Tag Archives: Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

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: