IN: News & Features

Sing What Thing?


Ben Roe's parting gift.
Ben Roe makes parting gift.

As a huge fan of choral music—okay, I might consider myself infatuated—I sometimes wonder what it means to be a “choral ensemble.” What is choral singing?

The latest attempt to answer that question may be from WGBH-TV, in the form of an 11-part cattle call and beautyfest for local groups. Beginning this fall, a friendly competition called Sing That Thing! makes its debut, as it happens, in something of a swan song for the newly departing Ben Roe, who had only left his previous role as WGBH radio’s Director of Classical Services last January. (The next chapter in Roe’s working life opens at the Heifetz International Music Institute, a six-week summer program for string students, based in Staunton Virginia. We wish him well there.)

According to Roe and WGBH-TV GM Liz Cheng, along with Boston Children’s Chorus conductor Anthony Trecek-King, the station is creating an exciting and novel program. The initiative intends to celebrate the choral tradition by hosting a multi-round competition that encourages choruses of all sizes, dynamics, and genres. In the final rounds there will be discussions, as a way to engage and educate audience, to better understand the inner workings of this fascinating ensemble form.

BMInt: Can we expect any extended classical works?

Liz Cheng: This is television, not radio. Except for the final two episodes of the seasons, it’s a 30-minute show with limited capacity to accommodate overly long pieces. We would also prefer to feature more groups representing the diversity of genres and styles rather than really long pieces. It is first and foremost a music show—we’re hoping to put on display the tremendously appealing range of choral music that’s out there, without regard to pigeonholes. But it is also an opportunity for us to showcase the competing choirs, and tell the story not only about what makes them tick but also about the music they perform.

Will you start out with the oldest chorus in America, the Stoughton Choral Society?

We’d love to feature them! But first, any interested choir needs to apply here to get into our “Super Singing Weekend,” at the end of September, when we bring 60 choirs into our studios over the space of two days.

Singing has been in New England blood since the Puritans, who believed in musical literacy as a requirement for congregational psalm-singing. Members of the more than 100 choruses in the Greater Boston Choral Consortium sing more for pleasure now. Do you view promoting that participatory pleasure as part of the mission of your new program?

That’s exactly why this is a program designed for amateur choirs: “participatory pleasure” hits the nail on the head. As author Stacy Horn puts it in her new bestseller, Imperfect Harmony, “Singing is one of the most reliable and affordable routes to happiness we have in this life. Given this, and all the evidence for the beneficial things music does to our brains, bodies, and immune systems, it’s a shame that everyone isn’t singing.”

What about the competitive aspects? Are you channeling American Idol and Singoff?

Whether it’s horse-races or talent shows, Americans embrace a competitive spirit. We want our audiences to get involved and engaged, and share a bit of the passion that leads people to devote so much time to being part of a choir. And we want to reward and showcase the most outstanding groups for their artistry.

Interlocutor Anthony Trecek-King is a charming fellow and a fine musician; will he be more than an announcer?

Being the host of a television show is an incredibly difficult job, all the moreso because it’s supposed to look so easy. Anthony is a fabulous natural talent on camera and we’re quite excited to have him on board.

Who will be the judges?

Stay tuned. We’ll have more information in the coming weeks and months.

You hope to have 24 semifinalists. Do you have any sense how many choruses will want to participate? Will viewers learn which groups don’t make the initial cut? Will there be any studio audience possibilities?

Definitely studio audience possibilities—as we get into the final and semifinal rounds. We’re hoping that as many choirs as possible will want to participate, but we will start with the 60 who get invited to come for our audition weekend.

Eleven episodes culminate in a competition among eight finalist groups, two in each of the four categories. That seems like an interesting conceit. Did you try this out on focus groups?

There have been more than 200 studies about various aspects of choral music in the past decade or so, including an exhaustive study commissioned by Chorus America that revealed more than 42 million Americans have sung in a choir.

*  *  *

So will these ensembles be the likes that perform Dead German White Guy music? Some, perhaps, but Liz Cheng, also executive producer for Sing That Thing!, stresses that choral singing involves all sorts of genres: blues, jazz, pop, classical, others, being a musical experience with one another which uses our most vulnerable instrument: our voices.

But we must ask: will this work? Is this what the choral culture in Boston and elsewhere needs? Will it be a chance for the major media to cultivate the local scene? Do they understand how these ensembles operate, that they typically start their season around this time and spend a great deal of effort preparing for their own concert series; will ensembles be able to squeeze this in?

Anthony Trecek-King (file photo)
Anthony Trecek-King (file photo)

It does sound like a grand idea, so for now we send our best wishes and put forth support.

If you were to ask me about what historically has constituted a chorus, I would say that the ensemble has been largely an exclusive venture, forming its polyphonic face 1000 years or so ago, or at least the first dictated polyphonic music: Pérotin and Léonin, for example. Members of those “vocal ensembles” were well-trained, likely paid a decent wage through the church, and exclusive to men in small numbers. That was even the case up through Bach: single voices on each part.

It wasn’t until the time of Mendelssohn, a century later, that large choral societies as we know them today formed. In fact it was this model that ultimately created today’s taste for large-scale singing, why we need 150-member choruses to fill out our mental sound expectations. Now these ensembles have developed into not only a musical experience but also a social outlet, equal opportunity across the walks of life. As would be expected from the hub of the universe, Boston is a hotbed of choral activity, perhaps the strongest in the country. I’ll have more to say on that in future articles.

Samuel Kjellberg is a Minneapolis-Saint Paul native; conductor, percussionist, and vocalist, all with a dash of philosophy, he currently resides in Boston while pursuing a MM in Choral Conducting at Boston University

Comments Off on Sing What Thing?