Letters to the Editor

Today the Boston Globe printed a Letter to the Editor that my wife and I wrote in response to their front page article about our chorus.

The letter reads:

Your article on James Burton and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was disappointingly one-sided.  Your quotes from choristers came mostly from those who have left the chorus, all of whom are naturally hypercritical of James Burton’s approach to this transition. The article suggests that their inflammatory language (“snarky,” “rude,” “insulting,” “condescending,” “toxic”) is representative of the chorus’s reaction as a whole.

If you had dug beyond spurned choristers eager to avenge themselves by embarrassing the organization, you would have found many choristers who strongly disagree with these characterizations. We believe that James sincerely wants to make the Chorus the best it can be. He is a brilliant musician and communicates what he wants concisely. He makes singing exciting and fun, and many of us find rehearsals an absolute delight. While there’s consensus that the communication of audition results needs improvement, we believe the audition process and requirements are on par with what other choruses of this caliber ask of their singers. We enjoy singing with James as much, if not more than, any other conductor we’ve worked with.

Sincerely,
Jeff and Katherine Foley
North Reading
The writers have been members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus since 1998 and 2000, respectively.

My last post (“Transitions and Trust“) was an olive branch asking all of us to find a way forward. This letter, however, is a direct rebuttal of the original article’s portrayal of the situation, to inform bystanders who might otherwise believe it’s truly management vs chorus. It is not. It takes a lot to get me upset, but to see an organization which I care about, and can hopefully continue to perform with, get that unbalanced treatment publicly… well, it reminded me that unlike in other situations, there’d be no bravery in silence.  We decided it was worth the risks of alienating disgruntled members and any accusations of sycophancy. We’re not trying to convince other chorus members.  Most have already decided — they’re either looking for a way forward together or they’ve already “flipped the bit.”

Meanwhile, another letter to the editor appeared, in the Berkshire Eagle, from Ronny Feldman, a conductor and cellist with the BSO. Its conclusion:

…the choral director, James Burton, and the BSO management handled the new audition policy clumsily, with little regard to the consequences of treating devoted members so shabbily.

Dealing with orchestra members is the single most important responsibility of every conductor. A 300-member chorus is no different. I learned this valuable lesson at the beginning of my conducting career. James Burton is a seasoned, well-traveled choral conductor. He should have known better.

After digesting the first letter, readers may be surprised to learn that I completely agree with this letter. Don’t mistake my proffered praise of James’ conducting style, musicality, and character with a defense for the proceedings. As I detailed earlier, whether intentionally or not, the management team broke the group’s trust.  It’s just as Ronny Feldman described in his letter with his story about abruptly not re-hiring three orchestra members:

The decision reverberated throughout the entire orchestra. The relationship was never the same.

I’m hoping that, properly chastened in private and in the media, the BSO management team will take steps to correct these errors and rebuild the relationship between them and the volunteers who make up the chorus.

Transitions and Trust

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is going through the same sort of uncomfortable transition that all organizations do when there is change at the top.  And, as with any such leadership transition, there is pain.  Pain from those asked to leave the organization.  Survivor’s guilt from those invited to stay.  Friendships tested as the community fractures into those in favor of the new world order, and those opposed, and those who don’t want to pick sides and just want to get back to work… and everywhere in between.  In the hullabaloo, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many long-time members, who wanted to stay with the chorus but didn’t pass the re-audition, are hurting.  You have my sympathies. I know I may face the same situation next year after my re-audition.

Here’s the background, via some uncontested facts:

  • Most high-level auditioned musical groups require members to periodically reaudition to secure their continued participation in the group.
  • The founder and long-time conductor of our chorus, John Oliver, had ceased using the reaudition process during his final years running the chorus.
  • John Oliver retired.  After two years (and several candidates), James Burton was selected as the new head of the chorus.
  • About a year into his leadership, in the fall of 2017, James asked all choristers to participate in a “sing-in” by preparing and performing a short solo piece for him.  According to James, some people did well, some people did okay, some people did not do well.
  • Following the sing-in process, James reinstituted the reaudition process, with some sight-singing and music theory requirements beyond what John Oliver had asked for previously.
  • Dozens of choristers declined to reaudition.  Dozens more were told they did not pass the audition.  Those cut included several long-time members who have spent decades singing in the chorus and have many ties within the organization’s community.

