America vs. England: Who's Got the Better Choruses?

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

British Union Jack and American Star-Spangled Banner flags

In its January issue, Gramophone magazine ranked the world's 20 best choirs, and it found America lacking. Not a single U.S. group made the list. Indeed, the list was overwhelmingly dominated by British ensembles. What's more, Eric Whitacre, one of the most performed choral composers in the world -- and an American -- wrote an essay explaining why the British are better.

Which leads us to wonder: Is that indeed the case? If so, what's lacking in America?

We'll address this trans-Atlantic debate in this show. In the meantime, tell us what you think. Listen to these two performances -- one American, the other English -- and tell us which you prefer:

Example 1: Rachmaninoff: Vespers

From the U.K.: Corydon Singers, Matthew Best, conductor

From the U.S.: Robert Shaw Festival Singers, Robert Shaw, conductor

Example 2: Byrd: Ave Virum Corpus

From the U.K.: The Cambridge Singers, John Rutter, conductor

From the U.S.: Voices of Ascension, Dennis Keene, conductor

Playlist:

1. Eric Whitacre Lux Arumque
Elora Festival Singers, Noel Edison

2. Eric Whitacre Lux Arumque (opening)    
Polyphony, Steven Layton

3. Frank Martin Mass for Double Choir
Dale Warland Singers

4. Frank Martin Mass for Double Choir  
Sixteen, Harry Christophers, conducting

5. Michael Tippett Steal away to Jesus (excerpt)
LSO Choir, Colin Davis

6. Herbert Howells Like as the Heart
John Scott Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue (This is a live recording from an evensong last spring)

7. Andrew Parrot: Monteverdi Vespers Lauda Jerusalem

8. Green Mountain Project, Monteverdi Vespers excerpt 'Nisi Dominus'

9. Rachmaninoff Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 31
Kansas City Chorale Charles Bruffy, conductor

Comments [33]

Patrick Mc from everywhere

I think both are beautiful listen to both of the choirs at the same time makes an even more epic experience of the music.

Aug. 28 2011 10:34 PM
Michael Elliot Bacon from Jersey City

The people like your show. Regarding Choirs of Men and Boys, do they have a future? In this country probably not. We are fortunate to have the St. Thomas choir, certainly one of the best in the world. But England may become at risk too, if the Church were de-established, or the Tories continue the budget cuts.
At the Church of the Transfiguration, there is a tradition of such a choir since 1888. While it doesn't compare with St. Thomas, this year Claudia Dumchat has has a lively and not at all bad group of voices. Think of the challenge that goes into maintaining this choir without a residential school, and money. Go hear them this year. It is rewarding and interesting. Michael

Feb. 21 2011 01:22 PM
Michael Meltzer

To Barry:
I don't think your Whitacre question can be answered because his music is just too precious for words. Don't ask me which ones, though, because I can't tell one from the other.

Feb. 05 2011 11:04 AM
Barry from Millburn, NJ

I really want to thank you for launching your excellent show. Your casual, yet informed, presentation of choral music is terrific.
One possible topic to put out here: What's the difference between soothing and soporific? I can't tell which camp Whitacre's music belongs to. And Part's music just puts me to sleep. And how about overly precious performances of choral music? To my ear, Chanticleer's performances are cloying. But then again, I really liked the ballsy old DGG recordings of Richter and the Munich Bach Choir.
I am not even that big a fan of choral music, but your show has gotten me thinking,. Thanks,

Feb. 05 2011 09:50 AM
Stephen Ozcomert from USA

Wow, British bias in Gramophone magazine?? Tell me it is not so! Pardon the sarcasm, but Gramophone has long had a bias in favor of British recordings of choral music. America has a number of extremely fine ensembles that can easily compete with those on the list. While many British choirs are indeed very fine, American choirs often have greater stylistic variety/tonal colors in my experience. Adding to the list above, Conspirare is a fine small group not mentioned here. For larger symphony orchestra choruses, is there any doubt that Atlanta's (formerly lead by Robert Shaw) and Chicago's are amongst the finest anywhere?

Feb. 04 2011 05:18 PM
Robert Russell from NYC

I found Eric Whitacre’s article in Gramophone Magazine, a basis of last Sunday’s “The Choral Mix” program, very interesting. For the most part I agree with him. I think the difference between the UK and the US is education and atmosphere. I am thinking of both formal musical education and, perhaps more important, the education which is absorbed by working with others and the general musical atmosphere in which singers in the UK live and develop. Also, consider the saturation of choral music in the UK, and in an area of only about twice the size of New York State.

