Building Today's Professional Choruses

Adventuresome repertoire, distinctive voices, flexible organizations, and innovative productions have expanded the concept of what a professional chorus looks like today—here's what it takes to excel.

"That's okay. You can call it a chorus," says Jonathan Miller. "I'm not offended." Like many founders of the current generation of professional vocal ensembles, Miller, artistic director of Chicago a cappella, politely sidesteps traditional labels. Chorus, chorale, choir, or ensemble? Singer, vocalist, or performer? Concert, event, performance, or experience? Take your pick, mix and match.

There's just one thing that everyone agrees on: artistic excellence at the highest levels of professionalism.

Robert Shaw, Roger Wagner, and Norman Luboff set the foundation stones of the 20th century professional choral movement, defining a level of vocal excellence and bringing it to the masses through recordings and touring. They carried the standards of their chamber choirs into the symphonic realm, breathing new stature into the art form.

Their direct heirs expanded the concept of the professional chorus with adventuresome repertoire, distinctive voices, flexible organizations, and innovations in programming. A chorus could still be an eponymous touring and recording juggernaut like the Dale Warland Singers, but at the same time it could be a large, versatile resident organization, like Philip Brunelle's VocalEssence Chorus and Ensemble Singers.

The next epoch of professional choruses was launched quietly in 1978 around a table in San Francisco when Louis Botto gathered a group of friends to drink wine and sing Renaissance music. Informal gatherings led to concerts for friends, to modest regional tours, to a New York debut, to a last-minute appearance at a major international festival when another organization cancelled. Along the way the singers quit their day jobs and Chanticleer was born.

So many of Chanticleer's revolutionary acts have been assimilated into today's professional vocal ensembles that we take them for granted. Chanticleer broke the sound barrier for the American choral experience by bringing the all-male choral tradition into the concert hall, shaking up traditional notions of mixed SATB touring choruses. Countertenors? Unheard of in the States. But their influence was more than the novelty of their sound. With programming and attitude, they broke down the fourth wall of stage, taking out the conductor as middleman and keeping the house lights up to allow for eye contact with the audience.

They fanned out into the concert hall after their performances, engaging audiences in a personal way. They leveraged the then-new technology of compact discs to the hilt, creating a vast catalogue of recordings and generating an on-site cash revenue stream from selling discs in the lobby with the sound of music and applause still in everyone's ears.

They changed how such singers perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others. The one thing Chanticleer didn't break was the bank: By establishing a firm footing with their Bay Area constituency and supplementing it with an aggressive touring program they became the first independent chorus providing a full-time salary to singers.

"Artistic excellence is harder than I ever thought it would be. It makes demands on your personal and spiritual and financial resources."

The life of a Chanticleerian is not for the faint of heart. In addition to a full subscription season and a packed Christmas calendar, there are ongoing educational and outreach concerts and private engagements. There is an ambitious recording program, television appearances, and 24 weeks of touring in the U.S. and abroad. When at home there are rehearsals five days a week.

"Chanticleer is not just a job," says former music director Matt Oltman. "It's a life. You have to give up a lot. Don't ever think you are going to have a dog or a plant or go on a vacation with friends." The telepathy forged in rehearsals—hints, cues, looks, movements—are non-transferable. There are no understudies or replacements. Raging fever? Sore throat? The singer must go on. Says Oltman, "There is no 'sick' in Chanticleer."

There have been times when Chanticleer has had to beat the bushes to find new members. Established singers are not willing to drop everything, available singers are often available, well, for a reason. But in recent years there has been a fundamental change in the applicant pool. Just as a previous generation bonded to the recordings of Shaw and Warland, this generation has bonded to the sound of Chanticleer. Conservatory-trained singers have studied and trained with Chanticleer as their goal. They are not auditioning for a job. They are reaching for a dream.

Jonathan Miller, who grew up in Chicago singing in several choruses, became frustrated in the 1990s when he could find no ensemble in Chicago that addressed his needs as a singer. What he wanted was an ensemble that engaged the full spectrum of music from Renaissance to classics to spirituals to jazz to contemporary.

