Who Needs An Audience?

imagesAn eminent music critic whom I had the pleasure of taking tea with a few days ago thinks there are too many choirs in his home town. “There just isn’t a large enough audience to go round” he said.

I’ve heard this complaint from a number of people over the years. But I don’t think you can ever have too much of a good thing; there are certainly too many wars in the world. Not too many choirs.

However, my friend’s assertion got me thinking about how certain kinds of art might lend themselves just as — if not more — engagingly to private participation rather than public performance.

Undoubtedly, there will always be a demand for some high-level vocal ensembles like The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, whose luminescent performance of Poulenc’s Stabat Mater I was lucky enough to catch at Davies Symphony Hall over the weekend in tandem with a polished take on the bombastic yet less inspiring Te Deum by Berlioz.

But there are countless other groups out there for whom attracting audiences shouldn’t always be the end goal.

Another friend of mine, who sings with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, has repeatedly asserted that choral music is much more fun for the people doing the singing than for the people out there listening.

I used to think he was being facetious. But now I think he has a point.

Group singing is one of the most rewarding activities out there and the beauty of it is that you can do it at all levels and sing all kinds of music. And when it comes down to it that should be enough.

Performing in front of a (paying) audience is fine, but does it really add to the essential pleasure and point of singing? It certainly gives choir members a goal towards which to drive. Yet perhaps there’s room for driving towards the goal of an internal performance just for the group’s members rather than competing with 30 other choirs for audiences on any given weekend.

OK, so maybe the performance could be videoed and put out into the world on YouTube or as a digital audio download if sharing the work is a sine qua non of an ensemble’s existence. All I’m saying is that drafty churches and uncomfortable pews patchily peopled with octogenarians wearing blue rinses need not habitually be part of the culture.

If choirs could change the way they view themselves, when occasional brilliant performances do take place, I guarantee that there will always be enough of an audience to go round.



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  1. MWnyc says

    It depends …

    Was this critic talking about amateur and semi-amateur choirs or professional concert choirs?

    Granted, I’m a big fan so I’m not a dispassionate observer, but I think there’s plenty of room for professional choirs with the same standards as top professional orchestras – for instance, Chanticleer, The Sixteen, the Tallis Scholars, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, L.A. Master Chorale, Trinity Wall Street, Philadelphia’s The Crossing, the Kansas City Chorale, and the extraordinary Latvian Radio Choir.

    We could use way more of those – and their audiences aren’t just octogenarians wearing blue rinses sitting on uncomfortable pews, either, thank heaven.

  2. MWnyc says

    Come to think of it, Chloe, aside from Chanticleer – and not counting the choirs like the SFS Chorus and the Philharmonia Chorale who rarely if ever perform without the orchestras to which they’re attached – how many professional concert choirs are there in San Francisco?

    • Chloe Veltman says

      there are quite a few high-level choruses in the Bay Area such as Volti, Kitka and the Pacific Boychoir to name but three not mentioned above. I don’t think ‘professional’ is a useful distinction here, as many very good choruses only pay their musicians ‘per service’. I think there are still only 2 full-time professional choirs in the country, right? — chanticleer and cantus…??

  3. says

    I sense a little bit of elitism in this post. The professional choirs you refer to are the exception rather than the rule and that’s as it should be. Choirs are about people gathering to sing – one of the purest and oldest forms of artistic expression. The goal is naturally a performance event that’s given for members of the choir’s community – it’s friends, families and extended social networks, along with some fans and admirers. It’s a model that predates our mid-20th century conception of centralized, non-community-based, aloof “professional” music organizations performing for paid audiences with which the performers have no personal relationships.

    Ironically, this is the model that’s most likely to sustain choral music as top-heavy classical music organizations lose their audiences and as funders shift their focus toward forms of creative expression that are rooted in communities and community building.

    I love great choirs and appreciate the excellence of professional groups like those mentioned here, but semi-pro and amateur groups – and their audiences – have always been, and will most likely continue to be, the heart and soul of choral music.

    • Chloe Veltman says

      Nope, no elitism intended here, Trevor. The point I am trying to make is that coral singing is precisely NOT about public paid performances but about inter-community gathering for song. The only example I mentioned, The SF Symphony Chorus, is actually mostly comprised of amateur volunteer singers. Only a fraction of the group is paid to sing in the group.

  4. formore says

    No elitism here….then why the disparaging remark about octogenarians? Aren’t they a valuable part of our audience and support? My organization is 25 years old, and I’m grateful for all those who came before me who laid the foundation. I’m doing my part now. I didn’t know that somewhere down the line my continued interest would be unwelcomed and/or disparaged, even if I do decide to go with blue rather than blonde.