A Case for the American Choir: A Response to Eric Whitacre

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.

Pomerium

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.

Chanticleer

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.

Kent Tritle

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?

Craig Hella Johnson

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.

The Rose Ensemble

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
Artistic Director
Seraphic Fire

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20 responses to “A Case for the American Choir: A Response to Eric Whitacre

  1. THANK YOU for speaking so eloquently and in truth against this. Being in two world-class ensembles – Antioch Chamber Ensemble ( where we made the European debut of Whitacre’s “City and the Sea” and won first prize in Tolosa, Spain the year after The Rose Ensemble) and The Crossing in Philadelphia, a group that performs ONLY new music, this is so important to speak up against. Their scope as far as I am concerned was much too small and certainly does not take into account the sheer volume of government funding to make such recordings on their part. America is home to some of teh world’s greatest choral groups, and if you don’t believe me, go to YouTube. Antioch’s recprding of “Sleep” by Eric Whitacre has the same impact and more with half the group size of Polyphony. Please don’t leave Trinity Wall Street off of this list, either. This is single-handedly one of the best ensembles in the world right now.
    Thank YOU!

  2. Glad to see someone else took the time to respond as well.

  3. Thank you so much for your eloquent words, Patrick. I very much enjoyed reading them. I’ve never sung with any ensemble in England, so I have to reserve comment there … but surely, as you point out, there is just as much musicality and dedication on this side of the pond.

    Sincerely,
    Suzanne
    (don’t know if you remember me. I remember rehearsing with you @ Marquand Chapel, when I pointed out that the fluorescent lights were in the same key as our motet. fun times. :)

  4. Well said patrick, well said.

  5. Thank you, Patrick. A beautifully written and well thought out response!

  6. Bravo, maestro! Leave it to Eric to essentially burn the bridges that promoted him to his fame — I am pretty sure Mike (Scheibe), who was the first to publish any of Eric’s music and frequently programmed his stuff from chicken scratch manuscript would disagree with many of Eric’s sentiments. I would add one thing to the sight-reading, when Eric cites an English choir reading down his music. Eric’s music is NOT difficult to sight-read, especially if you are a chorister raised on that kind of harmonic structure as you point out. Frankly, it is not an accurate baseline to use his own music as a ruler. U of Miami’s Chorale could read the hardest Whitacre pieces with upwards of 90% accuracy on a first read — and we’re talking American undergraduate students — because that was the language they were most familiar with.

    I am thrilled that you also point out how diverse American choirs are compared to our European counterparts. The discographies of groups like KC Chorale, Conspirare, and even our own Seraphic Fire show what is expected for a successful American ensemble. We would all lose our audiences if all we did was pretty, semi-crunchy disonances. In that vein, I would even argue that American choirs are – gasp – better than English ones because our audiences are more demanding. I doubt the Cambridge Singers are singing New Orleans jazz, Cyndi Lauper, and true grit gospel and then a month later performing a sylistically correct, perfectly polished “Messiah” to sold-out audiences.

    Again, bravo!!

  7. well, I tend to agree with Eric – even though I’ve tried time after time to find an American choir I really really like but haven’t succeeded, I just don’t like the sound, can’t imagine why, really.

    BUT

    this is of course my preference for sound and doesn’t have a thing to do which is best. Can one say which is best? My own beloved chamber choir shared the first prize in a competition in France a few years ago with a Russian group that sang “Matona mia cara” with heavy vibrato. I would have given them zero points.

    My favourite choir in the world isn’t on Gramophone’s list though, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir…

  8. And now of course I must contradict myself – why didn’t I go through the links in the post before speaking? ;)

    As of now I love the Pomerium sound – and probably many more, thanks for all the links…

  9. Thanks for your timely and thoughtful response to Whitacre’s article. I was quite hot-headed about his comments, so I am glad you were able to put into words what so many of us are thinking.

    Point of clarification on earlier posts: Dale Warland published Water Night in his series, and around the same time Barbara Harlow published three scores with Santa Barbara Music Publishing. To be open and fair, I have strong ties to both DW and SBMP.

  10. I also feel a certain responsibility to ensure that Dale Warland and his namesake Dale Warland Singers are also included in the list of top American choirs. Like Matthew Culloton above, I must be transparent and state that I was Dale’s final composer-in-residence in 2003–2004 and was the recipient of several commissions and performances by DWS. That said, I would have made this post regardless of that affiliation because I had admired for many years prior to that affiliation the quality of sound, musicality, and other attributes of fine choral singing that were manifest in that ensemble.

