Update (October 2019): The Tanglewood Festival Chorus has improved — or at least I think they have — from what little I was able to hear of them in a short clip of a recent performance. And I had expected them to improve under superb James Burton, their new Chorus Director from the UK, but I knew it would take awhile. In the short clip I saw of them, they were singing with perfect intonation in all voice parts (SATB), except for one little place in the soprano section on their top note, which if I’m remembering correctly, I think was a high C (which is nearly the top of their register). But fortunately gone are those wobbling, fluttering, screechy, screaming dreadful sopranos and wobbling altos who should have been gone years ago. As some would say, “They were way past their sell-by date, or upon reflection, should have never been sold in the first place!” I think James is bringing the Chorus back up to the high standards expected of them as the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops. I look forward to hearing them when James Burton has them just the way he wants them. I’m writing this update because I like to praise musicians whenever possible and when praise is due — I honestly don’t enjoy being critical of other musicians because I know how that can feel — especially after being very critical of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus as I have been in John Oliver’s last years. Chau.
Now onto the original article:
Did you know that the Tanglewood Festival Chorus has never won a Grammy Award in the Best Choral Performance category even though they’ve been featured on many recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra?
Hola a todos. Well it’s about time. I wrote about this how long ago? Finally they noticed! Yes! Positive changes are finally being made to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC). Many people are now tangling with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus including the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) management (including its conductor, Andris Nelsons, who has noticed), their relatively-new Chorus Director from the UK James Burton, current and former TFC choristers and some of the BSO’s audience and music critics.
Take this review for example:
“The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sounds a tad old-fashioned in comparison to Choruses that have come up in the digital era, stressing flawless intonation and purity of tone — this group (the Tanglewood Festival Chorus) has a few wobbly sopranos and are not particularly well divided in the sound mix, sounding sandpapery flat for the most part.” (Review of their recorded performance of Kurt Weill: Recordare; Luigi Dallapiccola: Canti di Prigionia, Release Date 1983, Source).
Well! Is that what one would expect to read about the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra? I should think not.
So someone else has noticed the wobbly sopranos of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC). Well how could one not notice them if you have any hearing at all? That review also speaks of the TFC lacking flawless intonation and purity of tone. That’s the same thing I say.
The BSO seems to have finally noticed “problems” with the TFC. “Problems?” Who are they trying not to offend? “Problems” is not even the beginning of it! It certainly took them awhile didn’t it? Or were they waiting on James Burton to slowly remake the Chorus? Being new to Boston, I think James has been cautious about making major changes. Understandable. Well, until now.
Many long-time TFC choristers who were thrilled that Burton had been hired as Chorus Director aren’t thinking too highly of him now. Many choristers also seem to think that their seniority in the TFC gives them a special licence to remain in the Chorus indefinitely despite their vocal deterioration and lack of musical knowledge, specifically about music theory. I support what James Burton is doing, including re-auditioning TFC choristers.
Here’s a blurb from one of the articles I’m linking to with my editorials in italics:
Quote: “Re-auditioning is certainly normal,” Owades (a TFC chorister who did not pass his re-audition under James Burton) says. “Your voice changes. There are certain choruses that have age limits — nobody over 55 can sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for instance. [Editorial: Oh good lord, you’re not comparing the TFC to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (MTC) are you? I think therein lies part of the problem. I hope you’re not using the podunk MTC as an example of choral excellence! Why would you even mention them? How embarrassing. Why not mention the name of a superb, renowned Orchestra Chorus and their age limit rather than a choral ensemble connected with an anti-gay, bigoted religious organisation? (Sigh)] All of that is perfectly reasonable.” “Owades, who did not pass the re-audition, suggests strongly that some of the changes Burton is incorporating in the chorus comes from Nelsons. “We don’t hear a lot of praise from Nelsons (the BSO’s conductor),” Owades says. [Editorial: Well that’s understandable based on what I’ve previously written about the TFC. That tells me that he has an ear for choral excellence which obviously he’s not hearing from the TFC!] “We always got feedback from Seiji (Ozawa), and from (James) Levine, and from guest conductors. They would at least shake hands with the Chorus when we were filing offstage after a major performance. We never got that from Nelsons.” [Editorial: Those shrill-sounding, cackling sopranos and wobbly altos must have turned him on, and cracking tenor voices.] When he was first appointed, the Chorus prepared and learned some Latvian songs, and sang them for Andris and Kristine (Nelsons and his then-wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, are from Latvia). “Andris did not look happy,” Owades says, “and Kristine was visibly unhappy. Nelsons was heard by someone saying, ‘Is that what American Choruses sound like?’” End Quote [Editorial: He said that, did he? Oh dear! So I’m not the only person displeased with the “sound” of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus? Even Andris Nelsons didn’t like what he heard. Understandable. But no, the finest US Orchestra Choruses don’t sound like that Señor Nelsons. Source]
Here’s another blurb about the TFC:
“The ensemble’s slide has not gone unnoticed. Writing in 2016, Boston Globe critic Jeremy Eichler noted that while the Chorus was “still capable of delighting,” it also exhibited “an unevenness” and “more than a few patchy moments.”
Well that’s being kind, isn’t it? Why such mush-mouthed critiques. Why doesn’t anybody tell it like it is? When did USians become such mealy-mouthed, timid, afraid-of-offending-somebody people? There are many choristers in the TFC who suck frankly (such as that soprano section especially in their high register with their cackling, shrill-sounding, wobbling, fluttering, quivering
sound noise, geezus), so say that! Why is that so difficult? And the altos aren’t much better. Not at all what one expects from the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Instead, one expects to hear a Chorus equivalent to the Grammy Award Winning Chicago Symphony Chorus prepared by Margaret Hillis (under Georg Solti that is, they had a different sound after Solti for some reason) or Robert Shaw’s Grammy Award Winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. That’s what the TFC should be. A Chorus of that caliber. And both the Hillis/Solti and Shaw Chorus sang without any noticeable vibrato in any section (SATB). A straight-tone, in other words, guaranteeing them the desired perfect intonation/the perfect blending of voices.
