When in the course of symphonic events a new music director materializes, contracts likely protect performing personnel from firings. By contrast, when the new director of a volunteer chorus asks its members to reaudition, especially when doing so pointedly, and taking a new tack, few impediments exist. Why would any arts news organization pay attention?
Nevertheless, when some veteran singers complained of their new director’s impolitic course correction for the beloved 48-year-old Tanglewood Festival Chorus, we took notice.
Only the second conductor to lead TFC since John Oliver founded it, in 1970, English choral man James Burton inherited a contingent with long service and deep institutional loyalty. It cannot have been an easy role to assume. Before accepting the new title of BSO choral director, last February, Burton agreed to take on the dual roles of preparing the chorus for concerts and building, maintaining, and shaping the ensemble through auditions and selection. BMInt announced his appointment HERE. Contributor Stephen Owades, one of arguably two active charter members remaining, was told to reaudition, and got culled. Owades observed, “If I were among a modest number of people weeded out, I would be unhappy but not aggrieved. Yet the sheer scale of the retirements and cuts, far beyond anything that TFC has suffered in its history, tells me that—in contrast to the explicit, published assurances of our new director—he and the BSO are taking the group in a dramatically new direction.”
The changes in approach to the evaluations troubled some singers. Reauditioning is a fact of choral life for ensembles of high quality and high aspiration (and others), even for volunteer choruses. TFC singers had always been told when it was their time, asked to sign up for an available time slot. “This year, we (those chosen for the first round of these reauditions) received a letter saying that our tenure in the chorus would end at the end of the coming Tanglewood season. If we wanted to continue with the chorus, we’d have to reaudition—meaning the default state is no longer continued membership but removal. The signup form also offered the option of withdrawing from the chorus, also a first,” Owades notes.
Other singers, including BMInt writer Laura Prichard, who is not scheduled for exams this year, waxed more philosophical. “James Burton brings emphasis on vertical tuning and requires a working / more advanced knowledge of music theory (especially reading multiple clefs and analyzing your own place in each chord). That marks a shift from John Oliver’s practice, which was more linear and operatic in conception. John Oliver was an excellent vocal coach, most at home with both of his hands on the piano, playing from full scores and peppering rehearsals with anecdotes from the dozens (hundreds?) of vocal masterclasses he taught and attended. My husband took small-group voice repertoire classes with him as an undergrad at MIT, which is how he started singing in the TFC at age 19. So the feelings about the Chorus run deep for many.”
Asked whether too much is now being asked from volunteers, Owades pointed out that there appeared to be no appetite on the BSO’s part to pay a chorus. “We have never felt that we have the leverage to form a union, although we have worked with the orchestra players on various matters in the past. We are all volunteers, and although you might think that gives us more leverage, it actually seems to give us less.”
And a veteran listener and musician who is chorally experienced as well opined, “It is clear the whole business is supported by BSO management and music director Andris Nelsons.” A longterm chorister (not TFC) who works as a management consult noted only, “The sound Oliver demanded mystified most of those I ever sang with. To us it seemed strained and shouty. But I know personally that there were many singers in the TFC who were both talented and hardworking, and who would have been capable of singing differently had they been asked to. Burton’s concern, perhaps, is that habits can be hard to change — fair enough, but it makes for a very sad situation.”
Some newsworthy questions with answers from the institution:
Owades: My estimate is that of the 107 people asked to reaudition this year, 40-some chose to withdraw, or asked for leave and were terminated anyway. Of the remainder, something like 15 were given three-year renewals, 15 were given one-year probationary membership, and 30-some (like me) were terminated. Are these numbers correct?
BSO: Since the auditions are considered a private internal matter, with each audition handled with the utmost confidentiality, we cannot discuss the process or specific details of the results publicly.
We are happy to provide the following information. Over the course of the fall and winter, James Burton had shorter, preliminary, “sing-in” sessions with each member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to gain an initial sense of each singer’s vocal abilities. Information about the formal audition process was sent to the chorus in late March. The group of singers who Burton felt he needed to hear first regarding their vocal technique and musicianship were scheduled for the first round of formal auditions this past spring (subsequent auditions of about 100 each will take place in spring 2019 and spring 2020). Concerning the recent auditions, some members of the group decided to step down from the chorus without taking the audition; some were told that their membership was on probation and were asked to reaudition in spring 2019; some didn’t pass the audition and were asked to step down from the chorus by the end of the summer; and some passed the audition with flying colors.
All were aware that they had the option to reaudition next fall or whenever open auditions were scheduled.
Once this initial series of auditions are over in 2020, all singers will be required to audition once every three years to maintain their membership.
Do you have any numbers for past reaudition cycles in John Oliver’s time? My guess is that a lot fewer people were terminated or chose to withdraw then, but it would be interesting to have some actual numbers.
