We’re down to The Big Three

Here’s an update on the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC)

Hola a todos. Yes, we’re down to The Big Three in lockstep. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this phenomenon or fad in the classical music world, with the exception being some years ago nearly all local pianists in San Francisco like a bunch of sheeple were locked into this fad of playing an entire programme of Chopin or some pieces by Frédéric on their programme. When I performed, I chose Sergei Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux instead which are rarely played by comparison and which the audience seemed to enjoy — how could you not?! — they’re such lovely pieces and quite difficult to play depending upon which one you’re playing. Well of course it’s difficult, it’s Rachmaninov! Did he write anything that’s “easy?” Not that I can think of. I think his Prelude in c♯ minor, Op. 3, No. 2 — which he came to hate because audiences requested he play it wherever he went — and which I “learned” in High School is considered more on the “easy” side, compared to his other piano works. But when that’s played well and the way it should be played with polish and refinement, it’s not “easy.” And as I’ve said before, after a regular diet of Rachmaninov (and or Scriabin), pretty much anything feels “easy” by comparison, and I’m too often bored by “easy.” I like more challenging pieces. And the pianist should make them (Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux) look effortless to play. I don’t know that I did that, hopefully I did. Someone else would have to tell me that. But the Rachmaninov was also such a change from the Frédéric Chopin rut. But I have noticed this symphonic choral phenomenon of The Big Three for some time. Chorus Director, Robert Shafer, in the District of Columbia (the capital City of the US and my former home City) confirmed it in an interview I read awhile back. Well he should know. Robert Shafer is the former Chorus Director of The Washington Chorus (TWC), one of the Orchestra Choruses in the District that performs in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra on occasion by invitation. TWC used to be called the Oratorio Society of Washington. Robert was also Artist-in-Residence at Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University, where he is now Professor Emeritus. Since 2007, he’s been Artistic Director of the City Choir of Washington. In the interview, he said we’re now down to three symphonic choral works that the public will support.

The Big Three are (you can probably guess the first one):

Händel’s Messiah
Yes, but of course. No surprise here. Me$$iah — US dollar signs intended because I think it’s a money-maker, and probably the only reason they do it every single year. Me$$iah is performed every holiday season on cue like clockwork. It’s rare that a choral ensemble or Orchestra Chorus programmes anything but that. One would get the strong impression that Händel only wrote one oratorio.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in d, (Choral), Op. 125
This is performed at the end of each season of the Tanglewood Music Festival, as an example. Conductor Marin Alsop said the Ninth is the most popular piece in the classical music repertoire. Well I know it’s up there, but I would have thought that the overplayed Johann Pachelbel Canon in D or the overplayed Ludwig Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 25 in a minor (WoO 59, Bia 515) which the sheeple know as “Für Elise,” — but musicologists think the correct title should be “Für Therese” — are more popular. Maybe Marin was referring specifically to orchestral music.

And then there’s:

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana
Everyone seems to be doing this as well.

That’s it. Rather pathetic isn’t it? I don’t mean that those pieces are pathetic but that we’re down to only those three pieces that the dumbed-down US sheeple will support. No attention span for anything other than those pieces that are familiar to them?

So, most Orchestra Choruses only need three vocal scores now to get through each season, and since they only have three works to (re)-prepare for the season, the Chorus can be available at-the-ready, if they’re not in a deep sleep from having little to nothing to rehearse during the season.

Unfortunately, it’s a sign of the times. With few exceptions, mostly gone are performances of oratorios — again other than ubiquitous and often perfunctory Händel’s Messiah — Bach cantatas and other time-honoured major symphonic choral works.

All I can say is that I just feel very fortunate that I came along during a time where I was able to be a chorister in major Orchestra Choruses where there was an abundance of symphonic choral works being performed, unlike today. Today is a very different time.

I’m going to go through some of the major orchestras and their choral ensembles in the non-United States of the hemisphere called America (or the Americas) and list what (little) they’re doing for the 2019-20 season.

Opera at The Symphony?

Along with a lot of fluff programming to try to bring in the dumbed-down sheeple, I’ve noticed that most major symphony orchestras in the US are also programming some opera repertoire for some odd reason, including “semi-staged.” Why are they doing opera? Are they trying to compete with the local opera company? That programming time could be better given to the increasingly-neglected symphonic choral works that I’m talking about. If people don’t want to hear symphonic choral works (featuring the human voice), why do orchestral management think people would want to hear opera (featuring the human voice)? I thought that if people really wanted to hear opera, that they would go to the Opera House. That’s usually the way it works, or used to. I didn’t know that the public was all hot for opera — and depending upon what article I read, opera is in decline — and especially the Symphony Hall audience that goes to hear symphonic works, not opera. Want to hear opera? Go across the street to the Opera House, or wherever it’s located.

