Of choirs and orchestras

There was a story the other day on our local public radio story that got me thinking about one of the key differences between choirs and orchestras: their relationship to the beat:

We revisit our conversation with classical choral composer Eric Whitacre, who has just been nominated for a Grammy for his latest CD “Light & Gold.” But he’s also known for his “virtual choirs.”

Here’s how it works: Singers around the world take video of themselves, upload them onto YouTube, and assembled into one performance. The most recent choir involved 2052 people performing Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep”.

As best I can figure from the video below, he conducts on the video, people record themselves singing to his conducting and upload the result, and he blends it all together in software.

I can’t imagine this working with an orchestra. But why not? I suspect the reasons are the same as the reasons choir conductors and orchestras tend to have trouble together; choirs and orchestras react very differently to conductors.

The most common complaint I’ve heard from choral conductors is that the orchestra isn’t with their beat, while orchestra musicians tend to feel that choral conductors are always slowing down to match their beat to what they’re hearing. I suspect all of these are symptoms of the fundamental problem, which is that choral singers follow the conductor while orchestra musicians follow each other following the conductor (this is also the reason why one of the highest compliments an orchestra musician can pay a conductor is that he/she “stays out of the way”: once a pulse is established, a conductor should simply let the musicians follow the pulse and not risk confusing the orchestra by also doing anything that looks like a pulse).

Choruses seem much more dependent on conductors than do orchestras, while at the same time less reliant on a standardized conducting “language.” Perhaps this is a function of the structural relationship between a chorus and its director being more like student and teacher than is the usual relationship between a professional orchestra and those standing in front of it, notwithstanding the “Maestro” honorific (which would probably choke most musicians if they didn’t subconsciously avoid the translation of the term).

Of course there was a YouTube orchestra. But it didn’t occur to anyone involved to use YouTube as anything other than a blingy version of the taped audition. It would have been a mess if they’d tried the Whitacre method, as well as much less profitable for all involved. Besides, doesn’t the joy of conducting fundamentally lie in wielding all that power in real time and seeing all those deferential young faces looking up in adoration?

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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