Two Peoples, Divided by a Common Music Stand

Orchestra, upon seeing choir: Oh, a choir! How cute.

Choir, upon seeing orchestra: An orchestra! Arrrrrgh, sing LOUDER.

We are well into what I think of as “choir season,” with performances of all sorts of large and not-so-large choral and instrumental works. Mozart, The Messiah (at least parts of it), Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Christmas music, the occasional brave group doing parts of Judas Maccabeus, Nutcracker . . . .and then we start moving into Lent and the spring season with various requia, more Messiah, Bach’s Passion oratorios . . .

It may just be the choruses and groups I’ve sung with, but something happens when a herd of singers catches sight of instrumentalists. Once you get past “string quartet” and “small jazz combo,” the choir lapses into “Oh no, we’re outnumbered. Sing loud!” Even if the choir outnumbers the chamber ensemble, if there are a few woodwinds and some brass, then the choir wants to turn up the volume.

The orchestra, for their part, tend to smile at the choir and try to ignore us. We’re quiet, generally harmless, and are there to make the orchestra look good. Unless we cause rehearsal to go long, and then we get “woodwind death glares.” The two exceptions to that were 1) when the conductor managed to irk both orchestra and choir, so we had a common foe, and 2) when it turned out that the music rental place had grabbed the same song but arranged by two different composers. The conductor looked at the choir’s music, looked at her orchestra score, and we dropped the piece entirely.

It’s a choral joke that “orchestras don’t breathe.” No, they do, but not as noticeably as do singers. Even woodwinds and brass generally don’t write in “gasp here!” on their music. What orchestras have is strength in numbers, even in small numbers. When you get a choir that is used to “backing up” a full or over-full symphony, the default is to sing loudly, just in case. So this season has been a lot of “softer please, choir, we can hear you quite well.”


19 thoughts on “Two Peoples, Divided by a Common Music Stand

  1. A few months back, I did an exercise to find your strongest, most natural note.

    And learned I was tuned to be flat.

    • Lessee: Cannon for the “1812 Overture”, muskets for “Wellington’s Victory”. Is there an orchestral version of “Dueling Banjos”? 🙂

      • [deadpan] I do, in fact, have a disc of music from the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra that includes an arrangement of ‘Dueling Banjos’.

    • Akshully, I’m not sure.

      Was wiki trawling maybe a couple months back, and got into a theory of instrument classification.

      Noticed that it did not seem to exhaustively cover all possible physics and signals.

      Anyway, it shouldn’t be percussion, you aren’t making solids vibrate by hitting them.

      Maybe the same as a flute or a pipe organ?

      My take away is that while jet engines might be difficult to miniaturize, it should be possible to create orchestral rocket engines, and compose music that requires an orchestra have such an instrument.

  2. When I was in the Jr High band, we would do a Christmas concert with the choir. On the choral pieces, there were a lot of long rests for us trombone players for some reason. Pure instrumentals not so much.

  3. Not enough coffee… I read NJC’s comment as ‘Ah, uneasy parsnips’ and did the lab head cock… sigh

  4. In my younger days, I played in an orchestra, and also sang in a choir. Both groups had a completely different dynamic.

  5. This seems as good a place as any to ask something I’ve wondered about once or twice, TXRed. You’ve written many times about your choir performing existing works by classical composers. Is anyone right now writing new works for choirs?

    • Yes, a number of people. Off the top of my head, Ola Gjiello, Morten Lauridsen, Mack Wilburg, Eric Whitaker, Z. Randall Stroop, Nathaniel Friemel, Stephen Paulus, Kirke Meachem, Rene Clausen, Joseph Martin. I’ve done works by all of them. There are others that I have sung but I can’t think of right at this moment. (Just came in from Concert #2 of four, and my brain is numb. ‘Tis choral season indeed!)

  6. Back in the ’90s a friend was in a choral group in San Jose (Don Haneke Choral), and they did a lot of works by John Rutter.

    • Rutter is very, very popular, and very prolific. I omitted him since he’s moved from “new composer” to “traditional warhorse.”

  7. My father’s college roommate and one of his best friends, Joel Mandelbaum, has done choral and other pieces for singers as well as many other compositions. He sent my family a recent CD, Who Might Sing In All the Muted Woods, that blew me away.

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