Great music, done well-- by and for whom?
When Chicago Chorale first sang together, in October 2001, all of its members were University of Chicago students or alums. And I am fairly certain that the audiences who first heard us were composed entirely of Hyde Parkers, most with U of C connections. Though we continue to rehearse in Hyde Park, U of C’s home turf, the actual percentage of those with University affiliation has slipped since then; currently, about sixty percent have some formal connection with U of C. And we now present at least half of our concerts outside of Hyde Park, attracting a regional, rather than purely local, audience. But I think Chorale’s style, habits, expectations, continue to reflect its roots. From the beginning, our singers have tended to be highly intelligent and educated; they have experience with a broad range of musical styles, and prefer the rigorous, erudite programming which has become our trademark; they attend concerts, listen to recordings, read reviews and scholarship, and are generally very informed, about music and about arts culture in general. They read extensively, write well, think critically, and question nearly everything. Not a week goes by, that I am not stopped after rehearsal, or do not receive at least one email, with a comment, suggestion, question, clarification, about something I have said or done during rehearsal. The singers pay close attention to my verbal communications, oral and written, and on occasion correct me, pick at my grammar, argue with me. I am continually reminded that they really listen to me, that I must be careful, be on top of things, mean what I say, have supporting information, avoid platitudes and generalities. And I often need a thicker skin to face their probing, informed questions and remarks, than l expect.
Chorale singers expect to perform on a high level. They are in general confident, disciplined, and determined to succeed. They demonstrate little fear or hesitation when tackling really challenging repertoire—rather, they revel in being challenged. Their general, incoming level of vocalism and music-making is respectable and competitive; what sets them, and Chorale, apart, thought, is the richness of understanding and experience with which they approach their craft, and the high level of appreciation they experience in practicing it. It is the general character of choral performance, that the sum is greater than the parts; with Chorale, this characteristic takes on new and urgent meaning. Altogether, Chorale is a very different group than I have ever sung with or conducted in other places, at other times. New singers are either drawn specifically to this character of the group, or they learn to appreciate and value it.
Many in our audience have had experiences and expectations matching those of the choir. Like the singers, the listeners started out as U of Chicago/Hyde Park types, and this local support and appreciation were organic in shaping our direction and mission; now, though, we draw music lovers from all over greater Chicago. Chance remarks and comments—“Oh, I so look forward to hearing your take on Rautavaara!” or “Your tempo on the Bach motet was somewhat faster than I expected” or “I thought your Nystedt had an appropriately northern flavor” always let me know that our listeners, like our singers, really pay attention, think, prepare, and understand what we are doing.
A growing segment of our audience, though, does not have specific musical background, and is drawn to our concerts by the “buzz,” or by their friends; and these listeners, hearing a kind of programming very new to them, seem inspired by it-- they find authenticity in what we do, and respond out of their best selves to the best that the composers, and the performers, can offer them. I deeply believe that great music, done well, reaches across cultural and socio-economic divides, and gets right to the middle of things. Mozart is not a cultural hero because our betters tell us he is, nor because a blockbuster movie was made about him; his position in our musical firmament reflects fundamental values that our singers, and our audience, sense and understand. Last night‘s Mass in C minor rehearsal was absolutely thrilling for me-- Chorale’s singers get it, and I know our audience will get it, too, when they hear our November 24 concert.