More than 42 million singers participate in choral singing in the United States. But what makes one ensemble struggle while another flourishes? One choir prays for tenors while another turns away good singers because they don’t have any open spots.
Much of what makes a chorus successful lies in the Artistic Director creating a compelling vision that singers find exciting and audiences embrace. Dale Warland once told me that the most important skill for a conductor is repertoire selection. Yes, above conducting technique, score study, leadership, and the like. I thought he was stretching to make this case, but the more concerts I program and conduct, and the more concerts I attend as a listener, the more I realize he is spot on.
Even though I love choral music, I abhor the cookie cutter program; the one that begins with chant and Palestrina, moves through the ages, picking up a little Mozart and Brahms en route to the final Moses Hogan obligatory spiritual. Not that I don’t likely love every piece of music chosen, but the adventurer in me is left flat; unstimulated, unchallenged.
I try to focus on 4 areas in designing concerts and events: Innovation, Creativity, Collaboration, and Community. These have become the hallmarks of every program I design for Key Chorale of Sarasota.
As conductors, we need to know our choirs, their preferences, strengths and weaknesses, and how and when to challenge them. Singers want to be challenged, to grow, to be a part of something special, but overwhelming them can affect the overall morale and ultimately member retention. The same can be said of the audience. The audience wants to enjoy what is familiar to them, but they also want to be challenged with new repertoire, masterworks re-envisioned, perhaps a recreation of a historic concert or an orchestration not often heard [like the Brahms Requiem for piano four-hands] and most importantly they also want to be part of something special.
I believe the choral art form is vibrant with new voices that we shouldn’t be afraid to program. Sure an entire concert of new music may not fill the hall, but maybe 15 minutes of your program featuring a lesser-known composer, with an added dance or visual component, might just be the adventure your choir, and audience, is ready to experience. Collaborating with other arts organizations widens the scope of what you can do alone, and if it impacts your community in a relevant way, our art makes a meaningful difference. It is really about the repertoire, and as Dale says, it’s all repertoire.
Extracted from the January 2014 edition of Ensemble http://www.ensemblemedia.org