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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

We can handle more than Messiahs

By Norman Lebrecht / December 12, 2001

TIS the season to be jolly - unless you happen to sing in one of the great symphonic choruses. "Wall-to-wall Messiahs at this time of year," they moan over half a backstage bitter. "Not that it gets much better any other time."

A deep gloom has settled over the volunteer sector of the singing world - not the pros who bury Aida nightly at the opera or tweet exquisite Messiaenisms for the 32-strong BBC Singers, but the lawyers, plumbers and home-makers who, from time immemorial, have given up three nights a week for rehearsal, no expenses paid.

The choral tradition is in trouble. Money is tight, the music is monotonous and ensembles are turning sloppy. "The state of choral societies in the UK is critical, if not grave," says David Temple, conductor of London's innovative Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC). "Causes include lack of church attendance, a pitiful amount of singing in schools and a desire for instant gratification."

"Why do we do it?" sighs a fed-up baritone in the London Philharmonic Chorus. "The payoff is the privilege of working with big conductors. When I started, conductors used to show interest in us and appreciation. Now they hardly notice we exist - unless we do something wrong."

Choristers have lost their cheer and much of their self-esteem. The main cause is a shrinking diary and a worklist that seldom ventures beyond Beethoven's Ninth, Mahler's Second, Holst's Planets and Hallelujah! in a Saturday afternoon Classic Spectacular.

But routine work is merely a symptom of the atrophy that is choking off choral enthusiasm and depressing amateur standards. The problem is universal. US orchestras are increasingly salting their amateur choruses with professionals from the nearest opera house - Chicago by as much as 50 per cent.

In central Europe, low-cost state choirs bussed in from Prague and Bratislava have sapped morale and shown up weaknesses in local groups, amateur and professional alike.

Berlin this year hired Simon Halsey, Simon Rattle's former chorus-master in Birmingham, to drill one of its two full-time radio choirs. "The choral tradition is one of the glories of cultural life," says Halsey. "We must learn to adapt and improve with each generation."

Social conditions, however, do not favour renewal. With public funding in freefall and corporate money untempted by something so unflashy as an amateur chorus, the work is getting thin and the demand dumb. Charles Spencer, who managed the Philharmonia Chorus under its fabled trainers Wilhelm Pitz and John McCarthy, used to plan eight to 12 concerts a year with its associated orchestra. This season, he notes, the Chorus has just three London concerts, none of them with the Philharmonia. "What has been lost," he laments, "is the loyalty between chorus and orchestra."

Tight margins can murder collegiality. One orchestra, having run up an £80,000 debt to its own chorus, now employs rivals at knock-down rates - and complains of declining standards. The economics are breadline. A London chorus will charge £2,700 for a Barbican or RFH concert. The money goes on administration, the chorusmaster's salary - £17,000-£20,000 a year - and rental costs for rehearsal rooms. None of the singers receives a penny in pay or parking fees.

"In the interval, if you're lucky, they'll give you a voucher for coffee," says one disgruntled member of the London Symphony Chorus.

If a concert is recorded, the singers sign away world rights for the token sum of £3.50. The musicians receive a substantial fixed fee, or a share of profits.

On tour, players and singers might as well inhabit different planets. The musicians stay in central four- or five-star hotels, while the singers are put up in truckers' motels on outlying industrial estates. They travel separately and seldom meet. On some tours, the singers are not given a per diem for running expenses, or a free breakfast.

Birmingham is an exception. At Rattle's insistence, Simon Halsey's chorus always travelled and lodged with the orchestra and were encouraged to involve their families in its social life. Even now, with the world at his feet, Rattle is importing the CBSO chorus to record a Beethoven Ninth for EMI in Vienna.

More often, however, new conductors shun the chorus or call in replacements. Franz Welser-Most, as music director of the London Philharmonic, sought to replace the LPC with a flown-in Swedish choir. Small wonder, then, that spirits have sunk and few youngsters are drawn in.

The woe is worst in the metropolis. Regionally, the choral tradition is strong and may even be regenerating. There has been a striking upbeat in Manchester since Mark Elder, the former English National Opera chief, took command of the Halle and showed concern for vocal welfare. The Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus are reputed to be singing better than ever. The BBC Welsh are in splendid form and Birmingham is building up a power base with a fresh intake of 23- to 25-year-olds.

"The one place I never work," says their ex-chorusmaster Halsey, "is London."

Older singers - and the London choruses are getting perceptibly older - yearn for the music that lured them in back in the heady Sixties, for Kodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus, Ligeti's Lux aeterna and something really taxing by Luciano Berio. Nowadays, if the music is new, it will be drearily minimalist; if old, wearily familiar.

"I dream," says one chorister, "of countless works I'd love to sing again - not a chance. I'm in danger of falling out of love with the Ode to Joy. When that happens, I'll just have to quit."

Younger singers are gravitating to new shoots such as the CEFC, which put music first. To finance concerts of novelties by Giles Swayne, Constant Lambert and the Panufniks, Andrzej and Roxanna, the CEFC hired itself out for the Millennium Dome opening night and will sing as many Beethovens as it takes to pay a full band. It sang its first BBC Prom last summer and has formidable soprano and alto sections. But, admits David Temple: "We have very few men knocking at the door to join. Where that puts the rest of the country, I dread to think."

Small-scale may be beautiful, but a holistic solution is required if the amateur chorus is to survive. Orchestras, and conductors in particular, need to show some respect. The way to do that is to challenge the singers. Scrap the seasonal turkeys. Let the people sing some Janacek, Schoenberg, Schnittke and Schmidt. Stretch their lungs, surprise our ears. It's not too late. The tradition can still be revived with a stroke of affection and imagination.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001