Tag Archives: Tanglewood Festival 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:

Arts Review: Lully – Te Deum, for Double Chorus & Orchestra performed by Les Arts Florissants

Hola. ¿Qué tal? This is a wonderful performance and it should help lower blood pressure, ease gastritis and maybe help with other problems. Below is a performance excelente by Les Arts Florissants (desde Francia/from France) of the Te Deum for Double Chorus and Orchestra by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) conducted by William Christie. It’s very fortunate they recorded this performance and it’s superbly recorded.

William Christie is the founder and director of Les Arts Florissants. There’s an interesting story about him. He was born in the Imperialistic Empire (los Estados Unidos/the US) but moved to Francia to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War because he vehemently opposed it. And he’s been in Francia ever since. He was asked in an interview:
“What was your big breakthrough?
His answer: Breaking out of the US in 1970. It was more for personal than professional reasons – I was very much against the Vietnam war. I went off to Europe, and nine years later, I founded the ensemble Les Arts Florissants, which has been my baby, my life’s work, ever since.”

So his biggest breakthrough was breaking out of the US in 1970. Good idea.

Don Jean-Baptiste Lully is considered the master of the French Baroque style. And for those who may not know, Te Deum settings are used in the Roman Catholic, the Anglican Communion and in some Lutheran liturgies. And no, I’m not promoting religion. I’m an Anglican atheist and this performance is not a liturgical performance. It’s performed in a concert setting.

A Double Chorus is one Chorus divided into two Choruses. The choral score of a work for Double Chorus will indicate “CHOEUR I,” and below that “CHOEUR II.” The choral writing often has each Chorus answering one another. With a Double Chorus, there’s at least 8 choral lines for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) in the score and often more than that if each part is divided into first and second (such as first and second soprano, for example). I always enjoyed works for Double Chorus because there is so much more going on. There are so many more parts and more harmonic lines involved and I enjoyed listening to one Chorus answer the other. It’s also very enjoyable to perform, just as in this performance of the Lully Te Deum. Usually, from my choral experience, each Chorus is divided into two equal-sized groups but in this performance that’s not the case. I think that’s done for effect where conductor William Christie wanted the Chorus on the top level up near the audience to sound at a distance, which they do (they are not mic’ed) whereas the Chorus on the stage is mic’ed (but that may be only for recording purposes), but without hearing individual voices. Sometimes a work will be for Double Chorus and in the performance the Chorus is visibly split into two (such as in Händel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt or his oratorio Solomon, for example) or in Sir William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (one of my favourite choral works) where the Chorus is not visibly split usually.

This is one of the best performances I’ve ever heard. I’ve watched it many times and I now know the piece well. The Chorus of Les Arts Florissants consists of 28 voices. The Chorus on the upper level consisted of 8 voices, with the larger Chorus being on the stage behind their orchestra.

Nearly all of the soloists were perfectly chosen for this performance, and I rarely say that since I’m usually turned off by soloists. I would have chosen a different bass soloist — I would have chosen Birger Radde who performs with the Octopus Symphony Chorus in Brussels — but that’s my personal preference:

• Amel Brahim-Djelloul: soprano
• Emmanuelle de Negri: soprano
• Toby Spence: tenor
• Cyril Auvity: tenor
• Marc Mauillon: tenor
• Alain Buet: bass
Les Arts Florissants

I had not heard this work until recently and it’s now one of my favourite pieces, at least the way Les Arts Florissants perform it. Why isn’t this piece performed more often instead of Händel’s over-performed Messiah? This is much shorter than “warhorse” Messiah. There are a few pieces I’m tired of hearing because they’re so over-performed and among them are: Messiah and Beethoven’s Ninth, and these days some Symphony Choruses seem to be screaming their way through the choral finale of the Ninth. I heard a clip of one a few weeks ago with the UK’s City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus — I usually like the CBSO Chorus — performing with their orchestra (the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) at the BBC Proms. In the short clip I saw, they were screaming more than singing beautifully. And they looked like a bank of robots because they were performing without their scores like the Tanglewood Festival Chorus does. What’s up with that? The orchestra and conductor use their scores so why shouldn’t the Chorus use their vocal scores? We always used our scores in the Orchestra Choruses I sang in. Oh, don’t get me started on the many silly, ridiculous and duplicitous outdated traditions in the classical music field, particularly the one about who can use their score and who cannot, according to some silly “tradition.” (A brief aside: Pianists: use your scores when you perform — if you want — even if you’re pressured by some idiot concert manager not to use it. I’ve been to so many piano performances where the pianist had memory slips and I felt sorry for the artist, which s/he wouldn’t have had if s/he had used the score. For pianists in particular, this nonsense of “playing from memory” is such a stupid tradition. Not everyone plays their best “from memory.” Everyone is different and everyone does not have to do nor should be expected to do what god Liszt did.)

Les Arts Florissants (they use their scores) have a stellar reputation within the classical music tradition. I believe they are considered authorities on music of the (French) Baroque period.

A little bit more about the soloists: I especially like the three guys who sing individually and together. Check out the second section of the piece from 27.00 on in the video to see what I mean, especially the Miserere section. Unlike other soloists such as in opera and oratorio, these soloists don’t bark, scream or screech but rather sing with a lovely musical tone. They sing beautifully.

