Nicholas Alexander Brown and the Library of Congress Chorale

photoWhen Nicholas Alexander Brown was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC yesterday afternoon following a lunchtime concert he had just conducted at The Library of Congress’s genteel Coolidge Theatre, two young women called out to him from outside a café to congratulate him on his success.

I wasn’t surprised: Brown is the sort of person who quite regularly gets accosted in public places around Capitol Hill. The twenty-something Library of Congress musicologist and administrator cuts an atypical figure at the Library. He’s about 40 years younger than the average employee, several inches taller and much better dressed. Yesterday he was sporting a charcoal-colored Hugo Boss suit that looked like it had been painted on him.

One of the things that Brown, a singer, French horn player and conductor, took on when he started working at the Library just over a year ago was the unglamorous job of conducting the Library of Congress Chorale.

Composed entirely of volunteer singers from the ranks of the Library’s many departments, the SATB Chorale is a marvelous relic. It’s probably one of very few genuine workers’ choruses left in this country. The group rehearses once a week for an hour or so at lunchtime. The majority of its members are, at a guess, well over 50 and many of them don’t read music.

Despite the minimal time available to Brown to rehearse with his singers, the Chorale managed to pull off — with aplomb — an ambitious program of classic opera choruses yesterday that consisted of music in several different languages including English, German, French, Italian, Russian.

The ensemble’s intonation and articulation were fantastic throughout. I could make out almost every word that was sung. There were great dynamic contrasts and best of all was the variety of mood throughout the hour-long program. The group was suitably furious when they performed the “Chorus of the Furies” from Act II of Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice, lyrical when it came to Verdi’s rousing “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco, full of pomp for “Gloire a Didon” from Les Troyens by Berlioz, rambunctious during Tchaikovsky’s “Chorus and Dance of the Peasants” from Act I of Eugene Onegin, and hushed for the “Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Brown needs to encourage his forces to sing with a fuller, rounder tone. The overall sound was a little thin most of the time. But all in all, the Chorale gave the audience a fantastic lunchtime concert. The experience made me wish that workers’ chorales would come back in vogue.

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  1. Harold Boyd says

    Hi Chloe! Thanks so much for the review. The comments are greatly appreciated as this was, at least for me, a very hard concert to do but quite enjoyable. I, myself, have been singing with the group for thirty or forty years. Can’t remember so please don’t laugh. By far this was a very challenging concert to do but thru Nick’s deft guidance and my fellow singers’ great dedication and thru your comments we accomplished what Nick set out to do. So, again, thank you for your comments and the best to you.

      • Lora Hindenburg says

        Ms. Veltman, your review of the Library of Congress Chorale Noon Concert reads more like an ode to Nick Brown than a review of an ambitious program performed by a group of dedicated and talented individuals many of whom are musicians in their own right, even if not vocalists,

        No conductor pulls off a program this demanding without the personal commitment and perseverance of the singers and the accompanists (about whom you mentioned not a word). While Mr. Brown may have had only one hour each week with the chorale members, any singer would know that it is the members’ willingness to practice their music outside of rehearsals that allow conductors like Mr. Brown to spend their time on interpretation rather than pounding notes.

        I urge you to take a closer look at the chorale make-up next time you attend a concert and are tempted to make a comment on age. I believe you will find many members under the age of 50. It is insulting to imply that a chorister over that age is in some way less able to make a meaningful contribution to a performance than younger members. That you would even bring up age in a review is a reflection of your own immaturity as a review writer.

        Finally, if I were a chorale member rather than a member of the audience, I would find your comment about Mr. Brown taking on the “unglamorous job” of conducting the Library of Congress Chorale highly offensive. Mr. Brown has held his post one year and is but following on the heals of many talented conductors who recognized it as a privilege to work with this group that originated in the Performing Arts Division of the Copyright Office.

        Paragraphs 6 and 7 of your article were in keeping with the tenor of a serious review having both positive comments and suggestions for improvements in performance. I’m certain that chorus members will take those comments to heart. I hope that they will overlook the remainder of your review.

  2. Carol Frenkel says

    Ms. Veltman,

    Lora Hindenburg made some excellent points which I myself would have made. By your description, one would picture employees of the Library and of the Chorale as doddering, poorly dressed amateurs who happened to pull off a minor miracle with the concert you attended. The focus on age and dress really doesn’t have a place in a musical review. I also would like to correct the statement that many of the Chorale’s members don’t read music. Quite the opposite is true, as the group is comprised of many members who are accomplished musicians in their own right. That said, I think it’s a tribute to those who don’t read music that they find whatever means possible to participate, learning the music by ear or listening to recordings.

    Although I did not sing in this particular concert, I have been a member of the group for about 30 years. Yes, that means I’m in my fifties. I have to say, the beauty of the group is that it has never been an auditioned group. Because of this, it draws a diverse collection of people together with a variety of ages, musical background and abilities. The common factor is that we all love to sing. The noon-time rehearsals can be a true release from the stresses of our regular jobs. The preparation for the concert is as important as the performance itself and there is a great deal of camaraderie and shared joy in the efforts. Over the years, we have had many fine conductors, accompanists, and soloists that came from within the group in addition to instrumentalists from the Library community and a few from outside the Library. The Chorale has performed a wide variety of repertoire in many different languages. Some of it has been extremely challenging and some of it has been just plain light-hearted fun. Each experience is different.

    I’m sure the group members appreciated your positive, constructive comments about the concert. However, I bet most of them are just happy to have the self-satisfaction that comes from working hard and performing to the best of their abilities. Oh, and if it happens to please friends, family, and even strangers, then that’s just gravy.

    • Chloe Veltman says

      I very much appreciate you being in touch about my blogpost, Ms Frenkel. It’s great to see how much the LOC community cares about singing!