Nowadays some 28.5 million people in the United States sing in a chorus. That’s the astounding figure found in a recent survey by Chorus America, the national service organization that serves all types of independent choruses. Seattle, considered a choral music hotspot, will host a congregation of about 500 leaders in the American and Canadian choral scenes this week under the slogan “Fresh Air, Fresh Ideas” for Chorus America’s annual conference.
Conductor and composer Karen Thomas, who was instrumental in bringing the Chorus America Conference to Seattle, has been a highly visible presence in Seattle’s choral community ever since she took over leadership of Seattle Pro Musica in 1987. This year, the ensemble has teamed up with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale to host the Chorus America conference, which boasts over 100 independent choral ensembles.
Thomas May: Why is this such a big deal for our city?
Karen Thomas: Hosting an important national arts conference really helps to cement Seattle’s reputation as a major center for the arts in general, and for choral music in particular. The choral music scene in the greater Seattle area is incredibly vibrant and this conference will showcase the riches of the Pacific Northwest on the national stage. Choral leaders from all over the U.S. and Canada will be here to sample the best of choral music in this area. Our city punches well above its weight in this art, with groups such as Seattle Pro Musica, Seattle Symphony and Chorale, Choral Arts, Northwest Girlchoir and Opus 7. And there will also be groups representing the Northwest as a whole: Vancouver BC-based Elektra Women's Choir and Coastal Sounds Youth Choir, and Capella Romana from Portland.
What are the most interesting developments in the choral music scene today — and how are these reflected in Seattle's music life?
What’s most exciting today is how incredibly diverse the choral field is. Choral singing is an important pastime for millions of people around the country, whether it’s in amateur or professional choruses: children’s, school, church and senior choirs, symphony and opera choruses, jazz choirs, gay and lesbian choruses — everything imaginable. When I first got involved here, there were half as many groups at the most. Now we have ensembles of all sizes, make-ups and missions doing a wide variety of repertoire with people of all ages. We see this very clearly in the Seattle area and that diversity will be reflected at the conference.
Contemporary music figures often in Seattle Pro Musica’s programs and in the choral music scene in general. How do you explain that openness to new music? It’s such a remarkable contrast to the fear and trepidation that you can still see overtaking audiences when it comes to any encounter with “modern music” in the concert hall.
Along with the explosion of choral ensembles over the past two decades, we have seen a concurrent growth in the composition of new choral music. The most successful choral composers are doing a great job in writing music that is rewarding to sing (even if sometimes challenging) — music that’s fresh and interesting and that speaks to audiences with sounds, texts and ideas that are engaging.
I think that to some extent, singers and audiences don’t “ghetto-ize” new choral music into “old” and “modern.” They’re simply open to music of any era that is well-written, well-performed and has something to say.
Also, choral music encompasses many more centuries of music than symphonic music, so we have avoided the need to focus on just two or three centuries of music (unlike the core rep of orchestras and chamber ensembles). We’ve been able to include music from the middle ages up through the present with great ease. Choral music has the added bonus of working with texts that can help deliver relevant messages that keep us current with cultural and political changes.
It's striking how rich the Baltic scene is in choral music. That’s strongly represented on the “Canticum” program of Seattle Pro Musica’s concert. What’s our own Pacific Northwest landscape like in terms of new choral music being written?
The choral music scene in the Baltics is indeed amazing. That area of the world has a tremendous rich heritage of choral singing and choral festivals. Plus, the rest of the world is still discovering those riches, which were not so easy to hear during the Soviet era. The UW Music School has a wonderful Baltic choral music collection, which has evolved over the past decade.
The Pacific NW is also rich with new music. There are so many excellent composers here who really understand how to write well for the voice, like Morten Lauridsen, who is now one of the biggest names in new choral music internationally and who has taken inspiration from the landscape here in a way that resonates with people, whether he’s writing a secular or a spiritual piece. Lauridsen keeps a residence in the San Juans, where he composes.
What's meant by the slogan “Fresh Air, Fresh Ideas”? How did you convince Chorus America to come to Seattle this year?
“Fresh Air” because Seattle and the Pacific Northwest are such a hot spot for outdoor activities, healthy lifestyles, love of nature. “Fresh Ideas” to reflect the content of the sessions, which will focus on new ideas for choral leaders to take home after the conference.
I thought it was time for the conference to be in Seattle (the last one here had been in 1995), and that it would be a tremendous idea to do it in 2013, the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth — and to perform his “War Requiem” as the central piece at the conference with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale and Seattle Pro Musica. Happily, Ludovic Morlot wanted to program this work and the Symphony was interested in co-hosting the conference with Seattle Pro Musica. Chorus America decided that Seattle was a perfect location, with our fabulous concert halls, rich cultural life and beautiful natural setting.
If you go: Chorus America’s annual conference is being held in Seattle from June 12-15, 2013, with related performances around town. See the sidebar for a list of recommended public concerts.