From there, opinions diverge.  Did James Burton treat the cut choristers fairly?  Did he communicate the sing-in and audition requirements and rubric properly?  How high should the bar be for a volunteer chorus?  Were those cut shown the respect they deserve after contributing decades of their time and money to the organization? Why did he tell people not to worry last year when the Huffington Post asked if “a new broom sweeps clean,” if he was planning to remove so many members?

Rather than litigate the answers to these questions — given I have friends and fellow musicians on both sides of the issues —  I will instead point out what was lost in this entire process: Trust.

There’s a great business book by Robert Bruce Shaw called Trust in the Balance which talks extensively about the importance of trust when building successful organizations.  He talks about how easily trust can be lost, and that once a certain threshold of distrust is passed, every action and behavior serves to further validate the leadership’s untrustworthiness — it even becomes difficult for supporters not to question every action.  He says trust is built through three pillars: results, integrity, and concern.

James Burton and the organization have been strongly focused on the results pillar.  He has repeatedly emphasized his desire to achieve artistic excellence by making a world class organization even better.  As the conductor, he has defined ambitious performance targets and made decisions on how to pursue them, and many (but not all) singers have come to trust the results he’s achieved and the process he uses to get there.  He and the organization have also built trust by demonstrating concern: engaging with the chorus, building familiarity and dialogue, and showing confidence in our abilities.  But integrity, however, demands consistency between words and actions, and a level of openness that was not achieved through the re-audition process.  The callous form letter notifications and the sheer number of people failing the reauditions were alarming departures from  the reassuring impressions at the start of his tenure. None of the chorus members anticipated the depth of change coming until the snail mail notifications began arriving one by one in people’s mailboxes.

We’re in the middle of this trust deficit now.  Fortunately, many choristers I know have not crossed that “trust threshold.”  They recognize that mistakes were made, but can be corrected, and they continue to trust in James Burton’s leadership.  Many choristers I know have long since crossed the trust threshold, and no one can convince them that anything James does is good for the chorus.  Several of those choristers apparently went to the Boston Globe with their story, leading to the publishing of a terribly unflattering front-page article about the situation which I hesitate to even link here.  It’s filled with vitriolic comments from James’s most ardent detractors.  (Outlets such as the Boston Music Intelligencer presented a more balanced viewpoint.)

What do these articles do, besides helping to satisfy those determined to ruin the organization?  They further erode trust.  The Globe narrative is “management vs chorus,” which will increase suspicion and paranoia on both sides.  It impedes the open communication required between the two.  As a chorus member, I’m reluctant to talk to other chorus members about my opinion on the answers to those questions, lest I alienate another friendship.  It will take a while to work through all this with my peers… just like it has for every “Reduction In Force” layoff I experienced at other companies in my career.  These are not new problems for an organization in transition.  And they will fade over time.

Trust is a precious commodity; hard to win, easy to lose and lose fast.  The solution, Shaw advises, is to make a concerted effort to overcome that distrust, by eliminating trust-eroding practices, over-communicating intentions with uncharacteristic openness, and rallying around opportunities to demonstrate teamwork — in this case, our upcoming rehearsals and concerts.  If they can continue to realign actions and words, the management team can demonstrate its integrity and slowly win back the skeptics while preventing others from crossing that trust threshold.  And then we can truly get back to what we all want to do — outstanding performances of choral works with the BSO.

 

The Lotti Eight-Part Crucifixus

For this year’s Tanglewood season, I am fortunate to be on the roster for the second residency, which includes our chorus’s annual Prelude concert in Ozawa Hall.  The set of a capella pieces we are singing are a fabulous assortment of sumptuous harmonies, consonant and dissonant, all dancing around each other exquisitely.  The exquisite pieces will require diligent study, careful breathing, keen awareness of the other parts to tune to, and a close eye on our conductor James Burton as he leads us through it all.