One big problem with this overlapping of genres (symphonic music and opera) is that the musically-ignorant public become confused as to what they’re hearing, which also speaks to the lack of music education in our US public schools today. To get slightly political here but it’s completely related, there’s no shortage of dinero/money for concentration camps at the border between the US and México for the storing of migrants in the most appalling and subhuman of conditions to play to the orange bloviator’s hateful base as we approach the 2020 “election” in the non-United States. (I’m almost expecting Nancy “he’s not worth it” Pelosi to start campaigning for him as his complicit enabler and or ask that she be his running mate). There’s no shortage of dinero for that bottomless pit called the US Military Industrial Complex Killing Machine — the #1 “Legal” Terrorist organisation on the planet to be precise — The Pentagon is asking for a colossal $718 billion for its 2020 defence budget. That’s a $33 billion or roughly 5 percent increase over what the corporate parasites in the US Congress enacted for fiscal 2019. Yet curiously there’s no money (so they say) for music and arts education in our public schools, because such programmes are considered “fluff,” “frill,” and unnecessary. This speaks to a very septic and rotted system, in a country that likes to pump itself up as the so-called “greatest country.” So for example, when the public hears opera at “The Symphony” (as they call it) with screaming opera divas serving as vocal soloist(s) and when they hear two of The Big Three (Orff’s Carmina Burana or Beethoven’s Ninth), they mistake both of them for opera. Why? Because of the screaming opera diva soloists invited to perform the solo passages in both the Orff and the Beethoven. Because somehow, in the public’s mind, the Orff and Beethoven become opera repertoire merely because of the screaming, obnoxiously heavy-vibrato operatic soloists on the stage. Neither Orff’s Carmina Burana or Beethoven’s Ninth are opera. They are symphonic choral works — well, the Beethoven is mostly a symphonic work except for the Choral Finale — but the public doesn’t seem to know that. The public doesn’t seem to know that opera involves costuming and scenery which neither the Orff or Beethoven have. But one would not know that from reading the musically-illiterate comments on U-toob where some people call any symphonic choral work they hear “opera” because of the screamers from the opera genre invited in to scream their way through the solo vocal passages. Commenters often gush over the soloists-screamers and say nothing about the Orchestra and or Chorus who performed the majority of the work. (Related: Is Opera music?)

In the public’s mind, if it’s not opera, then it’s “a song.”

Speaking of musically-illiterates: In the public’s mind if a piece is not opera, the catch-all term for all other music they hear is “a song.” So Beethoven’s Ninth is “opera” to them because of the (usually) screaming vocal soloists in the Choral Finale. But a piano concerto is “a song” to them. For example, they refer to the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 in c as “a song.” Did they hear anyone singing in the Rachmaninov? No. Then it is not a song. A song has to be sung, (sing = song) usually by one voice or in a duet. Under a performance of a piano concerto, some musically-illiterate commenters write, “I love this song.” It’s not a “song.” Why not call it what it is: A piano concerto, and that’s part of the title of the piece: Piano Concerto in c minor. I feel I’m getting so remedial here, but there are so many thick and stupid people out there especially here in the non-United States, and some of them may show up here. In the Rachmaninov, the pianist is the soloist. S/he sings nothing in the piece. (Related: I’m looking for that song called Beethoven’s Ninth. I have seen some people in U-toob comments correct these people who refer to all pieces of music as “a song.” Rather than respond to the correction with maturity and appreciation as in “Oh I wasn’t aware of that, thank you for the musical education,” the response can usually be that of immature resentment that is so common in the US especially, or the typical cesspool that U-toob comments often turn into. Unfortunately the internet really shows us the dire, dismal, dysfunctional, nasty and septic state of our society.

Bored Choristers in Orchestra Choruses?

It must be a bit boring to be in an Orchestra Chorus these days — considering the high-caliber of chorister required to be in such an ensemble — and their having so few works to (re)prepare for the season. I suspect some choristers are asking, “This is all we’re doing this season? Certainly it won’t take us weeks or months to learn this piece or that piece or the other piece that we’re doing. We can already sight-read most of these.” I don’t know what it’s like today, but when I was in Orchestra Choruses, choristers of that required caliber could almost sight-read a piece and sound “performance-ready” (spot-checking for tricky diction places, of course, such as the release of final consonants). That’s the way it was when I was a chorister in the Choral Arts Society of Washington, as one example. Norman (Scribner), the Chorus Director, chose such fine choristers and the CASW Chorus was such splendid sight-readers and experienced, that our sight-reading of a piece sounded close to performance-ready. I remember my first season with them and the first rehearsal. Norman had us sight-read with the piano accompanist one of the major symphonic choral works we were about to prepare for our performances at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra. I believe it was Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten/The Seasons, which is a fun piece to perform and it has some wonderful choruses. As we were sight-reading, I remember that the sound I was hearing was amazing. It was that of choral excellence, and we were just sight-reading. We hadn’t even begun to work on the piece.

I think some Choruses “do their own thing” during the season meaning they have their own subscription series concerts in addition to what little they perform with the Orchestra, but I’m not sure how many do that. I know the CASW and TWC do that, but neither are the Official Chorus of the National Symphony Orchestra. I’m mainly talking about an Orchestra’s Official Chorus.