I’ve written several times about how the Tanglewood Festival Chorus has gone down hill, and I asked: Is this a Chorus that the BSO finds acceptable to their standards of choral excellence? If so, I assume that their choral standards have been lowered, unfortunately. For some time, when I’ve heard them, the TFC had not been up to the standards that one would expect for a major symphony orchestra’s premiere Chorus. Especially when one hears that awful cackling and shrill-sounding heavy-vibrato soprano section. What a dreadful noise they make especially in their upper register. Ugh, good god. Did John Oliver lose his hearing, or did he become more lax about the standards and or too chummy with some of the choristers making it more difficult to get rid of them when they shouldn’t be in the Chorus? I’ve heard some very ugly sounds/noise from those sopranos. Note to (older) sopranos: If you can’t handle the high notes in Beethoven’s Ninth, don’t attempt them. Otherwise it sounds like screaming. Don’t try to sing them because you’ll drag down the rest of the soprano section with your ugly vocal noise.
Some of the Tanglewoodbots/Vibratobots — or was it just one guy who wrote me claiming to be a choral director and a supposed vocal and choral expert — have rushed to defend the TFC. Well, I have to tell you he’s about the only person who is rushing to defend the TFC at this point. Nobody else is, so what does that tell you about him? Anyone else who has an ear for music and choral excellence isn’t defending them too much it seems. Other than in mealy-mouthed, timid language.
I look forward to hearing James Burton’s “new” Tanglewood Festival Chorus based on his superb work in the UK with the Hallé Choir. But he’s pissed off a large segment of the TFC. But that’s the way it goes. If one is not qualified to be in the TFC under the raised standards, out you go. This is not some charity organisation or “Community Chorus” arrangement/situation where they let anybody, their family and their dog too in there just because they want to sing.
The TFC, just like the BSO, is a business despite them being a non-paid Orchestra Chorus. And just because a chorister has been in the TFC for 35 years, doesn’t mean that they should be in there now when their voice has gone well beyond the “Use By” date, as is the case with many TFC choristers. Why do they think many screaming opera divas retire around a certain age — before it’s too late — when other musicians don’t have to be concerned about their age and performance ability?
The TFC needs new highly-qualified choristers. I would suggest Conservatory-trained vibrato-free choristers, if at all possible. They need the very best if that is what Burton expects when he gets his TFC up to the level of choral excellence he expects from them.
Surely Burton heard the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in performance before he took the job, no? One would think he did and knew he had his work cut out for him. After spending some time with them, I wonder if Burton threatened to resign and go back to the UK after realising: “With the TFC, there’s only so much I can do with this Chorus. I hear (what sounds like) elderly wobbling-voiced sopranos — reminding me of podunk church choir members — sitting over there in the soprano section. What the hell are they doing in here? Why are they still in this Chorus? They should not be here. Their voices are well past their prime. Why did John Oliver keep them? The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is not to be the extension of one’s church choir. Their voices cackle and sound shrill on the highest notes of Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”), as two examples, and other symphonic choral works. There’s a great deal of work to be done here and I can’t do it with these choristers, or with most of them. I need a new Chorus with professional musicians who know some music theory and not a Chorus who see the TFC as some sort of important hobby, a way to “sing with other people,” or something other than what this Chorus is supposed to be. Using two iconic US Orchestra Choruses from the past as an example: A professional ensemble equivalent to the TFC and what it should be would be the Chicago Symphony Chorus under the late Margaret Hillis/Solti or the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under the late Robert Shaw. The highest of choral excellence at its finest is what we’re striving for here with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
One wonders if Burton asked the BSO to give him free-reign to do whatever is needed to bring the TFC up to his standards of choral excellence? That would be interesting to know.
I read that the TFC has 300 choristers? 300? Or is that a reserve number for when they happen to perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major (Symphony of a Thousands)? Depending upon the image I’ve seen of them on stage in Boston Symphony Hall or at Tanglewood, they look much smaller than 300 voices. In one image from Symphony Hall, I counted approximately 115-125 voices. Where are the other 175 or so choristers? Or in other images I’ve seen probably 175-200 voices. For Holiday Pops with the Boston Pops Orchestra, I counted approximately 60 voices. Or do some choristers come and go but remain on the roster? But 300 choristers? Why do they need 300? Of the Orchestra Choruses I sang with in the Kennedy Center, the superb University of Maryland Chorus had 125-150 voices, the Choral Arts Society of Washington was approximately the same size. In Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus was about the same size. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Shaw had 200 voices (not 300) and Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus under Solti was, I think, between 150-200 voices if I’m not mistaken. I never saw the CSC under Hillis to know exactly how many choristers she had, I only heard them on CDs. But they sounded like the others I’ve listed in size. And quality should be the goal, not the size. But 300 choristers? Is that to try to cover up all the problems? Was the TFC trying to sound like the 375-voice Morbid Tabernacle Choir, since that guy mentioned them? (roll eyes) Again, the MTC is not an example of choral excellence, I can tell you that! Someone may be asking: “What wrong with the Morbid Tabernacle Choir?” Well if you have to ask that question it tells me you don’t have a chorally-trained ear and don’t know much about music, so there’s no reason for any discussion between us. I’ll be honest though: I used to love the Morbid Tabernacle Choir — yes, I know that’s not their real name but that’s what I call them — when I was in high school when I didn’t know any better, and before I acquired my (what I call) “Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus (under Solti)” chorally-trained ear. I acquired my “choral ear” from actively listening as if I were the Chorus Director to every symphonic choral work that Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus (CSC) recorded under George Solti. Her CSC trained my ear along with the Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington, Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Margaret Hillis and Vance George Chorus Directors). They all played a critical role in training my “choral ear.” And then I started listening to the superb Orchestra Choruses in the EU. Such as this Chorus — the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir — is superb from Copenhagen performing Brahms – Ein Deutsches Requiem. They don’t need or have 300 choristers.
