Caroline Gill speaks to David Temple, Gabriel Crouch and Francis Pott to find out
It’s a very simple distinction, and one that many performers and listeners would not bother either to make or to question, but what is the difference, in music, between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’? Professional orchestras in particular are easy to define: by and large, their members are full-time, paid instrumentalists who have most likely been in intensive study of their instrument since they were young children. And although amateur orchestras can range upwards in standard and ability from the very basic, their performance homes are generally smaller and less prestigious venues than their professional cousins, and their identity is rooted more in their own enjoyment of the music they come together to play.
Choirs, though, occupy a grey area in terms of professional and amateur music-making, and looking to characterise a ‘professional’ choir requires a definition that looks further than the simple details of whether or not its members are being paid to be there, or have non-related day jobs.
‘I’ve always thought, in fact, that people who work around the lower level of the profession find it quite tough, and that the people who are at the very top of the amateur world find it to be their oyster,’ says David Temple, founder and conductor of the Crouch End Festival Chorus, a choir that, although amateur, aspires to professional levels by way of its appearance on film and television soundtracks, as well as performances at the Proms with major professional orchestras.
So what does constitute ‘professional’ for a choir, in that case? Is it the personnel? Or the conductor? The venues in which they perform?
One answer may be camaraderie: Crouch End Festival Chorus is a good example of a ‘lifestyle’ choir – a group of singers that changes shape to suit the music it is performing and performs the variety of music it does in order to create and maintain an enthusiasm in its members that matches that of its conductor.
‘It’s not long ago that we did the Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the Barbican on a Saturday night and on the Sunday we were performing with Oasis at the Electric Proms,’ says Temple. ‘Sometimes there may be a tiny bit of complacency,’ he says, ‘but that’s when I say ‘‘do you realise how lucky you are to be in this position?’’, and if you’re ever going to get all ‘‘oh, it’s the…’’ – he gropes for the most ridiculous work and ridiculously outlandish possible choral music venue – ‘‘Seychelles Verdi Requiem again’’, you know, you can get lost!’
The ability to move from one type of performance to another – whether it is genre, ensemble size or even overall idiom – is a characteristic that embraces all choral music alike, regardless of its ‘status’ of professional or amateur.
As director of choral activities at Princeton University, Gabriel Crouch spends more of his time working with, technically, ‘amateur’ choirs than he does with professional groups. He is the founder, director and member of the professional early music group Gallicantus, as well as the choir Tenebrae, and was a member of the King’s Singers for almost a decade before moving to America, but this is a balance he chooses, and one he finds musically far more nourishing than spending his time working exclusively with professional choirs and singers.
‘I’ve got young adults at a point where I can make significant impression on them,’ he says, ‘as musicians and as consumers of music.’
The vast number of student vocal groups within the musical community at Princeton constitutes not just a depthless resource of opportunity for live performance, as well as recording and participation, but a community that is a great deal more than the sum of its parts. It is a social institution that Crouch asserts occupies a particularly important period in the lives of those who are part of it: to understand why it is so important in an extra-musical sense is to be able to contribute in the immersion in music that the singers are looking for.
‘If you’re good at your job,’ says Crouch, ‘you can teach people how to appreciate the music, and help them know what to look for. You have in your care human beings at the point where they are just becoming adult and you’ve actually got a chance of helping complete the development of their taste. Between 18 and 21 you move from, quite often for instance, hating Bach to loving Bach, or from hating English music to loving it.’
He sees choral music as a fundamental way of aiding that transition for young adults – whether they are actually musicians, or students in different subjects – and uses college chapel and Cathedral music as a specific example. It is a way of drip-feeding a particular attitude to, and relationship with, music into the system that will nourish the individual’s musical life as a whole.
‘But if you are a singer in the liturgical sector,’ says the composer Francis Pott, ‘you’re not only aware of being part of this composite instrument – which is speaking directly to other people, trying to assist their worship – but sometimes you’re aware of some sort of fairy dust descending where everybody is really straining every sinew to get it right.’
So, that is to say that the experience of performing choral music is so personal that it is impossible to separate the performance from the performers in the way it is possible to separate the sound from a symphony orchestra, and Crouch agrees. ‘It’s how the voice is a far more accessible musical instrument than anything else. It doesn’t need tuning, or a particularly high level of skill to be used in a vaguely acceptable way,’ he says.