Well, the abundance of symphonic choral performances was when I lived in the District and then moved to San Francisco. And looking back on that era — which in hindsight was probably one of the best times in history; I lived in DC at an ideal time although I didn’t know it at the time — it was probably the height of symphonic choral performances because fortunately there was no shortage of symphonic choral works being performed by the Orchestra Choruses in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and also around the DC Metropolitan Area. Each Chorus had 2-4 or more engagements each season with the NSO or guest (inter)national orchestras in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. It was quite a good time for symphonic choral music.

Unfortunately today, it’s the opposite.

Take the 2019-20 season, the Choral Arts Society of Washington has one (that’s one) engagement with National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and that’s, can you guess? It’s one of The Big Three: They have three nights in a row of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The Washington Chorus only has two engagements with the NSO during the season. Can you guess what they’re doing? A clue: They’re doing two of The Big Three: They’re performing the ubiquitous Messiah, and Beethoven’s Ninth. While writing this, I was thinking to myself: Aren’t they the exact same “Big Three” pieces the NSO performed recently (since the 2017 season, I think) except with different Choruses? It looks like each Chorus just swapped repertoire with each other. This is not how it would works, but in my mind I can see the choristers from each Chorus gathering in a large room as a group and saying to one another: “Here, you take the Beethoven and Messiah scores and we’ll take the Orff. Then, we’ll see you in the next season and we’ll take the Beethoven back and give you the Orff.” That’s about the extent of it when you’re down to “The Big Three.” The two Choruses just swapping scores for whichever scores they need for that particular season. In reality, each chorister buys his/her own scores through the choral organisation guaranteeing they’re all using the same edition (such as Editions Peters, Editions Henle or Editions Bärenreiter-Verlag, for example). But they are the same pieces they performed over the past couple seasons with the choral ensembles switched around. The Choral Arts Society performed the Beethoven last time. This time they’re doing the Orff, and The Washington Chorus is performing what the Choral Arts Society performed in a past season (the Beethoven). For slight variety, the NSO management or conductor might stick in a Rossini Stabat Mater as they did last season, but choristers would have to get that score from the University of Maryland School of Music because the all-student University of Maryland Concert Choir performed that with the NSO at both Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. The UMD Concert Choir replaced the now-retired and renowned University of Maryland Chorus. Oddly, the UMD Concert Choir doesn’t appear to have any engagements with the NSO for the 2019-20 season. I guess that’s in part because there’s nothing for them to do since there’s a shortage of symphonic choral works being programmed. They performed Messiah last season with the NSO, so one can’t have them doing it two years in a row.

When the University of Maryland Chorus was in existence, they had many performances a season with the NSO — especially under conductor Antal Doráti because they were his favourite Chorus — and they appeared with many guest (inter)national orchestras, such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam for performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony.

For the 2019-20 season, the San Francisco Symphony has programmed only three symphonic choral works for the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. I hope they didn’t over do it. Well two really, if you take out the mandatory and perfunctory Me$$iah performance$. (Related: Not Messiah again?!) If you’re take out Messiah, they’re performing Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (revised version) and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, Op 45. Then, instead of performing other neglected symphonic choral works they’ve chosen to perform opera: Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (semi-staged) with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus assisting, and also Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. From a musical standpoint, the Mahler is essentially opera — without the costuming and scenery — when you add all those screaming and barking operatic soloists throughout the piece. And it’s because of the operatic screamers that I’ve never been able to get past the organ and choral entrance of Mahler’s Eighth. After that, it becomes intolerable for me to listen to. I’ve scanned through it trying to find places where the Chorus is performing alone, only to have them interrupted by a screamer whose obnoxious voice overpowers the entire Orchestra and Chorus. The performance becomes the personal recital for the vocal soloists-screamers. Too much screaming and barking from the vocal soloists-screamers that the sheeple mistake for “beautiful singing.” Some people have no ear for music if they think that what amounts to heavy-vibrato screaming — to cover up technical vocal and pitch problems? — is “beautiful singing.” That’s like describing the sirens on emergency vehicles as “a beautiful sound.” By the way, Mahler never referred to his Symphony No. 8 as “The Symphony of a Thousand.” Somebody else added that without Mahler’s approval from my research. And the piece does not require a thousand musicians or anywhere close to that to perform. Just thought I’d pass that on. So, from what I saw on their online brochure, as I said the San Francisco Symphony Chorus has only three engagements for the season with the SFS performing genuine symphonic choral works.

As for neglected symphonic choral works, when was the last time that the San Francisco Symphony and Symphony Chorus performed A Sea Symphony or Toward The Unknown Region by Ralph Vaughan Williams? Or the Missa Sabriensis or Hymnus Paradisi by Herbert Howells? Or the Holst The Hymn of Jesus? With the trebles/boys of Grace Cathedral (Anglican Communion), assisting? Or Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hodie instead of predictable Messiah?

Do I need to make a list of the (neglected) symphonic choral works that symphony orchestras could be performing instead of opera, but are not? That list would nearly be endless. Yet what are they doing? Some opera, of all things. Along with “fluff” programming such as soundtrack scores, film scores, Harry Potter stuff, and some are promoting gun violence or have in a recent season. That’s just what we need more of here in the non-United States.