Perhaps one of the most straightforward examples of this is one piece in the middle of the program: Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus.  Composed just as Baroque music was evolving into a Classical period style, it is one of the best known works of sacred music that the Italian composer created. I’m told that many a high school choir has learned and performed it, since the notes themselves aren’t hard to sing.  It’s how you bring them together and infuse them with passion and sorrow all while staying technically accurate and attuned to the other parts that makes the piece so transcendental.

Spend three minutes listening to a recording right now, if you haven’t already:

This video is even more enjoyable because, by displaying the sheet music, you can see what’s going on.  I love how the voices build upon each other for the first minute, then maneuver around each other, passing themes back and forth, until the mournful finish.

Trust me, it is even more exhilarating to sing it, especially with a group of musically intelligent adults fully committing themselves to producing a beautiful sound.  Our first deep rehearsals of the piece with James Burton focused on bringing out those passages of tension, finding anchor chords that we can use to tune to other parts, and carefully working out some of the trickier intervals.  And, like with the Ravel, when he emphasizes the theory, and our mentality changes from “I’m singing an A” to “I’m singing the third of F major,” something clicks in the way the ensemble sings such that we stop clinging to our separate notes and lock the tuned chord in place.  (Though I have lots of “up arrows” pencil marks in my score written above notes that are easy to overshoot in several phrases.)

The final effect is magical… and we’re not even done working it.  If you can be out at Tanglewood this summer, try to catch our performance on July 20th at Ozawa Hall.

Transforming the Chorus through Ravel

The textless, mystifyingly ethereal chord progressions of Maurice Ravel are bringing the Tanglewood Festival Chorus together in a way none of us really anticipated.

Daphnis et Chloé is one of two concert runs I’m privileged to participate in this 2017-2018 winter season. Instead of ballet dancers sharing the stage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it will be us from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Now officially on the job for almost a year, our conductor James Burton shared some touching words with us before a recent rehearsal.  He explained that others have told him that wherever he’s conducted — and he has quite a curriculum vitae to his name — the choirs have a certain character to them that is distinctly imparted by his leadership… but that he hadn’t really achieved that yet with the TFC.  However, with the Ravel, he felt we were finally approaching how he wanted us to sound for the first time since he took over.

Part of the reason for that is that Daphnis et Chloé has no text to distract us.  Without us trying to stick the landing on German consonants, we’re left with aahs and oohs.  There’s no choice but to focus on the tuning and the quality of the sound we’re producing.  So to that end, he’s been encouraging us to find a nice choral blend, with instructions like, “Sing to the volume of the person next to you,” or riding us until we’re all making the same open /a/ vowel with the same resonance and color (“loosen your lower jaw,” “basses you’re too dark, bring the sound forward to make it brighter,” “think of the sound resonating both in front of and behind your head”).  He’s also challenged the “leaders” in the chorus (“leaders, you know who you are… and if you’re not a leader, you know who they are…”), asking them to pull back and do more listening than leading.  You have to understand, we’ve historically sung intentionally as ~120 soloists and “averaged to a blend” as part of our unique powerful sound.  We may know our parts cold but may not have internalized how we fit into the whole.  James is chipping away at that history in favor of this newer style, and it’s hard work for him and for us.

This be-one-with-the-group mentality is especially needed for this piece, because we are effectively just more instruments in the orchestra, instead of our usual starring role as a featured chorus!  Just listen to how you can sometimes barely tell the chorus is singing.  Since we have to think more like orchestra members, we already have to blend our entrances with other instruments and cross-fade with the orchestra dynamics — except, of course, during the impressive 3 minute a cappella section featured in the middle of the piece.

