Tongue-Tied in the Chorus

Monday, December 06, 2010 - 05:21 PM

Los Angeles Master Chorale Los Angeles Master Chorale (

WQXR celebrates choral music in the month of the December. It's a fine idea, except that we need a longer month. Is it going out on a limb to suggest that more classical music has been made over time by human voices together than by any other form of expression? I’m counting choral music sung by school students of any age, church and other religious choirs, community choirs and professional choirs.

You can be a really, really fine singer and be in a choir. Marilyn Horne, Marni Nixon, and Harve Presnell were all, at one time, members of the Roger Wagner Chorale, a highly-esteemed West Coast-based choir that began in the 1950s and exists today as the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

You can also be just barely able to sing and be in a choir. I have a particular memory of a ninth-grade classmate who came to choir class without a bucket – and he needed one. He was placed between a couple of the better singers in the group, and by the end of the first semester, he was, in fact, able to carry a tune without using any item of janitorial hardware. There are large choirs, doubtless the best-known of which is the 360-member Mormon Tabernacle Choir. On the other end of the spectrum are one-on-a-part ensembles.

I’ve sung in good choirs and not-as-good choirs, in ensembles large and small, singing early music and brand-new music. I’ve been a useful chorister, and, at least one time, a completely useless one. It happened in Avery Fisher Hall in 1995, at a performance by Armin Jordan and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. I had joined an expanded version of one of New York’s best amateur choirs, I Cantori di New York, as it was known at the time, to be part of the chorus in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2. I’ve never confessed this to Cantori New York Artistic Director Mark Shapiro, but I didn’t sing a note in that concert.

Not one. The lyrics weren’t an issue, because there aren’t any – all you sing in that piece is “aah.” But, you see, it was the first time I had ever been on stage with a large, professional symphony orchestra, and it was the first time I’d heard that music, which begins like the sun coming up on the most beautiful summer morning in the history of the world – and then builds from there.

Standing in the first row behind the orchestra, I was completely emotionally overwhelmed by the music welling up on that stage, so choked up I couldn’t make a single sound. Fortunately, my choral colleagues kept their emotions in check and did their jobs, and the performance was very successful. I failed utterly, and it was one of the mostly thrilling musical moments of my life.

What’s your best choral-singing memory?


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Comments [13]

D Tremper from Maplewood, NJ

In undergrad at Trenton State College we sang Messiah. It was a thrilling experience in itself, but uncharacteristically, my parents were considering coming down to attend. With the lighting I couldn't see the audience to know if they had arrived. But when I heard that distinctive smoker's cough/throat clearing, I knew Mom was there. My apologies to whoever sat next to her!

Jan. 03 2012 07:43 PM
ellen diamond from Manhattan

Sang with Interracial Fellowship Chorus in the '50's, Canby Singers in the 70's and 90's and the Dessoff Choirs in 2008-10. I was lucky enough with them to sing amazing pieces at Carnegie and Avery Fisher Hall, but the most fun was when we spontaneously broke into song outside a Park Slope church where we were to perform an hour later, gathering a crowd that seemed as happy to be hearing us as we were to be singing.

Jan. 26 2011 08:30 PM
Michael Meltzer

Whether you are paralyzed with fear, spellbound by the musical experience or have a sore throat, NEVER stand there with your mouth shut. Camcorders are sweeping the chorus and the orchestra looking for something interesting to fasten on, ready to make a closed-mouth chorister famous!

Jan. 04 2011 12:03 PM
Phyllis Sharpe from Teaneck, NJ

My first large chorale performance experience was in college. As sopranos and altos we had rehearsed with the conductor, but never as a whole. The performance was "Belshazaar"s Feast" with orchestra, soloists and chorus. I was so fascinated with what I was hearing that I don't think I ever opened my mouth to sing a note.

Dec. 22 2010 07:20 PM
Steven Lanser from Manhattan

Jeff, this was one of the occasions on which our paths crossed, because I had just joined I Cantori Di New York that year and sang in that concert (I sang with that choir for 6 years).

Dec. 17 2010 01:48 PM
Steven Lanser from Manhattan

My best choral singing memory (and it keeps changing because I'm still singing) is the opportunity that was afforded to the Dessoff Choirs (where I have sung for 21 years) to sing with the New York Philharmonic and New York Choral Artists in June, 2009. We sang multiple performances of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem and Gustav Mahler's 8th Symphony. It was the experience of a lifetime.

Dec. 16 2010 04:50 PM
Carol Kner from Manhattan

I remember hearing you sing solo (and very well, too) when Margie O'Brien used to organize concerts in which amateur singers could show off their talents, in the basement of St. Jean's on Lexington Ave. I was too timid back then, but now that I've reached a ripe old age, I'm not so shy. Until this year when I've been too busy, I've sung with a wonderful group called The New York Continuo Collective which specializes in early music. The singers are accompanied by theorbos, baroqe guitars, lutes, etc.

Dec. 15 2010 11:26 AM
Salsea from New York

My best choral singing moment is about to happen - I am singing in Carnegie Hall with the Oratorio Society of New York for the first time on Monday, December 20th. I am sure it will be an experience of a life time!

Dec. 14 2010 09:43 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Best choral experience? As an alto in the open sing of Messiah on stage at Ocean Grove's Great Auditorium in August '98. To be in the middle of all that sound ... and sight-reading, of all things! Such a thrill ... like riding a runaway horse in the woods. I stayed on and loved every minute of the musical ride, which ended with a standing ovation from a huge audience that nobody noticed come into the Auditorium, we were that caught up in the music ...

Dec. 13 2010 08:41 AM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

Two expereinces that stand out: my first choral singing experience in college, when we were singing Robert Shaw arrangements of Christmas carols and I, a bass, was standing next to the tenors. I remember feeling the blend of voices and thinking I never knew this would be this magical.

Another (a non-singing moment) was singing the Vaughan-WIlliams "Hodie" with a large chorus and a full orchestra and feeling my hair stand on end when the string tremolo started, followed by the tenor soloist's first entrance on the word "Joseph": truly eerie and beyond words.

Dec. 09 2010 05:10 PM
Miichael Meltzer

For the benefit of younger listeners, when you hear a choral version of the Ukranian carol, "Carol of the Bells," you are usually listening to its arrangement by Peter Wilhousky.

Dec. 09 2010 02:01 PM
Joanne Villafane from New Jersey

Sang in choirs and choruses all through high school, college, and after, but the one I remember most vividly was 1964, All City High School Chorus, under the direction of Peter Wilhousky. The music came through his fingertips and he had the most piercing eyes, not to mention an ear that could pinpoint the errant flat or sharp in a chorus of 300 voices. Each rehearsal was thrilling, but I never made it to the Spring concert, as I was one of the "errant" ones who did not make the second cut. No matter - he is and was my musical hero.

Dec. 09 2010 12:25 PM
Michael Meltzer

The only comparable experience I had was with another choir collaborating with the Kronos Quartet in a piece by Terry Riley.
The Kronos cellist at the time was Jennifer Culp. She has a rapturously beautiful tone, and she was playing a solo so beautifully, that when the chorus was supposed to enter over her line, I was listening so raptly that I forgot to come in
(I caught up in the next measure).

Dec. 06 2010 06:11 PM

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