Symphony Choruses: Playing By Their Own Rules

Whether affiliated or independent, symphony choruses travel many roads to success.

The decision in January by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to disband its 147-member chorus at the end of the 2001-2002 season shocked chorus members and raised more than a few eyebrows across the national choral community.

The two basic reasons cited: cost savings and artistic considerations. BSO president John Gidwitz admitted that ending the chorus would save only about $150,000 in the orchestra's annual budget, but the future cost of addressing apparent artistic issues could cost up to $500,000, according to a letter from orchestra management to BSO subscribers and donors. BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov, now in his third year with the orchestra, is known to have wanted changes in order to have "massive amounts of sound," in the words of one chorus member. To do that would require more vocal coaching, more singers, and an increased performance schedule, and management felt that the cost would be more than the orchestra could afford.

BSO Chorus members rejected these explanations, and wondered if it is going to be any easier - or more economical, when fully costed out - for the orchestra to contract with area choruses in the future. Many choral professionals wonder what the BSO thinks it is gaining in the long run, and in a comment to the Baltimore Sun, Gidwitz did acknowledge, "next season is not going to reflect a lot of choral music."

The National Picture

The situation in Baltimore has raised awareness about orchestra-chorus relationships across the country, prompting questions about whether there are advantages, artistically and financially, for choruses and orchestras to affiliate or operate independently.

It turns out that the nature of the orchestra-chorus relationship varies from place to place, and that there is more than one model that works. Whether or not an orchestra maintains its own chorus seems just as dependent on local custom as it does the current "objective" criteria of annual expense, audience reaction, conducting styles, artistic goals - and perhaps most importantly - what kind of "singers market" the community has.

Nearly all communities have one or more small choral groups, but for many, the larger chorus is the natural companion of the local orchestra, if there is one. Most of the estimated 1,200 symphony and chamber orchestras (excluding college and youth orchestras) in the U.S. do not maintain their own choruses, and of the more than 50 that do, the budget size runs from "small" - such as Monterey and Akron - to major orchestras such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Houston.

A first glance, 50 out of 1,200 does not seem like very many, but consider that 1,200 in context: More than half of those orchestras have budgets of less than $500,000 a year, with concert schedules ranging from only one to six per year on average. That's not a likely basis for maintaining a chorus specifically to perform with the orchestra (though a few do).

Among the nation's 200 largest orchestras, the number of concerts each year ranges from the high 20s to more than 200. It is mainly among this group that the 50 or so choruses resident with an orchestra are found. Most such choruses are volunteer, though many have a paid core of singers.

But actual "chorus ownership" may mislead a bit if you're trying to gauge the closeness of orchestra-chorus operations. The independent Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, begun in 1908, has been singing primarily with the Pittsburgh Symphony for the better part of 50 years. The 137-member chorus averages four to six programs with the orchestra each season, in addition to about two of their own programs.

"This year, we have been very, very busy, more so than usual," notes chorus executive director Suzanne Vertosick, with the chorus doing five orchestra concerts, plus two of its own concerts, plus run-outs - plus a performance with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater to boot.

Vertosick reports a chorus-orchestra planning relationship that seems fairly common in the industry: The orchestra management pretty much determines the program, although there is some feedback from the chorus on scheduling and other logistics. The key to the high level of cooperation, Vertosick says, is the orchestra music director's commitment to choral music, and the working relationship with the chorus conductor.

"Both Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons love choral literature," she adds. "The Mendelssohn Choir had a long and marvelous experience with Maazel," who left as the orchestra's music director in 1996. Now the chorus enjoys an exciting relationship with Jansons. "In his first year, we had one choral performance, the Verdi Requiem - a kind of a test case." Both sides passed the test, apparently, because Vertosick feels the chorus is highly energized by, and responsive to, Jansons on the podium.

New Choruses, Versatile Relationships

And while Mendelssohn and many other choruses have been singing with orchestras for a long time, some are brand new. As Baltimore brings its 32-year-old orchestra chorus to an end, other orchestras are starting their own. The Modesto Symphony in California just announced the formation of the Modesto Symphony Orchestra Chorus, which will debut with the orchestra this May in performances of Verdi's Requiem. The Phoenix Symphony just created its own chorus - "Something we had been thinking about for a long, long time," says orchestra president and CEO Joan Squires. "This was an evolution, because we felt we needed the flexibility and control of managing our own group."