Symphony Chorus: KoncertKoret
Orchestra: SymfoniOrkestret/Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Sopran: Camilla Tilling
Baryton: Peter Mattei
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
© Danmarks Radio
Why shouldn’t the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sound like the superb Chorus in this performance of the Brahms?
But there’s one thing I don’t understand with Tanglewood, and that’s this cult-like fervor or devotion where some people — or, again, is it really just one guy pretending to be two people and a choral director? — feel the need to defend the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Official Chorus, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. As an analogy, if someone said to me, “I never did like the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the University of Maryland Chorus or the San Francisco Symphony Chorus” (the three Orchestra Choruses I sang with), my response would be: Well, that’s fine. You don’t have to like them or listen to them. Find a Chorus you do like, if that’s possible. Fin. The End. End of discussion.
But with the TFC, if one says anything critical about them, there’s always some nut that has to rush to their defence to defend (what I call) “Cult Tanglewood.” That’s what it amounts to it seems. And they go on about how some conductor, “loved the memorised Tanglewood Festival Chorus.” That doesn’t seem to be the case with conductor Andres Nelsons. But with others, I guess the conductor liked that the TFC looked like a bank of motionless, lobotomised robots not giving any physical signs that they’re getting into the music they’re regurgitating on cue as if it’s been programmed in them. Versus Choruses that clearly look like they’re enjoying themselves and getting into their music and watching the score and conductor as real true artists, and who have won Grammy Awards in the Best Choral Performance category. The TFC has never won a Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance. But that may change now under Burton.
I liked the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) in their early days after John Oliver started the Chorus upon the suggestion of BSO conductor, Seiji Ozawa. They were one of my favourite Orchestra Choruses at one time. Then, awhile back and having not heard them for years, I heard them perform at Senator Edward Kennedy’s funeral and thought to myself:
What’s happened to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus? I had to turn it off after hearing enough. I couldn’t take their very noticeable vibrato, particularly in the unrefined-sounding women’s section. I heard feeble-sounding women’s voices that were not at all blended. I was hearing individual voices with wobbling vibrato. They sounded like unrefined voices that one hears in your standard church choir where choral excellence is not a priority. As I recall, the full TFC did not sing for the funeral but rather a smaller group of them. Then, I also heard them again in one of their performances of Beethoven’s Ninth from the Tanglewood Music Festival. The microphones picked up some cracking tenor voices in Beethoven’s Ninth. One does not expect to hear any of those deficiencies from a major Symphony Orchestra’s Chorus.
None of the Orchestra Choruses I trained my “choral ear” with sang with noticeable vibrato but rather a straight tone, although I’m sure the Vibratobots would disagree with that. But I’m not here to argue with them. They will think what they want.
From my research, and as I said up above, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus has never won a Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance, even though the BSO has featured the TFC on a number of CD as you can see here: The TFC has been featured on these CDs. They did receive a Grammy nomination — but did not win the award — for their first recording with the BSO, for Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust with Seiji Ozawa back in 1975.
Whereas, the Orchestra Choruses that I trained my “choral ear” to won a Grammy Award in the Best Choral Performance category on a regular basis: Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus under Solti won 9 Grammy’s for Best Choral Performance. They’ve only won one Grammy under current Chorus Director, Duain Wolfe. And of course Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus won numerous Grammy’s in the BCP category. I did not like the “sound” of the Chicago Symphony Chorus under James Levine particularly for their recorded performance of Brahms/Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45. For some reason, under Levine the Chicago Symphony Chorus sang with very noticeable vibrato – especially the soprano section — which made them sound unpolished, unrefined, wobbly, without perfect intonation and I was unable to listen to it, frankly. It was as if Levine wanted an Opera Chorus rather than a Symphony Chorus, even though the Brahms is not opera. They didn’t sound like that in their recorded performance of the same work under Solti.
A bit of history, which some might find interesting: When the TFC was founded, they replaced Lorna Cook de Varon’s — who’s still alive, by the way — New England Conservatory Chorus in PBS broadcasts from Symphony Hall in Boston. At least at that time, to my not-fully-trained “choral ear” the TFC and NEC Chorus sounded pretty much the same in their holiday performance broadcasts. I remember watching their (I think it was called) “Christmas at Pops” with the Boston Pops Orchestra on PBS. The iconic announcer at that time, William Pierce, said, “This is a performance by the Boston Symphony Or-ches-tra, Seiji Ozawa conducting. Also assisting tonight is the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, director. The Chorus is already on stage.” I remember asking my television: Well I’ve never heard of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus although it’s a nice name, but what happened to the New England Conservatory Chorus who’s usually there? As it turned out, they had made their final appearance at the last PBS broadcast and had been replaced by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. I wonder how Lorna Cook de Varon felt about that? She and her New England Conservatory Chorus (which was later “retired”) had been kicked back to the Conservatory about a block away from Symphony Hall.
Awhile back, someone wrote me to defend the TFC and their noticeable vibrato. He said:
“If the BSO hired John Burton to create a straight tone singing choir they are in big, big trouble. That’s just not how American singers are trained to sing. Plus it’s painful!! And it damages the voice.”
More rubbish from the Vibratobots! The Vibratobots with their agenda try to lead one to believe that presumably anyone who sings with vibrato will be free of vocal problems. Of course this is not true. Because what genre of music does one hear heavy-vibrato used? It’s used in the opera genre where it’s common place: How do some opera singers’ damage their voices after only a few years of singing?
