With proper guidance, local singers are fine
To the editor:
In his story about the Berkshire Bach Society ("Ending the year with a blast of Bach," Dec. 29) Andrew Pincus gives the following history: "For about 15 years, the society also presented the Berkshire Bach Singers, made up of local singers, under such well-known conductors as Penna Rose and James Bagwell. In time, however, it became clear to the conductors and the board that the available singers weren't up to the repertoire."
Let's leave aside for the moment whether this history needs to include such egregious insults. The issue is much more complicated than Pincus suggests; as a former Berkshire Bach singer, I can provide a little context.
There are very few all-professional choruses. The Metropolitan Opera has one, with an average annual salary of $200,000 for each of 80 people. Obviously that's out of the question anywhere but New York. Most musical organizations, including professional orchestras, use non-professional choruses. It can't be done any other way. The Boston Symphony uses the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, a 300-member non-paid chorus whose members all have great voices, can read music well, and can memorize music so they can look at the conductor when they perform. They are a true delight.
Greater Boston, with 4.7 million people can come up with 300 such singers. So Berkshire County at 150,000 (a generous estimate) should be able to come up with 10 such singers. I know at least 20 local amateur singers who have all three of the desired qualities. And if one is willing to accept less-than-perfect voices, or people who can sing well but can't read well, etc. one could easily find a very good small amateur chorus.
But it's difficult. Good choir conductors spend a lot of time thinking about how to demand excellence from non-professional singers without making them so miserable that they quit. Usually, the right formula is (a) lots of rehearsal time and (b) inspiration and patience from the podium.
Penna Rose is an example of a conductor who knows how to use humor and love to exact a very high level of performance from an amateur choir. Her Berkshire Bach performance of the Bach B-minor Mass at Ozawa Hall was a fine musical experience for the choir and the audience.
But not everyone wants to, or can, do this. Conductors who lose patience and insult their unpaid singers end up without a choir. If the Bach Society has decided it's too difficult to find a conductor who can achieve the right balance, it's too bad. But finding and leading an amateur chorus here is difficult, not impossible.
This season, both the Berkshire Lyric and the Cantilena chorus performed concerts that included Bach's Christmas music, and the performances were highly polished and beautiful to hear. Perhaps the board members of Berkshire Bach need to get out a little more.