The chorus’s committee was consulted about the audition process in advance, and it was confirmed by the group at that time that there had been auditions in the past but that they were less formal than the process currently in place. Following preliminary research into the matter, we have not found any formal records that indicate what exactly the audition processes, including results, were like in the past.
Has there been any consideration given to providing more feedback to the terminated people? Your letter said that we were welcome to apply for chorus membership again in the future, but without some idea of why we didn’t make it this time, that seems like a futile idea.
James Burton responded: The reaudition process for any group is inherently fraught with difficulty, yet it is an absolutely necessary part of the protocol which needs to be in place to maintain the highest standards of performance so closely associated with our choir. Perhaps the most difficult part of this process, inevitably, is that singers who haven’t been able to continue to maintain their vocal technique and musicianship, for any number of understandable reasons, will need to be asked to step down from the chorus. Everyone involved in this process has been sensitive to the disappointment that may be felt by anyone in this position: in some instances, singers have been in the chorus for decades and this is a big change for them personally. I am acutely aware of this myself and have said so to the chorus. Perhaps there is little anyone can say to comfort someone who is experiencing disappointment like this, but I expressed my solidarity with the group, and we have reached this tricky moment and will proceed beyond it together. We had thoroughly productive rehearsals last week, and I hope that everyone who is singing with us this summer does so as proudly as ever. We have encouraged singers who are inspired to do so, to consider reauditioning in the fall or whenever we hold open auditions throughout any given BSO season. For those who are stepping down, we are currently working on plans to have their outstanding service honored by the chorus and the orchestral management at the end of the summer.
The BSO’s Tony Fogg, in communication from Leipzig, where members of the orchestra are participating in BSO in Leipzig week, reminded TFC:
The BSO has always been and continues to be deeply grateful to the hundreds of singers who have given generously of their time—some for multiple decades—to volunteer to be part of the BSO’s acclaimed chorus throughout its 48-year history. The TFC has contributed greatly in creating some of the most memorable concerts for our patrons and audience members here in Boston, in the Berkshires, across the country, and around the world.
Starting this summer, we are committing to a new tradition whereby all singers at the time of their stepping down from the chorus are formally thanked and honored for their years of service to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. To my knowledge, this had never happened before. We are determined to work with the chorus to find the best way to acknowledge the truly remarkable dedication and commitment each singer has made to the extraordinary success of the TFC. We will begin this over the coming weeks in time for the end-of-season TFC party on August 24th.
We are also looking at other ways in which TFC members who are no longer part of the active roster for BSO or Pops performances can still remain closely involved in BSO life … through the creation of a TFC alumni group and performances away from the main stage.
Andris Nelsons officially states:
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus has an extraordinary tradition as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s acclaimed choir, and we are all so very fortunate to have an all-volunteer choir on the level of the TFC. As the chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus must always strive to constantly reach and surpass the highest standards of our field in order to bring our wonderful audiences, along with the supreme musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the most inspiring and uplifting experiences possible. It is most definitely this unrelenting and persistent pursuit of excellence that defines the greatest orchestras and choruses across the country and around the globe. We are truly blessed to have such a fine conductor as James Burton leading the chorus into their next era of artistic achievement and accomplishment and building upon the great 45-year legacy of John Oliver.
TFC member Sarah Telford opined through the good offices of the BSO:
Rehearsals with James Burton are intense, exhilarating, and fun! And most of all, they are artistically satisfying—everything he asks of the group is in service of the style and beauty of the music. It can be challenging at times, but you walk out of rehearsal a better singer and musician than you walked in. James Burton is a phenomenal musician, a gifted communicator, and a choral singer’s dream. There is an incredible thrill, a rush even, every single time you walk out onto the stage at Symphony Hall or Tanglewood. And when the orchestra starts to play, with that gorgeous, refined sound that is the hallmark of the BSO, you have to pinch yourself! To know that you are sharing the stage, sharing the joy of making great music, with the finest musicians in the world.
Over 48 years, the publisher of this journal has found the chorus in full cry invariably and often memorably exciting, and also under certain conductors, deep and subtle.
Readers will be able to hear some of the old guard together for the last time this summer. In addition to a Celebration of the Life of John Oliver in words and music on July 15th, the Tanglewood season includes seven performances in which the outgoing contingent of the TFC will participate: La Bohème on July 14th, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms on July 15th, a Prelude concert on July 20th under James Burton, Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass on July 21st, Mahler’s Third on August 24th, the Bernstein 100 Gala on August 25th, which will include the finale of Mahler 2 and as-yet-unannounced Bernstein excerpts, and of course Beethoven Nine on August 26th.