The Rise of the Professional Chorus

We look back on the emergence of professional choruses in North America and the role of professional singers in bringing them public acclaim.

In the beginning there was Fred Waring the venerable conductor whose "Pennsylvanians" reigned on vinyl, radio, movies, and television for a generation, defining a new style of American singing. Back in 1938, while in Hollywood recording a film, Waring stumbled upon a young minister-to-be at Pomona College who was leading the school glee club. Waring liked what he heard and, needing help developing vocal material for his daily radio show, invited the young man to New York. His name was Robert Shaw.

"He arrived with five dollars in his pocket," says composer and conductor Alice Parker, who studied conducting with Shaw and collaborated with him on choral arrangements for 20 years. The rest is the stuff of biblical narrative: Shaw soon formed New York's Collegiate Chorale to explore serious repertoire, created a canon of iconic recordings for RCA Victor, toured domestically and internationally, and became an eminent orchestral conductor, teacher, and mentor.

"He had a whole lot of talent and an appetite for hard work," says Parker. "And he was never happy with whatever he was doing at the moment. Everything could be better. He could always do more."

Shaw was not alone. Roger Wagner, a church organist, conducted his first concert at a church in Redondo Beach in 1939, according to Paul Salamunovich, who would know: He set up chairs and sat in the front row. It was a life-changing experience that led to his lifelong relationship with Wagner as singer, apprentice, assistant conductor, and friend.

According to Salamunovich, Wagner was truly charismatic, a brilliant conductor with the power to shape any voice. "He could make a lamp post sing," he says. Salamunovich was present at the creation of Wagner's Los Angeles Youth Concert Chorus, singing alongside Marilyn Horne and Marni Nixon; at the creation of the Roger Wagner Chorale, the legendary 24-member professional touring ensemble; at the early film recordings (he can still sing the immolation scene from Joan of Arc, starring Ingrid Bergman); at Wagner's first Hollywood Bowl concert, featuring reigning movie musical star Kathryn Grayson and teenage "boy wonder" André Previn; and at the formation in 1964 of Wagner's Los Angeles Master Chorale.

"He was like a father figure to me and we were great buddies," says Salamunovich. "He always used to say 'Don't forget, you're going to do my funeral.' And I did."

Wagner, Shaw, and their colleague Norman Luboff were men of unique character, but of similar drive. The collective result was a critical mass of choruses that served a public, teased by recordings, that flocked into concert halls, churches, and community centers across the country—any venue a presenter could book.

To be fair, men such as Shaw, Wagner, and Luboff did not invent the chorus, no more than Henry Ford invented the car or Bill Gates invented the computer. Collegiate ensembles such as St. Olaf and Concordia had distinguished histories of touring, and community ensembles like Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, Philadelphia's Mendelssohn Club, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had strong local, regional, and national followings.

Of course, as artists, the sounds of Waring, Shaw, Luboff, and Wagner were by no means mass-produced like a Model T, and as technicians their product was less likely to crash than a PC, but what these conductors did was to develop professional ensembles whose sound and style could be replicated consistently at the highest standards of excellence from Toledo to Tierra del Fuego. "It didn't make a difference if it was a concert hall or a high school auditorium," says Salamunovich. "Audiences got first-class singing."

An Age of Entrepreneurs

Some have called these the "golden years," but the singers themselves might not be so quick to romanticize. "Kids came to New York in legions from colleges and conservatory programs just sure they were going to be the next great solo artist," says Parker. Reality (then as now) turned out to be a patchwork of church jobs, teaching, and the occasional solo opportunity, all the while studying with a vocal coach. "It was a hand-to-mouth existence," she says. Salamunovich "brought home the bacon" singing for funerals at $10 a gig.

Shaw, however, was an astute businessman, Parker says, and was careful to retain legal and financial counsel such that contracts were beneficial to him and the chorus. His recording contract at RCA Victor gave him great leeway, enabling him to produce highly commercial recordings that would supplement more serious repertoire. Hit recordings primed promotions for tours and, in turn, touring sold records. Wagner, who had a long-term recording contract with Capitol Records, was also good with money, says Salamunovich. The Chorale received a lump sum for tours and Wagner negotiated each singer's contract individually, ensuring that he got the best voices for the least amount of money.