His day job at the time was selling advertising to the computer industry, and while in San Francisco on business he took the bold step of calling the Chanticleer office to ask if he might "sit at their feet." In days of yore a potential competitor who dared to sit at a maestro's feet was just as likely to get a kick in the teeth as a bit of advice, but Chanticleer founder Louis Botto and then executive director Susan Duncan welcomed Miller with open arms.

"Great!" said Botto. "Take some of the pressure off of us!" They spent the afternoon with Miller, sharing spreadsheets, budgets, and wisdom.

Botto threw down the gauntlet. "Be absolutely relentless in insisting on artistic excellence and doors will open for you," he told Miller. "I have tried to live up to that challenge ever since and it has not been easy," says Miller. "Artistic excellence is harder than I ever thought it would be. It makes demands on your personal and spiritual and financial resources."

Perhaps from having observed succession scenarios in the software industry, Miller learned that for an entrepreneur to ensure the continued success of his brainchild is to know when to let go. Fulfilling his pledge to Botto has meant letting go one rein at a time. He stopped singing to serve as music director, then relinquished that role to focus on programming. He served as board president and as a board member, and finally stepped off the board altogether.

"I have other ways to contribute now that I wouldn't have if I had held on so tightly," he says. He writes the "recipes" that blend music and musicology into Chicago a cappella's 90-minute "multi-level experiences." He explores opportunities for collaboration and takes an active role in fundraising.

The "Frequent Flyer" Model

It was during his studies in Germany under Helmuth Rilling that Craig Hella Johnson first observed the model by which singers would gather for a period of a week or two for intensive rehearsals and performances.

When he arrived in Austin to direct choral activities at the University of Texas and felt the need "to create something that had my own musical values," he reached to the virtual chorus model he had seen in Germany.

But there was a bit of a hitch: In Europe, with its dense pool of vocal talent and infrastructure of train service, the logistics of getting a group of singers together for a short-term residency were a bit easier. Johnson's grid is geographically broader and dependent on airplanes.

The resulting ensemble, Conspirare, has been what Johnson calls a process of "experimentation and exploration." Currently, approximately one-third of Conspirare's singers are based in Austin and the remainder fly in for one or two weeks as many as seven times per year. Conspirare pays airfare and a per diem as well as a performance fee. Singers are housed with host families, a program that both saves money and builds community relationships.

"Flying singers in is an incredibly expensive model," Johnson concedes, but it allows him the depth of vocal color, the horsepower, and the flexibility necessary to give the Austin community the highest level of choral artistry. It's arduous for singers—airplanes dehydrate the body and they often have other engagements sandwiched on either side—but, as professionals, he says, they are good at self-care. "They are athletes," he says.

For its first three years, Patrick Dupré Quigley's Seraphic Fire, based in South Florida, drew its roster primarily from a superb corps of doctoral students at the University of Miami. Now just one singer is from Miami, the rest recruited from what Quigley calls "the American Airlines Choir," a distinguished group of "choral mercenaries" who make their living performing with professional vocal ensembles.

Essential to their professional expertise is their capacity to adapt to the unique identity of each chorus and each community. Quigley and Johnson share several singers, but to sing in Austin with Conspirare is not the same as singing with Seraphic Fire in Miami—the skilled singers adapt artistically as needed.

"Seraphic Fire is not a local ensemble," says Quigley. "We are a national ensemble based in Miami. The business and artistic model is designed to support that objective."

It's not only the singers, who are jetting around to form unique ensembles in different locales—more choral conductors are now mirroring the travel schedules of their orchestral counterparts.

Most weeks Charles Bruffy is on a plane between Phoenix and Kansas City so that he can serve as artistic director of both the Phoenix and Kansas City Chorales, each a fully professional ensemble. Careful attention to the logistical details of Duain Wolfe's extensive travel schedule is paramount to navigating his leadership of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and the choral programs at the Aspen Music Festival and the National Arts Center in Ottawa.