It certainly allows the vast majority of large-scale choral works to be performable, where they would not be projects possible to mount, without the input of an amateur choir of some description.
But is being the indispensible beef in a performance of Carmina Burana really enough for a choir to establish an identity? Perhaps not – many choirs commission new music on a scale even professional orchestras are reluctant to mount in what is frequently a very successful way of creating a bond between a choir, their audience and the music they work on and are challenged by. Commissions can act as a trap door into an exciting musical experience for many groups (often by way of relatively small financial investment), in a way that brings amateur and professional groups perfectly into line with each other.
It’s an interesting point – for the most part, although many examples of contemporary choral music may have a naturally short shelf life by way of a musically transitory identity, the choral music publishing industry has for a long time supported new music publishing. Indeed, for many of them the choral wing generates such a significant amount of their turnover that it is difficult not to imagine that their primary concern is, in fact, where the next new choral masterwork is coming from.
Is it a question of a new wave of art music concerning itself in how it may be able to employ old techniques into modern? And, if so, does that automatically predispose new music to being particularly well suited to a choral idiom that has been a largely barren ground, at least in terms of innovation (with some particularly outlandish exceptions such as, for instance, Luciano Berio’s Coro)? Or are choral composers now writing a kind of impossible grammaticism in a way that suggests an instrument, rather than a voice, with definite pitch? A lot of choral music runs the risk of just going beyond manageable barriers into something that is either unsingable, or singable only a way that is ineffective, musically and aesthetically.
Pott is particularly immersed in the world of choral music, and although he writes in many idioms, he is frequently considered to be at his most elemental when writing for choirs.
‘I think there’s a sort of grey area,’ he says, ‘because a lot of sacred choral music is either expressly written for – or else ends up in – a concert hall anyway, or being principally represented in the recording industry. So a lot of it is actually aimed at worship, although I think a lot of it addresses a kind of inarticulate, undefined sort of spirituality, not religion, and so in that sense it’s very much of our age and speaks for our condition in the 2000s.’
But is that for listeners of choral music, or simply the singers themselves?
‘Both,’ says Pott. ‘But I think a lot of major composers are espousing religious music in light of that, and it’s covering a wide range of music and very complex things which do embrace polyphony, although there are things like Arvo Pärt, which is almost on the edge of silence, with so little going on that you almost have to make it up yourself.’
Although many composers, and commentators, might suggest that chamber music is actually the melting-pot for their ideas, Pott asserts that one of his aspirations as a composer is to occupy an earned position in the musical canon, and that choral music is a particularly fertile breeding ground to formalise his ideas.
Pinning Pott down to this as a work ethic makes him pin his colours to the mast and say that he is offended by music he sees as being ‘just thrown onto the page,’ seemingly written in the time it could have taken to sing it.
It is interesting to ask composers of choral music what they themselves might choose to listen to. Ask Pott, and he will say mostly 16th-century polyphony, and ‘not vast amounts’ of contemporary choral music. Ask David Temple and he is as likely to say The Kinks as he is anything by Morten Lauridsen. And although this can be true of those working primarily in orchestral, instrumental or any musical idiom other than choral, the listening that people do as choral singers, conductors or composers is done within the same framework.
It is a smaller leap to see the effect that music passed on as an aural tradition (rather than as high art) having a direct influence on choral music than it is on a piece of large-scale orchestral music. Whether or not this makes choral music more accessible by definition is not perhaps finally the point – what it does do, though, is often make it easier to sing, even if the notes are technically difficult, without the need for year upon year of practice to attain a base level of virtuosity of which most amateur musicians could only dream.
‘I feel part of my job is to educate young people in the music and to bring them to an appreciation as we were learning it,’ says Crouch. With leading professional musicians I wouldn’t care less about that, I would assume they were there already, but it takes a certain understanding of where those people are in life and of what they want out of the experience.’
So, in this context, is it possible to answer the question: what are the fundamental differences between professional and amateur choirs?
‘Well, in the end it’s a completely different sound,’ says Temple. ‘I tend to choose voices for their actual beauty rather than any kind of technique at all, so I’m much more likely to hear somebody singing in the street and think I’d like that person in my choir than others. Take all the amateur choirs out of the Proms this year, for example. I would say that three-quarters of the choral works simply wouldn’t be audible. So doing something like a War Requiem with a completely professional choir just wouldn’t be viable.’
‘So we’re here to stay, really,’ he smiles.