Indeed, this is a goodbye to more than Norman Scribner. The evening is a farewell to a whole era of choral life in Washington: a time when the city had four big symphonic choruses with million-dollar budgets led by four charismatic conductors performing the great works of the choral repertory.
Only three of those four choruses remain; the Master Chorale closed in 2009, a victim of the economic downturn. Still standing are the Cathedral Choral Society, the Washington Chorus, and Choral Arts, but each is undergoing its own process of transformation. The Cathedral Choral Society, the oldest of the group, has been led by Lewis for decades, but is currently in the midst of tremendous turnover of its administrative staff, and is at something of a crossroads. The Washington Chorus is the farthest advanced in its second chapter; its 40-something music director, Julian Wachner, has been working energetically to give it his own stamp, including everything from orchestral repertory to new music. (On June 23, the group will present the world premiere of a multimedia folk opera by Paola Prestini, “Oceanic Verses,” which will go on to New York and, in 2013, London.) And the Choral Arts Society is now also looking toward a new beginning.
Make no mistake: Washington will always have an abundance of choruses, and in many ways its choral life is richer than ever. Washington seems to be a town that naturally attracts people who want to sing in choruses: some mixture of group-think and civic pride, of participatory zeal and a genuine love of music. Large and small, Washington’s choruses have no trouble finding singers — even the newest arrivals on the scene, like the Washington Master Chorale, a semi-professional chorus of 65 voices founded in the wake of the Master Chorale's 2009 closing (with some of the same singers).
“Now more and more singers are finding out about the choir,” says Thomas Colohan, the group’s founder and music director, “we have a backlog of people; I don’t have to announce [auditions]. I have a list of people on the substitute list.”
But perhaps precisely because there are so many singers in Washington, the city’s choruses end up being a mirror of the city’s current society. Today’s choral singer is likely to be a recent college graduate still basking in happy memories and strong associations with his or her glee club — which taught, the executive director of the Choral Arts Society, Debra Kraft, pragmatically observes, “discipline not only musically, but commitment to an organization.” While happy to take part in the city’s traditions, they’re interested in a wide range of music, from Bach to pop, new music to gospel. And there’s a wide range of choruses around to cater to their specific interests, from the Gay Men’s Chorus to the Cantate Chamber Singers.