Mi amigo/My friend who has watched this piece many times with me asked: So where did this loud screaming come from that one hears in opera or choral performances where they drag in some well-known opera singer to bark through the solo passages? Regardless of where it came from I don’t like it and never have. In most cases, I think that the soloists should come from the Chorus — assuming it’s a well-trained Chorus — so that the soloists “match” the sound of the Chorus instead of having a completely different sound than the Chorus where the soloists have this glass-shattering, wobbling heavy vibrato and where the soloist seems to be asking: “Guess what pitch I’m singing?”. As I said earlier, I much prefer the solo singers here. And the Chorus of Les Arts Florissants is absolutely superb and a pleasure to listen to. There is no shrill, screeching or fluttery-wobbling sounds as one hears, for example, in the soprano section of Boston’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus. (They need some work!). And recently I heard the Chicago Symphony Chorus for the first time since Margaret Hillis died in 1998 and was a bit disappointed with them. One of the major Symphony Choruses I used to train my “choral ear” years ago was Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus. I listened extensively and closely for years to every choral work they recorded under Margaret Hillis, including all of their Grammy Awards for Best Choral Performance. In my opinion, the Chicago Symphony Chorus is not quite as good today as they were under Hillis, which was disappointing. Just like with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I heard some screeching and wobbling vibrato sounds in the top register of the soprano section in their Beethoven’s Ninth performance, something I never heard under Margaret Hillis. They have a superb tenor section and I heard no cracking/breaking tenor voices as I did in the performance by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) for their Beethoven’s Ninth at the end of the 2014 Tanglewood Music Festival. Chicago’s diction was precise (unlike some of TFC’s). Just like with the TFC, the Chicago Symphony Chorus seemed to be over-singing in the Beethoven. Nothing seems to stay the same does it? — it usually gets worse — and I think that the Chicago Symphony Chorus has a completely different group of choristers now than when Margaret Hillis was alive. I was surprised by the number of young(er) choristers in the CSOChorus. From my research since Ms Hillis died, the Chicago Symphony Chorus has won only one Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance under the current Chorus Director, Duane Wolf. Under Hillis, the Chicago Symphony Chorus regularly won Best Choral Performance under Founder/Chorus.

My only complaint with this performance by Les Arts Florissants was the sexism at the end of the performance where las flores/the flowers were only given to las mujeres/the women. Why no flowers for the guys? Las flores are only for women? Nonsense! Los muchachos/guys like flowers too and the guys sang beautifully so they should have been given las flores as well. But they weren’t given anything and it looked rather odd with them just standing there receiving nothing while las mujeres held their bouquet of flowers. In Britain, I noticed that they finally started giving las flores to both men and women soloists at the BBC Proms. Not that they changed their policy because of something I said but years ago when they had their BBC Radio 3 message forums I asked why the male soloists were not given flowers like the women soloists? I pointed out it was sexist. But at the BBC Proms these days, from what I’ve seen all soloists receives flowers I’m glad to see. And in some performances I’ve seen from Europe they also give las flores to the conductor regardless of gender.

I can’t imagine this work being performed any better than Les Arts Florissants perform it. Enjoy. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Remembering Norman Scribner, Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of the Choral Arts Society of Washington

Hola. I’m sorry I’m having to write this. I was very sorry to hear that Norman Scribner died unexpectedly from a heart attack this past Domingo/Sunday at his home in the District of Columbia. I had the opportunity and privilege of being in his Choral Arts Society of Washington (one of the major Orchestra Choruses there) when I lived in the District in the mid-late 1970s. Norman was the first choral director to give me the opportunity to be in a major Orchestra Chorus which performed regularly in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The Choral Arts Society of Washington (CASW) grew out of what began as The Norman Scribner Choir which had been formed for performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (the work was partly intended as an anti-war statement) for part of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the District.

I remember going to the CASW audition in Satterlee Hall in upper NW on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral. I don’t remember much about the audition. What I do remember was feeling absolutely thrilled when I got a phone call a few days after the audition which went something like this:

“Hello, this is the Choral Arts Society of Washington and we would like to invite you to sing with us this season.”

Oh! That was the call I had been waiting for. That was a dream come true for me. One of my goals in music was to have the opportunity to perform with the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the University of Maryland Chorus and with major orchestras in the Kennedy Center, including the National Symphony Orchestra, the resident orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. And because of Norman, he made that possible for me and I will always remember him for that. I enjoyed a couple of seasons with the Choral Arts Society before auditioning and being accepted by Dr Paul Traver for his University of Maryland Chorus.

