Norman Scribner has directed the Choral Arts Society of Washington since 1965, the same year Nicolae Ceauşescu, Ferdinand Marcos, and Suharto came to power. He outlasted all three, but even music directors tire of absolute rule eventually. And so several weeks ago, the Washington classical institution announced his retirement effective Aug. 31…2012. In the meantime, the society will have two years to celebrate his 46-year career as it searches for a successor.
Scribner’s retirement comes amid turbulence within the local choral scene: Last year, the Master Chorale, one of the top four choruses in the area along with the Choral Arts Society, closed up shop; its board of directors cited declining revenues due to the economic crisis. The Maryland Chorus ceased to exist the same year.
Not that there will be a shortage of vocal groups in the area—-D.C.’s choral scene remains as overstuffed as ever, owing to ex-directors forming new choruses after getting the ax (see the City Choir of Washington) and traditional choruses revamping as semiprofessional ensembles with tighter budgets (see the National Master Chorale). A quick-and-dirty tally by the Washington Post counted 72 local choral groups:
The cornucopia ranges from the 18th Street Singers (alumni of crack college singing groups) through the Fairfax Choral Society, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, the Suspicious Cheese Lords (early music) and the Washington Women’s Chorus to Zemer Chai (a Jewish community chorus).
So while the Choral Arts Society is by no means the only show in town, it is widely regarded as one of the best, and Scribner’s absence will be felt widely if not immediately. He rose from a staff job as an organist at National Cathedral and St. Alban’s to keyboardist for the NSO before founding the Choral Arts Society. Under his direction, the society released over a dozen commercial recordings and won a Grammy for one in 1996. Yet with declining revenues, the society has not been immune to the same recessionary pressures that rival groups face. Whomever replaces him will have the unenviable task of filling both big shoes and a big budgetary gap.