Tag Archives: UMD Chorus

What happened to the renowned University of Maryland Chorus?

Hola a todos. After writing my article titled “Musicians need to stand for something!” and after the commenting period on that article ended, I received some e-mails from international readers enquiring about what happened to the University of Maryland Chorus? As readers pointed out, I wrote about the Chorus in past tense. Their question is answered in my tribute article to The Maryland Chorus, but some people wrote back saying they didn’t see anything about that (even though it’s there; it is a very long and thorough article), so I’ll answer their question here.

Back in the Spring of 2009, the University of Maryland at College Park decided to disband their University of Maryland Chorus. Dr Paul Traver, the founder and director of the Chorus, had already retired and the new Director of Choral Activities was their Chorus Director. A publication in the District of Columbia wrote that several area Choruses in the Washington Metropolitan Area had undergone financial problems in recent years and were forced to disband. The writer listed (I think it was) four choral ensembles, including the University of Maryland Chorus. He wrote that The Maryland Chorus had been liquidated, which is a legal term, which also means dissolved. I don’t have any more information about that. The University said that the University of Maryland Chorus (also known as The Maryland Chorus and the UMD Chorus) had accomplished their goals and was being “retired,” and the name “University of Maryland Chorus” was also being retired to respect the Chorus and its long legacy.

I realised a few years before I had the opportunity and privilege (and a goal achieved) to sing with the University of Maryland Chorus that they were outstandingly superb. They were an example of choral excellence at its finest. I and mis amigos/my friends who moved to the District from the Conservatory of Music where we had graduated compared the UMD Chorus to Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus. They were that good. Margaret Hillis recommended them to conductor Claudio Abbado for performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The Washington Post classical music critic wrote about their performance: “Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus was glorious throughout.” One of my musical friends in the District who worked at the classical music store on Wisconsin Avenue over in Georgetown often said after one of Maryland’s performances with the National Symphony Orchestra or a guest international orchestra, “that Maryland Chorus can sing the shit out of choral music!”

When I sang with them, I think we were mostly a student-based Chorus of students from the School of Music. But I sensed from what the University wrote upon their retirement that this was no longer the case and probably had something to do with the disbanding of the Chorus as the University wrote that the mostly community-based Maryland Chorus was being ended. They could have just kept the name “University of Maryland Chorus” and changed the requirements to an all-student based Chorus.

In those days, from my experience, it was possible for the general public to sing with the local University Chorus if a chorister qualified and passed the audition requirements. Such a choral ensemble is known as a “town and gown” Chorus, meaning town’s people and university students. I think that was also true at that time at the University of Virginia’s School of Music with their choral ensemble called The University Singers, and the same was true at the University of Maryland. At Maryland, non-students had to pay a nominal fee to sing with The Maryland Chorus. But in hindsight, I get the impression that the University of Maryland was possibly never quite pleased that the University Chorus was not a student-only Chorus and perhaps that’s why they wanted to end them since Dr Traver was no longer there. Even from their founding, they were not an entirely student-based Chorus. They were started when the National Symphony Orchestra asked Dr Traver at the University of Maryland’s School of Music to form a Chorus for a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (“Choral”). He did — and the Chorus was comprised of students from the UMD School of Music and auditioned choristers from the community, rehearsing in the School of Music — and their performance achieved so much critical acclaim that they decided to stay together. Good idea. They became known as the University of Maryland Chorus and over the years performed with many of the world’s finest orchestras and in major concert halls (Kennedy Center Concert Hall, London’s Royal Albert Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall and so forth). When they were “retired,” they were down to about 90 voices from what I read. The Chorus that I knew and loved when they were at their height — when one got the impression they were almost the Official Chorus of the National Symphony Orchestra especially under conductor Antal Doráti — had roughly 140-150 voices, so they had lost a lot of choristers over the years. Was this because the Chorus did not have the same appeal to choristers because they were not performing with the National Symphony Orchestra and guest international orchestra as often as they once did? Or, did the new Director of Choral Activities deliberately want the University Chorus to be smaller? I don’t know. Or was this reduction in their size part of the classical musical arts dying? If that were not the case, weren’t there enough qualified choristers in the School of Music — which is an excellent music school (and an all-Steinway school) — to meet the requirements of the University Chorus to keep it up to size of 140-150 voices?

