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

8 comments on “What happened to the renowned University of Maryland Chorus?

  1. Jay

    I remember the years of the Maryland Handel Festival. The University of Maryland Chorus was the Resident or Official Chorus for that where they sang the original version oratorios of Handel in the order they were written accompanied by the Smithsonian Chamber Players and with excellent soloists, conducted by Paul Traver. Always looked forward to that.

  2. abby

    i’m one of the people who wrote you asking what happened to the chorus. thanks for this follow-up. lots of interesting information i must say.

  3. Ellen in Maryland

    So pleased you wrote this. As I wrote on your tribute article, my friend and I went to hear the Maryland Chorus every chance we got. Our church choir director always kept us informed about their engagements. He considered them the best around here and encouraged us to hear them as often as possible. Not thinking that our church choir would ever sound like them! :-) In rehearsals he would play recordings from Chicago (Hillis) and Atlanta (Shaw) and wanted us to hear live performances by Maryland. Like Wes in Arlington said, my friend and I were in awe of them too. They were so spectacular. Then when I came to your site and read that the University had ended them it was quite shocking for us. We never dreamed that would happen. We had wondered why they had disappeared from Kennedy Center engagmenets. We were talking about checking out the UMD Concert Choir. Would like to hear them. Thx.

  4. District Resident

    Ah, so that’s what happened to them. I remember them. I thought they were the best around here.

    Hadn’t heard that Baltimore ended their Symphony Chorus. I’m sure they loved that! “We won’t be needing you anymore. We’re going to ask the UMD Chorus to replace you.”

  5. Greg

    Wish I could have heard them. Sounds like they were really great. Our University Chorus never did anything like that. They only performed on campus every now and then and about twice a year with the University Orchestra. Not often that a University Chorus gets to perform with a major orchestra from Amsterdam in a major concert hall. Pretty impressive.

  6. David in Breuckelen

    The UMD Chorus stole the show the one time I saw them down in DC visiting friends who always went to hear them. It was the Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection. They gave a gorgeous performance.

    1. District Resident

      Same with their Verdi Requiem w/ NSO. Years later they sang Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. I really wanted to hear that but was out of town that week.

  7. Wes in Arlington - GLBTQ

    I graduated from the UMD (although not in music) but I didn’t know some of this…..very interesting. They were really in demand, especially for their Beethoven’s 9th. I knew some people who would say, “it has to be the Maryland Chorus for Beethoven’s 9th.” I heard one of their performances of the Missa Solemnis with Abbado. Maybe I was there the same night you were. I remember they brought tears to my eyes and put a lump in my throat the sound was so stunningly warm and beautiful. I was in awe of them during that. When Dr Traver came out and had them bow the audience erupted with a loud roar of unanimous approval and applause. That was thrilling too. Really appreciate you keeping their legacy alive as you do. On campus we were all extremely proud of them and what they were doing with the NSO and other orchestras. Guess I should make an attempt to hear the Concert Choir someday soon. Thank you again.

Fin. The End.