Tag Archives: CSO strike

Chicago Symphony Chorus treated as Second Class Musicians

Update (29 abril/April 2019): Well, the strike by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has ended due to the intervention of Chicago’s corporatist mayor — who shall remain nameless — and his connections to the super-wealthy. Even though the outcome of the strike has been described as a “compromise,” in the end CSO management accomplished their goals defined in their (what was called) “last, best and final” offer. They accomplished their major goal of gutting fully-paid retirement plans. From the beginning to the end of the strike, the Chicago Symphony Chorus was never mentioned in the articles I read, as if they don’t exist. I was turned off by some of the comments made by the CSO musicians when the strike ended who referred to the CSO as “the greatest Orchestra in the country” and that they would be returning to their audience, “the best audience in the country.” Here we go again with USians having to pump themselves up with the “we are the greatest” pabulum. Even if the CSO were “the great Orchestra in the US” — and how exactly does one determine that? — shouldn’t somebody else be saying that, and not the musicians? What happened to modesty and humbleness CSO musicians? Your comments come off to me as extremely arrogant. Then you have the “best audience” remark/nonsense, which is equally a turn-off. All of this reminds me of a form of Chicago territorial nationalism, and it’s rather childish. “Our Orchestra is better than your Orchestra and we have the best audience, you don’t. Na na na na na.” (roll eyes) You can stand around and pat yourselves on the back and feed yourselves feel-good pabulum (lies?) about how great you think you are, but does it matter at this point when in the end your management got what they wanted? Strikes seem about as futile as protests these days. With the exception of the Gilets Jaunes/Yellow Vests in France, now in their 23rd or 24th consecutive Saturday of protests throughout the country. Their protests have generated some “reforms” from French President Emmanuel Macron, but not enough to fulfill their wishes. So, their protests continue. I think they are banned from protesting on the wealthy Av. des Champs-Élysées. Gilets Jaunes are rather vigilant. Unusual these days. You’d never see that here in the US. Here, especially in the San Francisco, the only thing that people are “vigilant” on is their phone. For the phone zombies, it’s their entire life. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Hola a todos. You’d never know that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has its own Chorus — the Chicago Symphony Chorus — by the coverage of the Orchestra’s strike, going into its seventh week as of this writing. “Outlook is dim” wrote one article I read about the strike.

You’d also never know that the CSO has its own Chorus by any of the free performances given by the CSO in Chicago during the strike because they’ve not included their Symphony Chorus — members of or the Full Chorus — in any performances. Why is that? They’ve only performed orchestral works.

I haven’t heard, because no one is even mentioning the Chorus, but does the elitist management want to erode the salaries of the all-paid Chicago Symphony Chorus too? I don’t know, since nothing has been written about them. According to the performance schedule I saw, the CSO Chorus doesn’t have a performance with the CSO until the latter part of June 2019, and that’s opera, of all things, as opposed to what one might think they would be performing: a symphonic choral work since they are a Symphony Chorus after all, and not an Opera Chorus. They are two different instruments, hence the two names.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is on strike (which I support) for some of the usual reasons that major symphony orchestras go on strike these days. They rejected — what was called — managements (here we go) “last, best and final” offer almost two weeks ago. Elitist management with their bloated executive salaries proposed destroying the musicians defined-benefit pensions. They also imposed the predictable salary cuts. In the negotiations, the elitist Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) Board which is controlled by billionaires and Chicago’s one-percent, would not agree to the musicians’ demands regarding pensions or salary. And the bourgeois management — incapable of feeling shameful — has cancelled all performances through the end of April 2019. In the meantime, members of and or the full CSO have been giving free concerts around Chicago, without the Chicago Symphony Chorus.

I sense that the Chorus does not have (quite) the same reputation it had during the years that its Founder’s name (Margaret Hillis) was attached to it, but then that was a different time and era. And nothing stays the same, does it? Even corruption doesn’t stay the same. It gets worse and worse and more vile. And many people become the opposite of who and what they were as people.

For some time, I’ve had little to no regard for the so-called elitist “management” — they’re usually corporate parasites — that run or try to wreck/ruin musical organisations. We’ve seen this over and over.

I was pleased to see CSO Conductor Riccardo Muti join the strikers and not side with the corporate parasites.

This story has repeated itself time and time again. Why do orchestras need an elitist and out-of-touch group of people called “management?” Now I know why “management” exists, but I think the “management” should be entirely comprised of the musicians themselves, including the members of the Chorus and not elitist corporate parasites. Someone might say: “The musicians have enough to do as it is without being their own management or part there of. The musicians want to play and make music, and not do all that other stuff.” That’s true and I understand that, but this is exactly the problem you run into when billionaires, corporate parasites and non-musicians try to run a musical ensemble. Utter disrespect for the musicians.

