Yes, you can turn off vocal vibrato. Real musicians do it all the time.

Hola a todos.  This topic came to mind recently when mi amigo/my friend and I were enjoying this performance below from Amsterdam, although the performers are from the Czech Republic.  I only say that because some ignorant person in the comments of one of their videos engaged in Danish nationalism and referred to the “Danish” performers.  None of them are Danish. Again, they’re from the Czech Republic.

According to some self-appointed experts/classical music armchair critics and their comments in U-toob videos, a vocal soloist and or chorister cannot turn off their (noticeable) vibrato.  That is absolutely not correct.  Well-trained, real musicians, artists can turn off their noticeable vibrato at any time, and they do so.  The soprano soloist, Alena Hellerová, in this performance below is an example of that.  As soloist, she uses a tad too much vibrato in her solo work for my preference.  But mi amigo/my friend had no problem with her vibrato and he usually can’t stand vocal vibrato.  He said, “She sings beautifully (yes she does) because she’s not screaming and she doesn’t sound shrill, as is too often the case with soprano soloists-screamers.  But when the soprano soloist in this performance steps back into the Chorus she — as they all did — sang with a beautiful straight-tone (no noticeable vibrato) which gave us the perfect blending of voices in all choral sections (SATB).  Listen to the soprano section at 47.20 into the video (which the soprano soloist’s voice is part of) and you will hear the entire section singing very quietly and perfectly on pitch with a lovely, pure, straight tone.   One cannot hear the soprano soloist’s “solo” voice at all because in the Chorus she uses her chorister voice and not her soloist voice.  That’s something that many people fail to understand.  Listening to the soprano section, it sounds like only one soprano is singing but it’s the entire soprano section because they are singing with what’s known as perfect intonation:  the perfect blending of voices.  So this is an example of a real musician, a genuine artist turning their (noticeable) vibrato on and off.  And anyone who tells you that well-trained vocalists can’t turn their noticeable vibrato off is ill-informed and musically-ignorant, and unfortunately, there is no shortage of musical ignorance going around these days.  They don’t know what they’re talking about but will likely try to come off as a self-appointed authority.  One wonders where they trained?  With the classical music armchair critics, I don’t think they trained anywhere.  It’s just easier to “think you know everything” without going through the decades and expense of training, discipline, dedication to one’s instrument and the talent required for being a fine musician.  No, it’s easier to just sit back and pretend to be an “expert” and make judgments about other people’s performances.

Another example:  On occasion, I’ve heard the soloists with William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants join the LAF Chorus for an encore and the soloists turned off their noticeable vibrato and sang with a straight tone in the Chorus, as well-trained soloists know to do.

You can hear the soprano soloist in the video below.  Go to 13.20 into the video and her solo begins shortly after that. 

The composer, Zelenka, loved choral fugues and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the ones he wrote.  Choral fugues are used in places throughout this Missa/Mass performed in Amsterdam by the stellar Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704.  They always give perfect performances from the ones I’ve watched and enjoyed.  The Orchestra has their own Chorus in this instance.  Both are superb and they look like they enjoy themselves. The performance is conducted by Václav Luks — he is certainly not into being worshipped; he seems so humble and modest (the sign of a genuine artist) — and I really enjoy watching his conducting.  In this performance, all the soloists are excellent, something I rarely ever say.  I usually don’t like vocal soloists because they resort to screaming rather than singing beautifully.  These soloists all sing beautifully:

Zelenka: Missa Omnium Sanctorum, ZWV 21

Solisten:
Alena Hellerová , sopraan
Kamila Mazalová, alt
Václav Cížek, tenor
Tomáš Král, bas
Collegium Vocale 1704

This also came to mind while writing this article. I wasn’t in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus at the time, but I read this somewhere online. I think it was an interview with Vance George, the SFS Chorus Director (he’s a really nice guy): It was his birthday and the Chorus decided to surprise him with some birthday wishes. When he arrived in the rehearsal hall, the Symphony Chorus began this schmaltzy (tacky?) rendition of “Happy Birthday” complete with heavy-vibrato. When they were done, Vance said something to the effect, “Well thank you very much, but we won’t be needing that vibrato again!” They all laughed. This confirms my point that choristers can indeed turn vibrato off and one, and Vance (like myself) wanted that annoying vibrato OFF. He wanted his Chorus to sing with perfect intonation — which we did when I was in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus under him — which cannot be achieved when anyone in the Chorus sings with noticeable vibrato.

I remember when some guy wrote me after I wrote my first article about the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC). He implied, but didn’t directly say, that he had sung with or was a chorister with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus. He asked me, “What’s wrong with vibrato?” This was during the time when the TFC was in decline and no longer singing with perfect intonation. One wonders how he happened to be accepted into the TFC — assuming he ever sang with them to begin with! — to not know what’s wrong with noticeable vibrato in an Orchestra Chorus, or in any Chorus for that matter? Where did he train — assuming he did — to not have learned that perfect intonation is one of the foundations of choral excellence? Although these days, some podunk Chorus Directors are allowing their Chorus to sing any old way they want. In reality, these Chorus Directors and Choirmasters are not doing their job.

Reminds me of reading comments from the classical music armchair critics under symphonic choral performance on U-toob where the armchair critics were gushing over the performance. I click on it and listen to the Chorus. The Chorus was not singing with perfect intonation. Instead they sounded like an Opera Chorus with heavy wobbling vibrato singing music that is not opera. Not singing with perfect intonation what-so-ever. Have they ever heard the term perfect intonation? Click off. The armchair critics don’t seem to know anything about perfect intonation. Neither do some Choruses upon reflection. The classical music armchair critics are mostly about worshipping celebrity conductors and celebrity vocal screamers from the opera genre. They’re all about name-dropping. I think it’s their way of trying to pump themselves up to show that they supposedly know something about music as a self-appointed authority. Any fool can drop the name of a celebrity. I prefer musicians who are not celebrities frankly. I prefer the lesser-known musicians such as in this performance of the Zelenka.

I know it’s a different period of music, but why can’t the vocal soloists in Beethoven’s Ninth, for example, blend their voices beautifully as these soloists do? Why can’t they do that? Why do they always have to scream out their parts in the Ninth? It’s as if many (most?) vocal soloists were never taught how to blend their voices with other soloists. So the solo passages in the Ninth become a screaming match to see which vocal screamer and out-scream the others. Usually the soprano wins. Her voice can overpower everyone on the stage. These days, from experience, I have to by-pass the vocal soloist parts of Beethoven’s Ninth. But occasionally, I don’t fast-forward far enough in the video and still end up in the screaming passages and then I think to myself: Well, I see nothing has changed in that regard. There goes the soprano soloist wiping out everyone on stage. And how many lights did her obnoxious piercing voice blow out in the hall?

Now, you might want to watch/listen the performance above of Zelenka’s Missa Omnium Sanctorum. Chau.—el barrio rosa