Something was wrong.
We couldn’t pinpoint where the problem was, exactly, but somewhere within the choir the timing was just enough off-kilter that all the vocal parts had started to veer away from each other. If we could have, we would simply have stopped singing and started over, but a churchful of people were watching. Instead, the choir began to react, each section confident for a split second that their tempo was the correct one, which made matters worse.
The clear, brilliant sound we had been making was starting to sound ever so slightly muddy. It took only another second for whatever confidence remained to melt away. Now the orchestra was picking up on the wall of wrongness behind them, and their timing was perceptibly beginning to slide. Or maybe we heard it that way because we were off. That’s when our voices started to clash. Two seconds later and we were in free fall, just moments away from complete catastrophe. Don’t look horrified, don’t look horrified, keep a straight face.
“It’s like the whole room was spinning,” Brent Whitman recalled. “You’re really not sure which way is up, or straight, or whatever.” All season long John had been imploring us, “Get your faces out of the music and look at me!” Our faces were out of our music now. Fear leapt from the heart of one chorister to the next, like thoughts jumping between synaptic connections in a brain. All 145 members of the choir were looking to John, every pair of eyes crying Fix this.
John Maclay, our conductor, didn’t look the least bit alarmed; his expression had all the focus and intensity of a music-traffic controller. He was going to land this baby. “Don’t worry,” he once said, when asked how he was going to give us a cut-off. “I’ll use signal flags.” Right now what we needed was his pulse, the simple up and down movement of his baton, which as of that moment we were following to the absolute rhythmical second. Trust the baton. In one gloriously unified moment of attention, everything snapped back into place. The bright, sparkling clarity of rhythmic perfection returned and the wave of panic that had briefly arisen throughout the choir just as quickly subsided. I’m sure the audience never even noticed. John was pointing to his baton. Okay, now he looked a little mad.
Over the next ninety minutes, a masterpiece came to life without a single word spoken. After the concert, an audience member came up to me and asked, “Do you really need a conductor up there? I mean, you all know the music, don’t you? What do you need him for?”
I’d never really given much thought to running a choral society. You just tell people where to be and when, and what to sing, and there isn’t much more to it, right? For me, the choir provided an ever-so-brief intermission from my endless circuit of self-doubt, self-loathing, and fear, and I didn’t really care about what went on behind the scenes. This was my escape.
But John saw the Choral Society not “as an escape, but rather a route to something finer.” When he first took over the choir in 1999 he was determined to transform us from a hobby choir to one that could take on the most challenging choral pieces ever written. He was going to hold us to a standard, and then “not allow us not to achieve it,” as he later emailed me. “This was Brahms’s own maxim with his women’s chorus in Hamburg: ‘Fix oder Nix’–to the mark, or nothing.”
John came up with a plan to bring the choir “up to code.” The first rules he instituted seemed so slight. Like “No tapping your feet.” If you missed a rehearsal you had to attend a make-up session. (Leonard Bernstein was kicked out of the Harvard Glee Club for not showing up enough.)
The efforts paid off and we got better. John made one more change, one so fearful he waited a few years after taking over the choir before introducing it. We were going to break up all the voice parts and sing in what is referred to as quartets. Before this, we always sang in sections. All the sopranos rehearsed and performed together, all the altos sang together and so on. Now, instead of singing under the protection of a sea of fellow sopranos, following what they did whenever I got to a part where I was unsure, I would have an alto, tenor, and bass around me.
“When John first told us that we were going to sing in quartets, my bottom jaw dropped,” tenor Milton Justice told me. “Oh my God! What am I going to do without my security blanket!.”
The first time we did it my fear vanished. I loved it. Everyone did. “It’s like going from two dimensions to three,” said Roland Jarquio. “What is flat takes shape. And when the harmonies are just right, it’s like you’ve created a hologram out of thin air.” “In a large choir like ours, it’s easy to feel like one singer’s contribution doesn’t matter much or to lose a sense of cooperation with other voice parts,” soprano Rosemary Demos told me. “After all, there aren’t too many chances in ordinary life to be in perfect cooperation with other people. Singing fulfills that need.”
One big issue remained: we needed to become financially self-sustaining. Like everything else, the expense of keeping a choir has gone up considerably. Part of the reason is size. Medieval and Renaissance choirs were small; if you had twenty-five singers, that was considered a huge choir. We have 152 members. The orchestra affects the cost even more. For centuries, this wasn’t even a consideration. Instruments to accompany the singers simply weren’t allowed inside the church. Today no one thinks twice about seeing a full-blown orchestra inside a church, and big pieces such as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or the Durufle Requiem, which require a large orchestra, can cost as much as $40,000 to $50,000 to stage. Where does money like that come from in this economy?
After choir rehearsal, it was tradition to head over to the Cedar Tavern, a local bar and restaurant (now closed). “We sang from 7 – 9:30, and drank from 9:30 – 12,” bass Tim Bohn said. Around those tables an informal board of advisers was forming, and in addition to socializing and flirting, issues about the choir were raised, discussed, and resolved. One night after rehearsal, talk at Cedar Tavern once again turned to the future of the Choral Society. Their chief concern: what was the best way to raise money? At that time any donations for the choir were funneled through the church. Alto Miriam Alimonos pointed out that not everyone who might want to help the choir would feel comfortable with making a check out to a religious institution. The decision was made to become a 501(c)(3) so that we could solicit tax-deductible and church-free donations. Soon after, a sponsorship program was put in place. Miriam would sometimes stay up after midnight stuffing envelopes with requests for contributions and, later, thank-you cards.
The board did its job well. The start-up they formed is now a successful, established business. While many choirs struggle financially, we have always had enough to pay for orchestra-heavy but glorious pieces such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Thankfully, due to their efforts, (and our generous supporters) once a week I get to return to one of the most beautiful churches in Manhattan, pick up whatever masterpiece we’re currently working on, open my mouth, and sing.
—Stacy Horn is the author of “Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others,” which will be available July 2nd (Algonquin Books). She lives in New York City and sings with the Choral Society of Grace Church.
[Choir Image: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]