Squires expects the chorus roster will probably grow from its current 80 members by the 2002-2003 season. This season, the orchestra did not rely on any one chorus, contracting instead with four ensembles. The orchestra decided that the increased control over scheduling and the opportunity to focus the singing style and repertoire of one permanent group would yield artistic and administrative benefits.

Similarly, The Philadelphia Orchestra decided last year to make The Philadelphia Singers the official resident chorus of the orchestra, but it is still an independent organization. Simon Woods, the orchestra's director of artistic planning and operations, says operational and artistic factors went into the decision. Having a resident chorus allows the orchestra music director to build a long-term relationship with the singers and to work toward achieving a strong, consistent sound - a major consideration, he notes, but practical matters weighed as well.

"We have a lot of choruses in Philadelphia, and we had relationships with all of them over the years. Sometimes we would perform with three or four different choruses each year, and over time, it got to be a bit complicated administratively," he said. Having a wealth of choral talent to choose from is great, but he noted that building an administrative and operational routine with one organization can save you some time each year," and the idea of fixing on one chorus as the primary relationship makes planning easier.

"One of the great things about The Philadelphia Singers is that it is so versatile," Woods notes, as the group's AGMA agreement enables it to adjust chorus size easily for each work, from 30-40 singers for Handel's Messiah to nearly 220 for a performance of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder.

In the 2001-2002 season, the Singers gave 10 performances (of four programs) with the orchestra, and next season are expected to do a similar number. The orchestra pays the group for each concert, basically covering their expenses plus a little to contribute to The Philadelphia Singers' overhead. Woods thinks this affords both the orchestra and the chorus some flexibility, yet builds that consistent working relationship and style that both seek.

The Advantage of Community Connection

Having a permanent orchestra chorus can pay off outside the concert hall as well, many orchestras feel. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra is a good example, with its Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus playing an important role in fundraising and marketing.

The all-volunteer, 260-member chorus raised more than $15,000 from the chorus' members, friends, and family in a short period of time last fall, according to chorus manager Eric Israelson. That "new" money is good for the orchestra, of course, but the chorus' larger value is its capacity to connect the chorus to more people in the community.

Having a permanent orchestra chorus can pay off outside the concert hall as well.. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra is a good example, with its Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus playing an important role in fundraising and marketing.

"There is strong positive feeling in this area for both the chorus and the orchestra," Israelson says, adding that choral performances bring people to the concert hall who might not be there otherwise. Part of it is the family-and-friends connection of the chorus members themselves, but it is also the repertoire.

"We always programmed the season to have a number of choral works," says past CSO executive director Jim Copenhaver, who is now serving as interim executive director until a new manager comes on board. "The scope of what they can do is terrific, and they are a big part of every holiday season in particular." In the course of the CSO's 42 weeks of concerts, the frequent use of the choral repertoire (nine chorus programs with the orchestra this season) is a powerful attraction for audiences. "I don't know what we would do without them," Copenhaver adds.

Prior to the chorus' founding 18 years ago (when the CSO was the Denver Symphony), the orchestra used various community choruses, but the CSO decided to have its own chorus for the same reasons cited by other orchestras that instead chose to have resident choruses: the opportunities for more control over scheduling and logistics, and to develop a more consistent style and sound.

At the West Virginia Symphony, the chorus is a big part of the orchestra's relationship to the community and of management's planning every year, according to orchestra executive director Paul Helfrich. "There is a certain intangible quality that comes when the chorus is part of the orchestra organization," says Helfrich, who feels that the relationship goes two ways. The input of the volunteer 85-member chorus is important to the orchestra, in part because the extended choral family "increases the relevance of the orchestra to the broader community," Helfrich says. "We make sure that we do not take them for granted."

Helfrich incorporates the chorus into some of the decision-making process for the orchestra, such as having a chorus representative on the recent search committee for the new orchestra music director. Each of the candidates for that post conducted a portion of a choral work with the chorus as part of their audition, he says, and participated in a Q-and-A session with the chorus.