    There are certainly other fine choirs and conductors that I could mention in addition to those already cited by Patrick and others who have already replied to this post, but I’ll leave the additional references to those who might still reply to Patrick’s post and will hope that none of my choral friends and colleagues will take offense at my not mentioning them here. The fact is that there are many fine choral ensembles throughout the world, which is testament to the efforts of singers and conductors internationally to produce quality performances of great choral literature.

  11. Patrick — thank you for your eloquent defense of what American vocal ensembles do best. We might add Anonymous 4 to the list of world-class ensembles, whose reputation is based on tuning, sight-reading, tone, and knowledge. I also am admittedly highly biased toward the best American choirs’ renditions of spirituals, in which my own Chicago a cappella has a specialty; almost without exception, I find British choruses’ interpretations of spirituals to be lacking the “moan,” an essential characteristic of the genre which cannot be transmitted by the score alone. It must (and fortunately can) be transmitted orally.
    I have had firsthand experience in England of the breathless excitement that happens when a pickup group of singers reads through a score the first time, with all the notes there and with a shimmer to the tuning that rarely happens on first reading here in the USA, and it is easy to be seduced thereby. The fact that this experience is rarer here, partly because American singers have different orientations, experiences and sensibilities, should not doom us to the peanut gallery of critical opinion.

  12. Thank you, Patrick! And eloquently said without taking away from the praise that British choirs certainly deserve.

  13. Eloquent?

    Wow, Mr Quigley, this is one of the most immature things I’ve read in a long while.

    I don’t agree with Whitacre’s comments at all: I have a strong preference for US choirs. I was on your side, Patrick, until the last paragraph, but your comment at the end is just incredibly juvenile: “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.”

    This, unfortunately, belies your insecurity. Why didn’t you read through your article and delete that sentence before publishing it?

    After an entire article suggesting that EW is wrong to favor UK choirs over US ones, you now exhort your US colleagues to abandon his music. Why? Because he said he prefers British choirs to American ones? Really? That’s all it takes to give up on a composer? And this is coming from, you, a serious musician who’s work most likely acts as a role model for other conductors and choirs.

    I’m sorry for those who think and have commented that this is “eloquent”. Since when is suggesting a boycott of another composer’s music, simply because of his/her opinion eloquent?

    Since when has musical worth been equated with patriotism? You’ve lost a lot of my respect as a musician, Mr Quigley (and that’s a lot coming from me: I detest EW’s music).

    You will, no doubt, be forced to retract that last sentence, which sounds as if it’s been excerpted from a late 1940′s HUAC transcript, in time: it’s quite un-American, you know.

    • Yes, the last sentence was an emotional reaction to an article that brought into question everything PQ has worked for. I can personally forgive him for that one slip. I think the term “eloquent” was intended for his words about the diversity and flexibility of the great choirs in the states. Besides, are you any better for your ‘Glenn Beck’ like comparison of PQ to what were essentially Nazis and KKK members? What is wrong with you? This is choral music for crying out loud!

  14. Patrick Quigley’s essay above mostly says very clearly and concisely what I would say: the breadth and skill of American music-making is extraordinary, and Whitacre’s Gramophone article seems to ignore that. A lot of professional musicians on this side of the pond were justifiably miffed.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a few of the folks who responded above; both Chicago A Cappella and the Dale Warland Singers have brought me to tears when they have sung the music I have written for them.
    (Thanks, Matt and Jonathan!) And there are many, many other American ensembles who also bring the qualities EW mentions (tone, reading, knowledge, and so forth) to bear on their musical work. Others I didn’t see mentioned above: New York Virtuoso Singers, Volti, The Esoterics, Santa Fe Desert Chorale, etc., etc., etc. I love American singing!

    I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest a boycott of EW’s work, but I can certainly understand the impulse. If I feel like someone has poked me in the eye, my first impulse is to poke him back. My better impulse says: Eric, you need to get out more, at least in your home country. If PQ, whose group is based in Florida, can come visit Kent Tritle’s rehearsals in NYC, why don’t you? Wouldn’t you like to know what’s out there besides the groups who do your kind of music?