For the 2019-20 season, two of The Big Three (Beethoven and Orff) are programmed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. They may also be doing Messiah, but I’m not sure about that. I’d have to scan their brochure again. The Orff and the Beethoven are programmed: “The mighty Ninth” in their language. “The mighty Ninth” appears at least twice on the CSO brochure. I can see some orchestral management sitting around a conference room table and saying, “We’ll call the Ninth ‘mighty’ and the Orff ‘powerful.’ How’s that? Does everyone agree with that? Good.” Yes, there’s all this hyped language throughout about the pieces to be performed. “Carl Orff’s powerful Carmina Burana.”

Related to my earlier article about vocal soloists-screamers, this is how the CSO is marketing their screamers (commonly known as vocal soloists):

“Muti is joined by the CSO Chorus and a cast comprising some of the world’s most distinguished international vocalists.” Hmmmmm. Having an all-paid Orchestra Chorus, I should think that some of the world’s most distinguished vocalists are in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus, so why aren’t some of the choristers serving as soloists? They could easily do so. Orchestral management would say: “No, the screamers that you refer to, I mean the soloists, have to be these big-name celebrity “stars” to draw an audience. The public wouldn’t come to hear one of the finest choristers in the CSO Chorus perform the solo passages, because, well, they’re not internationally-known “stars.” Question: And the public really come to a performance solely based on who the vocal soloists are? I wouldn’t; I couldn’t care less who they are. I’m there for a superbly-prepared stellar Symphony Chorus. I’m not there for the screamers. In fact, if I had my way, I’d give the solo vocal passages to members of the Orchestra to play. The principal flautist or First Concertmaster could play the passages that the soprano screamer would normally be screaming. Those solo passages would certainly sound far better played by those musicians.

I am well aware though that whenever any symphonic choral performance is promoted on radio or television, that the announcers make it all about the vocal screamers. The Orchestra and Chorus are mentioned only in passing, as second-class musicians. Well, then, why don’t you just turn the thing into personal recitals featuring the screamers? (I guess I shouldn’t give them any ideas.) In performances and especially in Beethoven’s Ninth, the screamers — especially the screechy/screaming soprano and sometimes the harsh-sounding tenor who sounds like he’s trying to blow a tonsil seem to be in competition to see who can out-scream the other — and both seem oblivious that any other musicians are on the stage. It’s often all about them, especially the soprano screamer as she rears back, usually showing full-cleverage to make her appear “sexy.” (Too little too late for that!). Meanwhile, the tenor screamer has to be all covered up from head to toe in a stuffy tux. Both of them when screaming together turn the performance into their own personal recital, again, completely oblivious that anyone else is there or that’s the appearance. With her piercing voice, the soprano can wipe out everybody on the stage and usually does: Her glass-penetrating voice cuts through and overpowers the full Orchestra, the full Chorus and the Concert Hall’s Pipe Organ using the full resources, if that’s part of the performance. Her voice often reminds one of a siren on an emergency vehicle passing by the Concert Hall, because that’s all you hear is her. There can be over 300 musicians on the stage (a 200-voice Chorus and the Full Orchestra), and her voice overpowers all of them and she’s not mic’d. And of course she loves the attention. She adores it. During the bows, she rarely turns around to acknowledge any of the other musicians on stage and divert attention to them because “it’s all about her….me, me, me.”

The Bait: “A Distinguished Cast of Soloists.”

It’s the usual practise that one sees from misguided orchestral management with their excessive executive salaries consistently resort to: It’s called baiting the public to come to the performance because of the “world’s most distinguished CAST of vocalists.” If management were being honest it would read “A CAST of screamers.” Let’s tell it like it is. There’s nothing musical, tasteful nor is there any artistry or talent involved in heavy-vibrato/wobbling/fluttering (often off pitch meaning flat – singing below the true pitch of the note) obnoxious screaming.

When will Voice Departments in Conservatories and University Schools of Music teach blending one’s voice musically and artistically with other voices as a soloist. Not in my lifetime because in fact we seem to be going in the opposite direction, especially in the non-United States where heavy-vibrato — again, to disguise technical vocal problems and pitch problems? — and screaming seem to be increasingly popular even in some choral ensembles (among people with no ear for music and who reject one of the foundations of choral excellence: perfect intonation). I remember when I trained, I could be at one end of the hallway in the Conservatory and I could hear a private voice instruction class at the opposite end of the long hallway. In the background, I could hear pianos being played from the piano professor’s studios along the same hallway. But it was the voice professor’s voice or her student’s voice that overpowered any other sound that one heard.

Last season (2018-19), for the Philadelphia Orchestra from a symphonic choral standpoint:

They didn’t even perform The Big Three. And one of their pieces, was an opera: Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti. Again, why is a Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performing opera? Why are they competing with Opera Philadelphia or some other operatic organisation? (Related: Is Opera music?)