One of James’s most profound comments was while rehearsing that a cappella section:  “You are all singing the right notes, but you’re still not singing an A flat major chord.”  And he proved it by asking us to then sing an A flat major chord, which *was* in tune.  When we as singers get too focused on our notes and intervals (“okay, a major third up, then down a tritone, up another third…”), we lose the tuning with the rest of the chorus — and we hear it when he stops us and asks us to sing the chord by name.  For this piece in particular, we have to think in terms of chords.  James has been identifying mental stopping places where we should be thinking “this should sound like C major… this should sound like F# minor…” and so forth.  I can’t explain why this improves the sound so much, but it does.  For example, there’s a G7 major chord that always sounds like a tone cluster because each part arrives on it from a different direction… but once he had us think of it as a G major chord, suddenly this radiant sound burst forth that we’ve never achieved before, and that frankly I’ve never heard cleanly in any recording.

Though this is my first time singing the entire Suite, there are chorus members who have sung this piece ten times. I’ve been reminded by no fewer than three singers that “the BSO and TFC won a Grammy for singing this piece,” almost as if that exempts us from James’ criticism regarding our tuning efforts.  He’s challenged us with high expectations, and we’ve seen glimpses of it in rehearsals when we don’t resort back to our automatic pilot habits.  At one point he said, “Can you sense that we’re not singing this the way you’ve always done it?” and there was a forceful, almost grimacing “YES!” acknowledgement from everybody in the room.

Long-time TFC members who attended the Saturday Schumann performance, at the concert the week before this Ravel series, praised us for our diction, for our dynamics, for our tone, and for our focused singing.  But a few lamented wistfully that “it doesn’t sound like the TFC I know any more.”  I’ve witnessed this with so many leadership transitions: be it a new choral conductor, a new orchestra conductor, a new department head, or a new pastor, when there’s a new sheriff in town, the world changes.  It’s okay to mourn the past for a little while, but then you move forward, and as a follower decide if and how you’re going to embrace the vision set forth by the new leader.  And for the TFC, the Ravel represents perhaps another step in embracing a new vision of how a chorus should sound.

 

Starting Fresh with Schumann

“How many of you have sung either of these pieces before?” James Burton, choral director of the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, asked all of us at the first rehearsal.

Only a few knew the Nachtlied, and no one raised a hand for the Neujahrslied. “Wow – take a picture,” someone muttered. Given the breadth of choral experience and the longevity of many TFC members – some who’ve been singing with the TFC since its founding in 1970 – having a new, noncommissioned piece from an established composer is… well, it’s liberating.

So far in James Burton’s tenure, we’ve had to spend a lot of time unlearning old habits and erasing old markings. Singing conventions that John Oliver established, remixes of part roadmaps, and predefined dynamic and tempo alterations have almost been distractions during rehearsals. (We learned early on in James’ tenure not to interrupt rehearsals with questions like, “We always took an eighth rest out of this whole note, should we still do that?”)

None of that is present for these Schumann lieder. That means we get to discover these rarely performed pieces on our own terms, and collectively apply our musicianship rather than lazily relying on “how we’ve always done it.”

A great example was one moment in the first morning orchestra rehearsal, in the Neujahrslied. The chorus and orchestra come together in a series of solid chords after furtively creeping through a mysterious fugue. When we first performed it, it was… fine. Then Andris Nelsons asked the orchestra to hold back on the volume and play their part with long, sustained notes — call it un poco maestoso (a little majestic). He then asked the chorus to sing espressivo (expressively and dramatically), so that we would stand out in the foreground against this tapestry created by the orchestra.

This matter-of-fact correction, unwritten anywhere in the literal music itself, completely changed the character of that moment. It was like looking into an old Viewmaster and seeing a 2D slide jump to life in 3D. And that was just one adjustment in over an hour of adjustments, notwithstanding all the similar tweaks that James Burton put in place during the hour before we joined the orchestra. It was a completely engaging, satisfying rehearsal, basking in the expertise of learned leaders and a top-notch orchestra even as we contributed our part.

The result should be an enjoyable performance for audience members now going through the same process of discovery that we did, as these sumptuous pieces come to life.