Frankly, I think the TFC would be delighted if they could sound like Cappella Amsterdam — they sing with a straight tone — in the video below of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
The guy who wrote me doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about even though he tried to come off as an omnipotent authority, which is so often the case.
To begin with and apparently he doesn’t know this, but there’s not one way that US singers are trained to sing. There wasn’t one way that voice students were trained in the Voice Department in the Conservatory of Music where I trained and that’s why the politics within the Voice Department were so ugly with “I’m singing correctly and she is not.” (Roll eyes). Ugh. Some students were trained to sing with a dark tone/open throat (think: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Robert Shaw or Chicago Symphony Chorus under Chorus Director Margaret Hillis and Conductor Solti). Others were taught to sing with a very bright, forward tone which is the “sound” I’ve heard mostly from British Choruses. The politics surrounding both were intense. It depends upon where one trains and with whom. Again, there is not one particular way that US singers are trained, any more than there is one way that pianists are trained (such as The Russian School, for example). There are different schools of thought on training within instrumental categories. With vocal training, even the training of breath support can vary between instructors. Having studied with two different voice professors at the Conservatory where I trained, they each had a different technique for breath support. I never did quite master the second approach I have to say. I preferred and still use what I was taught by my first voice professor. The works best for me. And I suspect that in the (what I call) Vibrato Capital of Boston, all singers are not trained the same way there either. Is everyone trained exactly the same way at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) and at Boston University’s School of Music (which is a Conservatory environment)? I suspect not. That’s not the case anywhere else so why would it be the case in Boston? Also, at the Conservatory of Music where I studied, from what I remember nearly all of the students sang without any noticeable vibrato or what’s known as a straight tone, including the student who sang the lead role in the Opera Department’s production of Puccini’s Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica). She had no noticeable vibrato at all in her voice. She sounded like a choirboy/boy chorister. The Conservatory Concert Choir, which I had the honour of serving as piano accompanist for in my senior year, sang with a straight-tone (no noticeable vibrato). Some of the most renowned choirs within the Anglican Communion as well as Orchestra Choruses (Stephen Jackson’s BBC Symphony Chorus, for example) sing with a straight tone. So this nonsense about “it’s painful and damages the voice” is precisely the divisive and harmful politics I encountered at the Conservatoryed. I got so sick of it. The childishness and immaturity of whose training is “correct” and who is singing “properly” and everybody else in this Conservatory is wrong was example of juvenile politics. Can’t stand it! Sick of it! Stop it! It reminds me of the brainwashed “Democratic” and Republican Party Cults partisan basura where their brainwashed thinking is: “my pro-war corporate party is better than your pro-war corporate party.” Hardly! They’re both garbage.
Although one thing does seem to be consistent with female singers and or choristers in Boston and that is they’re trained to sing with very noticeable annoying vibrato. So they don’t make good choristers because one cannot have the perfect blending of voices with wobbling and fluttering vibrato, as can be heard in the Concert Choir at the New England Conservatory of Music. I’m thinking of their Johannes Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Op. 45 performance. I couldn’t listen to most of that because of the lack of perfect intonation in the women’s section because of their wobbling vibrato, although the NEC Symphony Orchestra was superb on the parts I listened to. And the same is true for the Symphony Chorus at BU and of course in the TFC.
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].
Singing with their heavy, fluttery, quivering vibrato, I almost get the feeling that the female choristers in Boston (at BU and NEC) feel they must emulate the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Well, considering the current “amateurish” level of the TFC which James Burton is working hard to correct, why on Earth would anyone try to emulate Tanglewood? And I specified female choristers because I haven’t heard any noticeable vibrato from the tenor and bass sections of any choral ensemble in Boston that I recall and I’m specifically thinking of the TFC, Boston University’s Symphony Chorus and the New England Conservatory Concert Choir. It’s always the women’s section — the soprano and alto sections — for some peculiar reason that feel they must sound unpolished, unrefined, rough-sounding, fluttery and wobbly and even nervous-sounding, as if they think what they’re singing is opera. One gets the impression that the women (sopranos/altos) are trained very differently than the men (tenors/basses) in these choral ensembles. Why would that be? A symphonic choral work is not opera nor should it sound like opera with god-awful fluttering and wobbling vibrato, which again, prevents the perfect intonation of voices within the soprano and alto sections. This cannot be over-stressed, and I’m deliberately dwelling on this and repeating certain topics in this article because we have so many thick and dense people out there these days. The tenor and bass sections have perfect intonation because they’re not singing with any noticeable vibrato. Why the inconsistency between the women’s and men’s sections in these ensembles (BU, NEC and TFC)? All the Orchestra Choruses I had the privilege of singing with had consistency across all sections: No noticeable vibrato in the soprano, alto, tenor or bass sections. Hillis and Shaw had consistency across SATB sections, as did Norman Scribner (Choral Arts Society of Washington) and Dr Paul Traver (University of Maryland Chorus).
What is wrong with some of these choral directors today where they like or allow the women to sound differently than the men? They only like perfect intonation in the men’s section of the Chorus? That seems to be the case. They like the women’s section to sound unpolished, unrefined and even nervous and fluttery? Where on Earth did these choral directors train who have such questionable standards when it comes to the perfect intonation of voices in a well-trained Chorus?