Norman required and expected the highest standards for his Choral Arts Society. At that time, the members of the Choral Arts Society were so skilled, so good and such good sight-readers that even if one did not know the choral work being prepared, just from our sight-reading the piece one got a very good sense of how the piece was supposed to sound. Even the sight-reading sounded glorious! Often when the Chorus would sight-read a choral work it sounded like it was almost ready to be performed! Being in the CASW was intenso and I began to feel that as we moved through the many months and the selected repertoire for each season. At one point I remember feeling like I was living in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with all the rehearsal and performance requirements. It was a positive experience but at one point I felt as if I were burning out. That happens with some people and I think the average stay in an Orchestra Chorus is between 2-4 years, if I remember correctly what Vance George (former chorus director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus) said in an interview. There were also choral politics involved which I talk about in this article. There wasn’t much of a commute for me to rehearsals. I lived in the District so I took the Metrobus up Wisconsin Avenue to rehearsals, which were twice a week. We had sectionals on lunes/Monday and full Chorus was on martes/Tuesday. My weekly commute out to the University of Maryland at College Park for rehearsals was a different story. That was a lot more complicated and I knew that would be the case before I auditioned. The commute was the main reason I had waited to audition for The Maryland Chorus. I didn’t own a vehicle and the metro was in its early stages of being built at that time (the metro was mainly in the downtown area of the District) so I took the Metrobus out to Maryland. It took awhile to get out there, especially in the snow. I remember at least one occasion of having to run across the campus in the snow to the School of Music for rehearsal. I don’t think I would do what someone does today. I read that at least one chorister who sings in the Choral Arts Society comes from as far away as Charlottesville in central Virginia. That’s about a 2.5 – 3 hour drive one way to the District line. Then from there, she has to drive all the way up Wisconsin Avenue to the same rehearsal location I went to decades ago. And then after 10.00pm (end of rehearsal) she has to drive all the way back to Charlottesville. I don’t think I would do that and wouldn’t have done that in the 1970s. That’s too much of a commute and none of the choristers of the Choral Arts Society are paid. But with many major Orchestra Choruses (Choral Arts Society of Washington, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, etc) I’ve read that many people do commute far distances to have the experience of performing with the Chorus. The same is true in other countries such as with the National Youth Orchestra and Choir of Great Britain. The members of both the Orchestra and Chorus come from all over Britain and they perform in various concert halls, including at the BBC Proms.

By choice, the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) does not have its own Orchestra/Symphony Chorus and at the time I sang with them there were mainly three major Orchestra Choruses which got invited to perform regularly in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with them and guest national and international orchestras. They were the:

University of Maryland Chorus
Dr Paul Traver, Chorus director

Choral Arts Society of Washington
Norman Scribner, Chorus director

Oratorio Society of Washington
Robert Shafer, Chorus director

(The Oratorio Society of Washington is now called The Washington Chorus with Chorus director Dr Julian Wachner)

Norman retired as director of the CASW in 2012 and after an extensive search for a new director they chose Scott Tucker from Cornell University to replace Norman. Someone might be asking: Is the CASW as good today as they were when you sang with them? I don’t know. I haven’t heard them. I would imagine they would say they are. When I sang with them, I remember our “sound” being compared with the London Bach Choir and the Münchener Bach-Chor.

These days, with the occasional exception, I’m more and more getting the impression that things are not as good as they used to be in this regard. For example, I know from listening to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus that they are not as good as they once were. The CAWS was a superb Chorus in the late 1970s. At that time they were a very young-looking Chorus and we had many choristers who were students from the local universities. As I remember, the Choral Arts Society was as “young-looking” as the University of Maryland Chorus. But just like with Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the CAWS now looks like an older Chorus from the pictures I’ve seen of them. And because of that, I suspect their “sound” has changed some because older voices sound differently than younger voices.

Norman was very down-to-Earth, never arrogant despite all his accomplishments. He was very friendly and enjoyable to work with. For some reason, one thinks that people like that will never die because they’re such good people. But the way it seems to work instead is that the good people die and the bad people seem to live on forever, if you know what I mean. I won’t name names. Some thoroughly corrupt and sleazy politicians who should be rotting away in prison come to mind. There’s one in particular I’ve noticed that seems to be propped up because of heart transplant surgery, even though he already looks well-embalmed whenever I have the misfortune of seeing that man’s snarly face! You might be able to come up with a few names yourself. Norman would appreciate this I think, and I say that based on what I wrote in this article.

I remember when Norman would announce the repertoire for the coming season that was always a special event. It was always a major symphonic choral work with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), or a major national or international visiting guest orchestra. He would say:

We’re doing the massive Berlioz Requiem in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (KCCH) with the Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus with Michel Plasson conducting, to which the room erupted into a roar of excitement and approval.

We’re doing Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) by Haydn in the Kennedy Center with the ________ orchestra (I don’t remember which orchestra it was) and conductor. I think Norman conducted The Seasons, so maybe that was with the NSO. That was a fun piece to perform, one of my favourites and our soprano section was splendid. Ever since serving as piano accompanist for my high school Chorus, I’ve always paid special attention to the soprano section of a Chorus and therefore I paid close attention to our soprano section in the CASW, especially on their highest notes. No vibrato at all but rather a flute-like sound, more like English choir boys/girls. Our soprano section was wonderful.

Norman would continue:

We’re doing the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem with the Cleveland Orchestra and Lorin Maazel, conducting. (I presume we were filling in for the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus which was not touring with their orchestra. If I’m remembering correctly, Lorin Maazel was difficult to work with even though we were superbly prepared by Norman).

We’re doing The Bells by Sergei Rachmaninov with the _________ orchestra (again, I don’t remember which orchestra it was) and Mstislav Rostropovich conducting.

We’re doing Ralph Vaughan William’s A Sea Symphony with members of the National Symphony Orchestra and I’ll be conducting.

Anyway, it went something like that. Everyone always looked forward to hearing what the repertoire would be for the coming season. I always wanted to do Felix Mendelssohn’s Elias (Elijah) with the CASW but unfortunately we never performed that while I was with them.

Whenever we had our one orchestra rehearsal before a performance in the Kennedy Center with the NSO, the orchestra members were always welcoming. The conductor would say, “We would like to welcome the (either) Choral Arts Society of Washington (or the) University of Maryland Chorus” (whichever one it was) and the orchestra members would look back at us on the chorus risers and smile and applaud us.

