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Choirs: Top 20 Lists and some thoughts about the use of space in holiday concerts

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

eric_whitacre.jpgGramophone Magazine's List of the Top 20 choral ensembles of the world is causing controversy because so many of the choirs that make the cut are British -- and all the top five are British choirs. None are American. The magazine defends itself in this interesting Q&A between Gramophone editor James Inverne and NPR writer Thomas Huizenga and published a sycophantic piece by choral composer Eric Whitacre (pictured) about why British choirs are the best in the world.

Here's my two cents worth: Top 20 (or Top 10 or Top 100 or Top whatever) lists are very subjective and prone to biases of all kinds no matter how hard the producers of these lists try to be neutral (and most of them do not.) I don't think that the omission of American choirs from the list says that American choirs aren't worthy of a leading position on the world choral stage. It's more a reflection of the judges' predilections. What I find ludicrous is the idea, suggested by Inverne in the Q&A for NPR, that American choirs can't vary their dynamics as well as choirs of other nations. In any case, I'm hoping that the many fine choral ensembles in the US (e.g. LA Master Chorale, Chanticleer etc) take Gramophone's list with a pinch of salt.

Speaking of choirs, I've attended three choral concerts in the Bay Area in recent days and have comments to make about all of them specifically with regards to the use of space:

1. San Francisco Boys Choir "Bach to Broadway" concert at the Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, Dec 18: I've seen several musical events at this venue since it opened a couple of years ago, including a performance by the superlative Chanticleer ensemble. It doesn't matter who's singing in the space and whether they're a cappella, accompanied by the organ or piano, or have a full-on rock band backing them up -- the acoustics suck. I've mentioned the cathedral's sound problem in this blog before but felt that maybe I hadn't experienced the space enough times to make a fair judgment. I think that now, having heard the boys' voices gobbled up to the point of unintelligibility, I can definitively say that the space is not fit for vocal music performances of any kind. The Cathedral should hire Meyer Sound or some other top sound firm to sort out the grave acoustical issues, or sooner or later the novelty of performing in the space will wear off for singers and there'll be no music worth listening to at the cathedral.

2. "A Chanticleer Christmas" at St. Ignatius Church, San Francisco, Dec 19: The ensemble spent most of the second half of its concert wandering around the enormous church. I am in two minds about this activity. On the positive side, the choir's perambulations meant that you didn't have to be sitting in the middle near the front to get a close-up view of the singers. The walk-through brought them close to lots of audience members, thus creating a more intimate experience for everyone. On the negative side, the fact that most of the audience couldn't see the choir for long periods of time during their walkabout meant that lots of heads got buried in programs. People seemed to get a bit bored with not having singers to look at and decided to read instead, which was a shame considering the beauty of the music. P.S. the concert highlight for me was alto Adam Ward's amazing solo in Steven Sametz's "Two Medieval Lyrics."

3. Ave's "Christmas Around the World" concert at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Berkeley, Dec 20: The small ensemble led by Jonathan Dimmock sang an unusual shape-note-style version of "While Shepherds watched their Flocks" arranged by Mark Winges with the choir split up into two groups -- one at the back of the church and one at the front. I didn't understand the point of creating this setup when the piece doesn't seem to require it. There's nothing antiphonal about it. Slightly gimmicky. The sound the singers produced was lovely and warm throughout the concert though.

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