    To all: It’s worth reading EW’s response on his web page (see link in the comments above) … I am glad that he loves all choirs. And I am sorry that an editor titled his article in a way he considers misleading. However, when one is as famous as EW, and knows that one is going to be quoted in a very public forum, one needs to consider carefully how readers are going to take one’s words.

    And if one has annoyed or hurt the members of one’s community (the American choral community in this case), a sincere apology, rather than self-justification or an attempt to blame an editor for a misunderstanding, would be welcome.

    • Martha,

      Thanks for your well thought out and poke-less response. I read your response directly to Mr. Whitacre as well, and found that just as unsurprisingly cogent, well-considered, and -written. [full disclosure: Ms. Sullivan and I are good friends and fellow composers]. I agree that Grammphone could have presented his comments more accurately and in their original context. It certainly must have been a shock to see the headline they ran with his article, which naturally slanted how every person read it thereafter. While I don’t think he had a responsibility to answer the questions he was asked any differently, I agree with you that he DOES have a responsibility, given his popularity in this country’s choral world, to make clear that his own beliefs were misrepresented, perhaps even to the extent you suggest, of writing a companion essay on the virtues of American (and other nantionalities’?) choirs.

      I appreciated seeing “shout-outs” in other replies to various American groups, with many of which I’ve either sung or have a personal connection. Anyone looking for a good example of a single group’s versatility can check out Kent Tritle and the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola‘s recording Wondrous Love, which spans nearly a millenium of choral music, from Perotin’s Sederunt principes to my own Hosanna Filio David, and John Kennedy’s Someday, both recorded there for the first time. As an 18-year member of that choir, I was part of countless Sunday morning rehearsals where pieces far more challenging than most of Mr. Whitacre’s were put together in a half and hour or less (leaving time for the morning’s other motets, psalms, chants, ets.), and this is the church’s resident group, not the expanded concert choir. I sincerely doubt that more than a handful of other choirs sight-read as well.

      Nobody else seems to have mentioned Voices of Ascension, whose beauty of tone, and the clarity its director Dennis Keene is so, well, keen on (yes, pun intended). While our (yes, I sang for many years with them, too) Renaissance recordings may not have the same scholarly approach of Pomerium or the Tallis Scholars, I’ll put our Missa Papae Marcelli up against anyone’s.

      But what I think sets VoA apart, and is emblematic of American choirs as a whole vs. British ones, is the visceral depth of feeling they [we] display time and again, without sacrificing beauty of tone, intonation, or any other of myriad musical concerns. Go hear VoA sing the Duruflé Requiem on Wed. May 11, 2011, as they celebrate the inauguration of the new organ at the Church of the Ascension in NYC and you’ll know immediately what I’m talking about.

      Get a chance, too, if you can, to sit in on the first rehearsal for any New York Virtuoso Singers rehearsal concert, where you’re likely to encounter more of the very best sight-reading in the world.

  15. Pingback: A Dialogue (sortof) with Eric Whitacre’s Manager | The Fire of Eternal Glory

  16. Let’s all calm down a bit and call this for what it really is, which is Gramophone stirring the pot a little in order to generate publicity. Eric Whitacre did not title that article and his response to PQ is fair enough. Anyone who knows anything about the slick publicity that has contributed (along with his music) to Whitacre’s rise to fame will know that he is not so daft as to turn his back on the American Choral tradition. Also take into account that Gramophone is a group that focuses on recordings. If you titled the article “top 20 choirs that are producing multiple albums in any given year” I doubt it would have created as much of a reaction. But it is not like Gramophone would actually give the list such a dull title.

    Being half British and half American, I have sung in great choirs in the States and in England. In reading the gramophone list, PQ’s response and finally the above comments, I was surprised to see that I has sung in many of the ensembles named. The Rose Ensemble, Trinity Wall Street, Saint Ignatius, Trinity College Cambridge etc. I have spent a great deal of time in both nations singing in various choirs/choruses and can say with absolute certainty that they are just different. No better or worse than the other. The one thing I will give England is that they have a better system, tradition and dedication for/of/to recording choirs, which again was probably Gramophone’s main criteria in their list. But then is this art form like pop music? Is the essence of choral music found on recordings? For all our sakes, I hope not.

  17. I agree with him! American choral singers are called upon to sing a huge range of styles, not all of which require the Brittish style of white, hollow tones. Something he fails to mention also, is that so many British choirs are church- trained and supported.

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