Performing with Norman’s Choral Arts Society of Washington was a very positive experience and I thank Norman Scribner for giving me that opportunity.

From what I’ve read, a memorial service for Norman will be el 9 de abril/the 9th of April at 10.30a in Washington National Cathedral (WNC), a cathedral church of the Anglican Communion. So I’m assuming that maybe there will be a private burial or cremation before his public memorial, no? I don’t know. The funeral home handling this called this event at WNC a “funeral,” but on WNC’s website they call it a “memorial.” I would guess that the Choral Arts Society (either Full Chorus or the Chamber Chorus) will perform for the memorial. I say that because a group of choristers from The Maryland Chorus performed for Dr Traver’s funeral.

I wrote more about my experiences in the Choral Arts Society in my article about the University of Maryland Chorus at that link. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Memorial Service for Norman Scribner at Washington National Cathedral, District of Columbia:

Service Leaflet

J.S. Bach Organ Voluntaries:

Anglican Liturgy:

The NYCGB performs Toward the Unknown Region by Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Chorus is Glorious!

Hola. ¿Qué tal? Below is a superb performance of Toward the Unknown Region by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain (NYCGB – Ben Parry, Chorus Director). Assisting is Codetta (which is a Chamber Chorus) and the Irish Youth Chamber Choir. The Chorus is huge for this performance, which is conducted by Vasily Petrenko. He’s the principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra. The text for the piece is from Walt Whitman and it was RVW’s first choral work, although he called it a “Song.”

I’ve read that the acoustics are not very good in the Royal Albert Hall—the musicians can’t hear each other—except for large-scale choral works such as the Berlioz Requiem. I would think with the Chorus being split it would be difficult for one to hear the other, and there’s quite a distance between the two. In that case, one has to rely solely on the conductor. And apparently they did because they were splendid in this performance. The Chorus is very precise and polished. Also, one doesn’t hear any fluttery, wobbling, shrill sopranos in this Chorus as one does with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

I embedded this video on this article about Rachmaninov’s The Bells, from Boston University’s School of Music performance at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Someone left a comment about “Toward the Unknown Region.” He wrote that the Chorus was glorious and almost brought tears to his eyes. Yes, it has the same effect on me depending upon when I listen to it. The Chorus is superbly prepared and so is the Orchestra. Some nut said—referring to the Orchestra—that they sound like a professional Orchestra. They are a professional Orchestra whether they are paid or not.

I never performed this piece with any of the Orchestra Choruses I was a member of but I’ve always liked it and I learned the different choral parts on my own. Since I have the choral score only (Edition Novello), I didn’t realise until watching this performance that it requires such a large Orchestra including pipe organ, which is heard nicely at the end. The organist is not afraid to open it up. As I said in my Rachmaninov article, this performance reminds me of the first performance I heard of this piece by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (in the UK) with Norman Del Mar conducting. I played this video for mi amigo and asked him what he thought (and he usually tells me exactly what he thinks.) He said: “It’s a very relaxing piece to listen to, especially the first part and the Orchestra and Chorus are superb.” Yes they are. So enjoy. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus perform The Bells (Op. 35) by Sergei Rachmaninov

The Boston Symphony Orchestra should invite the Boston University Symphonic Chorus to perform with them and give the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) some time off. TFC might sound better after they reworks/refine their rough-sounding, non-smooth-sounding, fluttering (and shrill) soprano section, no? Why have an “Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” when they are inferior to the Symphonic Chorus at Boston University?

Hola. ¿Qué tal? This article is about two Orchestra Choruses in Boston: The Boston University Symphonic Chorus and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, as well as some general choral information, and my experiences that some people might find interesting (all 2 or 3 of you). It’s a lengthy article, in part, because I’m critical of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and I give examples of why. Well you can’t fairly criticise someone without giving legitimate reasons why.

I and mi amigo have been watching two video performances from Boston’s Symphony Hall with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra (David Hooser, conductor) and Symphonic Chorus (Dra Ann Howard Jones and Scott Jarrett, Chorus Directors.) One video (below) is a performance of the choral symphony,The Bells, by Sergei Rachmaninov (in Русский/Russian: Сергей Васильевич Рахманинов/Колокола), and the other work is the oratorio Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn (in Deutsch: Elias). We enjoyed both performances. I think the Symphonic Chorus was better for the Rachmaninov. It was also a larger Chorus, and some of the same choristers were in both performances.

Dra Ann Howard Jones, Director of Choral Activities at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts School of Music, was recommended to BU by Robert Shaw. She worked closely with Shaw in Atlanta and was assistant conductor of the superb Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus (one of my favourites) for fifteen years. Dra Jones is unfortunately having health problems so Interim Director of Choral Activities at BU, Scott Jarrett, has been preparing the Symphonic Chorus and conducting some performances in her absence.

We very much enjoyed the excellent BU Symphonic Chorus. Because of their overall young age they remind me of the superb University of Maryland Chorus (from my past) which performed regularly in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra. The Maryland Chorus had quite the legacy under conductor Antal Doráti. They also had engagements with many other national and international orchestras. Like the University of Maryland Chorus—which was considered a “town and gown” Chorus (meaning membership was open to the town of College Park Maryland/the public and UMD students upon audition)—the Boston University Symphonic Chorus is an auditioned ensemble open to BU students, faculty, staff and friends, according to BU’s website.