To my knowledge, the Chicago Symphony Chorus is still an all-paid Orchestra Chorus. Also to my knowledge, the CSO Chorus is the only all-paid Symphony Chorus in the country/the US. By contrast, only twenty-percent of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus are paid, something the choristers had to fight for and they used the CSO Chorus as an example. I know because I was there at the time. Margaret Hillis, Founder and Director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, offended many San Francisco Symphony Chorus members when she had the nerve to give her opinion during a rehearsal with the Chorus (rather than staying neutral) and sided with San Francisco Symphony management who were bringing her here at the time from Chicago as interim San Francisco Symphony Chorus Director. I remember her saying, “Professional does not mean paid.” Someone should have stood and said, “Well since ‘professional does not mean paid,’ Ms Hillis, may we assume that you won’t mind volunteering your professional services here for free so as to save SFS management the thousands of dollars they’re paying you in salary and to fly you back and forth from here to Chicago to prepare this Chorus? Can we count on you for that, Ms Hillis? Since again, as you say, ‘professional does not mean paid.’ Wouldn’t you like to set an example of that for us? I’m merely making an enquiry, Ms Hillis.” As she’s standing there with a red face and boiling inside from being put on the spot in front of the entire San Francisco Symphony Chorus after sticking her nose into it and supporting “management” with her all-paid Chicago Symphony Chorus. Yes, I’m sure she would have gone for that. The hypocrisy!

To my knowledge, all other Orchestra Choruses in the US are all-volunteer, including orchestras with their own Chorus, such as the 200-voice Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its currently beleaguered Tanglewood Festival Chorus. By the way, someone came to pink barrio recently searching, “Tanglewood Festival Chorus Christmas performance poor.” Oh dear. Well, TFC Chorus Director, James Burton, is currently working to bring the TFC up to the standards of choral excellence expected of the Official Chorus of the BSO.

It should also be pointed out that “all-volunteer” does not mean amateur in this case. These are professional Orchestra Choruses I’m talking about whether they’re paid or not. They all should be fully-paid, just like the Orchestra for which they serve as the Chorus for. Rather than relegating the Chorus to Second Class Musicians’ status.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus became quite a stellar instrument during the Solti years under Founder and Chorus Director, Margaret Hillis, who was appointed by Fritz Reiner. I trained my “choral ear” on the Chicago Symphony Chorus under Hillis/Solti from their recordings. The same performances that won nine Grammy Awards in the Best Choral Performance category under Ms Hillis. I read online in recent years that some of the choristers of the CSO Chorus complained that Ms Hillis was “too nit picky.” (roll eyes) I bet they didn’t say that when they won nine Grammy’s! Being “nit picky” is partly how one earns a Grammy for Best Choral Performance. Ms Hillis’s rehearsal style was very serious; she didn’t mess around. She was superb with a Chorus, even though I didn’t care much for her personality.

Under the current Chorus Director (since Hillis), the Chicago Symphony Chorus has only won one Grammy.

The Men of the CSO Chorus continue to be as superb as they were under Hillis (or at least they were in their Beethoven’s Ninth performance that I heard), but the sopranos and altos are not quite as good, in my opinion. Their soprano section suffers from what seems to be an increasing problem in the US: some shrill, screechy ugly sounds in the sopranos upper register with some noticeable (but needless) vibrato, which I heard in their Beethoven’s Ninth performance. I didn’t hear any of this when the Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. They always sang with a velvety rich smooth, polished sound under Ms Hillis. I suspect if she were alive today and walked into a rehearsal, she would say in her baritone-alto voice: “Sopranos, we need to do a bit of fine-tuning with you. It seems that something has gone a bit haywire since I left and when you won all those Grammys.”

The absence of any mention or participation of the CSO Chorus during the strike, once again, relegates choristers of the highest caliber to that of second class musician status, and I’m sick of it frankly. The thinking seems to be that “they’re just the Chorus; they don’t matter. They’re not real musicians.” Yes, but of course. Just like the Orchestra is “just the Orchestra. They’re not real musicians either, are they?” I bet no one thinks that! Sadly, musically-ignorant people look at choristers differently than they do other musicians. Anyone who thinks that “the Chorus is just the Chorus” doesn’t have a clue what is involved in being in a Symphony Chorus of this caliber and what it takes to get in the Chorus in the first place. I think most people probably think — particular those with no ear for music — that being in a Symphony Chorus is no different than being in one’s podunk church choir, even though no comparison can be made.

Even if the Chicago Symphony Chorus is not at all being affected by the strike, they should indeed still be mentioned and acknowledged in articles about the strike — such as, “the Chicago Symphony Chorus is not affected by this strike” — since they are the Official Chorus for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Again, I’ve not read that the Symphony Chorus has been included in any free performances the CSO has given to the community. The Symphony Chorus — either the Full Chorus or the Chamber Chorus (a smaller group of them) — could easily perform any number of symphonic choral works with the Orchestra. Works they prepared earlier for this season and previous seasons. A Chorus of this caliber has quite a repertoire at-the-ready. They could perform their Beethoven’s Ninth again, as one example. The Orchestra recently performed at a rather large apostolic church in Chicago. The Chorus could have performed there with the Orchestra, but didn’t. I’ve also read nothing about the choristers being on the picket lines to support their orchestral musicians.

