In praise of the unifying nature of choirs

Tido Visser © Wiebrig Krakau

Tido Visser © Wiebrig Krakau

The choral world needs more front page projects like 150 Psalms in order to fulfil its foremost mission: unifying people, writes Tido Visser, managing director of the Netherlands Chamber Choir and initiator of the 150 Psalms project. 

In September, the Netherlands Chamber Choir will celebrate its 80th anniversary with 150 Psalms. Over the course of 12 concerts they will perform all 150 psalms, set to music by 150 composers, covering 1,000 years of choral music. The choir invited three of the finest choirs in the world to join them: The Tallis Scholars, the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

Virtually every composer for the past 1,000 years has set a psalm to music. And the texts of the psalms – some as much as 3,000 years old – look as if they were written yesterday. They deal with what fills the newspapers of today: the White House, Red Square, Brussels or Syria and they describe the disappointed voter, the refugee’s fear, the oligarch’s greed, and the leader’s tyranny. For the 150 Psalms series, lectures, debates and an interactive exhibition will form a peripheral programme that aims to place the psalms at the centre of current affairs.

NKK Studio | Netherlands Chamber Choir

The Nederlands Kamerkoor

Here is a fact: with 37 million choir singers in Europe, choral music represents an important constituent of our European cultural infrastructure [1]. In countries like the Netherlands and Austria, more people are a member of a choir than of a football club.

In other words; choral singing has huge potential. I would even dare to say that the choir is the symphony orchestra of the 21st century, in terms of potential popularity. I think this is for three reasons. One, with the continuous merging of art forms, the choir is a wonderful tool to work with. It can move in space, singers can act, and it combines two means of expression: music and text. Two, in times of endless subsidy cuts, money is a factor. Singing gives the maximum output for minimal cost. Put 10 children around a table, and they can sing. No instruments – or finance for those instruments – needed.

Tallis Scholars

The Tallis Scholars

But the foremost reason is the fact that singing unifies people. Singing together can get groups of people to bond far more quickly than other social activities.[2] I still vividly remember a phone call from the artistic director of the Lincoln Centre, Jane Moss, to invite the Netherlands Chamber Choir to present 150 Psalms in New York City. She recognised the connecting power of song and the humanity of the Psalms and felt the need for this connection to ring through even the very smallest veins of her city.

And yet, Twitter explodes over the appointment of a new chief conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic, but hardly generates a retweet when it concerns a new frontman for the Rundfunkchor Berlin. And it is exactly this choir that – with the breathtaking performance of Human Requiem [3]  – showed in an innovative way the connecting power of choral singing.

The essence of singing lies in its vulnerability. A well-known singer once said: “If a clarinettist botches a high note, he looks at his instrument with loathing. Where am I supposed to look if I don’t reach a high note?” Criticise a singer’s voice and you’re criticising their deepest self. At the same time, it is that vulnerability, that intimacy that explains why singing connects people more than anything else. We truly open our hearts to ourselves and to others while singing. But we do need to take to the stage. The professional choral world has to start fully embracing its own foremost strength, unifying people. Professional choirs often think this consequently means we should only do community projects, and sing with amateurs. We should, but to think that we could do without what I call ‘front-page projects’ is a complete misunderstanding – as Human Requiem showed us. We need both, as they are both sides of the same coin.

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street

The choral world needs to present more projects, which become the topic of the day, which achieve maximum media exposure and which encourage a broad audience to take an interest in – and become engrossed in – choral music. Such projects are like Mount Olympus: they offer astounding views to a broad audience and challenge young talent to climb to the top. No sector can manage without its own Olympus. Front-page projects are an indispensable element in our vision for a healthy choral sector, and for the mission of this choral sector.

Because with projects like Human Requiem or 150 Psalms, Rundfunkchor Berlin and Netherlands Chamber Choir can shine the spotlight not only on themselves, not even on the entire choral world, but on the choral world’s main purpose: bringing people together.

150 Psalms: 1 & 2 September 2017, Festival of Early Music, Utrecht;  1-11 November 2017, White Light Festival, Lincoln Center, New York City; 20-22 March 2018, Klarafestival, Brussels.

150 Psalms Logo

www.150psalms.com

[1] www.europeanchoralassociation.org

[2] ‘The ice-breaker effect: singing mediates fast social bonding.’by Eiluned Pearce, Jacques Launay and Robin I.M. Dunbar; Oxford University; published in Open Science on October 28th 2015.

[3] Human Requiem is a project in which the separation between the stage and auditorium is removed. Text, body, space and sound are directly connected with each other. After numerous sold out performances in Berlin, this highly successful project has been toured globally in New York, Hong Kong and Athens as well as in South America. More information at www.rundfunkchor-berlin.de/projekt/human-requiem/.

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