These days, if someone were to tell me, “I’m a classically-trained singer,” if I could do so I would say, “Oh, so you’re a screamer? That’s what it amounts to. Why not just call yourself that? Screaming with heavy, wobbling vibrato. Guess what pitch I’m singing? And vibrato is often used to cover up technical problems and pitch problems. If you can’t sing on pitch, hell, use heavy-vibrato where your voice is wobbling back and forth in between pitches. Nobody will know the difference, including some conductors who have been brainwashed to think that ‘it’s supposed to sound like that.’ (roll eyes) Groan. Some of these screamers seem to be trying to compete with the sirens on emergency vehicles passing by the concert hall. That’s not music. It’s not singing. There’s no artistry involved in screaming with vibrato and that’s what it is. Let’s tell it like it is. It’s noise pollution.” The Vibratobots will tell you, “you must use vibrato to ‘sing over’ the Orchestra.” Rubbish. Orchestras are quite skilled at accompanying quietly. They can play so quietly that one can barely hear them. I’ve heard them do so. And with technology being what it is today, any vocalist screamer can be mic’d with a headset microphone. Then, they can sing at a reasonable volume level — without annoying wobbling vibrato and so that the people sitting in the first few rows of the Orchestra section won’t need to bring earplugs — and where it doesn’t sound like they’re screaming and trying to compete with a jet engine.

Beethoven’s Ninth is a symphonic choral work. It is not opera. Why does Beethoven’s Ninth consistently turn into opera in the choral section? These opera divas in this performance were among the worst screamers that I’ve ever heard anywhere with (as usual) the tenor and soprano soloists screamers trying to outdo everybody on stage. As is usually the case, the quartet in Beethoven’s Ninth sounded like the typical train wreck one has become accustomed to hearing with the quartet in this piece with wobbling vibrato and screaming where none of the soloists seemed to be trying to harmonise with each other and sing beautifully. There was nothing musical about their role in this piece. They turned a non-operatic work into screaming opera. They didn’t seem capable of harmonising. They each seemed to live under the illusion that they were giving a solo recital performance, rather than performing as an ensemble. Did these four not study ensemble singing where they trained, in screaming? Ensemble singing requires real talent and artistry. It requires being a real musician like the other real musicians on stage such as the Orchestra and Symphony Chorus. They were the real musicians and artists in this performance. Not the screaming soloists. Any damn fool can scream. These soloists came off to me as rather amateurish and so wrapped up in their own voice at the neglect of skilled ensemble singing and harmonising with each other as a unified quartet. What I heard from the solo screamers was noise. The Chorus was singing beautiful music with their talent and artistry. The soloists decided against that. Why? And that last passage of the soprano soloist in the work after the tenor soloist decided to blow out a tonsil, at that point the soprano soloist decided to outdo him. She gave the listener the impression that she was giving a solo recital at that point in the score. She started winding up with a crescendo (is that in the score?) that overpowered all the other soloists screamers. It became all about her, Ms Soprano Diva. It was truly awful. Who, with an ear for music, liked that noise? As I wrote in this article, I usually avoid the solo passages in Beethoven’s Ninth for this very reason. And unfortunately, this performance was no different. But as expected, the audience seemed to love it — I guess they enjoy screaming, or can’t tell the difference between screaming and lovely singing — or were they mainly applauding the Orchestra and Chorus (bass, tenor and alto sections?)

One would have hoped that MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor) would have taken the soloists aside and asked them to turn off that god-awful wobbling operatic vibrato and reminded them that this is not opera, and strongly encouraged them to try to harmonise with each other as a quartet is supposed to do and like the Chorus did. Perhaps conductors do this privately, but in my Orchestra Chorus experience I never saw a conductor speak a word of criticism to any vocal soloists. Instead, the conductor worshipped them as gods as if they were above reproach. I don’t understand that thinking. The conductor has no problem correcting the Chorus or the orchestral musicians, so why not the vocal soloists? Why are they off-limits? In this performance, the Symphony Chorus was not wobbling and fluttering. They (mostly) sang with perfect intonation; the perfect blending of voices. They were harmonising. I feel I’m getting redundant here but the point cannot be overstated. Typically with the quartet in this work, harmonising is not their concern. The Symphony Chorus was not singing with any vibrato or any noticeable vibrato (excluding the soprano section on occasion), so why were the soloists? And because of that, the two ensembles — meaning the soloists’ ensemble and the Symphony Chorus ensemble — did not match. It was a case of wobbling operatic vibrato (soloists) versus no vibrato (Chorus). They should have used vocal soloists from the Symphony Chorus. But then I guess orchestral management would say, “Well, no one will come then. We have to use celebrity screamers from artist agents as ‘bait’ to get people to come to this performance.” And because of that, the soloists screamers were as dreadful as usual. Among the worst I’ve heard in fact. Noise pollution best describes them. I don’t like being critical of other musicians, and I rarely do so unless I feel it’s needed because I know how that feels, but in this instance, I feel I must tell it like it is. Notice that I did not list the names of the soloist/screamers on purpose.

