How Chorale does it.
A long-time Chorale member has been hired to sing with one of the city’s top professional choral ensembles, and talked about the experience at Jimmy’s the other night, after Chorale’s regular Wednesday rehearsal. What follows is a conflation of her observations, and my own experiences on that side of the podium: Professional ensembles rehearse a minimal amount of time; management can’t afford more than that. Each singer shows up for every rehearsal, arriving for an on-time downbeat, ready to rumble. Their obvious professional musical preparation-- their high-level vocalism; the skill and assurance with which they read through a work the first time; their businesslike approach to learning their music and correcting their own mistakes; the efficient, no-nonsense atmosphere of the rehearsal—is assumed. From the very beginning, the ensemble is able to hit every point between pp and ff, and be responsible for each accelerando and ritardando. Language competence, at least in the standard pronunciations of Latin, English, and German, is rarely discussed. Neither the chorus master nor the conductor has to tell the singers much of anything, beyond what is written on the page-- they just tweak things; the singers take responsibility for everything. There is no hand-holding. The singers’ professional pride, and their love of music, forces them to do their best, and pressure from within the group is enough to make any who might feel like slacking off, to stiffen up.
Chicago Chorale, an amateur ensemble, is very different. We are proud of our accomplishments, but they happen within a very different environment. Most significantly, Chorale has to work a lot longer, and a lot harder, to reach its goals. We have a broad range of talent, experience, and facility within our group, and we need enough time to get everyone up to speed. I have to say everything many times, to make sure everyone has heard me, and understands me. Our singers have full non-musical lives, and devote a lot of time to their professions, their families, their other extracurriculars-- singing in a choir can by default be expendable to them. Professional choristers sing all the time, in any number of ensembles, and after years and years of professional preparation-- they expect to use their voices well, they expect to compete for their positions, they expect to be respected (and paid) for their expertise; Chorale members in some cases sing only once or twice a week, do not have established vocal techniques, do not read music with much fluency, and have to be reminded, and vocalized carefully, to make a good sound. Chorale singers in many cases do not take much responsibility for preparing outside of rehearsal; they hope and expect that magic will happen in the two and a half hours we spend together per week. They depend upon others in the group being more facile and leading the way. That is who we are; that is amateur, community-based choral music.
But the startling fact remains-- year after year, Chorale’s performances are named in Chicago’s top ten lists by listeners whose business it is to recognize and acknowledge quality. Do you ever reflect on the strangeness and incongruity of this? I surely do. Chorale is on to something. Through our messiness, we manage, as Robert Shaw would say, to build a nest good enough for the dove-- and as often as not, the dove lands there, and likes what he finds.
Our next series of concerts is November 18-19. Five more rehearsals. A professional ensemble would probably have five rehearsals total; for Chorale, it seems like we’ll never be ready, like we have too far to go before that nest is built. No nest, no dove. The good news is, we’ll get there. Our track record precedes us. Put those dates on your calendars, and plan to come hear some extraordinary music you have never heard before, prepared with love and care.