“The Big Three”

Assuming there is a next season, the CSO has announced the 2019-20 season and two of “The Big Three” are programmed:

Händel’s Messiah
Beethoven’s Ninth
Orff’s Carmina Burana

Yes, we’re now down to “The Big Three.” Why are they called “The Big Three?” Because they are pretty much the only symphonic choral works that the sheeple will support these days. (Sigh). Mostly gone are oratorios, Bach cantatas and other symphonic choral works, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony. I haven’t seen anyone programme that in the US. There has been a run on the Rossini Stabat Mater in the last couple years with at least two major orchestras and their Chorus or a guest Chorus performing it. Even Mendelssohn’s Elias/Elijah hasn’t survived and that was one of the more frequently performed oratorios in its day. Put back on dusty archive shelves. I had noticed this sometime ago about “The Big Three,” and DC Chorus Director, Robert Shafer, confirmed that. He’s the former Chorus Director for The Washington Chorus (they used to be known as the Oratorio Society of Washington and performed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall). He’s also Professor Emeritus of Shenandoah Conservatory where he prepared some of the Conservatory’s choral ensembles.

For the 2019-20 season, Chicago is also performing two of “The Big Three:” The Orff and the Beethoven. “The mighty Ninth” in their language. “The mighty Ninth” language appears at least twice on the brochure. I guess some “management” people sat around a conference room table and said, “We’ll call the Ninth ‘mighty’ and the Orff ‘powerful’. Does everyone agree with that? Good.” Yes, there’s all this hyped language throughout the brochure about the pieces to be performed. Another example: “Carl Orff’s powerful Carmina Burana.” And related to my earlier article about vocal soloists-screamers, this is how the CSO “management” is marketing their screamers: “Muti is joined by the CSO Chorus and a cast comprising some of the world’s most distinguished international vocalists.” But I thought that some of the world’s most distinguished vocalists were in the CSO Chorus, so why aren’t they serving as soloists? They could easily do so. It’s the usual: Baiting the public to come to the performance because of the “world’s most distinguished CAST of vocalists.” If they were being honest about it, it would read “A CAST of screamers,” since that’s what most of them amount to. For the 2019-20 season, it looks like the Chicago Symphony Chorus has only 4-5 performances with the Orchestra all season. Other orchestras have really reduced their performances of symphonic choral works as well.

(This paragraph has been corrected. Were 1-2 more performances added for each Chorus since when I first looked at the brochures for the season? Or were they on another page that I somehow missed? Maybe I should stop listing specifically what Orchestra Choruses are doing since the list looks a bit different when I go back months later, then I look like I’m presenting incorrect information which is not my intent. Regardless…) For the current 2018-19 season, the Kennedy Center’s National Symphony Orchestra programmed all of “The Big Three.” The Choral Arts Society of Washington have three performances with them: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Philip Glass’s Itaipu and one of “The Big Three:” Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The Washington Chorus have two performances with the NSO: Lera Auerbach’s Arctica (Kennedy Center Concert Hall) and one of “The Big Three:” Beethoven’s Ninth at Wolf Trap. The University of Maryland Concert Choir came in with two engagements for the season. I think that’s correct: One of “The Big Three” (that war horse Messiah) and the Rossini Stabat Mater which they’re performing in May 2019 in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and also in Carnegie Hall with the NSO. (Tongue in cheek: Is the Choral Arts Society “seething with envy” because the University of Maryland Concert Choir got the Carnegie Hall engagement and not them, as they did when the University of Maryland Chorus was awarded with similar invitations?) The Rossini performance is one that the now-retired and renowned University of Maryland Chorus would be performing with the NSO if The Maryland Chorus (as they were also known) were still around.

The Bottom Line: Orchestras are programming far fewer symphonic choral works these days than in the past (as when I was in major Orchestra Choruses). Because the public will only support “The Big Three?” It seems that I came along at the best time; when the performance of symphonic choral works were at their height. For example, when I was in the Choral Arts Society of Washington, Norman (Scribner) would announce the upcoming season at the beginning of a rehearsal. We’d have maybe 8 performances of major symphonic choral works, mostly with the NSO in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, or with one or two touring guest orchestras, such as The Cleveland Orchestra, for example. The same for the University of Maryland Chorus who usually had the most performances especially under Antal Doráti, since he preferred them, and Robert Shafer’s Oratorio Society of Washington would have one or two engagements with the NSO, since at that time they performed only oratorios, as their name specified. They later changed their name to The Washington Chorus.

As the CSO strike continues, I hope to eventually read something about the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Either about how the strike affects them and/or that they performed with the CSO in one or more of the free concerts. But at this rate, I suspect they’ll never be mentioned, or even invited to perform with the CSO while on strike. “They’re just the Chorus, you know.” (roll eyes/groan). Chau.—el barrio rosa

Related:

The Second Class Musicians

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