Behind the performance

Chicago Classical Review has honored Chorale’s recent performance of The Sealed Angel with the #1 position on their “Top Ten Performances of 2012” list.  Fantastic, that a volunteer group, operating on a shoestring budget, should be recognized in this way.  As I wrote to Chorale members when the list came out, “Let’s enjoy this!” We all know that the CSO, Lyric Opera, Music of the Baroque, Chicago Opera Theater, and other local, professional ensembles consistently produce world-class performances of great music; to appear on this list with them is something we will always treasure.

Whatever the level we reach in our performances, our work reflects certain core disciplines and procedures; we don’t go at this haphazardly, depending on luck and inspiration.  As Robert Shaw often said in rehearsals, the dove won’t land, if you don’t make a good nest for him.  The attached photo says it all:  what happens in performance reflects an immense, unseen investment. These past few days, I have been reminding myself of just what those disciplines and procedures are:

1. Auditions:  though Chorale does not pay its singers, we audition our singers very carefully.  They must have exceptional ears for pitch; they must read music; their tone must be warm, flexible, and easily produced; they must be able to negotiate their vocal registers cleanly.  They must demonstrate that they can think musically, learn and perform significant repertoire, and pronounce sounds that do not occur in English.  And they have to know when and how to back off and put ensemble values first. I am cautious in considering large, colorful voices, whose owners clearly wish to sing opera or other solo work—not because the voices are not good, but because I want to be sure the singers understand and enjoy choral singing.

2. Placement within sections: singers must be positioned where they can sing most comfortably and effectively, and contribute most positively. Each section must finally sing as a unit, whatever the contents of the section, voice by voice; I never want us to sound like a collection of individual voices and personalities.

3. Repertoire:  first, it must be worthy literature-- we sing it because it is good, reflecting the highest aspirations of great composers, not because it reflects or inspires particular seasonal, ethnic, or religious sentiments.  Second, it must be repertoire suited to Chorale—to our size, to our talents, to our available rehearsal time, to our audience.  We want to be stretched; we also want to be reasonably sure we will accomplish the stretching. We want to stretch our audience, as well-- but want them to enjoy what they hear.  Having chosen to be high-brow, we still want to be within reach.

4. Venues:  the spaces in which we sing are a big part of the overall musical experience, both acoustically and visually.  We seek venues which enhance our sound, and enhance our understanding—for the singers as well as for the audience.  On a practical, and sometimes conflicting, level, we also seek venues we can sell to audiences—there are many beautiful spaces in Chicago to which we cannot attract listeners.  We need paying audiences.  We have been fortunate in finding spaces which satisfy both requirements, and always have our eyes and ears open.

5.  Strong mission:  finally, we need to believe powerfully in what we are doing.  Singers, workers, board members, donors, will not continue to contribute if they are not committed to what we are doing-- or if they sense that I am not committed.  We ask a great deal of our singers, knowing they can go elsewhere, or stop singing altogether, if they are not fed by the Chorale experience. We need to provide a milieu in which they feel supported and stimulated on many fronts.  They have to be proud of what they are doing.  Similarly, our many volunteers, singers and non-singers, have to be proud of our product and our ethos; and our board members have to feel that their time and energy is profitably spent.  And everyone involved needs to be confident that we will not fail to reach and maintain a certain level of performance, and that we will always strive to be better than we currently are.  We can’t afford to be less driven, or less idealistic, than we are.

I believe that the best music is made by people who love what they are doing, no matter their day job.  And I am convinced that people who make good music as well as they can, must be the happiest people.  This conviction underlies all of my work with Chorale. I am glad our work is bearing fruit, and that others are being fed.