I suspect what I’m about to say in this paragraph will not be popular among readers, but frankly I don’t care: The other night mi amigo/my friend wanted me to give him my opinion about the backup singers used in a performance by Pink Floyd, so I did. As I told him, I’ve always paid attention to a group’s backup singers — such as in disco music, for example — because they sort of perform the role of the Chorus for a performance, as they sing behind or next to the solo singer. In the Pink Floyd performance, his backup singers were excellent. They blended their voices nicely and sang with a straight tone. He asked me if I thought they were professionally trained. Well perhaps, to some degree. They knew to try to harmonise with each other and blend their voices. No voice tried to out-sing or overpower the other. They were the opposite of the screamers in Beethoven’s Ninth, for example, or most vocal soloists/screamers in general in the classical music tradition. Someone will not like what I’m about to say, but in Beethoven’s Ninth the soloists/screamers are closer to serving the role of backup singers even though they mistakenly think they are the stars of the performance. They are not. The stars of the performance are the Orchestra and Chorus because they perform the majority of the work. The soloists/screamers have a small role by comparison. But I’ve seen the screamers strut out on stage in performances with this aura about them that they think they are such hot shit and gods, and should be worshipped, glorified and adored by the audience, especially the soprano and tenor divas. Some of the diva females even curtsy to the audience (isn’t that a bit outdated?) They look all around the hall to make sure everyone is adoring them with adoration and affection. Get over yourselves, soloists. You’re just a screamer, usually. You’re not the stars of Beethoven’s Ninth. You’re essentially the backup singers and there’s nothing wrong with that role. Therefore, why can’t you sing like backup singers? Why can’t you harmonise your voices with a straight tone? Your voice does not need to flutter, quiver and wobble in between pitches to the extreme where the listener doesn’t even know what pitch you’re trying to sing. And just like with backup singers, you can stand with a mic in front of you. No need to scream. Someone reading this will say, “How dare you compare the vocal soloists (or what you call “the screaming opera divas”) to backup singers in Pink Floyd?” Well, I have a lot of respect for talented and well-prepared backup singers, far more respect than I have for the screaming opera divas invited into symphonic choral works where their heavy-vibrato voice clashes with the straight-tone choral sound. I don’t look down on backup singers, as perhaps you do? That’s why I’m making this comparison. If Pink Floyd’s backup singers were given the score to Beethoven’s Ninth and asked to perform the solo role, I’d much prefer to hear them sing beautifully with well-harmonised voices compared to opera diva barking screamers. Also, the backup singers didn’t seem to look at themselves as gods or the stars of the performance. They looked very humble. So I’ll take the backup singers any day to obnoxious operatic divas, thank you very much.

I asked mi amigo/my friend to listen to the choral section in this performance. A bit of history: When we met I was listening a lot to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus (ASOC). At that time, he knew nothing about symphonic choral music. It can be said that his “choral ear” was trained by the ASOC, and when I’m playing a CD by the ASOC, he now immediately knows which Chorus it is without me saying anything. As for this performance, he said “the Men of the Chorus are excellent but the Women suck.” After a bit of questioning and clarification, he changed that to “the sopranos suck.” He said “the sopranos sound screechy.” I agree, they do. I also thought that the soprano section sounded too loud overall. They were dominant. They overpowered the rest of the Chorus, unlike what I explained earlier about the ASOC under Robert Shaw. Now, again, I don’t know if this is the mic’ing or the recording, but frankly I suspect it’s how they sounded in the hall.