For the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, from what I saw on the 2019-20 season, the Full ASO Chorus has only three (that’s 3, THREE) engagements with the ASO. I suspect if the late Robert Shaw were around today, he’d be shocked at that. He’d say, “Well you have to do more than that, why so few symphonic choral works?” That is an incredibly low number for an Orchestra with its own Chorus of the caliber of the ASOC. One wonders: How long before they disband the ASOC due to “there’s just not much interest in choral music these days so we really don’t have anything for you to do” being used as the rationale? Well, they are doing two of The Big Three, of course:

Orff’s Carmina Burana (with the full ASO Chorus) and Messiah (that’s with the ASO Chamber Chorus). The full ASO Chorus is performing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (I am surprised to see that programmed at this point) and they’re adding to the Mahler’s Eighth category/fad. Oddly, the ASO Chamber Chorus has the most performances. They’re performing Bach Cantata Nos. 12 and 29 on one programme, and the Chamber Chorus is performing the opera repertoire: Purcell – Selections from Dido and Aeneas, and Wagner – Tristan und Isolde, Acts I, II and III. They can’t leave that to Atlanta Opera? Oh, and the full ASO Chorus is performing for the holiday concert so that technically gives them four performances for the season. But their holiday concert is an annual thing which I think was started by Robert Shaw. So that’s as required as Messiah. But still, if I were a chorister in the ASO Chorus, I’d be looking around and at the repertoire and asking: So this is all we’re doing for the entire season? Yes, that’s appears to be it unless you’re in the ASO Chamber Chorus. And what, no Beethoven’s Ninth during the season? What will the sheeple in Atlanta do? Mass depression? Orchestral management would likely say: Rest assured that will be next season along with Messiah for the umpteenth time.

Someone online was critical of the “sound” of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus in a performance of Brahms’s EDR, Op. 45, an engagement that they had with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Deutschland/Germany. The person went on to say that the ASOC had been doing too much opera repertoire under conductor Donald Runnicles and their “sound” had changed and that the late Robert Shaw would not be pleased with the “sound” of his Chorus today. Then as expected, someone rushed to defend the new “sound” of the ASOC and wrote that “Robert Shaw would love our sound.” Now how would that person know that? Pure speculation. I’ve not heard the ASOC since Norman MacKenzie became the Director of Choruses for the ASO, so I can’t make any comment on them. But they too in Atlanta have neglected symphonic choral works in their programming in favour of performing opera, rather than leaving opera to Atlanta Opera.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra would appear to be in bad shape. Orchestral management cancelled their 2019 Summer Season without informing the musicians. Isn’t that respectful of the musicians? For their 2019-20 season, assuming they have one:

They’re doing one of The Big Three, Beethoven’s Ninth, on five continents on their tour — if they’re still going on tour — with performances also in Baltimore. No Chorus was listed for any of those performances. In Baltimore, my guess is that the Chorus would probably be either the University of Maryland Concert Choir or the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. They did say that they will feature a translation of the “Ode” (as in the “Ode to Joy”) by the local rapper and musician Wordsmith (his name is Anthony Parker). Rap at “The Symphony?” More combining of genres to confuse the musically-ignorant. They’re also featuring a new arrangement of the spiritual, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — spirituals at “The Symphony?” — and a newly commissioned work by Indian-USian composer Reena Esmial.

What I especially noticed with Baltimore is that they’re really hyping the “Star Soloists.” But in this case, they don’t mean just the vocal soloists-screamers. While reading their online brochure I thought: It’s too bad that orchestral management can’t get as excited about their own musicians — and not disrespecting them with pay cuts and cutting their benefits — as they do the “Star Soloists.” Is orchestral management taking any pay cuts or cuts in their benefits? I can take a guess: No. What I read in their marketing language for the 2019-20 season spoke of Desperation. The only symphonic choral works I saw listed were, of course, two of The Big Three:

Händel’s Messiah
Beethoven’s Ninth.

There’s loads of “fluff” during the season with the Baltimore SO including movies with orchestra, superpops with Jennifer Holliday, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, tributes to Aretha Franklin and Nat King Cole, the classic hits of Lerner and Loewe, and Movie with Orchestra: The Wizard of Oz. All of that music has its place and I would enjoy some of that (the jazz music), but it’s not what one expects to hear at “The Symphony,” except in a Century of Insanity and in a troubled world of financial desperation with some musical ensembles where we’re lied to and told that, “The economy is the best it’s ever been. The US economy is the envy of the world (that’s according to the chronic liar known as the orange bloviator).” But if that’s the case (which of course it isn’t in reality), then where’s the funding for superb music and arts programmes in the public schools and elsewhere?

The Los Ángeles Philharmonic has more of a sparse season for 2019-20:

They, too, are all about the “Superstars” (consisting of 8 musicians whose pictures were shown, and not just vocalists)

They’re performing one of The Big Three: Beethoven’s Ninth.
Assisting will be the Los Ángeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon Artistic Director and the performance will be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

The only other work featuring a Chorus is the Mahler Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” with the same Chorus as for the Beethoven, and Dudamel conducting.

But that’s it for their symphonic choral repertoire. Overall, it’s a rather light season for repertoire for the Los Ángeles Philharmonic.

