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Enough With The Candlelit Processionals Already

December 15, 2008

Once upon a time, the members of choral ensembles would stand at the front of a concert venue and simply sing their material. Occasionally they might sit in between songs if there were an instrumental interlude or solo, but in general, they pretty much stayed in one place.

I don't know whether audiences complained of boredom or the singers complained of cold or pins and needles, but these days, it's practically impossible to go to a choral concert and simply listen to the music in this country. There's always some measure of "choreography" involved too.

The latest series of annual Christmas concerts given by the all-male a cappella ensemble Chanticleer is a case in point. I don't think this remarkable group of singers stayed in the same configuration for more than one song. They processed in with candles, they changed position often between numbers. They even walked around the stage in a line like members of a chain gang at one point. Of course, there are musical reasons behind some of the physical movement -- when performing an antiphonal work, for instance, it makes sense to separate out the main chorus from the smaller group. And one piece in Chanticleer's program was rendered all the more intimate for being performed with the singers standing in an inwards-facing circle and spinning outwards during solo moments. Chanticleer performs all its choreography with machine gun precision, which is in some ways pleasing to the eye. At times though, when the physical movement somehow seems extraneous to the music, the effect feels all wrong -- almost like watching a chorus line in an old fashioned musical, a synchronized swimming team or a military parade.

There are countless other groups -- including the one I sing with regularly -- who seem unable to simply stand in front of an audience, sing and then get off stage. They're forever processing in and out and around the room (often with candles) and attempting to pique the audience's interest with various unusual bits of blocking. But many groups don't think this choreographic stuff through properly. It can look exceedingly scrappy if under rehearsed. This was the case during a concert I experienced a week and a half ago in San Francisco, when everyone in the ensemble processed in from the back of the venue to stand in a line down one side of the room, except for one confused soprano, who for some reason filed in on the wrong side of the room and then had to tiptoe along the front on her own to join the rest of the group. This inauspicious beginning didn't bode well for the rest of the performance.

In short, I am getting a bit tired of the endless shuffling about of choral singers on stage. It'd be refreshing to go to a concert where people stand still for once and focus one hundred percent on what the audience has truly come to experience: the music.

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