Boston University has an outstanding Symphony Orchestra. I’ve never heard such an excellent student Symphony Orchestra and they are very interesting to watch. They have a beautifully smooth string section and with the skilled camera work in these videos one gets to see the perfectly synchronised bowing of the violins, for example, and we noticed that some of the page turns were perfectly synchronsised such as at 5.13 in the video. One of the orchestral members, Ceylon Mitchell (piccolo) uploaded the Rachmaninov video on YouGoogleTube and you’ll see Ceylon playing at approximately 18.49 into the Rachmaninov video. Muchísimas gracias/thank you very much to Ceylon for the video of the performance. From what I can tell from looking at the two performances, it looks like the violin section has a rotating rather than a fixed seating system. The concertmaster was the same for both performances. I also noticed that Rachmaninov wrote a very busy part for the First Chair flautist. He rarely had a break. And don’t miss the French Horn section at 25.32 in the video. Our favourite movement was the Presto. And with Rachmaninov’s writing he had the string section sounding like a “machine” beginning at 22.56 in the video (and watch the heads and facial expressions of the violinists in that part).

As with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the one problem I had with the Boston University Symphonic Chorus was their soprano section. From what I’ve read about BU, they consider themselves to be a “solo school.” (Translation: Producing soloists. Does that mean opera soloists?). But even with soloists there are times where a soloist needs to or is supposed to blend with other voices and turn off that godawful, heavy, wobbling vibrato. Ugh. Can’t they do that? With the soprano section, what happened to the concept of sounding like one voice, or perfect intonation in good choral singing? A section (such as the soprano section) cannot sound like one voice when various choristers use or cannot turn off heavy, fluttery vibrato. With the human voice instrument too much vibrato is a major turnoff, at least to me and others I’ve talked with. I expect to hear heavy vibrato in opera and with an Opera Chorus, but neither of the works being performed by the Boston University Symphonic Chorus in these video below are opera (one’s a choral symphony and the other is an oratorio). I was wondering if the soprano section of the Boston University Symphonic Chorus (BUSC) were trying to emulate the rough-sounding, non-smooth-sounding, non-refined-sounding fluttery soprano section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus? Who would want to emulate them?

Regarding vocal/choral vibrato from Vocal Technique Instructor, Karyn O’Connor:
“There are situations in which vibrato is an undesirable effect. In choral work, vibrancy rates among individual choir members may differ either slightly or enormously, and vibratos that aren’t synchronized can destroy the quality of a soft, unison passage. Wide-swinging vibratos that aren’t squarely on pitch in one singer can throw off the pitch of other singers standing next to them in the group. Most choir directors make the decision to have everyone sing in a ‘straight tone’ to avoid such inconsistencies in the overall sound of the choir. A straight tone can help singers in a large group blend more easily with each other. Therefore, tempering how much vibrato a singer uses or has, if any at all, is a valuable skill in an ensemble situation.” [Source: Singwise: An Information Based Resource For Singers By Vocal Technique Instructor, Karyn O’Connor].

When they were founded back in 1970 by John Oliver to be the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I liked the Tanglewood Festival Chorus very much. But since then, either they have changed or I’ve changed, or both. I do have a very different “ear” now for listening to choral music and Orchestra Choruses than I did back then because of my own Orchestra Chorus experience (see bottom of the page) and from listening very closely to performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Founder/Director Margaret Hillis, as well as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Founder/Director Robert Shaw and other national and international Orchestra Choruses and choral ensembles. Have they (Tanglewood Festival Chorus) been doing too much opera repertoire over the years or something? I don’t know, but I don’t enjoy them now. And they don’t sound like the same Chorus to me as they did in their early recordings (such as in the Berlioz Damnation of Faust, for example). I hadn’t heard them in years until a small group of them sang for senator Edward Kennedy’s funeral. I vaguely remember briefly watching/hearing them in that video on YouGoogleTube and I thought: That’s Tanglewood? What’s happened to them? I listened for a bit but had to turn it off. I couldn’t listen to it. I thought: I don’t remember Tanglewood sounding like that when they were founded back in 1970. I heard wobbling, fluttering vibrato in the sopranos, and in that church space where the funeral was held it did not sound good at all. They sounded more like an amateur church choir of untrained women’s voices – wobbling. They may have sounded better if they had used the entire TFC. Then a small group of the TFC sang for another funeral, Thomas Menino’s Funeral this year – 2014 and you can hear the sopranos wobbling/fluttering in that video. Does that sound like an Orchestra Chorus to you, or members of? Does that sound like members of the “Official Chorus of the BSO?” It doesn’t to me. I take it that the standards have been lowered, not that anyone would admit that. I saw another video of the TFC, which you can see here. In that video, members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus are singing a holiday piece complete with some bobbing up and down movements and other silly facial expressions/acting gestures from members of the Chorus. I found it to be childish and amateurish to tell you the truth. I was waiting for the June Taylor Dancers to come out at one point to do some “chorus line,” dancing for us (if anyone remembers them; I vaguely remember them so I looked them up and they were on The Jackie Gleason Show). I played that video for mi amigo and he said, “I wouldn’t expect what I saw and heard in that video from any ‘professional’ Orchestra Chorus.” Well I wouldn’t either. Neither of us could watch all of that video because we were so turned off by it. Making little childish facial expressions and gestures and “ump-pah-pah” bodily gestures while singing turns me off. Leave that to musical theatre/musicals.