While teaching public school in Michigan, soprano Doralene Davis was introduced to Roger Wagner at a party after one of his performances. A conversation led to an audition led to an invitation to join the Chorale for a State Department-sponsored tour of Latin America, all of which led Davis from the classroom to a full-fledged career as a professional singer. In addition to touring with Wagner and Shaw in the 1950s and 1960s, she sang under Norman Luboff, was a founding member of The Philadelphia Singers under Michael Korn, and has performed countless solo roles in choruses, opera companies, and major orchestras.

Davis looks back in amazement at the length, distance, number of concerts, and conditions of those tours. Yes, they were paid, but it was hard work. However, she was young and game for the adventure, even when the comforts of home were lacking. In every country their hosts felt they had to give them a party, but there was never enough food. "They didn't understand that singers didn't eat before the concert. We drank like fish but we were hungry. Sometimes all I wanted was a peanut butter sandwich or a cheeseburger." In La Paz the altitude was so high that Wagner took oxygen offstage. What did the singers do? "We sat down a lot," she says. On one U.S. tour she didn't sleep in the same bed for 90 days. "On the bus. Off the bus. Sing. On the bus. Off the bus. Sing."

On tour in Russia with Shaw, the chorus was required to maintain four complete programs, unsure of what repertoire Soviet authorities might allow at any given concert. And in those days of Cold War intrigue, even the hotel rooms of touring choristers were quite obviously bugged. "We'd say, 'Wouldn't ice cream be wonderful?' And sure enough the next day there would be ice cream for us," says Davis. Singing Bach and Ives twixt Moscow and Odessa and Yalta, there was a certain missile crisis in Cuba. "My mother was sure she was never going to see me again," Davis says, so before she left for Russia her mother booked her to sing in every church in the county.

A decade later Davis would see the spark of a choral entrepreneur once again. After an active career singing in the Midwest, plus marriage and motherhood, her husband's academic career brought them to Philadelphia where, responding to an ad in the Inquirer, she soon found herself singing under the baton of Michael Korn, a recent Curtis graduate who founded The Philadelphia Singers.

"He had vision. He had guts. And he didn't know any better," she says.

David Hayes, the current music director of the Singers, concurs. "He was fanatically devoted to professional singers and the idea of forming a professional vocal ensemble," says Hayes. "He dreamt big and went after it in a way that was very single-minded."

He took his entrepreneurial spirit even farther by banding together with colleagues to found the Association of Professional Vocal Ensembles in 1977, now Chorus America. "One of the first accomplishments of APVE was to convince the National Endowment for the Arts that choruses were deserving of its support," says Ann Meier Baker, president and CEO of Chorus America. "Since then the NEA's investment in choruses has continued to expand, helping them in a variety of ways."

Gregg Smith, whose eponymous singing ensemble bridged the generation between Shaw and Korn, and who continues to conduct, never thought of himself as an entrepreneur. "I got an award from Chorus America for entrepreneurship," he says wryly, "and I wondered, 'Is that what I was doing?'" From his perspective it simply grew from opportunity: He was an assistant to a madrigal group at UCLA when the director got a call from Hollywood for a cheap choir. The gig went well and friends encouraged him to continue.

"But rather than just sit around and rehearse I decided to produce a concert," Smith says.

Just like that? Put on a show? Could it be that simple, even in a Hollywood scenario? "You'd dig up your money and you'd hire a hall and you'd hire singers and you'd get a review."

But who was putting up money for a choral performance in those days? "I was!" he says.

