Religion of music redefines the role of the chorus at Piccolo Spoleto and beyond
Throughout history, the choir has been a cornerstone in the worship services of many religious denominations, from the haunting chants of 16th-century Franciscan monks to the toe-tapping hallelujahs of the Harlem Gospel Choir.
If you go
There are still several choir performances slated to take place during Piccolo Spoleto’s Festival of Churches and Synagogues. Admission is free unless otherwise noted, but donations are accepted. For more information, go to piccolospoleto.com. Some performances include
Kol Echad: Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, 90 Hasell St., 1 p.m. June 3. $6.
First Presbyterian Church Chamber Choir: Trinity United Methodist Church, 273 Meeting St., 3 p.m. June 4.
St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church Gallery Choir: St. Matthew’s Church, 405 King St., 5 p.m. June 3.
The Glorious Sound of Brass and Organ: Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 120 Broad St., 7:30 p.m. June 7. Suggested donation: $10.
Cantate Chamber Choir: Trinity United Methodist Church, 273 Meeting St., noon June 9.
St. Michael’s Choir: St. Johannes Lutheran Church, 48 Hasell St., 1 p.m. June 9.
Aiken Choral Society: Harbor View Presbyterian Church, 900 Harbor View Road, 3 p.m. June 9.
Sacre Voci: Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 120 Broad St., 2 p.m. June 10.
Taylor Festival Choir: Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, 4 p.m. June 8. $36.
There’s a fine line between the definitions of “choir” and “chorale.” Some traditionalists refer to a choir as part of a religious institution and a chorale as an ensemble that performs in concert halls and theaters. But simply put, a choir, chorus or chorale is a group of singers.
To read the full 2009 chorus impact study, go to postandcourier.com/faithandvalues.
And though these groups originated in churches and synagogues, the role of the modern chorus (and chorus member) today is open to interpretation.
“As society became more secular after the Age of Enlightenment, you found more community choirs and other secular choices,” said Robert Taylor, who serves as the founding artistic director and president of the Taylor Festival Choir in Charleston, which performs at Piccolo Spoleto on June 7 and 9.
John Whitt, artistic director of the Atlanta Schola Cantorum, which appeared as part of the Festival of Churches and Synagogues at Piccolo Spoleto on Monday, says there are members in his group who practice many different religions.
“Chorus music is an integral part of the arts,” he said. “It’s not really religious in the Sunday morning manner, but it is full of spiritual fulfillment.”
The renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, founded in 1847, is another example of the transcendent power of choral music. While listeners may not agree with the 350-member chorus’ religious platform, several Grammy and Emmy awards speak to the popularity of their music, which is performed around the world.
‘Like a family’
Another facet of the modern choir is the transient chorus member, which Taylor knows well. While nearly 70 percent of the Taylor Festival singers are from Charleston, 30 percent hail from as far away as Seattle and New York City.
Taylor says he’s starting to recruit from the increasingly high level of talent in the College of Charleston’s music department, where he is the director of choral activities. Others in the 45-member chorus are employed in music education, either teaching in schools or giving private lessons.
“What draws our singers is the spirituality of music and the community we have. We’re like a family,” said Taylor. “But they’re not making enough money from singing in my choir to do it full time.”
Anna Robinson, a 2011 James Madison University choral music education graduate who performed with the 18th Street Singers at Piccolo Spoleto last Sunday, says there are only three out of 50 members in their young professionals group who work full time in music.
“Our group is very social,” she said. “It’s just a great place to meet other people who share your interests.”
All members of the Atlanta Schola Cantorum have full-time jobs apart from performing with the group. Whitt, who is a full-time graphic designer and part-time director of music for an Episcopal church in Atlanta, noted that the rich historical context draws many to join a chorus.
“We’re performing music written by English Tudors at a time when it was dangerous to do so because one day the Protestants reigned and the next day it was Catholics,” he said. “When I’m performing live, that’s always in my mind.”
And even though it’s not a full-time job, chorus membership is on the rise in the United States.
In 2009, Chorus America released the “Chorus Impact Study: How Children, Adults, and Communities Benefit from Choruses,” which found that choral singing continues to be the most popular form of participation in the performing arts.
According to the study, there were an estimated 32.5 million adults regularly singing in choruses that year and 42.6 million Americans overall (including children).
Those numbers are spread over 270,000 choruses in the United States, ranging from educational to professional. The study further concluded that chorus members are avid patrons of the arts and have great academic success.
However, since she began teaching elementary school music in the Washington, D.C. area last January, Robinson of the 18th Street Singers has noticed a declining interest in choral music, especially among males. She combats that by bringing adults who enjoy choral music such as the Army Quartet to her classroom.
“The four guys in the quartet told them, ‘It takes work and it takes discipline,’ ” she said. “My students were able to see that some adults actually have a passion for this.”
Taylor believes choirs provide not only a necessary reprieve from constant technology and communication, but an honest, face-to-face community.
“We live in an increasingly superficial society where convenience is almost a commodity — whatever makes the most money now is worth our time — and choral music counterbalances that,” he said. “It allows the singer to grapple with the eternal spirituality of the whole experience.”
“I think that the choral art isn’t something that’s instantaneous, and kids these days want instant gratification,” she said. “A voice won’t develop right away. It’s not an ‘easy A.’ ”
Leah Stacy is a Newhouse School graduate student.