Now, for Boston, including an update on the Tanglewood Festival Chorus:

For the 2019-20 season, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus are much more original, and I think the most original of all, and I think the best in their programming:

First, let me say that I take no pleasure whatsoever in being critical of other musicians. As a musician, I prefer to praise other musicians because I feel we’re all together in solidarity with each other as fellow musicians. That gives me the most pleasure as well as their stellar performances, excluding many vocal soloists of course. In fact, I go out of my way to avoid criticism of other musicians because I know how unjust and unwarranted and even nit-picky criticism feels. But in some cases, there are times where criticism is indeed necessary and it might bring forth positive change, as it has done with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) under James Burton. I was rather critical — and justifiably so — of the TFC in its latter years under Founder and Chorus Director the late John Oliver. But it wasn’t just me. Other publications were writing about it. The BSO and conductor Andris Nelsons had noticed “problems” and “some unevenness” with the TFC. Sounds like political-speak. They were being so diplomatic rather than telling it like it is, which is what I like to do. If I remember correctly, Nelsons was overheard asking after hearing the TFC the first time, “Is this how American Choruses sound?” And he didn’t mean it as a compliment. No Andris, it’s not. Only those Choruses that need some work/improvement sound like that. Yet the TFC still had a few blinders-on, devout followers with this cult-like devotion to the TFC — a couple of them wrote to me as self-appointed “choral authorities”; one wonders where they trained? — who rushed to the TFC’s defence and supported their heavy-vibrato, wobbling, fluttering, quivering, shrill-sound cackling soprano section like one heard in Beethoven’s Ninth at the end of the Tanglewood Music Festival in one of John Oliver’s last seasons with them, or their Mahler Second. I couldn’t listen to either performance twice because the sopranos were so bad, and the altos weren’t much better. And the microphones picked up cracking tenor voices in the Beethoven. Completely unacceptable for the Official Chorus of the BSO. I remember asking myself: What on Earth has happened to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus? Jesus! In their early days, they were one of my favourites. And I suspect when James Burton arrived he asked himself, “What are these people doing in this Chorus? How did some of these people get in this Chorus to begin with?” A third of the Chorus left — couldn’t pass the audition and its new music theory requirements — if I’m remembering correctly after Burton arrived and he re-auditioned the entire Chorus with new standards, which I supported. From what I read, most choristers couldn’t stand him and his approach. Tough luck. Again, the TFC is the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops Orchestra, not your Community Family Chorus where everyone is welcome including the family dog. Under Burton, I read that rehearsals are of a serious nature as they should be. The guys who wrote to me asked me, “What’s wrong with vibrato?” Well, if one has to ask that question, we have no room for discussion, period. Has this guy or guys never heard the term perfect intonation, used throughout music? It’s one of the basic principles of choral excellence. Noticeable vibrato prevents perfect intonation, the perfect blending of voices. That’s what’s wrong with noticeable vibrato, you idiot. I have no patience for these people, these Vibratobots. So I was very pleased when the BSO hired James Burton to replace Oliver as I was familiar with Burton from his fine work in the UK.

So recently, I watched a short clip of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (from April 2019). For those who don’t know, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops Orchestra. The clip was from one of their performances in Symphony Hall with the BSO. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus has improved under James Burton as I had thought they would. I think James is still working on them, but they were singing with perfect intonation in all voice parts. He still has some work to do on their soprano section. As I said earlier, those sopranos were in rather bad shape especially in their upper register during the last days of John Oliver’s tenure and they were in need of the perfect blending of their voices as well as polish and refinement. With this clip I saw recently, the TFC’s soprano section’s highest note in the piece (I think it was a High C, 2-octaves above Middle C) needed a bit of polish. It wasn’t quite perfect intonation and more on the screechy side. It wasn’t a smooth and velvety top note in other words. It was more of a rough-sounding top note and a little bit of struggling sound. A highly-skilled and superb soprano section should not sound like they’re struggling at any time (although that goes for all voice parts), but rather sound effortless even on their top notes up in the stratosphere. But I suspect James is still working on them. The TFC sopranos are better than they were under John Oliver — I’m specifically referring to the time period of his last years with the TFC — but Burton needs to continue working to remove some screechy sounds, but I suspect he already knows that. The sopranos were not screaming or cackling or wobbling as one heard from them under John Oliver. I suspect most of those sopranos are gone having failed their re-audition and its required higher standards including knowledge of some more advanced music theory. I heard no noticeable vibrato, other than some on that High C that I mentioned. And under John Oliver the altos weren’t much better I have to say! But again, overall the Chorus is indeed improving under Burton and realistically speaking it could take him some time to get the ideal instrument he wants in the TFC. Overall, the TFC look like a younger Chorus to me (particularly the Women of the TFC) than under John Oliver, which is what I had suspected would be the case with the “new” TFC. Meaning that Burton would try to select younger choristers, particularly for the sopranos and altos, and even tenors. That’s why some Chorus Director have an age limit in their audition requirements. I think William Christie does that with the Chorus of Les Arts Florrisants. The Orchestra Choruses I had the privilege of being a chorister in did not have age requirements but seemed to naturally attract younger voices at that time (Choral Arts Society of Washington and the University of Maryland Chorus both performing regularly in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra and guest (inter)national orchestras, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus performing in Davies Symphony Hall).