Artistic Challenges

It's probably a little easier for the medium-sized orchestra to have that level of involvement. The work-life of most conductors, regardless of orchestra size, seems as much spent on airplanes as in rehearsal or performance, and a common concern among orchestra management today is the difficulty of securing enough conductor face-time for the players - and that is even more so for singers.

Choruses have to achieve the artistic goals envisioned by the podium chief in a limited time. That can present some real downsides. But the variety of conductors can also be positive, especially for those choruses with major orchestras who get a chance to work with the biggest conducting names on a frequent basis.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus - of its 200 singers, nearly 70 percent are paid - is a hardworking and world-famous chorus, and longtime choristers have had some exciting opportunities with varying conducting styles. "In the years with [Georg] Solti, the sound was the same each performance," notes chorus executive director Karen Deschere. "Solti loved choral work, and the chorus loved to work with him," producing many memorable performances and recordings in the choral repertoire.

As always, a different conductor presents a different style, and with music director Daniel Barenboim, "the chorus finds it different every time," and this quality presents its own excitement for the singers. But as with most orchestras today, the music director is not conducting the orchestra as often as in an earlier era, which affords singers an opportunity to learn from and be challenged by a variety of conductors.

When there is a sure hand at the musical helm, however, regardless of the length of the "face time," it works better all the way around. According to Chicago Symphony Chorus music director Duain Wolfe, "The bottom line for the success of any of these ventures is the vital relationship between the music director and the chorus director." These two artistic leaders must share a vision about the chorus and its contribution to the organization as a whole, and then communicate effectively together about how to achieve the results they want.

"The bottom line for the success of any of these ventures is the vital relationship between the music director and the chorus director." Duain Wolfe

The high quality of choral performances by orchestras such as Cleveland, Chicago, and San Francisco is very much related to the devotion of the music director to choral literature. At the San Francisco Symphony, music director Michael Tilson Thomas shows it every time.

The 200-member chorus (with a paid core of 30) gave 41 performances last year, including a tour with the orchestra to New York. "Michael Tilson Thomas is just so exciting to work with," says administrator Gregory Boals, who has worked with the orchestra and chorus through three music directors.

Perhaps because Tilson Thomas is such an admired musical figure throughout San Francisco (and beyond), his passion for choral music translates into a greater community interest in the chorus, Boals feels. And a really good thing, because the transient character of San Francisco's population means that singer slots have to be filled from time to time. But it's no problem attracting would-be choristers: On average, each year the chorus auditions about 120 candidates for the honor.

The honor means work: rehearsals average three nights a week during the orchestra season, according to Vance George, now in his 19th year as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. During his tenure, George has worked with three orchestra music directors devoted to the choral repertoire - Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt, and now Tilson Thomas - each increased the chorus' size and in turn built its reputation. That devotion, George feels, has helped the chorus develop a "high level of seriousness and variety in repertoire - a balance that audiences appreciate."

From George's perspective, being an organic part of the orchestra liberates the chorus from the principal responsibility for overseeing many of the nuts and bolts of organizational operations, such as marketing and fundraising.

In chorus-rich Washington, D.C., the National Symphony Orchestra indulges in the almost exact opposite model, and finds that it works exceedingly well. "We are tremendously lucky," admits Ulrich Bader, artistic administrator at the NSO, which regularly engages four groups: the Choral Arts Society of Washington, The Washington Chorus, the Cathedral Choral Society, and the Washington Bach Consort - and there are other excellent choruses in the area as well.

Choosing which chorus to engage is largely repertoire-driven, Bader says. Even though all of the groups can master almost any repertoire, the NSO tends to use one for church-related works, one for the sprawling, romantic works, and still another for contemporary works. "All of them are great, and we love working with them in such a great choral city," says Bader, noting that having its own chorus "never really needed to be discussed" at the NSO.

When it comes to determining the most advantageous way to structure a relationship between orchestras and choruses, there is no "best practice." Clearly choruses and orchestras are benefiting from a variety of institutional collaborations that work in myriad ways; there is not one dominant factor common to every successful situation. But their success does depend on effective relationships between artistic and administrative leaders who work for the common good of both the orchestras and choruses involved.

Adapted from The Voice, Summer 2002