Mr. Tritle’s last observations regarding the St. Thomas Choir to a certain extent bares this out. Beginning at the age of eight or nine, when the boys enter the boarding school, they have a level of music education and training which would be daunting to many adult singers. In addition, there is voice training with an outstanding vocal teacher. All this is above and beyond their daily rehearsals with Dr. Scott.

As far as the selection of the 20 best choirs, consider the extent of the discography of the European choirs as compared to the number for American choirs. If there were a comparable number of recordings available from choirs on this side of the Atlantic they might have had a better chance.

Feb. 03 2011 09:04 PM
Michael Meltzer

The testimonial message that Kent read from Johannes Somary is now especially relevant and poignant with Dr. Somary's passing on Feb. 1.
He was a fine conductor of truly international status, with an extensive discography of European chamber orchestra work complementing his choral work with Amor Artis, wonderfully personable and approachable. It is a great loss.

Feb. 03 2011 06:21 PM
Dennis Desormier from Forest Hills, NY

I don't usually comment in these threads, but I'll bite...

First of all, sweet show, Kent Tritle. I did not realize this show existed, but I'm hooked.

To me this comes down more to a preference of style than anything else. It's no surprise that British evaluators preferred British-style choral sounds to American choral sounds.

However, one thing not mentioned is the role of countertenors. The top 20 list has lots of choirs with alto sections primarily or exclusively with countertenors. That is just something that you don't get as much in the USA. For that matter, choirs in the US that DO have countertenors usually have women in the alto section, too — I know, as a countertenor myself, I've only been partnered with another countertenor ONCE. Not to mention, not only might American countertenors vary a bit more in sound quality than their British counterparts, but the altos in Britain probably have a lot more pressure to conform to the tradition than our altos. And, in the end, the difference in alto sections probably leads to differences in the ways the other parts blend and balance with them.

I am no longer a musician who is worried where his paychecks are coming from, so I'll be blunt: Eric Whitacre ought to be careful how he shoots of his mouth. He makes a living doing workshops and masterclasses throughout the US. If he thinks American choirs are deficient, he is in a good position to help do something about it, but writing articles like that isn't going to win him fans. Or perhaps the REAL deficiency is his appreciation of the greater variety of choral sound in the US — maybe it's time he varied his compositional style to "celebrate" (to use Kent's word) some of these American choral sounds.

Feb. 03 2011 05:51 AM
Michael Meltzer

Since Kent has to represent WQXR, it's probably not appropriate for him to comment on British snobbery , but I can.
When I had a sheet music business, letters that I wrote to German publishers were answered the next day, letters to British publishers were answered in two to three months (The French sometimes didn't answer at all). I took it as a studied arrogance. I think in certain quarters over there, America may still be regarded as a barbarian renegade colony, where nothing of artistic importance should be acknowledged. We should not take it to heart, it's almost a compliment. If they had mentioned only one American choir, that would be a slap in the face. Mentioning NO American choirs is a very different kind of statement.

Feb. 02 2011 04:24 PM
Rochelle A. Stackhouse from Hamden, CT

Can we include choirs that have boys (or girls) in them as well? I would stack the St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys in NYC against any English choir of Men and Boys. It would be interesting to do this again and have us choose between recordings of this kind of choir. St. T. has a fabulous recording of the Rachmaninoff Vespers.

Feb. 02 2011 11:08 AM
Sarah Rose Taylor from New York

I believe that the quality of the recordings will obviously have an impact on the sound quality...it would have been interesting to see the results if the poll were anonymous .i.e we voted on the sound rather than knowing which choir is American or British as some of us may have a bias.

Feb. 01 2011 08:44 PM
Louise from New York

Choruses depend on the quality of the space in which they are performing to amplify and shade their sounds. Lucky for the English that they have so many resonant spaces to sing in with their overtones echoing from the walls. The English have a deep cultural commitment to choral singing, but no corner on the market. I like the idea of comparing ours with theirs regardless of who wins the voting.

Feb. 01 2011 06:08 PM
phyllis from New York City

This is a comment on the concept of Choral Mix. These programs present a unique opportunity for singers and non-singers to enjoy while learning about the wide range of choral music. Kent Tritle's commentary and challenges to sharpen our listening are a delight.