I do know that many people on the UMD campus were not pleased with the decision by the University to disband their University Chorus. Ending your University Chorus does seem weird, doesn’t it? I haven’t heard of any other universities ending/”retiring” their University Chorus. Just the idea of that seems loco. Well there was one (although not a University but rather a Conservatory of Music): Decades ago, the New England Conservatory Chorus was “retired”/disband by the NEC and they performed regularly and recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Symphony Hall across the street. This was before the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) became the “Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.” The TFC is not one of my favourite Orchestra Choruses in main part because of their fluttery/wobbling vibrato soprano section. Sopranos: Could you possibly “get a grip” on that annoying fluttery-vibrato you have? jesus!…You’re not an Opera Chorus, you’re a Symphonic/Orchestra Chorus. There’s a difference; that’s why they have two different names. John Oliver thinks that fluttery-wobbling vibrato you have sounds good, does he? Maybe his ears are beginning to fail him. In their early days, I liked the Tanglewood Festival Chorus very much. They were one of my favourite Choruses, but not now. And when they perform, they look like a motionless bank of zombies regurgitating on cue what’s been drilled into them. That’s because John Oliver, the Chorus Director, has this ridiculous requirement that they perform without their vocal scores, even though everyone else on stage has their scores! What exactly are they trying to prove with that and is this intended to impress someone? I’ve heard his reasoning for this but I find it rather ludicrous. I much prefer to see a Chorus use their scores. Well really, I feel that way about all musicians, especially pianists. Using the score, makes musicians look more involved in their performance. It shows that they’re reading music and interpreting the markings in the score.

But back to UMD, upon the retirement of The Maryland Chorus, the University of Maryland Concert Choir (an all-student based Chorus) replaced the UMD Chorus as the Symphonic Chorus on campus. They have performed with the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall as well as with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on occasion (Britten’s War Requiem was one of their performances). But the UMD Concert Choir (I’ve not heard them) has not performed nearly as frequently with the NSO as the University of Maryland Chorus did, particularly during the Antal Doráti years. After Doráti left and Rostropovich took over, the UMD Chorus had fewer engagements with the NSO from what I noticed, which was disappointing. I sensed that Rostropovich preferred the Choral Arts Society of Washington. If I’m not mistaken, I think the Choral Arts Society was the first Orchestra Chorus Rostropovich worked with after arriving there. I also think that the first Chorus that a new conductor works with becomes his/her favourite/preferred choice.

One might find it interesting to know that before The Maryland Chorus was “retired,” the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra dissolved/disband their Symphony Chorus. That’s true. Can you believe that? That’s another weird one. I’ve not heard of another major symphony orchestra disbanding their Symphony Chorus. I read they weren’t that good although I never heard them. So the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra began inviting the University of Maryland Chorus to perform with them. One of my commenters said that the orchestra management must have had a meeting and asked why they were wasting money on a Symphony Chorus (paying a Chorus Director) when they could be inviting the best Orchestra Chorus around, the University of Maryland Chorus, to perform with them. Since the UMD Chorus was “retired,” the BSO has been inviting the UMD Concert Choir to perform with them, as well as the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. I read one excellent review for the University of Maryland Concert Choir. They were described as having a very clear tone and excellent diction in one of their performances of Händel’s Messiah. I hope this helps answer readers questions. Chau.—el barrio rosa

BSO and the University of Maryland Concert Choir perform Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

UMCTRIBUTE

Note: The University of Maryland Concert Choir is the Symphonic Chorus that replaced the superb University of Maryland Chorus — that I had the privilege of singing with and which I’ve written a lot about to help keep their legacy alive — when the University of Maryland “retired”/liquidated them.