And that’s because the Chorus Director is looking for a certain sound which they cannot get with women of the age of your average podunk Church Choir with their untrained wobbling voices. They sound awful, but most people seem to have no ear for choral excellence, in part, because their ear hasn’t been trained to listen for it. Burton was conducting in the performance clip that I watched. I think he was filling in for an ailing Gustavo Dudamel. Burton is more than capable of conducting both the BSO and TFC. He earned a Masters in Orchestral Conducting from the Peabody Conservatory of John Hopkin’s University in Baltimore.

For the 2019-20 season in Boston’s Symphony Hall and out at the Tanglewood Music Festival, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) has the following repertoire with the BSO:

Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy.
This piece is for piano, Orchestra and Chorus and vocal soloists; some people say if you don’t have the time to listen to his Ninth that they listen to the Choral Fantasy instead. They are similar. If you’re not familiar with the piece, it’s sort of like a piano concerto with Chorus at the end. I like this performance here from Nihon/Japan with Marta Argerich as piano soloist. I’m pleased to see her using her score as it gives more of a chamber music feel to the performance. And the Chorus in this performance is superb. The performance is conducted by Sergei Ozawa. I believe this was a concert in Nihon honouring Ozawa’s 80th birthday celebration.

The TFC is also performing:

Poulenc’s Gloria
Grigorjeva’s On Leaving (for unaccompanied Chorus)
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 2
Duruflé’s Requiem
Stravinsky’s Perséphone
Assisting in the Duruflé and Stravinsky will be the Boston Symphony Children’s Choir

Then in April 2020, (the TFC’s 50th anniversary month), they will perform selections from Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, conducted by James Burton.

Also in Symphony Hall, the BSO is also performing opera, although without the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Yet another Symphony Orchestra competing with the opera ensembles, in this case the Boston Opera and Boston Lyric Opera et al). They’re performing Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Act III. It’s a concert performance, sung in Deutsch/German. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is not part of this performance.

And the BSO Gospel Chorus will be performing in Uri Caine’s The Passion of Octavius Catto with conductor André Raphel.

Gospel at “The Symphony?”

To the BSO’s credit, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is part of the programme for the opening night of the season. Excellent to see that. In my opinion, the Official Chorus for an Orchestra should always be part of the opening concert of the season since they are the Orchestra’s Chorus and should be included.

Unless I missed it, they’re not performing Messiah. Good. If I’m remembering correctly, they performed Bach’s Christmas Oratorio last season. Maybe they leave the perfunctory Messiah performances to “those other people.” Well, they usually do the “Christmas at Pops,” a series of concerts with a reduced TFC and the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Then, at the Tanglewood Musical Festival in Lenox MA — the BSO’s Summer home — they’re performing two of “The Big Three:” The TFC is performing most of this repertoire:

Verdi/Requiem (which is more like opera than symphonic choral)
RAVEL Daphnis et Chloé (complete; the Chorus is often, but not always, off stage for this Ravel ballet music)
Orff/Carmina Burana (Young Artists Chorus, not the TFC)
SCHOENBERG/ Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth), for unaccompanied Chorus

and of course one of “The Big Three”:

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 in d
The Beethoven always ends the Tanglewood Music Festival. This time, because of James Burton’s newly-installed standards of choral excellence, the TFC will likely sound more polished with no screechy, shrill, cackling, wobbling sopranos, or altos for that matter. And no cracking tenor voices. Well, one can hope for that. No disrespect whatsoever intended to James Burton, it’s just that it could take Burton 2-3 years or more to get his ideal choral “instrument” as I said earlier.

Realistically speaking, a Chorus Director — no matter how good he/she is — can only do so much with what he/she has to work with, as I think James Burton understood when he took over the TFC. Generally speaking, unless one goes through extensive training in a Conservatory or School of Music, one cannot take vocally and musically-inferior choristers and turn them into stellar choristers. That rarely happens. Instead, one has to change/replace the choristers with a musically-higher caliber, as Burton has done with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

I also noticed quite a few works for Pipe Organ programmed for Symphony Hall. It’s good to see them using Symphony Hall’s Pipe Organ. In other concert halls, often the pipe organ sets collecting dust, rarely used, as if it’s just for looks, even though it’s not.

They’re performing the Strauss Festive Prelude (Olivier Latry, organist). For those who don’t know, Olivier Latry is one of the — former organists? due to the fire — Titulaire Organists from La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.

They’re also performing Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symfónia č. 3/Symphonie avec orgue (Organ Symphony)/ Symphony No. 3 in c minor, Op. 78 with organist Thierry Escaich in both.

They’re also performing the Poulenc Concerto in d for Two Pianos with Lucas and Arthur Jussen, pianos. They are brothers from the Nederlands. Their mother teaches flute and their father is a timpanist in the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

So, in my opinion, Boston has the best season that I’ve seen, being the most original.

The bottom line:

Most major symphony orchestras in the US with few exceptions are unfortunately avoiding symphonic choral works — except for obviously The Big Three, as one can see saturated throughout this article — and the average number of engagements for the Orchestra’s Chorus is between 4-5 appearances with the Orchestra a season. For Orchestra’s without their own Chorus, each local guest Chorus has one or maybe two engagements with the Orchestra for the season. Pathetic really.