The way I remember it when the TFC was founded, they were a very young Chorus. They looked like the New England Conservatory Chorus they replaced (I bet there’s a story there! Some chisme/gossip). Today, the TFC is an older Chorus and older voices can sound differently than younger voices. In the past couple months I heard TFC perform several choral works with the BSO and, again, they’re clearly not as good as they used to be, in my opinion. I heard things from the TFC that I would not expect to hear from the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra or any Orchestra Chorus for that matter. For those who don’t know, Orchestra Choruses are supposed to be the very best around to match the orchestra they serve as the resident/permanent Chorus for. So recently when listening to TFC, once again, I thought: What’s happened to them? I don’t think I will be asking that again. I can list a few examples of what I heard: I heard the tenor voices cracking/breaking in one part of Beethoven’s Ninth (I’ve never heard that from any other Orchestra Chorus), I heard shrill/screaming/fluttering-wobbling sounds coming from their soprano section in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”) as well as Beethoven’s Ninth on the highest notes of both works. The sopranos sounded like they were cackling/screaming on some of the highest notes in the Beethoven. The entire TFC sounded like they were struggling some at the very loud choral ending of the Mahler. Someone may say, “you’re nitpicking.” I’m telling you what I heard from listening objectively and without any partiality, and I see no need for anyone to make apologies for an Orchestra Chorus or rush to their defence. Tell it like it is. These things are not what one expects from a well-prepared, highly-trained Orchestra Chorus. In some of their performances I heard consonants that were not together, as if John Oliver said: “oh that’s close enough.” In Beethoven’s Ninth, I heard final “t’s” that were splat; that were not together in one place on the word “zelt”. That should have been drilled/set in rehearsal (“Chorus, the ‘t’ of zelt goes on the _____ beat. Mark that in your scores in red.”) Upon reflection, maybe that’s the problem. They didn’t use their scores and sang “from memory” and some couldn’t remember where the “t” of zelt was supposed to be? Also, apparently it’s tradition that every Summer on the last day of the Tanglewood Music Festival—which is a little over 2 hours west of Boston on the Tanglewood estate in Stockbridge and Lenox MA—Beethoven’s Ninth is dragged out every season and performed by the BSO/TFC. (A brief aside: Has anyone noticed that Beethoven’s Ninth is becoming as over-performed as Handel’s Messiah and yet they call the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto “a war horse!”). With TFC’s 20014 Beethoven’s Ninth performance, on the last page or so of the choral score—the very fast section at the end; I don’t have the score in front of me—is where I heard what I would call “choral screaming” especially from that soprano section again on the notes in the top of their register. I played it for mi amigo and he said, “the sopranos sound like they’re screaming; they’re not musical.” I thought the same. At the end of the performance the audience predictably applauded wildly, as expected for Beethoven’s Ninth. Apparently they like screaming there at Tanglewood, or they can’t tell the difference between singing and screaming, no?

In TFC’s performance of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, the tenor section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was the best section (and at times they were the loudest section which was an interesting effect), followed by the basses. But unfortunately it went downhill from there on with the altos and soprano sections coming in as the worst. I do not like the sound of the soprano section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. They don’t have a refined sound. I can’t recall ever hearing the sound that they have before. It’s a very unique sound, and not in a positive way. They don’t have a smooth, polished sound. They have this rough sound, this fluttery sound, which was especially noticeable in Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” They were fluttering all through that. Ugh. It was hard to listen to because of the soprano section. jesus! Who likes that sound? Overall, the soprano section is the worst section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which is odd, because from my choral experience the soprano section was usually the best with a very smooth, polished sound. I guess one way to describe them is that they sound like they’re trying to be the soprano section of an Opera Chorus (perhaps) than that of a Symphony/Orchestra Chorus, and they’re supposed to be the latter. It’s as if someone is not clear on the concept that they are an Orchestra Chorus.

The problem with the soprano section of the Boston University Symphonic Chorus is that they also have too much fluttering vibrato especially in their upper register. I’m beginning to wonder if this a Boston thing, or what? I don’t understand it. I noticed no vibrato from BUSC’s soprano section when they were singing quietly and lower in their register. Their fluttery vibrato was especially noticeable in Elijah in the chorus, “Holy, Holy, Holy is god the lord,” which begins (at 1.49.59 in the video) with the semi-Chorus and the full Chorus answers and that pattern continues for the rest of that particular chorus. But when the men came in with, “Go, Return Upon thy Way,” the men sounded good and without vibrato. So what’s with the heavy fluttery vibrato in the sopranos (it was especially noticeable in the first two rows or so of the semi-Chorus)? Fortunately, there was less vibrato in the Rachmaninov, but I still heard some in the sopranos. Does Dra Jones like that fluttery vibrato sound of the sopranos? If so, that’s very curious because the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus doesn’t sound like that at all. No section of the ASOC sounded like that under Robert Shaw and I’ve never cringed listening to the ASOC, so I find it curious that Dra Jones allows excessive vibrato/fluttering or likes it. How could anyone like it unless one is heavily into opera, which I’m not? And again, they weren’t singing opera. They were singing an oratorio and that vibrato sounded awful. As is the case with TFC’s soprano section, they sounded like your average, untrained women in an amateurish church choir with their wobbling voices, and I suspect that’s not how the BUSC soprano section wants to sound.

