No matter how hard the choir may try, the orchestra will win. The trick is to outwit it, not out-scream it. Even if you are doing, oh, Beethoven’s Choral Symphony (9th Symphony) or Carmina Burana.
- Orchestras have strength in numbers. A 50 voice adult choir can cover up a single violin or bassoon if we try hard enough. Two trumpets? Probably not. A 60-piece symphony orchestra? Not going to happen. The orchestra will win.
- Orchestras do not breathe. Yes, woodwind and brass players have to release notes in order to inhale, but as a collective whole, orchestras do not pause for breath unless it is written into the score for some reason. Choirs have to breathe. If we take too long, the orchestra gets to the next note before we do and they win the race. The race is supposed to end in a tie, not a win. And it is almost always the choir’s fault, because . . .
- The orchestra knows how to read the conductor. He’s their conductor, they work with him all the time. The choir is new and has to learn. For example, I sang with a director who brought his hand down on the downbeat and lifted it on the up beat. Then I encountered a symphony conductor who lifted his hand on the downbeat and lowered it on the up beat. Even after being warned, the first run-through was Not Pretty. For reasons known only to instrumentalists, all orchestra conductors move more like each other than they do like choral conductors, and vice versa.
- When a choral conductor directs and orchestra, she focuses on the orchestra and trusts her choir. This often Ends Poorly, as the Grail Knight so eloquently put it. The most recent case was last year, when the choir encountered an orchestra score, a time-signature change, and singing off a choral reduction simultaneously. We never came in. The conductor never noticed. Only on the third run-through was our absence, ahem, noted.
With perhaps the exception of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which is a Super Choir with a orchestras that support them on occasion, the choir is there to augment the orchestra. All we singers can hope for is to be fast on our feet, watch, come in on time, stop on time, and remember not to try to overpower the instrumentalists. Because the orchestra is going to win.