Mi amigo/My friend asked me if the Tanglewood Festival Chorus had ever performed Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. I laughed and said, “Well not one that I would want to hear. I don’t think I could sit through that in their current state because I don’t think their soprano section could handle the Missa Solemnis. They had enough trouble with two or three high notes at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth, so I can’t imagine that they could possibly get through the Missa Solemnis where the soprano section is often stuck up in the stratosphere at the very high end of their vocal register. Interestingly, they did attempt it back in 2012:
“Still, there were many moments in Friday’s performance that felt like three ensembles (the soloists, chorus, and orchestra) in search of a piece, each with their own distinctive idea about what it should be, rather than a single musical entity collectively exploring Beethoven’s most deeply felt statement on religious faith. If, in its best performances, this sprawling, Delphic score adds up to more than the sum of its parts, Friday’s reading—despite the best intentions of the performers and the wishes of the audience—was not one of those occasions, marred by too many basic ensemble problems, let alone interpretive shortcomings …. the TFC performed with great strength and some fine diction (especially in the Gloria). As the evening wore on, there was some fatigue-related shrillness in the ensemble’s upper range, though, to be fair, they handled their challenging part as well as anybody I’ve heard live or on record, and they consistently gained strength heading into the score’s climactic sections. Still, there were several glaring intonation discrepancies between chorus and orchestra (and soloists, for that matter) that were very troubling, especially considering the high caliber of musicians engaged on stage.” [Source]
But after James Burton has had time to work wonders and accomplished his goal and has his new Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I think a Missa Solemnis by his TFC would be splendid and glorious. But as of this writing, no gracias. No thanks. I know I couldn’t take that. The tenors and basses might be okay, short of cracking tenor voices as I said earlier that I heard in one of their performances (Beethoven’s Ninth). But the cackling, shrill and wobbling sopranos and wobbling altos? No, I can’t take them. I’d have to click off.
If one likes to hear unmusical, god-awful wobbling, fluttering, screaming vibrato where one can’t even tell what pitch the person is trying to sing — and again in a Chorus vibrato prevents the perfect intonation of voices in a choral section — then listen to that garbage. To my ear it’s not music. It’s noise. I personally can only listen to a Chorus singing with a straight-tone or no noticeable vibrato. I have clicked off many choral performances because I couldn’t stand to hear that wobbling quivering vibrato; that unrefined and unpolished rough sound particularly in the soprano and alto sections. It’s damn annoying. Who, with a trained ear for music likes that god-awful sound? It sounds horrid. It sounds dreadful. Can’t stand it.
The quote immediately below is from this article:
“What kind of sound Burton wants to re-establish remains a mystery to most. And many are reluctant to guess for two reasons: either the singers have passed his audition and need to establish a new working relationship with Burton, or they haven’t been auditioned yet and don’t want to poison the well.”
And to Mr Omnipotent/the Vibratobot/Tanglewoodbot who wrote me: Your bubble will certainly be burst when and if James Burton has his new and improved Tanglewood Festival Chorus sounding like a large Cambridge Singers — that you referenced in your comment but said that the TFC should not sound like the Cambridge Singers — ensemble. Then what will you do? What will you do if he turns the TFC into a larger Cappella Amsterdam, for example? Will you then whinge about James Burton? I suspect Burton won’t care what you think, just as he wouldn’t care what I think.
Listen to Cappella Amsterdam in the performance below. They are a superb Orchestra Chorus in the Nederlands:
Why shouldn’t the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sound like this superb Chorus in this performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in D?
They sing with a lovely straight tone, no noticeable vibrato from any section (SATB). They’re not as large as the TFC, but even if they were in this context the size of the Chorus is irrelevant. Why wouldn’t one want the TFC to sound like a larger Cappella Amsterdam? They are a superb Orchestra Chorus. Yet the Vibratobot who wrote me can’t conceive of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sounding like Cappella Amsterdam, although again, he mentioned the Cambridge Singers. His comment seems to have some ugly US nationalism attached to it in that in his mind choral ensembles in los Estados Unidos/the US are somehow superior to the choral ensembles of the EU, which is of course more rubbish!
Nearly all of the Symphonic Choruses that I’ve heard in the EU sing with a straight tone (no noticeable vibrato). So don’t play your Vibratobot Card with me and try to pass off your fear-mongering drama, lies and rubbish about the voice being ruined and how it’s painful. My voice was never ruined or in pain over the years I sang in Orchestra Choruses with a straight-tone (no noticeable vibrato). I heard no chorister in the Orchestra Choruses I sang with say, “You know, my voice is in such pain and agony and is being ruined by singing with this straight tone that we’re required to sing with in this Chorus.” My voice is fine today and I sang in choral ensembles with a straight tone for over twenty years. If one’s voice is messed up or damaged, then I would suggest that one has other technical vocal problems unrelated to singing with a straight-tone that need to be looked at. You’re just using “a straight tone” as the easy excuse. In my voice training classes with my professors, neither tried to get me to sing with vibrato. In fact, I don’t even remember vibrato being talked about by either professor. So go spew your pro-vibrato rubbish to somebody who doesn’t know any better. But this was the same divisive mindset that I heard in the Voice Department where I studied between the two “camps” or schools of thought about voice training which each school say they were singing correctly and the other was wrong and “ruining the voices of her/his students.” In the end, nobody had their voices ruined over the four years I trained at the Conservatory to get my degree. Nor in the years that I sang afterwards with a straight tone in Orchestra Choruses in major concert halls. Can any other profession say that?
Adding to what Karyn, the vocal instructor, said: With a well-trained Chorus, each section of the Chorus (meaning soprano, alto, tenor and bass) is supposed to sound like one voice, which can only be achieved by singing with a straight tone. Singing with vibrato prevents the perfect blending of voices as Karyn explained in the paragraph above. One should not hear individual voices in a well-trained Chorus.1 So for example, if there are 20 sopranos in the Chorus, one should not hear 20 different voices. That’s very amateurish and it’s a sign that the Chorus Director hasn’t a clue what s/he is doing. Instead, one should hear 20 perfectly blended voices sounding like one person is singing, creating one pure sound as if it’s only one soprano voice singing. Not 20.