Podcast #4: Belshazzar’s Feast with the TFC

In this episode, we commemorate a performance of William Walton’s composition, Belshazzar’s Feast, as sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus out in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in July of 2017, under the preparation of our new choral director James Burton and one of the chorus’s favorite orchestral conductors, Bramwell Tovey.  While I personally didn’t get the chance to sing this concert, I did get to spend the weekend out there listening to many of my friends in the chorus rehearse and internalize this piece, and give a phenomenal performance on that Sunday afternoon.

So to capture the love and joy poured into preparing this piece, on the weekend before the concert I interviewed four chorus members about the experience.  I’ve also included appropriate clips from the final performance.

I hope you enjoy listening to everyone’s insights as much as I enjoyed talking to them and witnessing their work that weekend.  My thanks again to Diane Droste, Joy Emerson Brewer, James Gleason, and Diana Gamet for taking some time out of their Tanglewood residency to talk to me.

You can hear a playback of that performance on ClassicalWCRB.org website here.

Resurrecting Mahler’s Second Symphony

It’s that time again.  Time for Bass 2’s in the back row to bust out the low B-flats and the high G’s.  Time to explore a dynamic range that starts at pppp and ends at ffff.  Time for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to sing Mahler’s 2nd, the “Resurrection” symphony!

We’re performing this Friday, for the opening night performance of the 2017 Tanglewood season out here in the Berkshires.  As I write this, we have one run-through left before the concert itself. And I’ll make the bold claim that we’ll be more prepared to sing this piece than we have in perhaps two decades, thanks to the prep work by new TFC chorus director James Burton and BSO conductor Andris Nelsons.

Like my last experience unfamiliarizing myself with the Mozart Requiem, the Mahler is extremely well-known piece to our chorus, which means once again we’ve had to unlearn what we’ve previously learned.  I personally have found myself slipping into muscle memory and old habits if I’m not actively concentrating on being present, and singing what we’ve been taught over the last several rehearsals.  In this respect, one of James’s comments was particularly insightful — he suggested that if we weren’t actively taking part, we were “just singing along.”  Guilty.  In fact, I’d argue that a good portion of our chorus (myself included) has been “singing along” to familiar pieces for at least the last couple years, if not longer.

And what has he been teaching us, this time around?  New tricks for staying in tune during the a capella opening, like singing the e-flats and a-flats almost too sharp.  (James: “You’re playing this too safe.  You’re comfortably sitting back in the middle of the note and that’s why your pitch sags later on.)  Physical reminders, like “showing the audience your eyebrows” and various hand and body movements in rehearsals to connect our bodies to the music.  Enunciation notes so our German sounds like, you know, German — so that words like entstanden aren’t split up into three separate unnatural-sounding syllables.  Being aware of the other choral parts so that we tune to create a unified sound, rather than focusing solely on our own line.  The effect has been revelatory.

The preparation has not been without its minor conflicts.  Sometimes Andris will ask for something that seems to conflict with James’s preparation.  Andris may ask for a stronger legato, but James will remind us that we need our “gorilla accents” on each note.  (James had us actually making deep gorilla grunt noises in an earlier rehearsal to really emphasize the connection between our diaphragms and the marcato accents.)  Or Andris might appear to be asking for a darker sound from us, when James and our diction coach Livia Racz have been reminding us to keep the sound more forward in our mouths.  In cases like both of these the answer is frequently that “Both are right.”  The marcato should not sacrifice a sense of horizontal connectedness. The darker sound Andris wants is actually a deeper, more supported forceful call that doesn’t require going back into the throat to achieve.

Like the Busoni piece from earlier this year, it’s tempting to question why we spend so much effort for what is effectively less than 10 minutes of stage presence at the end of a much longer piece.  But the answer comes at every performance — that pouring out of your soul from the whispered choral entrance at the beginning to the total catharsis of the end, with gongs and chimes and brass and organ all combining to an apotheosis of gorgeous sound… it’s one of those life experiences that can’t be duplicated anywhere else.