The Wow Factor

Think choral music is only found in drafty churches or formal concert halls? Think again! These innovators are stretching our imaginations and taking choral performances to the next level.

A choral concert is not everybody's idea of an exciting night out on the town.

I know. It's hard to believe. We so love what we do—the magnificent repertoire, the diligence required to perfect it, the "greater than the sum of its parts" phenomenon that comes when human voices meld together. So, to hear someone say, "You know, I'm not all that into choral music"—well, it's a stunner.

We could just chock this up to different tastes. Or the many, many entertainment options clamoring for people's attention. Or choral music's lower status on the arts totem pole.

But maybe, just maybe, something else is going on. Could it be that, as entertainment, many of our choral concerts simply lack the "wow" factor—that special something that grabs people by the lapels and says, "Listen up. Something really amazing is going on here"?

Could it be that, as entertainment, many of our choral concerts simply lack the "wow" factor-that special something that grabs people by the lapels?

Over the past several months, I've had the pleasure of talking to a number of choral conductors and singers who are doing unusual things to produce a different kind of choral entertainment product. In writing about them for Chorus America's Spotlight on Innovation series in the Voice magazine, I've learned a thing or two about what puts the "zing" into their choral singing.

For some groups, it was an unusual venue that propelled them "out of the box." For others, it was daring to interweave popular and classical repertoire in creative ways. For others, collaborating with other art forms, such as dance, allowed them to move, quite literally, off the stage. Still others made small changes that enhanced the visual appeal of their concert. In every case, the result was a performance that had people talking and exalting all the way home. Here are some highlights.

Choral Music in Unusual Places

This past June, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Leah Stein Dance Company premiered battle hymns, a meditation on war by David Lang, the Pulitzer-prize-winning composer best known for his creation of the Bang on a Can music festival in New York. Among the numerous unusual things about battle hymns was the venue in which it was performed—the 16,000 square foot Armory of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. Built in the early part of the 1900s, the fortress-like space fills an entire city block and provided the singers and dancers a vast "military-themed" canvas on which to explore the music and the text.

Being in such a venue effectively broke down the traditional barriers between the audience and the performers. There was no "stage" in the usual sense. Singers and dancers, in different configurations, moved through the space singing fragments of Civil War love letters, with military timing. Even the audience got into the act. At one point, they were instructed to pick up their chairs and move them to accommodate the action.

Performing in usual spaces serves the larger goal of making a performance visually interesting. "We have the best of the masterworks and this incredible history of repertoire to work with," said Alan Harler, music director of the Mendelssohn Club, "but we also are in a time when the visual is so very important. Let's face it. A chorus is not very interesting to watch—people standing in front of you with their mouths open."

Seeing and Hearing

Asking the chorus to make even small movements can have a huge impact. Last March, the combined forces of the Twin Cities' VocalEssence, the St. Olaf Choir, and one high school honor choir closed out an all-Eric Whitacre program with his "Cloudburst." The tone poem, evoking images of an approaching thunderstorm, was made all the more vivid when the 270 singers slowly raised their arms and began clicking their fingers. The visual and aural effect was stunning. I was surprised there were no raindrops on my shoulders.

Whitacre has long promoted breaking up the fixed pattern of choral concert staging—you file in, stand in rows, wear black, carry black folders, file out. "I would break up the traditional choral formation," Whitacre said in an interview. "It is so formal. Singers can still sing beautifully from different places and structures on the stage, moving between pieces."

"I would also set aside money for a lighting budget," Whitacre said. "I cannot believe we just turn the lights up and everybody comes out and sings for two hours. You can so delicately set the mood with simple lighting."

Hitting 'Em Where They Live

It's one thing to venture outside the concert hall or church sanctuary from time to time. In Bloomington, Indiana, however, the chamber group Voces Novae consistently positions itself in unexpected or stimulating contexts. "We try to use context to make us listen to the music differently," said Susan Swaney, the group's artistic director, "and context then to use the music to look at our lives differently."

Their recent Mother's Day program, "Recycling and Transformation," is a perfect example. Swaney had been reflecting on the life of her mother-in-law, a woman who would spy five wild berries by the roadside and transform them into one delicious turnover for the lucky person who happened to show up as she pulled it out of the oven. "That is essentially an act of recycling," Swaney said, "unrecognizable because she was simply the catalyst by which something ordinary was transformed into something useful or beautiful."

To reinforce the recycling idea, the group found the perfect venue: Habitat for Humanity's ReStore warehouse. "We stacked up building supplies to create a stage," Swaney recalled, "and borrowed a backdrop that had been used for a music festival that was made from recycled rags. We created an instrument out of hanging bottles that the percussionist improvised on."

The music on the program played on the "recycling" theme in clever ways—Durufle's "Ubi Caritas" which incorporates an ancient plainchant, Ockeghem's "Kyrie" from Missa L'Homme Armé which borrows from a famous French folk tune ("The Armed Man"), and "The Cries of London," in which composer Orlando Gibbons weaves the cries of peddlers and town criers into a plainchant. Read the program notes and listen to samples of Voces Novae music.

"We like that place where life and music come together," Swaney said. "What we are trying to do is to translate, in a way, to connect the dots with other things people already know, to find ways to make the music relevant to their lives."

Beatles and Bach, Lassus and Lennox?

Another choral group that has mastered the art of connecting the dots is the professional ensemble Conspirare out of Austin, Texas. Some years back, Craig Hella Johnson, music director, had programmed Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus's The Tears of St. Peter, an intimate dialogue in 21 movements, in which Jesus and Peter explore the impact of betrayal on their friendship.

"Renaissance music can be like choral wallpaper," he said, "like what you might hear walking in a cathedral in Europe. It's nice atmosphere but we have no real connection to the music itself." So he decided to try an experiment. He asked Cynthia Clausen, a gospel and jazz musician who is a frequent collaborator with Conspirare, to sing interpolations between movements. "So, just before we start, Cynthia stands up and sings, 'He's a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land,' and we bolted right into the first madrigal," Johnson recalled. "Something behind me suddenly felt different—that the audience got it."

That was the beginning of what became the "collage" programs, most on display in Conspirare's popular Christmas at the Carillon holiday concerts. The programs are designed as a thought-provoking and moving musical journey, seamlessly interweaving popular songs, classical repertoire, and new commissions. Johnson writes arrangements that combine "Lo How a Rose e'er Blooming" with Bette Midler's "The Rose," and "Silent Night" with "The Impossible Dream." "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again" with "O Come, O Come Immanuel."

To listen to Conspirare is to be transported. To get a feel for their art, visit their page at . You'll find a number of recordings to sample, including A Company of Voices: Conspirare in Concert, also available on DVD.

The collage concerts really ride the area between secular and sacred, between art music and popular music, because for Johnson, there really is no separation.

"There is such a huge and vast repertoire of vocal music, so there's a very natural inclination to look back," Johnson said. "But I happened to grow up in middle America, loving pop music as much as anybody else, so I find that I'm exploring very humbly the music that speaks to me."

"So we can use the text of a 13th-century mystic right next to the text of a song by Annie Lennox, letting those texts talk to each other."

Excellence in All Things

Of course, innovation amounts to little if the final product is not of the highest quality. "We laugh about these collage concerts," Conspirare singer Pam Elrod said. "Craig says, 'Don't try this at home.' It is a real art. But wouldn't it be great if choral music could become something that was able to speak to more than just a select audience?"

Yes, it would be great. That's what we choral singers aspire to—to be entertainers, in the best sense, connecting with our audience, giving them an experience they may never have had, moving them so deeply that "wow" is the only appropriate response.