Mi amigo/My friend has said to me on occasion when watching symphonic choral performances, “That soprano has a lovely voice.” I asked him: What soprano are you talking about? He said, “That soprano singing.” I said: That’s not one soprano singing; that’s the entire soprano section you’re hearing and their voices are so perfectly blended together/trained that they sound like one voice, which is what you thought they were! And that’s how they should sound. He was stunned/amazed that the soprano section sounded so perfectly like one voice singing. And that’s how his ear began to be trained for listening to choral music and the best trained Choruses. It’s just like the string sections in a well-trained orchestra. Even though there are many violins in the orchestra, they sound like one large/thick-sounding violin when they all play perfectly blended together (such as my favourite: hr-Sinfonieorchester/the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and their beautiful string set. Absolutely gorgeous playing). The same for the cellos and basses. One does not hear the sound of each violin, or each cello or each bass.
Also, when one sings with a straight tone (no noticeable vibrato), there’s no doubt over which pitch one is singing, assuming one is on the correct pitch/note to begin with. However, the same cannot at all be said about excessive vibrato and screaming opera divas where that’s often a case of (what sounds like): “Guess what pitch I’m singing?” as the screaming diva’s voice quivers, flutters and wobbles back and forth between or in between (meaning s/he is sharp or flat) two pitches/notes.
The fact is: Vibrato is often used to cover up pitch problems and bad vocal technique.
As for what “sound” James Burton wants for the “new” Tanglewood Festival Chorus:
What’s wrong with having a straight-tone TFC? Absolutely nothing. Where is it written that an Orchestra Chorus is supposed to sound more like a heavy-vibrato Opera Chorus? Perhaps the “sound” he wants is more like the renowned Hallé Choir in Manchester in the UK, where he was Music Director.
I think it was in an interview wherein Margaret Hillis said that a Chorus or her CSO Chorus does not have a “sound.” I disagreed with that because of course her Chicago Symphony Chorus had a “sound.” She just didn’t want to admit it. It was a “sound” that they were very well-known for. And not everyone liked their “sound” either as a guy in the Anglican parish where I was Organist/Choirmaster at the time let me know he didn’t like the Chicago Symphony Chorus when I mentioned them. Under Hillis/Solti, Chicago sang with a very dark, rich, warm, open-throat sound. The same was true for Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Neither sang with any noticeable vibrato. But I think what Hillis was really trying to say was that the “sound” of a Chorus can change depending upon the piece they’re singing. Each Chorus has its own “sound,” which can be why one Chorus is chosen for a performance over another Chorus if an Orchestra does not have its own Chorus as is the case with the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center. In that case, they invite either the Choral Arts Society of Washington, The Washington Chorus or the University of Maryland Concert Choir to perform with them on the rare occasion that the NSO perform a major symphonic choral work.
These days they usually perform a work from the “Classical Pops” list that I call “the Big Three:” It’s either Beethoven’s Ninth, Orff’s Carmina Burana or that warhorse Händel’s Messiah. Yes, we’re down to those three on the “Classical Pops” list, I’m sorry to say.
Quoting from one of the articles I’m linking to:
“Several singers acknowledged that the chorus had lost some of its luster in recent years, as Oliver, who died last April, suffered declining health in advance of his 2015 retirement — a period of slow diminishment followed by a nearly two-year search for a successor …. The ensemble’s slide has not gone unnoticed. Writing in 2016, Globe critic Jeremy Eichler noted that while the chorus was “still capable of delighting,” it also exhibited “an unevenness” and “more than a few patchy moments …. In a statement this week, the BSO acknowledged the chorus has struggled in recent years. “As is usual during a period of transition — no matter how hard people work to avoid it — there will be slippage in the quality of standard that the group has striven to maintain,” the symphony’s statement read in part. “On some level, this was the case with the TFC.”
Did you catch this part?:
“The ensemble’s slide has not gone unnoticed. Writing in 2016, Globe critic Jeremy Eichler noted that while the chorus was “still capable of delighting,” it also exhibited “an unevenness” and “more than a few patchy moments.”
Well that’s being diplomatic and polite, isn’t it? The problems go much deeper than that shallow stuff.
So it’s not just me who feels that the TFC needs re-vamping essentially.
I found this article from Classic FM in the UK (BBC Radio 3’s competition) interesting: She said:
“Back in the day, Catherine explains (we’re talking pre-16th century), nobody needed to sing ‘louder than lovely’. People sang outdoors, in church or at home, which could all be done at the same pitch as speaking.”
Let’s stop right there. Is she aware that she just said that operatic singing is not lovely because it’s singing “louder than lovely?” She seems completely unaware that orchestras have the ability to accompany and play extremely quietly so there is no need for an opera screamer/diva to scream over the orchestra.
She continues: “There were no opera houses, concert halls, or orchestras – and as a result, singers didn’t need to produce a very loud noise.”
Noise? Noise? Is she aware that she used the word “noise?” Well it’s about time that someone other than myself finally told it like it is. It is indeed noise. It certainly doesn’t sound like music.
She says that vibrato is used to help the voice carry. Oh it “carries” all right. It “carries” like a jet engine, but is that a good thing? The voice doesn’t need to “carry” or scream over an orchestra because, again, orchestras are not stupid. They have the ability to accompany any artist at the quietest levels. I’ve heard them do so. Well-trained, professional Orchestras — such as hr-Sinfonieorchester/the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra (one of my favourites) — can play extremely quietly. And these days with the technology we have, opera screamers can be wired with a microphone allowing them to sing at a more speech-level voice to “carry” their voice. There’s absolutely no need for screaming over the Orchestra as has become tradition, unfortunately.
She also says, “Technically speaking, vibrato alters the pitch and frequency at which you sing, but it should be so tiny and so fast that you don’t notice it’s happening.”