Feb. 01 2011 02:38 PM
Eugenie Sherer from Norwalk, CT

First - let me say how wonderful it is to have a choral program run by someone who actually knows about choral music - something that has not been the case in the past. I'm out here in Fairfield County and cannot get WQXR all the time any more (grrr), but I can get it loud and clear in the parking lot of the church where I sing in New Canaan. This past Sunday the last two examples were unidentified as to performers, and you challenged your listeners to identify which was British and which was American. Easy!!! the second example was American because they pronounced the word Israel "Is-RYE-el. The British say "Is-RAY-el.

Genie Sherer

Feb. 01 2011 12:17 AM
Steven Lanser from Upper Manhattan (Inwood)

The samples presented on this program (which was wonderful, Kent!) led to a dead heat (tie) in my mind between the top-level ensembles from the U.S. and the U.K., particularly regarding the Martin mass (one of my favorite choral works, which I've sung 3 times over the years).

Jan. 31 2011 02:23 PM
Marion from New York

I thought your point that the U.K. has more money for recordings is fascinating. The British tone is excellent and the U.K. has many fantastic choirs that deserve to be recognized. Yet, it doesn't seem quite fair to rank the "20 best choirs," when, really, those rankings are "the 20 best choirs who make recordings."

www.nycmasterchorale.org/blog

Jan. 31 2011 09:27 AM
robert heath

the problem with listening to the 2 examples of th Ave verum corpus above is that the Rutter recording volume is considerably less than the Keene so unless one turns down the volume when listening to the Keene its very hard to compare .

Jan. 31 2011 12:34 AM
Robert Heath from Armonk, NY

the example you played with the Dale warland singers vs the Sixteen was noticeable more in the recording technique.
there was much more reverberation in the Sixteen which changes the listening experience

Jan. 31 2011 12:16 AM
Cecile Brunswick from New York City

Congratulations Kent on creating an exciting new program for WQXR. I always thought it lacked choral music and you've provided it.

Tonight's challenge is a great idea!

My very best wishes for continued success,

Cecile

Jan. 30 2011 11:01 PM
Pamela Lewis

To add to my comment from earlier today: There is perhaps a connection between speech pattern and singing quality. The rounded, "plummy" vowels and crisp consonant production that generally (note the word "generally") characterize British speech may come through in choral music performance. That at least is what I have heard in the English choruses as compared with their American counterparts. This observation is in no way to diminish the fine work of American singers; rather, it is to point to a possible link between speech pattern and singing.

Jan. 30 2011 08:35 PM
Michael Meltzer

If there is anything "in the bones" of the English, it is probably the concept of blending. This is in one sense, the most civilized country in the world, with its long tradition of Common Law and its children raised to "do the right thing." As beginning choristers, that mentality probably puts them one step ahead.
Americans singing in amateur choruses sometimes have to be diplomatically advised that the chorus is not exactly the right place to realize their dream of being another Caruso or Callas, and that they must listen to each other. Singing in bass sections, I have always been amazed that even though the rehearsal pianist is always sounding out the bass line just as plain as day, basses in so many choruses.don't listen and allow the pitch to sink, when the correct pitch is always there for reference.
I would venture that the English have cooperation a bit more in the forefront of their consciousness, and in the workaday amateur chorus that could affect the standard.

Jan. 30 2011 07:44 PM
Emily from Weehawken, N.J

The first-rate choruses in each country are comparable, but for the overwhelming number of choruses the English out perform us. Their language use, vowels and consonants translate better to singing than do ours. That's why we emulate them. They have choral singing in their bones, and it shows.

Jan. 30 2011 05:49 PM
Karen from Brooklyn

I have to say, even though I have sung in American choral groups most of my life, I have always had a bias for the clean, crisp, cerebral tones of the British choirs. But listening to the comparisons, and especially today's shows examples, I am leaning toward what I would call the more passionate sound of the American groups. Maybe it's a growing up (and growing old!) thing--but I like to hear the humanity of those hearts supporting the musical rhythms.

Jan. 30 2011 12:55 PM
Richard from Roosevelt Island from New York City

A great show. I love the British choral music tradition, but we have to be proud of American chorus' ability to bring life to an enormous variety of music. I don't know if there is a definitive winner in the "smackdown", but clearly the Gramophone article has an unsupportable bias. At the same time, wouldn't it have been wonderful to hear in the State of the Union that the nation's focus on education would include music and the arts, and not just math and science.

Jan. 30 2011 11:40 AM

Again (as usual) I find myself agreeing with Mr. Meltzer. As I began listening to the first clip I thought "how am I ever going to differentiate". Then as the American Vespers began, I heard it. Or rather, felt it. It was indeed warm, it was inviting, "come listen to us do what we love". The UK version seemed almost forced, as in "you 'will' listen to us". Quite eye-opening.