At least for the 2019-20 season and to their credit, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus are more closely holding to the standards of when I was a chorister in Orchestra Choruses when symphonic choral works were not avoided. I wonder if James Burton and his influence has something to do with that?

Not to give them any ideas, but one wonders how long it will be before Orchestras that have their own Chorus will disband their Chorus deciding that they’re really no longer needed? On the odd occasion they want to perform one of The Big Three, they could invite one of the finest local choral ensembles to perform with them as a guest Chorus. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra did that many years ago. They disband the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus. The reason I read for that was that the BSO Chorus wasn’t that good. I don’t know as I never heard them. After that, the BSO started inviting the superb University of Maryland Chorus to perform with them, which was an excellent choice. Then, when the UMD Chorus was disband by the University of Maryland — they were “liquidated” or “retired” for some reason; well I think part of the reason was because the UMD Chorus was not an all-student Chorus and the University of Maryland’s School of Music did not like that. Since then, the BSO has been inviting the all-student University of Maryland Concert Choir (they replaced the University of Maryland Chorus as the symphonic Chorus on campus) to perform with them on occasion as well as the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

Mi amigo/My friend said: It’s interesting how locked-in US orchestral management are into The Big Three. Such absolute conformity. It seems that everyone has to be doing The Big Three like a bunch of sheeple. He also asked a very good question:

Why are major symphony orchestras competing with local opera companies by programming some opera?

What is that about? That’s what it appears that they’re doing when they programme operatic repertoire. By contrast, I don’t see Opera Orchestras and Opera companies competing with major Symphony Orchestras by performing symphonic works or performing piano concerti, violin concerti, clarinet concerti, trumpet concerti and so forth, and giving the day off to the operatic divas-screamers who are usually there to possibly blow out a tonsil. I’m glad that Opera companies are not performing symphonic choral works because I couldn’t bare to listen to that. Opera Choruses are not at all known for having learned anything about perfect intonation. I read a comment from someone recently very critical of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and their absolute lack of perfect intonation. Yes, that’s what I mean. When it comes to operatic screaming and operatic choral singing, the basic music concept of perfect intonation seems to have escaped them or long been abandoned by these people. And they call themselves musicians? As I said, any fool can scream! No talent, artistry or musicality required for that. And if one cannot sing on pitch — as many cannot — just turn on vibrato and few people in the audience will know the difference. They’ll just think, “Oh, that person is ‘classically-trained’.”

As for myself, Orff’s Carmina Burana is one of The Big Three that I can still listen to without feeling burned out on it and assuming that the Chorus is superbly prepared and singing with perfect intonation (no noticeable vibrato), followed by the Beethoven. As for Messiah, if I don’t hear that again it will be just fine with me. I’m thoroughly burned out on that. I much much prefer to hear some of his other oratorios. But with the Beethoven, these days I’m more interested in all of the other movements of the work superbly played by the Orchestra and not the Choral Finale, which might surprise you since I’m a “choral person.” For me, the Symphony Chorus has to be top-notch, superb singing with perfect intonation in all voice sections (SATB) and impeccable diction (spit those consonants so that they can be heard in the last row of the hall, as renowned Dr Paul Traver, Founder and Director of the superb University of Maryland Chorus would say when he was alive). And with the soprano and tenor sections, there should be no wilting or decaying of sound in the notes of their upper register. Both choral sections should sing as if the piece is effortless for them to sing, especially the sopranos floating up on those high notes in the stratosphere. And of course the Choral Finale is usually ruined for me by what sounds like a train wreck when the vocal soloist-screamers wind up and, well, most unfortunately mistake screaming for singing beautifully, musically and with artistry.

Apparently, somewhere along the way, screaming with heavy-vibrato — to hide flat singing/pitch problems — became popular and a fad and it has stuck. I’d like to ask some of these vocal soloist-screamers: Why are you singing flat, or can you not hear that you are? Your concert management and you are receiving generous salaries for you to sing flat and give an inferior performance. But of course the conductor won’t say a word of criticism to “god” you, because you’re the “god” soloist. If anything, he will gush over you, especially if you’re a female. Have you had no advanced ear training in a Conservatory or School of Music? The screamer might say: Well, I can’t hear the Orchestra. I would respond: Even though you’re standing right in front of them? Well maybe, just maybe if you toned it down and stopped screaming and actively listened to the Orchestra you would be able to hear them and correct your pitch problems. Where did you train? How did you get where you are? Who’s posterior did you have to eat to get where you are? I know what your bio/résumé says. Is all of that true or is some of it made up and you think no one will notice?1 Try listening to the Orchestra and not make it all about you as if this performance is your own personal recital. (roll eyes). Chau.—el barrio rosa


1 That reminded me of a bio I read recently of an organist who claimed to have been either Organist or Assistant Organist at Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia. I thought: Really? How’s that? That’s news to me. I’ve never seen him there and nothing came up about that from my search about him. I think he made it up thinking no one notice but that it would look good on his bio. Or maybe he filled in for Benjamin or George on one odd Sunday, but usually something that small wouldn’t go on the bio. (Related: Washington National Cathedral Organist Thomas Sheehan).