On Sunday, Norman Scribner steps down as director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, which he founded in 1965 and has led ever since. Scribner’s 47-year tenure outlasted those of most of his Cold War contemporaries—-Gaddafi only made it to 42—-and during that time, CAS became one of the leading groups in D.C.’s overstuffed choral scene. Scribner has led his all-volunteer chorus through tours of Europe and South America, openings of the Kennedy Center and Metro system, and 16 recordings, winning a Grammy for one. Scribner spoke with Arts Desk by phone prior to his final concert.
What are you most proud of leaving behind at the Choral Arts Society?
There are three things. No. 1, our mission is “the pursuit of excellence in choral repertoire.” I’ll leave it to others to decide if we achieved it or not. I consider it a moving target. That’s what we strive for.
Second, I’m very proud of the infrastructure of this organization. We have a wonderful board of directors, office staff, and volunteers. The structure and bylaws are such that the duties and responsibilities are divvied up so that it’s a very well-oiled machine for an arts organization. When there’s a difference of opinion, we have lively discussions but it never grinds to a halt.
Third is programming. I’ve consciously tried to put forth a whole host of programs. We’ve done big symphonic performing choruses, breakoff specialized choruses, recordings, commissioned works, and a wonderful community education and service program. Among our service activities, our flagship event is the annual tribute concert to Martin Luther King, Jr. for which we invite choruses from all over D.C. to join us.
What was it like performing Leonard Bernstein’s MASS for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971?
Of course it was a thrill for me because it was my first time working with Lenny. We provided one of the performing ensembles, a 60-voice church choir under the name the Norman Scribner Choir—-a name I never came up with, Bernstein’s production crew assigned that to our group. Five hundred people auditioned for the choir. The mass was conceived as a work of dynamic tension between organized church services and pop culture. We had these little pewlike benches overlooking the stage, and at the very end, the choir descended downstage as the forces were brought together.
How important is it for choruses to perform at the Kennedy Center? Rental and musician costs are usually greater than ticket sales, and choruses don’t typically make a profit except at Christmas concerts. Is it worth it?
There’s a tremendous feeling at one end of the spectrum that the Kennedy Center is the highest act in town. It’s just a good thing to be associated with simply because it’s a prestigious hall. I think it’s the quality of the performing artists that determines how great the hall is. You’re not good just because you perform at the Kennedy Center. It is lovely to think that we’re a group that regularly performs there. But certain things, like Bach’s cantatas or Renaissance music, are better performed in a church for the acoustics. Some of our college campuses have wonderful venues, the like Clarice Smith Center [at Maryland]. But the Kennedy Center is a nifty place, there’s a lot of panache about it.
You’ve also worked with the professional Washington Opera Chorus. Do you prefer working with amateur singers or professionals?
I shy away from the terms amateur and professional—-it makes it sound as if amateurs are not as good. We have a number of people singing in Choral Arts on a volunteer basis who are professionals, choirmasters, etc. Half a dozen have soloed with us. We pay them on those occasions. But I’ve never paid for our large symphonic chorus. It’s important that everyone knows they’re on a level playing field. That’s a great morale builder.
There are certain advantages to working with professional singers. There’s less time spent learning the music. On average, professional choirs are trained not just vocally but also in sight reading. And there’s a huge body of people to select from. You can really go to the voices you feel will blend well to constitute a smallish group of 20 to 40 serving whatever literature you’re doing, like the Washington Bach Consort. And with a smaller group, you audition very strictly because one member out of a 40 person voice choir has more impact than one out of 200. Of course in every format, every voice is important. And at the end of the day, you can get real excellence out of any format.
Why does D.C. have so many choruses? Do we really need this many?
All the choirmasters in town are good friends with each other. I’ve been told that in other cities there’s a lot of intramural jealousy and bickering. We don’t have that feeling in D.C. We share programs, exchange ideas about soloists, and collaborate. As for the abundance of singers, we wonder, where do all these people come from? They’re very intelligent, often have training in church choirs, coming to D.C. because of an idealistic call to national service, here to keep America great and make it greater.
How can choruses attract more young people, and especially men, to choral singing?
The main thing that attracts people is if they think the choir is good. You’re right, more women try out than men. I don’t have a real facile answer to that. Could it possibly be we haven’t fully transmuted into a two income family society? We’ve always been fortunate enough to attract what we feel we need. We have a great tenor section and the basses are coming along well, even though they were down in numbers at the beginning of the season. We’ve found advertising works, more online than in newspapers. We take about one out of every three people who audition. In the old days, we could only take one out of every seven or eight.
What’s the state of choral music in D.C. today? There have been a lot of financial problems, and some area choruses have gone under. How will all of these groups survive?
That’s a fascinating question and as one of the players, at least for the next few months, I’m torn between being wildly speculative or conservative. I’d agree we’re in a state of change in D.C.’s choral climate. There are some that will probably disappear, and there may be some joining up of others.
Don McCullough’s group [The Master Chorale, which dissolved in 2009] was a wonderful choir, but they had to face some hard realities. If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone. But we don’t see that happening to us, because we have the infrastructure to help us through our transition period right now. You can never predict the economic situation or the vicissitudes of public taste. Smaller groups are especially vulnerable, but that’s something that all choruses grapple with. Even the great, wonderful masterpieces like Carmina Burana aren’t the guaranteed sellout they once were. Kids today are into a different type of music. That’s a whole other discussion: the place of Western music in the national culture, and corollary subjects like arts education and a love of classical music being nurtured at an early age. You see less of that today. But it will continue to exist in some form. I do think music that speaks to our spiritual side will always be there, because people are basically spiritual. But what form it’s going to take, that’s the most interesting question to me.
Scribner conducts in his final concert as director of the Choral Arts Society, performing Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem with the National Symphony Orchestra. 4:00 pm on Sunday, April 22 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $29 – $85. (800) 444-1324.