Does choral music really have a bright future?

Gregory BatsleerFri 24th November 2017

Choral music concerts are, increasingly, a hard sell...

Choral music, one of the oldest artistic traditions practised and nurtured in the UK, is currently entering a new golden age. For those who recently heard Roderick William’s fantastic Choral History of Britain programme on Radio 4 or who have seen Gareth Malone’s prime time TV shows, this will come as no surprise. The word ‘choir’ is no longer associated with elitist Oxbridge types or our grandparents’ generation but has found its way into all different walks of life from trendy flat white-drinking crowds to the most high profile businesses in the country. There are not many things that Corbynistas and JP Morgan executives have in common; involvement in a choir is certainly one of them.

I am incredibly lucky to have had singing and choral music at the centre of my life since I was very young. I first joined a choir at primary school and have not looked back since. As with all of us involved in choral music, I am taken by the power this unique combination of rhythm, harmony and text has to bring people together and express things we often struggle to in other areas of life. Over the centuries composers from Palestrina to James Macmillan have produced some of the greatest works of art known to humankind.

So, yes - choral music is pretty great. I am a fully signed-up evangelist. However, in recent years I have become increasingly concerned that, for all its rise in popularity, we are at risk of neglecting one vital ingredient: the audience. Sir Simon Rattle recently said in an interview that 'unless we start looking at classical music vastly differently, it will die out … and it will deserve to die out.' I am afraid I agree with this rather bleak statement.

Choral concerts are increasingly the hardest to sell in all the organisations I work for. The audience just does not seem to be interested. Earlier this month the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus gave an acclaimed performance of Schumann’s Requiem, a stunningly profound and rarely performed work. There were a little over 200 people in a 1,000 capacity venue.

Now, the SCO is a world class ensemble with a great reputation and a very fine chorus, even if I (as Chorus Director) say so myself. If this ensemble cannot capture the imagination of an audience then something much deeper and more worrying is going on. This, I hasten to add, is symptomatic of many choral organisations, both amateur and professional.

Of course there are notable exceptions. Groups such as The Sixteen and The King’s Singers perform to capacity crowds wherever they go, and rightly so, as they deliver the goods without fail and have developed clear identities in their sound and repertoire over decades. The problem facing the rest of us is how we can match this popularity. Our attempts have largely left us with a vastly crowded choral scene that finds itself playing it safe. The same repertoire, programming and performance presentation is competing for the same audiences, as opposed to seeking new ones.

It is important to say at this stage that there are many choirs that exist solely for their members. Take for example the Choir With No Name or the hundreds of office choirs that exist throughout the UK. They are vessels for creative output for people from all backgrounds and if they have an audience at their showcases then that is a bonus that should not go unacknowledged.

However, with a growing number of ensembles and an ever-popular singing scene we must not neglect choral music as an exquisite art form that can reflect society and change lives. If we look at flourishing neighbouring art forms such as theatre and dance, what we see at the core is innovation and renovation, a constant search for new ways of presenting the art, whether this be Emma Rice’s groundbreaking new interpretations of Shakespeare or the radical work of companies such as Punchdrunk and Rambert.

If choral music is to have the future it deserves, I believe we too must engage more actively and radically in this approach. Yes, performances in churches and half-empty concert halls can be incredibly special but the music of Monteverdi and Mozart can also speak to people outside these contexts. Many of these composers were themselves radicals and eccentrics; why can’t we start showcasing and performing their music in this way as well?

One of the routes into this is through collaboration, seeking to bring other art forms into a choral environment and work with them on this great music. This focus on collaboration has led me to team up with two colleagues - live entertainment producer Louis Hartshorn and performer-curator Oskar McCarthy - to found a new professional choral ensemble called Festival Voices. In all our performances we commit to working with artists from other disciplines. On November 25th this means working with a mime artist, a lighting designer and an electronic music producer to find new ways of exploring pieces by Purcell, Martin and Pärt. We are not saying this is the only way to perform choral music if it is to have a future; nor are we saying it will be to everyone’s taste. We believe, however, that it is necessary to redefine choral concert etiquette by making performances that push boundaries and provide new channels for audiences to express themselves however they choose.

Perhaps if more of us dare to take the risk, then the captivating sounds we have enjoyed for centuries as performers might begin to find new ears and this art form - in varying guises - be shared by many more. And, who knows, it might even result in even more people signing up to sing.

Festival Voices will present an evening of collaborative choral music, featuring works by Arvo Pärt, Frank Martin and Henry Purcell, at Ugly Duck in London on November 25. For information, please visit: uglyduck.org.uk

Gregory Batsleer

Gregory Batsleer has held the position of Chorus Director with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra since 2009. Since 2015, Batsleer has been Chorus Director of the RSNO Chorus and earlier this year made his conducting debut with the RSNO and Chorus in a performance of Mozart's Requiem. In January 2017 he took up the newly-created position of Choral Director with Huddersfield Choral Society.

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