Jan. 30 2011 09:54 AM
Pamela Lewis

What a wonderful and thought-provoking program. I am a member of Saint Thomas Church in New York City, and I listened with great interest for mention about its superb choir under the direction of John Scott. I was pleased to hear that the choir is considered as the best "English" choir, due in large measure to the clarity of its singing. Perhaps that is the main ingredient for being considered a fine choir: clarity and well-defined enunciation.

Jan. 30 2011 08:03 AM
Linda from New York City

Love the programming. How about expanding to groups outside of NYC like the Phoenix Chorale or SF Girls Chorus. These are fine groups with long traditions of quality singing and programming.

Jan. 30 2011 07:58 AM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Oh,what a fun hour! It's been a treat, listening to the alleged differences between the English and American choirs.

Ha ha, I know that first recording of the Monteverdi! Love the intimacy and clarity. Hmmm ... did I recently rave about it elsewhere on the site???

The second rendering has more dramatic bite, but the addition of the instruments muddies and detracts from the text.

I think the choirs in both recordings are on the same level. It's the conductors who are making the difference.

Jan. 30 2011 07:57 AM
Anne

Great exercise; thanks so much for the opportunity. I listened several times to each set and split my vote, with the Cambridge Singers getting the Byrd (although there's another, small American group whose Byrd I like better) and the Robert Shaw getting the Rachmaninoff (although I like the British group Tenebrae's version better). Maybe Brits sing British music the best!

Someone I know who has sung in both the UK and the US feels that more Brits can sing well and can sightread than Americans. At his US university (which has an excellent music program), his choral group sang a major early music piece and the result was, he said, excellent. But he said the group he sang with in England, also top-notch, could do the same piece as well in half the time because they are excellent sight readers. From what little I know, UK kids get a better grounding in music than US kids, as a rule.

Jan. 28 2011 09:15 AM
Michael Meltzer

To me, the Brits sounded dry and cerebral, the Americans warm and colorful. Personally, I think the conductor's imprint is the most important, if there is a national choral character it would be in the style of conducting.
I don''t know if he's typical, but I remember British conductor Stepen Layton from the Tavener all-night circus at Avery Fisher, he presented rehearsing as something that ought to be painful. I didn't like his style, I didn't like him. I've sung under Bob de Cormier, Ed Canby and Kent Tritle, who presented rehearsing as something joyful to do.
I think Layton's style will get a predictable result, and the style of my Americans will get a different one. I'll take the latter.

Jan. 26 2011 02:23 PM
Lee Ryder from New York

Love the richness of that American sound. So much variety of color. But one of the reasons we keep going to choral concerts often hearing the same works again and again and one of the reasons we have multiple CDs of the same work is to hear the variety of interpretations that do exist from conductor to conductor and group to group. Let's celebrate that richness. We don't have to make choices.

Jan. 21 2011 11:06 PM
Steven Lanser from Upper Manhattan

I'm trying to set aside my "home team" bias and comment on why I think the Voices Of Ascension version was esthetically and technically superior. The Cambridge Singers version was fine techically but lacked dynamic contrast and vocal "spinning" of the tone. The Voices Of Ascension version had appropriate "mesa di voce" (swelling and tapering during phrases), interesting dynamic contrasts, and generally better vocal color.

Jan. 20 2011 03:55 PM
Toby Twining from New York

What this contest points out to me is that Anglo-American popular taste in the sound of European choral art music is turning toward current British practice. I agree that the intonation is quite appealing and the education and tradition are wonderful, but prefer more colors on my palette. For example, in recent years I have gravitated toward French groups for early music (Ensemble Organum, Ensemble Clement Jannequin)—the risks they take in interpretation are brilliant and the less homogeneous blend of voices refreshes the ear. Sure, the British groups sound beautiful, but it all starts to sound too alike to me, especially when it's big doses of Renaissance polyphony—in which the differences in composer's voices, not to mention individual movements, are, I admit, a challenge to render.

It would seem the best choirs and conductors of different traditions have different strengths. There's such a wealth of literature, which evolved simultaneously with developments in vocal technique, furthermore, that it strikes me as unimaginative musicianship for us to assume one choral concept would suffice for all. I like the diversity of, say, Bruckner, Chesnokov, Tallis, or Billings brought out by thoughtful stylization and consideration of vocal production for each (judicious use of vibrato, coloristic vowel placement, etc.).
Thank you.

Jan. 15 2011 12:56 AM

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