And that is the point, isn’t it? Today vibrato is not “so tiny” and one does indeed notice it, unless one is absolutely deaf. I’ve seen concert-goers sitting in the front row in the Orchestra section and when the opera diva rears back and begins to scream, the faces of the audience show some frowns as if they’re thinking: “It’s a bit strong, don’t you think? Do you really need to scream at us? I didn’t bring ear plugs because I didn’t think they would be needed in a concert hall. This is supposed to be beautiful music I came to hear, not screaming noise.”
Considering all that, one wonders if opera is even music? Well the orchestral part is music, but usually not the vocal parts because screaming is not music. Screaming is noise. Or is it just part of the noise that fills the air these days, like jet engines and sirens on passing emergency vehicles, or rockets being blasted off to the moon for that matter? I don’t find wobbling, quivering, and screaming voices the least bit musical, artistic or the least bit listenable. I find all that the signs of an amateur, no matter where they trained.
This is certainly beautiful music in the video below. There’s not a finer example of lovely singing with a straight tone (no noticeable vibrato) than in this performance from Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704 of Monteverdi’s Sancta Maria Ora Pro Nobis. Go to 19.22 in the video, por favor/please. Also, even if you have no interest in this beautiful music, you might still be interested in seeing this gorgeous Strausburger Dom (Strausburger Cathedral) in Austria. It’s a Roman Catholic Cathedral. It’s unlike any cathedral I’ve seen before and I’ve seen quite a few cathedrals of the Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran traditions:
Reminder: Go to 19.22 in the video, por favor/please.
Now finally, I want to say this to some idiots in Boston: the BSO’s Official Chorus is not called the Boston Symphony Chorus which is what some of you type to get to my site. The TFC has been around for decades and you still don’t know that they’re called the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, named after the Tanglewood Music Festival for which they were formed in the early 1970s? No attention to detail in your world? You don’t see the name “Tanglewood Festival Chorus” on BSO programmes? Also, hopefully James Burton will get rid of that all-white get up that the TFC has been wearing (I think they wear that at Tanglewood; it could be confused with a Klan rally) and abandon that stale “from memory” routine and go back to using scores so that the Chorus doesn’t look like a bank of lobotomised robots staring straight ahead mindlessly regurgitating what’s been drilled into them on cue. When choristers use their scores, they look actively mentally engaged between their score and the conductor and one can indeed see their faces despite what John Oliver said to the contrary. There’s no reason they shouldn’t use their scores. It doesn’t make them look superior to any other Chorus, and since the Tanglewood Festival Chorus has never won a Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance, this singing “from memory” shtick hasn’t made them a better Chorus, especially considering the dismal state they’re in now. But I’m sure some Tanglewoodbot will rush to defend the Chorus and their “from memory” gimmick/routine. “Oh but conductors love the memorised TFC,” they’ll tell me. Oh I’m sure some narcissistic conductors love the attention of constantly be starred at by a large group of people. All the choral ensembles I sang with fortunately used scores. We didn’t try to put on airs of superiority by “singing from memory” to try to “wow” the audience. By the way, I also feel that all musicians — including pianists — should use their scores, if they want. With pianists, it gives a more chamber music feel to performances. (For those who don’t know, traditionally, it’s considered acceptable for pianists to use their scores in chamber music settings).
Here’s another quote from that article:
Quote: Rehearsals with James Burton now feel like dinner with the family, where the parents are getting divorced and are just staying together for the kids,” Owades says. “We used to talk to the conductor in rehearsal breaks, and laugh at his jokes. No more. There are fissures in the chorus, and it’s new and scary for us. End Quote.
That sounds more like the way serious rehearsals went under Margaret Hillis and the Grammy Award-winning Chicago Symphony Chorus under Solti. I believe it was Vance George, former Chorus Director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, who described rehearsals with Ms Hillis as “no-nonsense, serious” or words to that effect. There was no joking around at any time.
It may take awhile — perhaps a couple of years for James Burton to get things just the way he wants them — but I look forward to hearing the new “Burton” Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which may look like a much younger Chorus than the previous TFC, and with a much higher level of musicianship and choral excellence and artistry.
What will the TFC look like — their size I mean — for their 2018 “Holiday Pops” performances with the Boston Pops Orchestra from Symphony Hall, considering the TFC has lost approximately one-third of the Chorus?
A sign of the times? I’ve noticed a pattern that major symphony orchestras in the US are programming less symphonic choral works — less compared to the days when I was in Orchestra Choruses — and this is true even when an Orchestra has its own Chorus. Other than their many holiday performances with the Boston Pops Orchestra in Symphony Hall where it looks like they use a Chorus of only approximately 60 voices (are people tired of doing that silly holiday stuff? I know I would be), for the 2018-2019 season, the TFC only have five performances with the BSO, and fortunately Messiah is not one of them. They performed JS Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium, BWV 248/Christmas Oratorio instead. A much better choice. For the 2018-2019 season, the Chicago Symphony Chorus only has four performances with the CSO where the full-Chorus is performing. The Men of the CSO Chorus have an engagement (Shostakovich/Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar) with the CSO. The Women of the CSO Chorus (Mahler/Symphony No. 3) also have an engagement with the CSO. In the Kennedy Center Concert Hall where the National Symphony Orchestra does not have its own Symphony Chorus by choice, when I researched them months ago, as memory serves the Choral Arts Society of Washington and The Washington Chorus each have only one engagement with the NSO. When I was in the Choral Arts Society we had multiple engagements with the NSO throughout the season, as did the University of Maryland Chorus and the Oratorio Society of Washington (now known as The Washington Chorus). That’s not the case today. Also for the 2018-2019 season, the University of Maryland Concert Choir has two engagements with the NSO, including Händel’s Messiah. Here in San Francisco, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus isn’t doing much better than anybody else, engagement wise. They’re more on par with the Chicago Symphony Chorus. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Full Chorus) has five engagements with the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall, and the Women of the SFS Chorus have one separate engagement. Of course the Symphony Chorus is doing the perfunctory Beethoven’s Ninth and Händel’s Messiah. Their Messiah performance was probably a Chamber Chorus.