The convenience of rail service between New York City and Philadelphia has made it possible for David Hayes to juggle his leadership of The Philadelphia Singers with his positions at The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Mannes College of Music, and the Curtis Institute of Music. And these packed schedules don't even account for the demands that guest conducting gigs overlay on top.

Parity for Professionals

Whether they exist as virtual choruses, resident choruses, regional choruses, or touring choruses, all professional ensembles struggle to compensate singers as best they can. Aside from Chanticleer, the only other non-military North American chorus that pays a full-time salary is Cantus, a nine-member ensemble based in Minneapolis.

"This is their full-time job," says executive director Mary Lee. " They sing for a living. They don't have to scramble. They don't have to put two jobs together. They are getting a paycheck." Their schedules are based on a 40-hour week and their positions include benefits and a 403(b) match.

A medievalist with a background in vocal performance and harpsichord, Jordan Sramek, like Jonathan Miller, was also unable to find an ensemble that fit his designs in the Twin Cities.

"I was quite naive," he says, thinking he could just "grab a bunch of singers who were more than singers" and put on a show. He was unaware of the artistic, organizational, and financial requirements. There were press releases to be sent, fundraisers to be organized, and tickets to be sold out front before getting on stage to sing.

"I wasn't thinking, 'How do I start a nonprofit?'" says Sramek. "I was thinking 'How do I sell enough tickets to pay all my players and singers?'" Sramek managed the ensemble from his bedroom for several years before incorporating The Rose Ensemble as a 501(c)3 organization.

Inherent in his goal was the expectation that he would pay singers and instrumentalists alike. Sramek "resists and resents" the notion that the voice is a commodity.

"I will never pay an instrumentalist more than a singer," he says. Sramek believes The Rose Ensemble pays at the high end of the scale for the Twin Cities, but he is aware that it's a mixed blessing for performers. The time demands of The Rose Ensemble are too high to allow for a day job, but the compensation is too low to pay a living wage. "We expect our musicians to make The Rose Ensemble their number one musical priority, but it's not necessarily their number one source of income," he says.

"We expect our musicians to make The Rose Ensemble their number one musical priority, but it's not necessarily their number one source of income."

The Handel and Haydn Society, one of America's oldest ensembles, endeavors to bridge the gap between singers and performers seamlessly.

"We are one organization," says executive director Marie-Helene Bernard. Concert programs can feature any combination of artists. Though instrumentalists perform under union contract and the singers are non-union, the organization tries to offer a comparable working environment.

Bernard is no stranger to such an integrative approach, having served previously as manager of the Cleveland Orchestra and its chorus. Resources may be more limited at H&H compared to a major orchestra, but Bernard says the Society is in no way at a disadvantage because of it.

"Because we are per-service we can be more nimble and creative and engage our musicians closer in feeling that they are more a part of what's going on," she says. "The ensemble is a smaller and tighter group that forms around the musicmaking. Singers are much more active participants."

The Los Angeles Master Chorale is also a per-service organization. Music director Grant Gershon says that those of his choristers who do make a full-time living do so by combining their Master Chorale work with the Los Angeles Opera Chorus (that Gershon also leads), lucrative studio work, and traditional professional engagements such as church and solo jobs.

Canada's Elmer Iseler Singers are paid an hourly wage, and since the chorus performs around 60 concerts a year it is a sizable portion of their income, according to artistic director Lydia Adams. Adams says a few singers are able to make a full-time living singing, but "their calendars are mystifying to me." Others have school jobs that enable them freedom to tour, although according to Adams, to pull it off "We need sympathetic principals!"

The Earned Income Imperative

To support their ambitious agendas today's professional choruses rely more heavily on earned income than the traditional volunteer chorus. Touring is the most profitable of activities, in part because they can leverage programming from subscription concerts. They are strategic in their logistics, hunting down airfares, doubling up in hotels, staying with host families, and engaging their internal marketing resources to supplement those of presenters. Return engagements are milestones, enabling the development of relationships with loyal audiences and enthusiastic presenters.