An oratorio is not opera so the Chorus for an oratorio should not sound like an Opera Chorus. It should sound like a Symphony/Orchestra Chorus. That’s one reason why there are two different types of choruses. One of the indicators of a superb Chorus is to be able to sing beautifully softly/quietly and Boston University Symphonic Chorus does that.

With BU’s performance of Elijah, at times I could have used more diction and more spitting of the consonants so that the consonants reach the last row in the hall as we were trained to do (especially in the University of Maryland Chorus, known for their diction). On occasion I thought I heard some US r’s (r’s as pronounced in US-English, as opposed to The Queen’s English). I know I did from the bass soloist which I thought was questionable. For those who don’t know what that refers to: in well-trained choral singing if you have the word “Lord,” for example, it’s sung as “Lawd.” No US “r’s.” That US “r” twang sounds hideous and untrained. Mi amigo says it sounds hick. Yeah, you could say that too. I could have used more pipe organ. He was playing but I couldn’t hear it—except on one chord that’s usually heard in Elijah—and they have a recently renovated pipe organ in Symphony Hall. I was wondering how the semi-Chorus was chosen. Are they considered the best voices in the BUSC or are they part of another Chorus in the School of Music (such as the Chamber Chorus, the Concert Chorus, the Women’s Chorale, or the Boston University Singers)? The semi-Chorus consisted of the first two rows of the Symphonic Chorus closest to the orchestra.

In Elijah, my favourite soloists were the tenor and the alto. The soprano soloist for the Rachmaninov had heavy vibrato. I could hear the pitch in my ear that she was supposed to be singing but due to her vibrato she was fluttering back and forth on at least two pitches. That’s the negative thing about vocal vibrato: The pitch/note that is indicated in the score is contaminated or clouded by other notes because of vibrato (I hope you know what I mean by that), whereas when one is singing with no vibrato (or with a straight tone) the pitch/note is purer and there is no doubt as to the note being sung, as one would hear the note played on a piano.

In the classical tradition, I’ve never understood why it seems to be a requirement that opera soloists/singers be dragged in as soloists for performances that are not opera. Why have heavy vibrato opera soloists for an oratorio when fortunately the Chorus for the performance does not sing with vibrato? Why can’t the soloists come from the Chorus? Some people would answer that by saying: “Because no one will come to hear the performance. You have to drag in big-named opera stars as bait to get the sheeple to come.” Really? And this seems to be an international standard. For example, I recently watched a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s’ A Sea Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and BBC Proms Youth Chorus. The Symphony Chorus and the Youth Chorus were superb. Excellent diction. (I even heard the “f” of “following” in the text). No vibrato at all in the Chorus, including the refined, smooth-sounding soprano section. The rough-sounding, fluttery soprano section of Tanglewood Festival Chorus might want to watch that video as they could certainly learn from them. But the two soloists sang with vibrato, especially the soprano. For me, she was a bit much to listen too and also watch because of her theatrics. It was almost as if she thought she were in a play.

Shouldn’t the soloists come from the Chorus?

Chorus = no vibrato.
Soloists = no vibrato.

How difficult is that to arrange or to understand?

I’m also glad that the Boston University Symphonic Chorus uses their choral scores. They don’t look like a bank of robots regurgitating the score on cue like the Tanglewood Festival Chorus look. I read what John Oliver (TFC’s Founder and Director) had to say about their “from memory” routine:

“Memorization is not a trick. It internalizes the music for you; it makes the music, somehow, a part of your own physical being. And you can express so much more like that. If you don’t see a singer’s face and you don’t see the posture of a singer, the address of a singer to the audience, you’re really not getting what a singer can deliver in music and what composers expected the singers to deliver.”

Ludicrous! I wonder how long it took him to come up with that? I read that paragraph to mi amigo and he said: That sounds like gobbledygook. Why do some people come up this “philosophical” nonsense and try to pass it off to unthinking people who unfortunately don’t posses critical thinking skills? Such people would respond to hearing that quote by saying, “Oh good, that sounds real good. Yeah that makes sense.” But fortunately, some people possess critical thinking skills and they would respond to that BS by saying: Well, I had no trouble seeing the faces or the posture of the BUSC choristers or the soloists using their scores. Is Oliver saying that composers in general expected singers to perform “from memory?” Really? I’ve never heard that before. Where did he get that? So when soloists represented by international artist agents are contracted for performances and use their scores, no matter how beautiful their performance they are not “delivering what the composer expected?” I think that will be noticias/news to them.

It’s Ludicrous! Although I suspect some gullible people fall for it.

As for performing “from memory,” Tanglewood Festival Chorus stands there with arms down all staring straight ahead at the conductor and showing little emotional involvement in what they’re singing (no body movements at all). They look like a wall/bank of statues.

