New groups like National Master Chorale signal key change in D.C. choral scene

AMEN, INDEED: The Washington Chorus, above, performs Handel's "Messiah" with the NSO this weekend.
AMEN, INDEED: The Washington Chorus, above, performs Handel's "Messiah" with the NSO this weekend. (Scott Suchman)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009

Washington, widely regarded as the choral capital of the nation, lost two of its large choruses in May. Both the Maryland Chorus, a largely non-student organization of the University of Maryland School of Music, and the Master Chorale, one of the city's four large symphonic choruses, were compelled to shut down. As audiences decline and the recession eats into budgets, the closures seemed a possible foretaste of things to come -- even, perhaps, an indication of what might happen to other large classical music organizations, such as orchestras, in the straitened economy.

But if volunteer choruses are serving as a canary in the coal mine, the air appears to be better than we thought. Because if old choruses are closing, new ones are springing up to replace them -- with far smaller budgets and more flexible organizations.

Even the Master Chorale lives on. Many of its members can be found in the brand-new National Master Chorale, a semiprofessional ensemble (half volunteers, half pros) that has started rehearsals for a concert on Feb. 28.

"Here's a group of people who love singing together," says Thomas Colohan, a former assistant conductor of the Master Chorale who is the new group's music director. "A whole community supported them. The fact that they couldn't cough up $1 million a year -- is that reason to stop?"

There's no official tally of choruses in this area. An unofficial list cites 72, both professional and volunteer groups. The cornucopia ranges from the 18th Street Singers (alumni of crack college singing groups) through the Fairfax Choral Society, the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, the Suspicious Cheese Lords (early music) and the Washington Women's Chorus to Zemer Chai (a Jewish community chorus).

Earlier this year, Chorus America, a national service organization based in Washington, released the results of a survey indicating that choral singers are better citizens: more likely to vote, do volunteer work or do well in school. This survey seemed to be less of a reflection on the beneficial effects of choruses than on the personality types likely to join them. And Washington seems to be rich in people who have that particular type of personality. The reason the area has so many choruses is not that there's a huge audience for this sort of music. It's that there are so many singers. And that's the best sign for the future of the field here, however it pans out.

For there are always new choruses springing up, such as the Washington Collegium, founded in 2007. Evan Tucker, the group's new music director, observes that Washington is "the only city in America where there is a chorus for every type of niche. . . . The amazing thing about D.C. is there are always more people from whom you can draw."

One distinctive feature of the local choral landscape was -- until May -- the presence of four choruses with budgets over $1 million. Those larger groups, as evidenced by the demise of the Master Chorale, have had a hard time during the recession. The budget of the Choral Arts Society, under Norman Scribner, is down 20 percent. The Washington Chorus has moved out of its Georgetown offices into cheaper digs at the Levine School of Music. The fundraising gala of the Cathedral Choral Society last year netted only $20,000 instead of the $150,000 the organization had expected.

But a sense of change is in the air. And it's not so much about decline as revitalization. Robert Shafer, for instance, rather than going off into the sunset after the Washington Chorus booted him in 2007, founded the City Choir of Washington. Now in its third season, some 140 singers strong, the group has adapted to opportunity by taking on a wider range of music than Shafer originally expected, including an evening of Broadway songs that was presented at Wolf Trap.

Another example is the new National Master Chorale. Colohan hopes for a starting budget of $70,000 to $100,000, of which a good portion has already been raised, considerably less than the Master Chorale's $1 million-plus. But smaller doesn't have to mean lower quality: Colohan's new group is launching with a choral workshop led by the acclaimed composer Morten Lauridsen.

Nor does smaller mean fewer singers. The New Dominion Chorale has 235 singers, no auditions and a budget of about $200,000. "We do the same stuff they do," the group's music director, Thomas Beveridge, says of the larger choruses, "on a fraction of the budget."

In every area of classical music, adventurous programming is a way to assert one's vitality, and many of the choruses are making significant efforts with new music. The Washington Chorus, under Julian Wachner, has started a new annual contemporary series at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (Nico Muhly's music will be featured in June) and received a $30,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to present the D.C. premiere of Steven Stucky's LBJ oratorio, "August 4, 1964." The Cathedral Choral Society has an endowed fund to create new work; last season's "Evensong," by Dominick Argento, was just released on CD. And the Choral Arts Society is doing a new piece by the Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas.

But it's the annual Christmas concerts that make the most significant contribution to the large organizations' budgets, which is why the Washington Chorus and the Choral Arts Society repeat their holiday programs so often in December and jockey to share the available Kennedy Center dates. Not only are these concerts perennial audience favorites (the Washington Chorus is recording this year's for a CD), but they also bring in most of the groups' corporate funding.

The question for the larger choral organizations remains whether choral activity is sustainable on a grand, million-dollar level -- with competition for Kennedy Center dates or a prized performance with the National Symphony Orchestra, which tries to deal evenhandedly with the city's choruses when it issues invitations for its "Messiahs" or Verdi Requiems. (The Washington Chorus is doing both this year.) And whether audiences will continue to come.

But the secret of choral success appears to lie on a more grass-roots level: in the fact that choruses allow people to make music, rather than merely listen to it.

"If we don't allow audiences to become involved every once in a while," says Ann Stahmer, executive director of the City Choir of Washington, "we're not doing everything we can to promote choral music. There's something about the 'Hallelujah' Chorus that is universal. It makes people feel they are a classical musician for 3.5 magic moments."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company