There were presenters such as Columbia Artists, Walter Gould (brother of composer/conductor Morton Gould), Sol Hurok, and Kenneth Allen who raised money, handled bookings, and tended to promotion and management. Gould, who was part of the original founding group of APVE, managed the Robert Shaw and Robert Wagner Chorales as well as the Gregg Smith Singers at various points during his career, and he and Shaw founded Lawson Gould Publishing, which published the famed Shaw-Parker choral arrangements. It was a crowded field, and even in a time when Americans snapped up choral recordings and flocked to hear touring ensembles, artistic directors had to differentiate their offerings. "It was up to us to offer interesting programs," says Smith.

Lest one be tempted to over-sentimentalize the giants of the past, along with great maestros come great egos. There were clashes and there was antipathy. Shaw and Wagner feuded for years. "Roger was not the most couth person," says Salamunovich, diplomatically. "He was a competitive son of a bitch," says Smith. Shaw was easily agitated, says Salamunovich. In his later years Shaw made frequent derogatory comments about professional singers. "The choral art should be a collection of amateurs," he once told The New York Times. "Like sex, the arts are too important to leave to the professionals," he told New York magazine. Amusing quips, perhaps, but deeply offensive to professional singers like Davis who devoted so much time and talent to their careers for modest wages.

Passing the Baton

As the baton passed from the generation of Shaw and Wagner to the next, so too did the business model by which choruses operate and evolve. Instead of withering, the North American choral scene evolved. Instead of a national touring market dominated by a few professional touring choruses, there were now resident choruses within given communities supported by subscription ticket sales and contributions. Instead of home bases exclusively in New York and Los Angeles, professional ensembles bloomed in Houston, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Kansas City, Omaha, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Norfolk, and Boston. Instead of withering as the era of founding maestros passed, professional choruses flourished under new leaders, conductors such as Smith, Robert Page, Margaret Hillis, and Elmer Iseler.

Artistic transitions were not always easy. Elmer Iseler's ascendance in Canada as director of both the professional Festival Singers and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was not without discord. According to Walter Pittman, who credits Iseler with creating a Canadian choral tradition, Iseler suffered two forced resignations. In his 2008 biography, Elmer Iseler: Choral Visionary, Pittman says, "There were those in positions of power in both organizations who failed to understand his vision and who initiated a process that brought about his downfall as conductor of both these prestigious institutions."

Margaret Hillis, an early Shaw student and assistant, went on to found the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1957. The CSO Chorus began as a volunteer ensemble and required rigorous work to metamorphose. "There was no professional standard when it came to vocal ensembles in Chicago at that time," she told broadcaster and journalist Bruce Duffie in a 1986 interview. "The problem was to instill in them some sense of responsibility toward what they were doing," a process that took several years.

Organizational transition was challenging as well, says Hayes. "The early chorus movement tended to focus on the personality of the conductor who started the chorus and less on developing institutional infrastructure. They spent an enormous amount of time trying to fund that vision."

But even as legendary sound resides in the viscera of the American choral voice, eponymous ensembles themselves have not always survived their founders. Successors to the generation of named choruses appear to have observed the phenomenon. Though no one could have anticipated Michael Korn's untimely death at age 44, Davis says that from the outset Korn made an affirmative decision not to name his chorus after himself, specifically so it would have a greater chance to endure beyond him. He also cultivated a strong board. "Everybody just assumed it would continue," says Davis, and a logical transition went forward.

Washburn, who previously led the Jon Washburn Singers, was adamant that his next professional chorus, the Vancouver Chamber Choir, which he founded in 1971, not bear his name. "I changed it because I wanted it to be a city institution like the symphony orchestra and the opera rather than something tied to my persona," he says. "The ultimate test of your organization is whether it has a life beyond you."

Like their volunteer counterparts, professional choruses had to find paths to sustainability. With the exception of the major symphonic choruses affiliated with a larger parent institution, the fundamentals of today's professional chorus are not substantially different than those of a volunteer chorus. They incorporate as 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, they are governed by a board of directors, they form mission statements and strategic plans for growth, they target and serve a market for choral music, and they strive to balance the books with a mixture of earned and contributed income.

The structure of the organization may have changed, but the essential qualities of its leader have not. "Any good conductor has to have business sense," says Alice Parker. It's not easy to find. The successful conductor must recruit strong executive leadership and learn to cultivate multiple revenue sources.