When I was in the Symphony Chorus, 20% of the choristers were paid. I think that’s still true. They should all be paid just like all the orchestral members are paid. By not paying all the choristers it relegates them to second class musician status, and choristers of this high caliber are among the best, and the audition requirements are stringent. To begin with, one has to be an extremely good sight-reader. This is not a Chorus where one sits around learning notes. Just like when I was in the Choral Arts Society of Washington, our sight-reading of a new (tonal) piece — usually to be performed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra or another (inter)national guest Orchestra — sounded almost ready to be performed. That was the skill level of sight-reading abilities of the Choral Arts Society of Washington. The same with the SFS Chorus. That’s the level of excellence expected here. Although based on personal experience, I suspect most of the musically-ignorant public still see the Symphony Chorus no differently than they do one’s average podunk church choir, even though there’s a world of difference between the two. In other words, the public has no idea what’s involved in being a chorister in such as renowned Orchestra Chorus. As a chorister, it was frustrating to me to realise that, and still is. All the work that we put into a a major symphonic work for weeks — and all our years of training — and the public sees us as “it’s just the Chorus. Anybody can do that.” Wrong. And this is true in so many other fields of study. The public — speaking from a position of ignorance — fails to understand that it requires decades of study and training at Conservatories and or Schools of Music, or privately. And one usually starts training when one is very young. In my case I was 5 years old. That’s when I began playing the piano by ear (imitating my elementary school music teacher’s piano playing) and my piano training officially started at age 8.

This also reminds me of the many piano students who came to me over the years and expected to be able to play like me in two weeks. I’m not joking. For those who don’t, I was a piano major at the Conservatory of Music where I trained, and in later years preferring to specialise in the works of Sergei Rachmaninov. Yes, these students expected to play one of the difficult Rachmaninov Études-Tableaux in 2-3 classes — I’d like to see that! — even though they had never studied piano before. Not even a child prodigy can do that! Most students bailed when they realise there was real work involved, hours of practise and real work/study. But especially today, most people have absolutely no clue of the difficulty or the level of advanced work involved in music education involved. So I very much emphasise with Orchestra Chorus members who may feel they’re not nearly as appreciated as they should be.

Overall, from a symphonic and choral perspective this was a good performance. I think that the soprano section needs some work/attention. They’re suffering from similar problems that James Burton is now working to correct with the soprano section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and their screechy singing.

The San Francisco Symphony and Symphony Chorus are performing Mendelssohn’s Symphony-Cantata Symphony No. 2 Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), Op. 52 (MWV A 18) later in the season which I’m looking forward to hearing. That is, assuming Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin can polish their soprano section in time to remove screechy/shrill/screaming sounds between now and then, so that they can effortlessly handle that high B Flat near the end of the work with grace, ease, no screaming or screechy sounds and of course perfect intonation. Which was not always the case in their performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in d, Op. 125 (Choral).

I must say that the Symphony Chorus has one of the best tenor sections I’ve heard anywhere. You boys are good! Absolutely. (Well formally, they’re referred to as “the Men of the Symphony Chorus, but that also includes the basses”). Just like what I heard from them in a clip of their Beethoven Missa Solemnis awhile back. I said, “ah, those tenors! Love them.” I heard no straining, cracking or wilting of voices. They were a pleasure to listen to as were the basses. “The boys did well.” (smile). So did the altos, but those sopranos had their moments from some lovely singing to some shrill sounds leading into what sounded like screaming. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Related:

“Heavy vibrato” operatic soloists compete to out scream each other

3 comments on “Review: Beethoven’s Ninth – San Francisco Symphony and Symphony Chorus

  1. D8

    I know what you mean about second class musicians status. I was listening to the classical music station here in SF yesterday and they played some music which I liked. She announced it as the San Francisco Symphony and Symphony Chorus and gave the composer. That was all good. But I only half heard what she said….didn’t catch the name of what it was. Went to their website and that’s where I was second guessing because they left the Symphony Chorus off the list of performers. They gave the composer – Berlioz, then the SF Symphony. I wasn’t sure it was the same music I heard because I guess they didn’t feel it was important to put the Symphony Chorus on their website as the performers. Because they didn’t, I had to search for the cd online to double check to make sure it was the same music I had heard. Annoying. It was, but I remembered what you wrote about the Symphony Chorus getting second class musicians status. If I was a chorister as you were I can easily see how that would annoy you, a lack of respect. Thanks for the article….always enjoy your music ones. :-)

  2. Former San Franciscan

    Hola pb, do you think the Symphony Chorus was better when you were in it? Very interesting article and you have my respect for all that you’ve done with your music and I appreciate you writing about it. It gives me an insight I’d not get anywhere else. I knew that the Symphony Chorus was right up there at the top.

    1. el barrio rosa Post author

      Hola Former San Franciscan, you asked: “do you think the Symphony Chorus was better when you were in it?” Well, the soprano section was better when I was in the Chorus. Our soprano section didn’t suffer from the problems I wrote about in this performance. Gracias for your kind words. Chau.

Fin. The End.