Mi amigo/My friend asked me: Do you think there will be a time in the not-so-distant future that major symphony orchestras will “retire” their Symphony Chorus because of the public’s lack of interest in symphony choral music? It wouldn’t surprise me if they did. At the rate things are going with repertoire selection, they really only need to invite a guest Chorus for the perfunctory and traditional Händel’s Messiah performance(s) or for a Beethoven’s Ninth. In major US cities, it wouldn’t be difficult to find an excellent Chorus to perform those works with the major symphony Orchestra in the City. Years ago, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra disband their Symphony Chorus — I read that their Chorus wasn’t up to the quality level of choral excellence that they expected of them — and after that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra invited the superb University of Maryland Chorus or the Baltimore Choral Arts Society to perform with them whenever they performed a symphonic choral work. I don’t mean to give orchestras any ideas about disbanding/”retiring” their Chorus, but are orchestral management saying these days, “Well, we have to give the Chorus something to do, they can’t just be sitting around all season with nothing to work on with no engagements with the Orchestra, so select a few works for them for the season?” How long before orchestral management say, “Maybe we don’t really need our own Chorus. Just invite a good one when we do need one? It will save some dinero/money. No Chorus Director to pay. And in the case of the Chicago Symphony Chorus (which is fully-paid) and San Francisco Symphony Chorus (20% of the choristers are paid), all other Orchestra Choruses are not paid, even though they all should be fully-paid just like the orchestral musicians. Not paying the choristers most unfortunately relegates them to Second Class Musician status. And if I haven’t said it already, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is an all-volunteer/nonpaid Chorus.
But I have to say I’m comforted to know — sarcasm intended — that major symphony orchestras have so dumbed-down to cater to the stupid-is-in US sheeple that they are now performing repertoire such as: “La La Land,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Music for Families – SUPERHEROES AND VILLIANS,” film series such as “Mary Poppins” and “Jurassic Park,” Gardel “Tango from Scent of a Woman,” Barry “Main Title from Out of Africa,” John Williams “Theme from Schindler’s List,” Ennio Morricone “Love Theme from Cinema Paradiso” and other stuff. And what were they doing at Wolf Trap awhile back? Promoting gun violence: National Symphony Orchestra (US) promoting gun violence. Such a different time here in the Century of Insanity.
UPDATE: There’s an update about the Tanglewood Festival Chorus at this link. There’s a link regarding the TFC at the top of that page. Chau.—el barrio rosa
1 I watched part of a video featuring choral conductor Ann Howard Jones. She worked with Robert Shaw in Atlanta. If memory serves, she was Assistant Chorus Director for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Shaw. She left Atlanta and went to Boston University’s School of Music where she conducted their Symphony Chorus. When Shaw died, Norman McKenzie became ASOC Director of Choruses. I had thought that Dra Jones was going to take over after Shaw’s death, but perhaps Shaw preferred Norman instead? I watched the beginning of a video of Dra Jones on YT. She was the guest at Eastman School of Music. I have no idea why she said this but near the beginning of the video she said that Robert Shaw wanted to hear individual voices in his Chorus. That is rubbish. That is not true at all, and why would she say that? Because she likes hearing individual voices? This woman is engaging in revisionist history of what Robert Shaw believed. If she likes hearing individual voices, don’t use Shaw — whose not around to defend himself — to support your position of wanting to hear individual voices. Again, I have no idea why Dra Jones would say that when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Shaw sang with no noticeable vibrato (a straight tone) and one could not hear individual voices. Period. One is not supposed to hear individual voices in a Chorus when they are singing with perfect intonation, as I have said repeatedly in this article.
Then, I watched a Carnegie Hall choral workshop with Shaw and Dra Jones was sitting in the Chorus, and he specifically said during rehearsal to his workshop Chorus that after you master diction, intonation (the perfect blending of voices), and then he mentioned other requirements needed for choral excellence, you work on such and such. Shaw specifically used the word intonation. Dra Jones’s dishonest remark is in contradiction to Shaw’s beliefs. But I have to say it does explain why the soprano and alto sections of her Boston University Symphony Chorus sang with wobbling, fluttery vibrato. Yes, one could almost hear every single voice wobbling, fluttering and quivering. By contrast, the tenors and basses sang with a very polished sound; they had perfect intonation. Although, to their credit, the sopranos and altos mostly sang with a straight tone in their Rachmaninov The Bells performance. But that was not the case in Mendelssohn’s Elias/Elijah. Dra Jones allowed the soprano and alto sections to sound nervous and sing with fluttery, wobbly and quivering vibrato especially in the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy is god the Lord). I’ve never heard that sung that way. It was damn annoying. I’ve only heard that sung with a straight tone, no noticeable vibrato. It was hard for me to listen to. The voices of the women’s section sounded very unrefined and unpolished. No pure tone. One wonders what other revisionist history Dra Jones engages in when she talks about Robert Shaw?
But being dishonest and revisionist history are most assuredly “in” these days so perhaps that explains it. We saw examples of this disgusting revisionist history for the canonisation of John McCain and Bush I when they were granted sainthood status following their deaths. In real life, these war-hawk politicians were nothing like they were made out to be following their deaths. We’ve also seen this pattern of revisionist history with that “LGBT” nonsense that one sees plastered all over the internet which wrongly implies that lesbians led the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement. They did not. Gay guys and trans individuals led the movement. But our society has seen many examples of revisionist history throughout its past. Revisionist history is often used to sanitise people and events, rather than telling it like it is about them. In some cases it takes decades or a generation for the real history to be revealed, correcting history books and their syrupy sweet lies about past historical events.
References and Related: