Tongue-Tied in the Chorus

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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?