Whereas Boston University’s Symphonic Chorus look like they’re involved in their music they’re performing, some move around a bit, some move their scores slightly in keeping with the tempo which I like to see as they’re getting into their music, and they are more musical, in my opinion.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra always use their scores/orchestral parts so why shouldn’t the Tanglewood Festival Chorus use their choral scores? Is the TFC trying to appear to better than the BSO musicians or better than another Chorus by singing “from memory?” There’s no sense to be made from that “performing from memory” nonsense—with its double-standards—of the classical music tradition where it’s perfectly acceptable (and expected) for some musicians to use their scores when performing but not others, and also depending upon what it is they’re playing and the setting. The double-standard is ridiculous and hypocritical. Does one know the score better when performing “from memory?” No, not necessarily. With some artists performing “from memory” can make them less comfortable and more nervous which can cause mistakes and memory lapses. With TFC, it looks like one is trying to impress somebody. It looks pretentious. I’ve seen some other choruses perform “from memory” on the odd occasion and to me they all pretty much look the same. It doesn’t matter which Chorus it is: A motionless bank of robots/statues. Fortunately, none of the Orchestra Choruses I had the privilege of performing with sang “from memory.” We used our scores.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed The Bells last month in Symphony Hall. I listened to their performance On Demand, and I still heard their screechy (especially on the highest notes in the soprano section), non-refined, rough, fluttery soprano sound. For The Bells, the TFC had a rather bright sound. A bright sound is not Russian. The Russian choral sound is a very dark sound, especially in the basses. I did hear some “Russian bass” sound in the Presto movement, but I noticed that the entire Chorus had a bright sound especially in the first movement. It didn’t sound “Russian” at all. I thought that the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus (with a darker choral sound) performed the The Bells better than the TFC and the BSO. The playing from both orchestras was excellent but I preferred BU’s superb performance.

Overall, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus seems to be “hit and miss.” Some performances are better than others. I’ve already spent too much time on them so I didn’t bother to check their schedule to see how many choral works they perform each season in Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood. I was wondering: Do they perform too many choral works a season and don’t have the time to be thoroughly prepared for each performance? Or is John Oliver accepting anybody he can get these days—their soprano section certainly sounds like that’s the case—as long as they’re a fairly good sight-reader? They (TFC) need to take off some time and work on refining that godawful soprano section, I can tell you that! They rely on screeching, shrill and a bright sound (when singing loudly). The Boston University Symphonic Chorus relies on power, precision and a darker tone. They sound like a more powerful Chorus even though they are not quite as large as the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

I was talking with mi amigo while writing this article and he said: “Perhaps that’s the problem with an orchestra having their own Chorus. The Chorus and the Chorus Director know they will be used/performing with that orchestra regardless of how they sound (mistakes, blemishes, screaming/shrill/fluttering/cackling/unrefined-sounding sopranos and all!). They have no competition when they are “the official Chorus,” so the level of choral excellence doesn’t necessarily have to remain high.” Yes, perhaps. But then there’s the possibility of an orchestra disbanding their own Chorus. That happened with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. They no longer have a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and one reason given for disbanding was that their Symphony Chorus wasn’t that good. I never heard them. So after the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra disband their own Chorus, they invited the stellar University of Maryland Chorus to perform with them when they performed a choral work, until The Maryland Chorus was “retired”/liquidated by the University of Maryland at College Park about five years ago. These days, Baltimore SO invite the Baltimore Choral Arts Society on occasion as well as the University of Maryland Concert Choir, which is an all-student/music majors Chorus and which seems to have replaced the “retired” University of Maryland Chorus. But I doubt that the Boston Symphony Orchestra has any intention of disbanding their Tanglewood Festival Chorus, no matter how they sound, which reflects on the orchestra. Doesn’t the BSO notice how the TFC sounds, and especially that soprano section? Ugh. Or have they gotten used to it? I don’t know how one could get used to that. They make me cringe whenever I hear them.

We’ve very much enjoyed both The Bells and Elijah from BU, and felicitaciones to the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus. They should be very pleased with their performances.

Regarding their other performances: We’ve wanted to watch BU’s other performances but on our systems we can’t get the Vimeo videos to play smoothly, no matter what we do. Even though I don’t like GoogleTube—because parasitic and predatory Google has absolutely ruined the former YouTube particularly with all the (obnoxious) ads embedded in videos—the BUSO and BUSC should have kept all their videos on GoogleTube. I don’t watch any of the ads on GoogleTube. I can’t stand ads. I minimise the video and bring it back up when I think the ad has played. And if I accidentally see what’s being advertised, I make a mental note: Don’t buy that.

If I had a choice to go hear the Tanglewood Festival Chorus or BUSC, I would choose Boston University’s Symphonic Chorus. Even with fluttery vibrato, to me vibrato sounds better with the younger voices of the BUSC.

Enjoy these two performances by them in the videos below. Chau.—el barrio rosa

I made reference to this superb performance in the article (Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, performed by the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC Proms Youth Choir and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo).

I didn’t mention this piece in the article, but thought you might enjoy it. I’ve watched this many times and have thoroughly enjoyed both the Orchestra and Chorus. It’s a splendid performance of Toward the Unknown Region also by Ralph Vaughan William with the National Youth Orchestra and Chorus of Britain, Codetta and the Irish Youth Chamber Choir. This performance reminds me of the first performance I heard of this work years ago by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the UK.

[My choral background: I had the opportunity and privilege of performing in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall as a member of the Choral Arts Society of Washington (Norman Scribner, Founder and Chorus Director), the Oratorio Society of Washington, now called The Washington Chorus (Robert Shafer, Chorus Director), the University of Maryland Chorus (Dr Paul Traver, Founder and Chorus Director) with the National Symphony Orchestra and guest national and international orchestras, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Margaret Hillis and Vance George, Chorus Directors) in Davies Symphony Hall.]