But touring is more than a mercenary activity for these ensembles. "Touring is a most important part of the Elmer Iseler Singers' mandate and reflects our mission," says Adams. The chorus just finished a 17-performance tour of a contemporary opera fusing Cree language and legends. Toronto audiences may get a heavier dose of contemporary music, but in the hinterlands, "We try toprovide an entertainment package that will be universally enjoyed by a general audience," she says.

Recording programs of these professional ensembles are more than just marketing tools for nurturing audiences and advancing the artistic mission. Though Chanticleer no longer has a major label recording contract—theirs with Warner vanished like recording contracts in all genres of classical music—its significant catalogue still generates 10 percent of its budget.

Sramek says that on Rose Ensemble tours it is not uncommon for one-third of the audience to buy a disc at the performances. Touring generates half of Cantus's revenue, in part because of CD sales.

"After the performance, the audience goes right to the table," says Lee. Mindful that consumer technology is evolving, Cantus is also focusing on digital download sales and experimenting with download cards, a credit-card sized form of media that can be sold or distributed for free. Download cards are a particularly valuable marketing tool for school audiences, a market for whom CDs are like, you know, so last century.

Equally as important as earned income is the entrepreneurial contribution of the artistic director. Unlike larger institutions, the wall between art and commerce is permeable. Quigley was both artistic and executive director of Seraphic Fire until last year, and though he was able to give up the executive portion of his duties, he is still very much involved in business strategy.

"I don't have the luxury of being the 'maestro,' at least not in my own mind. Sometimes publicly I have to play that role, but I am a business person too. I spend as much time with Excel as with a musical score," he says.

Robert Nance, founder and artistic director of the Fort Wayne's Heartland Chorale, sees achieving Heartland's mission not as artistic and educational imperatives, but in business terms as well. Heartland's programs are, he says, "a series of products" that can be sold to outlying communities and presented to a wide range of audiences. "I see myself as an entrepreneur looking for any way to make art happen," he says. "You've got to hustle."

Innovation—But Not for Its Own Sake

Each of these organizations pushes the envelope in performance practice and repertoire in their own way, but at the heart of all is an intense fidelity to the voice. The Rose Ensemble may take its audience on a journey to 19th-century Hawaii, the Heartland Chorale may take theirs to Broadway, but never is innovation allowed to override the primacy of the vocal experience.

At various times in various ensembles there is creative staging and movement (what has come to be known as "choralography"), but dancing and acting are left to artists in those fields. Instrumentalists may get the occasional solo, but they are more likely to be subordinate to the singing.

Text and dialogue serve as continuity to support the music, not the other way around. Attire stays within the bounds of good taste. Cantus eschews tuxedos or tails in favor of stylish black suits with white shirts and a pale purple tie. "The goal is to be recognizable when they are off stage without being off-putting," says Lee.

Repertoire can be a cornerstone of innovation—as well as an important differentiator. Harold Rosenbaum, director of The New York Virtuoso Singers and The Canticum Novum Singers, makes contemporary choral music a specialty of his performing ensembles, which together have premiered more than 400 new works.

Albert NcNeil founded the McNeil Jubilee Singers in 1968, which through extensive touring and recording has earned international acclaim for it wide-ranging repertoire of African-American folk music, including Negro spirituals, gospels, and vocal forms derived from African-Caribbean and African music.

Innovation simply for the sake of innovation is not the motive of these founders. When Sharon Hansen first arrived in Milwaukee to direct choral activities at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee she discovered a community rich with symphonic, volunteer, and religious choirs. Like Craig Hella Johnson, Hansen had also trained under Helmuth Rilling (she is also a Rilling scholar and has written a biography of him), but what she was looking for in Milwaukee was an ensemble in the image of the Dale Warland Singers, whose recordings she had embraced growing up ("That's my generation," she says).

She decided to start a chorus of her own. But when she held auditions for what she expected would be a mixed choir, she found that the female singers who applied were far stronger than the male voices.

"It was a dilemma," she says. "I had no intention of starting a women's chorus, so all of a sudden I had to figure out what a women's chorus was." No ensemble at the time quite fit her vision: Peninsula Women's Chorus was too big, Sweet Honey in the Rock too small. Her organization finally found its voice and its identity as the Milwaukee Choral Artists, an 18-member ensemble, one of a handful of professional women's choruses in North America today.

