In its January edition, the British classical music magazine Gramophone will publish a list of the “World’s Leading Choirs,” which, to no one’s surprise, is heavily slanted towards the choirs of the publication’s own country. What does come as a disappointment, however, is that the preceding article (“Why British Choirs are Best”) is written by the American composer Eric Whitacre. Mr. Whitacre’s article takes a precarious position on the primacy of British choirs, especially when one considers that his own rise to fame and fortune was (and to a great extent still is) bankrolled by the American choral ensembles who commissioned, premiered, published and bought his octavos.
Whitacre’s essay posits that there are four qualities which put the UK’s choirs at the top of the heap: tuning, sight-reading, tone and knowledge. While an entirely different critique could be written on whether or not these qualities denote musicality or simply accuracy, I think it better to engage Mr. Whitacre on his own points.
First, “Tuning”: Mr. Whitacre makes the blanket statement that, “choristers in the UK are taught from a very early age not only to sing in tune but to listen to those around them.” Mr. Whitacre ignores the fact that the tuning revolution actually began in the colonies. Case and point: in 1996 when John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers were still recording albums with unregulated vibrato, Alexander Blachly and his ensemble Pomerium recorded the music of Guillaume Du Fay on The Virgin and the Temple (ARCHIV) using just intonation and pure senza vibrato singing. Blachly and Pomerium had been working on this revolutionary approach to pure tuning (with the singers singing pure fifths and fourths) since the late 1980s, and perfected it long before any UK choir had even considered this a possibility.
On the topic of “tone”, Mr. Whitacre lauds the Queen’s Own for producing a sound which is “bright and clear, with a healthy spin and not too much vibrato.” In one sense, Mr. Whitacre is right: the English school values a specific tone quality in its ensemble singing. It is a quality, however, that, while wholly appropriate to the music of its countryman, is not necessarily ideal for the variety of other national compositional styles that any quality chorus would make as its bread and butter. Chanticleer, in its 1999 album Colors of Love (TELDEC) was able to create the pure “English” sound of which Mr. Whitacre speaks for the singular recording of Sir John Tavener’s “Village Wedding,” and then creates an entirely different sound world for the music of Chen Yi and Augusta Reed Thomas. Their tonal versatility on this recording garnered the ensemble its first GRAMMY award.
Since Mr. Whitacre writes in a style which borrows heavily from the soft, resolving dissonances of the early 20th century English compositional school, typified by Vaughan Williams, Finzi and Stanford, I can certainly understand why he values the tonal styling of British Choirs—they are ideal interpreters of music of their countrymen. It is not, however, the ne plus ultra of choral tone by any stretch of the imagination.
Sight-Reading: Quips Mr. Whitacre, “The Brits are possibly the world’s greatest sight-readers.” Mr. Whitacre bases this claim on the quickness to which English choirs have taken to his music in rehearsals. This is certainly laudable, but I would invite Mr. Whitacre to sit in on the rehearsals of Kent Tritle’s Choir of St. Ignatius in New York City and witness that remarkable ensemble put together a concert of Alfred Schnittke’s “Choir Concerto” on a mere 5 rehearsals. Indeed, on a similarly compact rehearsal schedule, the majority-volunteer San Francisco Symphony Chorus, under the direction of the stunningly musical Ragnar Bohlin, put together an earth-shattering performance of Francis Poulenc’s “Figure Humaine.” None of this could be accomplished through anything less than estimable musical abilities and well-honed sight-reading skills.
And then one comes to the most troubling point: “Knowledge.” Mr. Whitacre makes the general and unsupported statement that, “They [English choral musicians] have the beating hearts of singers and the brains of trained musicians and this places them among the most potent and versatile artists on the planet.” Does this not apply doubly to American choirs, who are expected to regularly perform the music of a much broader cultural inheritance?
The Austin-based professional choir Conspirare, under the direction of my highly-talented colleague Craig Hella Johnson, creates seasons which feature European Renaissance polyphony, the African American Spiritual, and the great repertory of American popular music. The Phoenix Chorale and Kansas City Chorale, with Charles Bruffy at the helm, have recorded GRAMMY-winning albums of the music of Rheinberger, Mantyjarvi, Gretchaninoff and Rene Clausen. The Los Angeles Master Chorale under Grant Gershon regularly pairs Mozart and Haydn with living composers such as Eve Beglarian, Christopher Rouse and Ariel Ramirez.
Even those of us who identify as Early Music ensembles have a much broader repertoire than our UK counterparts. The Rose Ensemble, Jordan Sramek’s remarkable early music gem from Minnesota, tours programs ranging from Gregorian Chant and the Cantigas de Santa Maria to historical music from Hawaii and South American Baroque. Peter Ruttenberg’s Las Angeles Chamber Singers & Cappella won a GRAMMY award for their marvelous recording of the music of the 17th century Mexican composer Juan Guttierez de Padilla (RCM 2006) while still tending to European masters like Lassus, Byrd and Palestrina. My own vocal ensemble, Seraphic Fire, has committed the same time and resources that we give to Bach and Monteverdi to the music of first generation American composers Sydney Guillaume (Haiti), Alvaro Bermudez (Colombia) and Paul Crabtree (UK) who freely mix texts and rhythms from their country of origin and their adopted homeland.
Are American choirs less specialized than British choirs? Perhaps, but not to any detriment to the ensembles. The cultural expectations on our choruses are exceedingly high, with the responsibility to tend to both the European choral tradition as well as the blossoming musical tradition of the Americas. Our choirs regularly tackle Haitian Creole, Korean, Argentinian-inflected Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and many others while still tending to the standard European musical languages (Latin, French, German, Italian, Russian, Old Church Slavonic, Czech, Hungarian, Swedish, Finnish, etc…). This, in this conductor’s admittedly biased opinion, requires an equally broad “knowledge” base from our ensembles.
That a British publication would focus primarily on its own in a “Best Of” list is to be expected. That an American composer nurtured and supported by the American choral community would be so quick to agree is disappointing. As Mr. Whitacre believes that British choirs are best, then let us as American ensembles leave it to his newly-found favourites to perform his music.
Patrick Dupré Quigley