As with successful entrepreneurs in other fields, these skills are innate. " My business skills are equally important to my music skills," says Washburn, noting that he has "known a lot of people who were fine musicians who tried to start professional choirs and it didn't work because they didn't have the business sense."

It was from no less than Roger Wagner that Washburn learned his mantra: Know how to do everything. "You may not be the person who books the bus," he says, "but you should know what it takes to get your musicians to the right place with time to do their job properly."

The Professional Edge

The lines between fully-professional, semi-professional, and all-volunteer ensembles may be similar in basic organizational structure, but to conductors and professional singers the distinctions among them are great, variously touching on aspects of commitment, rigorous preparedness, competency, and quality.

"A professional singer is a person who has decided to make singing the primary activity of life," says Parker. "The singer defines his or her profession by life choice."

Says Doralene Davis: "The plumber gets paid. The doctor gets paid. I don't open my mouth to sing without being paid."

"With a professional chorus rehearsals are not teaching sessions," says Earl Rivers, director of choral studies at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory and former director of that city's professional choir, Vocal Arts Ensemble. "They are for balancing, listening, tuning, and pacing."

"I expect professional singers to come to the first rehearsal prepared to read at performance level," says Duain Wolfe, director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. "And then I begin."

"Audiences don't come because it's a professional choir," says Phillip Brunelle, music director of VocalEssence in Minneapolis. "They come because they know that whatever concert they go to, whether they know the composer's name or not, they know they are going to hear something of the highest caliber."

One universal definition is that in a professional chorus all singers are paid. But how much? The early professional choruses of Shaw and Wagner, having drawn singers from radio and Hollywood, were subject to AGMA rules. Today more than a dozen American choruses operate under AGMA contracts. But over the decades not all professional performances have been caught in the AGMA radar. Gregg Smith recalls his first paid gig clearly. "We got paid $25 apiece," he says, still delighted at his good fortune some 55 years later. It should be noted that when adjusted for inflation and cost of living, $25 in 1955 is equal to $200 today, coincidentally consistent with today's AGMA standards. Smith's abiding delight is justified.

Those choruses who pay their singers outside of AGMA agreements are entitled to set their own rates. To encourage consistent national standards, Chorus America has defined a series of guidelines—but ultimately the issue of paying professional singers is not simply a matter of dollars and cents. It's an issue of commitment and respect. "Paying the singers seems to be the only 'right thing to do,'" says Dale Warland. "If I, as a conductor, am seeking highly-skilled singers—outstanding musicians and excellent vocalists who are expected to produce performance results that equal that of the best professional instrumentalists—it is only right and fair to compensate them at a level that is as equitable as possible."

With the exception of Chanticleer and Cantus, no North American chorus pays its professional singers a full-time salary. Even core members of leading professional ensembles rarely yield as much as a third of their income from their primary chorus job, and usually much less. Now, as always, singers (and conductors, they hasten to add) support themselves by cobbling together multiple choir jobs, teaching, coaching, solo performance opportunities, and full- or part-time positions with benefits outside the music field.

That a professional chorus does not provide a living wage should not connote that it does not provide an essential wage, especially to professional singers. "We don't pay the singers that much," says Washburn. "But the main thing they need to know is that it is reliable, they can depend on a certain amount of income each year."

Even if he could guarantee them more hours, he recognizes there is a limit. "What would be 'full-time' for a choral singer? Eight hours a day? You'd kill yourself. And you'd probably kill your love of music, too."

With competition high for the most elite professional ensembles, conductors can take the time in auditions to focus on extra-musical attributes.

"I would want to find out why they came to the audition," says Rivers of his years at Vocal Arts. "Had they read the website carefully? Had they been to the concerts? What repertoire did they like or dislike? I was always looking for enthusiasm and willingness and energy. You look into their eyes for the fire and the eagerness. Any sense of hesitation gave me pause."