Innovation is organizational as well as musical. Cantus defines itself as a "collaborative organization." There is no music or artistic director. Instead, there is a three-singer artistic council, with one assigned to facilitating programming, one to communications, one to scheduling. Each piece has a producer who initiates the rehearsal process and outlines the shape of how a work will be performed.

"Because they don't have a music director they are constantly coaching and directing each other in rehearsal," says Lee. "They have a very high tolerance for discussion." As part of its outreach initiative Cantus offers open rehearsals so audiences can observe the process in action. Might it not be a bit dangerous, perhaps, to exhibit a group of nine highly talented singers creating art in front of the public? Someone could get injured when sparks fly. Not at all, says Lee. "Is there discussion? Absolutely. Are there conflicts? Very few."

"Because they don't have a music director they are constantly coaching and directing each other in rehearsal. They have a very high tolerance for discussion."

Lest it be assumed that there is a fer'em or agin'em attitude between innovators and traditionalists, most of these organizations bridge the gap from within. Hansen's MCA collaborates on symphonic programs but also with Present Tense, a contemporary music ensemble. Hansen loves 19th-century French and German repertoire for women's voices, but she also commissioned 10 new works for their 10th anniversary.

Gershon believes he has the best of both worlds: a large symphonic chorus in the image of its founder, Roger Wagner, and a flexible roster of professional singers who can adapt to any genre. In any given week there may be a collaboration with Meredith Monk, a Verdi Requiem with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or the Saint Matthew Passion. "The Master Chorale is a one-stop shop," says Gershon.

The Next Pioneer

Gershon is the rare music director who has been able to observe the evolution of the choral movement from a single perspective, having grown up in Los Angeles and experienced the Master Chorale through all three of his predecessors—Roger Wagner, John Curie, and Paul Salamunovich.

The sound of the chorus, he says, has become more "informed," influenced by factors such as rising levels of musicianship, the period instrument movement, and an enhanced focus on contemporary music. The tone is "leaner, lighter, more focused, and more expressive," he says. It takes less time to learn new works.

"In the 1960s, preparing something like the Ligeti Requiem would have presented huge challenges for the chorus and required an enormous amount of rehearsal time to get it up and running," says Gershon. "Nowadays we can do this kind of repertoire relatively quickly and easily. Preparing new music is no longer a big deal."

What is the next chapter in the evolution of professional choruses? Chances are it's already happening somewhere, a new kind of "vo-chor-ensemb-us" led by a pioneer outside the comfort zone of even the most progressive of today's artistic leaders.

Says Gershon, "I think that the field will continue to diversify with the creative energy and the great entrepreneurial spirit of my fellow artistic directors and a new generation of conductors yet to come. They will continue to expand what it means to be a choral ensemble and a choral singer."

Expanding horizons has also meant redefining how the chorus is perceived, starting with the name. Whether it's an emblem (a rose), a text ("Seraphic Fire" is from a William Billings invocation), or a spirit ("Heartland"), these names replaced cities and conductors as brands. For decades the eponymous professional chorus was the standard. One hold-out is the Elmer Iseler Singers.

"His legacy in Canada is enormous," says Adams. "He was the first Canadian conductor to have the dream of making truly great music with a fully professional choir and he carried out his dream." Far from seeing it as a burden, Adams sees his legacy as a gift. "It doesn't take away from me and my present work," she says, and though she acknowledges that there are challenges with having maintained Iseler's name, there would be similar challenges were they to change it. "We have all made it work," she says.

Quigley hopes to see fewer boundaries between the concept of symphony and opera and chorus, so that ensembles are defined not by their name or their organizational structure or even by their performers but by the experience they deliver.

"I am very thankful to Robert Shaw for what he did for choral music," he says. "His legacy was that he said you can be more. But now that we have what Shaw was going for, what do we do next? How do we expand the possibilities and the repertoire? I think that Shaw and his contemporaries would be so glad to see what they did as a beginning place rather than as an ending place."

This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2010.