Hola. I was reading a review the other day about a performance of Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the University of Maryland Concert Choir (UMD Concert Choir). The performance was conducted by the new principal guest conductor of the BSO, Markus Stenz.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra once had their own Symphony Chorus. But like the University of Maryland Chorus (also known as the UMD Chorus and The Maryland Chorus), years ago the Baltimore Symphony Chorus was also disband, a rather unusual thing for an orchestra to do. I read this was for financial reasons but also because their Symphony Chorus wasn’t that good. A Symphony/Orchestra Chorus is expected to be of the same high-quality level as their orchestra. I never heard the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus to make any comment on them. And as one of my commenters said awhile back: The BSO management probably realised they could save money by not having to pay a Chorus Director and instead invite the best Orchestra Chorus around to perform with them which was the superb University of Maryland Chorus, and they regularly performed with national and international orchestras and conductors. So after disbanding their Symphony Chorus, the BSO began inviting The Maryland Chorus — especially for their Beethoven’s Ninth — to perform with them, as well as the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. These days, the BSO continue to invite the Baltimore Choral Arts Society as well as the UMD Concert Choir. Their debut performance with the BSO was in 2013 in a performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. They have also had many performances with the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

IMG_0023I’ve been wanting to hear how the UMD Concert Choir compares with the former UMD Chorus but unfortunately that’s not been possible other than a couple of brief video clips with not the best sound quality. None of their performances are available online probably because of copyright and other rights’ issues with the orchestras they have performed with. As was the case with Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus, I would assume that the highest standards of choral excellence are expected of the UMD Concert Choir under Dr Edward Maclary, Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at the University of Maryland. In my opinion, Dr Traver’s standards/expectations were the same as those of Margaret Hillis, the founder/director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus which were honoured with nine Grammy Awards for “Best Choral Performance” under Ms Hillis.

I looked to see if a broadcast of this Brahms’s performance was going to be made available to the public but I couldn’t find any classical music station or any source that was broadcasting this concert around Baltimore or the District. It doesn’t look like many classical music stations (the ones that remain) are doing that these days, except WGBH-Boston. If someone knows of a source where a broadcast of this performance of the Brahms is available online, leave a comment below, por favor. Or if commenting has ended when you read this, you can e-mail me at: pinkbarrio555@yahoo.com. Gracias.

I read a review of this performance. The reviewer spoke of “the fine UMD Concert Choir.” Well that’s good to hear. He also wrote about their excellent diction (the weight of every word has never been clearer, or something to that effect). That sounds like The Maryland Chorus as we were known for our diction. He also spoke highly of the soprano section and wrote that they barely have any vibrato. That’s good to hear since I don’t like vibrato especially with a Chorus. He made a derogatory comment about the wobbling vibrato often found in older (volunteer) Choruses. Oh yes, I know all about that; I’ve heard too much of that in my experience, unfortunately (the unrefined-sounding/wobbling soprano section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus comes to mind). In this performance, according to the reviewer, apparently there were occasional ensemble problems with some rushing and imprecision in the tenor and bass sections which he referred to as “greenness.” Now why did he have to go and say that? (Sigh). “Green” or “greenness” means inexperienced and amateurish. Or was he referring to the choristers young age, since it’s an all-student Chorus? Regardless, just because they’re young doesn’t necessarily mean they’re inexperienced or amateurish. Either way, “greenness” didn’t need to be said. Rushing the tempo creating ensemble problems — meaning things are not exactly together — is not necessarily a matter of “greenness” or amateurish. I found the term “greenness” a bit harsh and almost trollish. If I were reviewing their performance, I might have said that there were occasional ensemble problems and left it at that. But depending upon how often it happened (a couple of times or what?), I wouldn’t have even mentioned it. Because why call them “fine” and then start criticising them and describing half of the Chorus (tenor and bass sections) using the term “greenness?” The University of Maryland Chorus was never described that way to my knowledge. That’s one reason I would like to have heard this performance to hear what he was talking about it. The reviewer did make a comment about another work on the programme and that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians seemed uncertain about the conductor’s beat in that piece, leading to some ensemble problems (the reviewer used the word, “misalignment”). Oh really? I’m wondering if that’s what was going on with the tenors and basses of the Chorus in the Brahms? Just asking. I’ve sung under some conductors where it was difficult to figure out where the beat was. Not saying it’s the case here, but some orchestral conductors are not that good when it comes to conducting a Chorus. They’re much better with the orchestra since orchestral conducting is mainly their experience.