"Pay doesn't improve the individual's performance level," says Washburn. "The difference is in the ensemble. You are likely to have a higher and more consistent sound. When singers are all at the same level they all make each other sound better."

"Professional singers have reading skills that allow us to work at a velocity not possible with volunteer singers," says Charles Bruffy of the Kansas City and Phoenix Chorales. "And they have developed techniques such that a conductor can depend on replication."

Duain Wolfe conducts the fully professional Chicago Symphony Chorus, as well as volunteer choruses for the Colorado Symphony, Canada's National Arts Centre, and the Aspen Music Festival. "I have my cake and eat it too," he says, and professes unequivocal and equal love for all his organizations. But in Chicago his professional singers bring forth a richness of sound that can only come from a higher level of training. "The voices themselves are bigger," he says. In addition, the bar, already high, rises faster. "Because of the intensity of their training and their vocal agility they can work consistently at a higher level, allowing for more concerts and more touring and more repertoire which, in turn, enables them to get better faster."

Which is not to say his singers in Denver or Ottawa or Aspen have it easy. "I am relentless everywhere," Wolfe says.

The Next Choral Legend?

Professional ensembles germinate in many environments: madrigal groups, glee clubs, Hollywood recording studios. The Kansas City Chorale started as a group of friends who gathered for a conductor's master's degree recital. The Jon Washburn Singers were almost exclusively a broadcasting ensemble. The Philadelphia Singers, by all accounts, emerged fully formed from Michael Korn's imagination.

The emergence of Brunelle's Ensemble Singers from VocalEssence is an unusual case of a volunteer choral organization spawning a fully professional arm. The transition to a two-tiered system was handled with care to ensure that both entities would co-exist harmoniously, says Brunelle. He started with 24 singers, only moving up to his goal of 32 when he was confident that funding was sustainable. "I was insistent that we would pay everyone and we would never miss payroll," he says. "If they are singing, their check will come. The last person to be paid is me."

How are choral legends made? Most certainly with the sound. Says Brunelle of Shaw and Luboff: "What I respected was the innate musicianship that both of them brought to their organizations, the beautiful, very natural singing tone that their groups had, and certainly the interesting repertoire. They were visionary in everything they did."

"I tried really hard to learn the philosophy of Shaw's practices," says Bruffy. Many of the singers Bruffy works with have choirs of their own and Bruffy delights in seeing the Shaw techniques passed on.

The definition of what constitutes a professional chorus may be clear at the highest echelons of the choral field, particularly to the generation of conductors and singers who were active in the formative years of Chorus America. But the proliferation of newer professional ensembles, whose artistic and wage standards may not be completely up to snuff, has rendered an ongoing dialogue within the choral community.

There is skepticism bordering on animosity about applying the term "professional" to a chorus simply because it pays a wage.

"Anybody can call themselves anything," says one conductor.

"There are lousy professional choruses," says another. "Their sound is corrupt. No spark."

Says yet another: "Some try to use 'professional' as a way of saying high quality. It's frustrating, particularly if you are competing with another professional ensemble in your city."

Hayes likes to quote his colleague John Alexander, conductor of both the Pacific Chorale and its 24-member professional choir, The John Alexander Singers. "'Tend to your own garden,' John says. What ultimately defines us is the substantive quality they hear when a professional chorus takes the stage."

More than one conductor noted that while they chase the imprimatur that "professional" may bring, volunteer choruses should not forget that they enjoy benefits not accorded to professional choruses: There is a built-in audience among friends and family, members pay dues, and singers and their families can be counted on to give and raise funds, activities that are uncommon, if not precluded, in professional choruses.

Which is not to say that professional choruses are without support from within their ranks. Though she is retired now, Doralene Davis and her husband continue to support The Philadelphia Singers, just as they did during the years she sang with the ensemble. Their financial contribution was always far in excess of her compensation as a performer.

A strange logic, one might think, to pour dollars in one end of an organization and catch the change that falls out the other, but not to a professional singer for whom commitment to choral excellence and commitment to one's profession are not mutually exclusive.

This article is reprinted from The Voice, Spring 2010.

Get News