Community Choirs


John Warren
Syracuse University

Calling all Choral Consortia

Sharing the Love:  Collegial Support through Local Choral Consortia . . .

is the title of a breakout session being offered at the upcoming Chorus America Conference to be held in Boston, June 17-20.  Whether or not you are able to attend, if you are involved in a choral consortium (or similar collaborative organization) we would like to include your basic information in our growing records of such activity.  Here’s how (and it’s guaranteed to take less than three minutes!).

“There is so much that we can do collectively to further awareness of the choral art that none of us could do as individual organizations,” comments Deborah Simpkin King, Chair of the New York Choral Consortium, and co-presenter of the session.  “Our competition is, first and foremost, with what the general public doesn’t (yet!) know about the impact of a vibrant choral experience, not with each other; and, together, we can make a greater difference!”

“When choruses work together it strengthens and promotes the choral art in their communities,” adds co-presenter and President of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium, Anne Watson Born.  “We are aware of new consortia springing up around the country, and part of the intent of this session is in gathering information on what appears to be a growing movement.”

The larger goal is to exchange experience that can be mutually beneficial.  The information gathered in the brief survey, in addition to that garnered through the discussion in the session itself (1:00 PM, Friday, June 19th, Boston Park Plaza) will be made available to those who contribute information through the survey and, in the future, through a new Choral Consortium Facebook group.

Literature Suggestions

The diversity of types of community choirs in New York State is truly staggering, from small semi-professional chamber choirs to the largest symphony choruses and everything in between. These groups share a love of singing and a remarkable commitment to choral music.

The community choir I conduct is the Syracuse University Oratorio Society, a “town and gown” chorus of 130 singers, from the university and surrounding communities. For years, this choir functioned primarily as the chorus for the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. In spring of 2011 the orchestra declared bankruptcy and disbanded. This took a tremendous toll on our city, and of course, more than anyone, on the players, themselves. So, as I began my tenure as conductor of the Oratorio Society we faced new challenges of recruiting and programming. We were forced to look at other ways to engage instrumental ensembles, and to produce concerts ourselves. I am sure other choirs are facing similar challenges.

One idea I had was that this was an opportunity to perform wonderful multi-movement a cappella works. The advantages of this are:

  1. Giving the singers experiences with less familiar works.  I don’t know how many times the choir has sung Carmina Burana and Beethoven 9, much less Messiah.
  2. Challenging the choir to listen in new ways.  The experience improved our intonation, sensitivity to balance within the choir, and level of expressiveness.
  3. Interesting programs for audiences.  So, I list here two wonderful large a cappella works you might consider for your choir.

The Peaceable Kingdom      Randall Thompson

EC Schirmer 1730

The Peaceable Kingdom is an 8-movement, 24-minute work for mixed choir of up to 8 parts, composed in 1936. It is inspired by the Edward Hicks painting of the same name and the text of Isaiah 11:6, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” All of the texts come from Isaiah and some of them are quite difficult in their harsh judgment of “the wicked,” especially movements 2 through 5. However, the mood is reversed in the last 3 movements which discuss the redemption and happiness of the people of God.

The music, while scored for up to 8 voice parts, is only moderately difficult due to Thompson’s largely diatonic harmony, somewhat predictable chord movement, and mild use of dissonance. Perhaps the second movement, “Woe Unto Them,” is the most difficult due to passages of rapid choral recitative. There are two outstanding double choruses – Numbers 4 and 8. Howl Ye (No. 4) features short antiphonal phrases (for 2 SATB choirs) that often begin with a descending octave leap fitting the text “Howl ye.” The final chorus is the beloved “Ye Shall Have a Song.” Here the antiphonal writing contrasts 4 treble voices with 4 tenor and bass voices. After an opening section of gorgeous call and response homophony, the choirs share the same musical phrase on the text “and gladness of heart.” This builds sequentially by tessitura and dynamic to a rich fortissimo.

After a brief lighter episode, the crescendo on “and gladness of heart” begins again. The movement and work end with a full and glorious homophonic climax.  

Requiem             Herbert Howells

Hal Leonard 14027133

Howells composed his Requiem in 1936 after the death of his 9-year old son the year before. However, he chose not to publish the work until 1980. It is breath-taking in its beauty and so powerful when the choir knows its origin.

The text is not a liturgical requiem mass – 4 of the six movements are in English, including settings of Psalms 23 and 121. Like the Thompson, the texture shifts often from 4 to 8 voices and includes some antiphonal moments. My choir found the piece considerably more challenging due to the unexpected harmonic shifts, amount of dissonance, and freely shifting meters or lack of meter. There are brief solo passages for each voice type, but the bulk of the music is choral. Perhaps most stunning is the second of the settings of the Requiem aeternam text (No. 5). After static chordal statements of “requiem,” the music expands using a long arch-shaped stepwise melody first sung in octaves by sopranos and baritones. The text “dona eis Domine” brings a sudden a surprising shift from the opening D Minor to F Major. The contrapuntal, somewhat imitative texture ascends dynamically and in pitch climaxing at A Major on “et lux perpetua.” The opening arched melody returns leading to a final half cadence in A Major, which sounds full of hope.

What has your choir done in these trying economic times to continue to succeed and grow?