IMG_0688Now on the topic of music education: I read the other day that the Boston Public School system is cutting their music programme. Oh yes why not?! Everybody else is or already has! Isn’t that just what we need?! [sarcasm intended]. Have these morons in positions of power who are cutting the music programme not considered where they will get some of the “next generation” of musicians for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus when students in the Boston Public School system either won’t have any instrumental or vocal music training or exposure to music? What is wrong with these lobotomised people who make these stupid decisions? Obviously they have no respect for music, the arts or culture. They consider it unimportant/”fluff.” Well, I consider people like that basura. Music programmes have been gutted throughout the US. It’s disgraceful what’s happened in the name of “there’s no money for it.” Which of course is complete nonsense. There’s plenty of money for music programmes, arts and international language programmes. Billions are being wasted/poured down a big bottomless hole called the Military Industrial ComplexTM. A huge chunk of money is being poured into the Military Industrial Complex for D and R politicians’ juvenile war and drone games, etc. Unfortunately, the priorities of the US Oligarchy (also known as the US government) are completely septic, twisted, demented, misplaced, and dysfunctional just like the politicians that make these decisions. There’s never a shortage of dinero/money to throw at the Pentagon for the US Global Imperialism and World Domination/Project For The New American Century agenda games and for killing innocent brown-complected people in the Middle East and elsewhere and keeping the public afraid of their own shadow under the guise of this phony “war on terror” nonsense, no matter who is in office. But these corporate parasite D and R bourgeois elite Establishment politicians can’t seem to find any dinero for things worth while in people’s lives, beneficial and to help people such as art and music programmes in schools which benefit and enrich people’s lives enormously. Obama would rather bomb Somalia killing 150 people with his expensive drones and bloated military budget(s) than to put one cent into music and arts programmes. Music is the international language. The music training I had in the public schools was invaluable — I always looked forward to music class — in elementary school through high school, especially when I had the privilege of being the piano accompanist for the High School Chorus. That led to my strong interest in choral music that later led me to go on to perform with the outstanding University of Maryland Chorus and the National Symphony Orchestra, and other Orchestra Choruses (Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Margaret Hillis/Vance George, Chorus Directors).

I spent one Summer studying the Brahms on my own and was fortunate to have performed it at least once. The first time was with the Choral Arts Society of Washington and The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. I remember Maazel was difficult to work with even though we were very well prepared by Chorus Director Norman Scribner. And I think we performed it when I was with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. It’s the last piece I heard the University of Maryland Chorus perform live with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Doráti. Their performance was exquisite. (Why was that not recorded?!) It reminded me of the CD I have of the performance by the Chicago Symphony Chorus.

A society without music, culture and the arts is a dead, lobotomised and soul-less society.

I can hear someone whining about now as is typically the case: “Why are you talking about politics and music? I thought this article was about a music performance, not politics.” It’s about both, Thick, and that’s because the funding for music programmes comes from politics and political decisions made such as budget funding/cuts. That should be self-explanatory even to the thickest people. And it’s my site so I’ll talk about whatever I want to talk about! I don’t know why some people think that politics should be completely removed from music, but I’m well aware that there’s a (conservative) crowd out there that does hold to that thinking. Loco./Crazy. The world would not have Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem if Benjamin had held to that twisted thinking that politics should be divorced from music. Politics have been very much a part of many composers’ lives and their works. But I’m aware that some people like to sanitise music and pretend that music is completely devoid of politics, which of course is nonsense.

After all this talk about the Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (which is one of my favourite choral works), if you’re now in the mood for wanting to hear the work, unfortunately we can’t hear the performance from the BSO and the UMD Concert Choir, so I’d recommend this performance (below) by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Robert Shaw. I love their tenor section. (The last part of the first movement is cut off in this recording for some reason.) Enjoy. Chau.—el barrio rosa