During the last four decades, the Seattle Symphony Chorale has established itself as a highly respected ensemble, noted for their sound, which has been described as ‘beautiful, prayerful, expressive’, ‘superb’ and ‘robust’. The Seattle Symphony Chorale serves as the official choir of the prestigious Seattle Symphony Orchestra from Washington state, performing in both live concerts and on recordings. They are led by the Associate Conductor for Choral Activities, Joseph Crnko.
The Chorale is unique as none of the 120 members are professional musicians, but instead highly trained and talented singers that work in other fields and volunteer to sing with the ensemble. The members, who have careers as teachers, doctors, attorneys, bankers among others are also joined by passionate students, all of whom share the desire and talent for performing at the highest level possible.
Each season, the Chorale participates in approximately a half-dozen works together with the symphony. In addition to an annual performance of Handel’s Messiah, they have also performed Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9, Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 and Carl Orff’s famousCarmina Burana.
Recordings of the Chorale are primarily released on the orchestra’s own label, Seattle Symphony Media. Recent releases include two albums of Charles Ives’ music, both directed by Ludovic Morlot. The first album, which was released in January 2016, contains Ives’ symphonies nos. 3 and 4,The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark. In June 2017, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale released another album of Ives’ works, this time of his Orchestral Sets nos. 1 and 2 and ofNew England Holidays. Ives’ music is infamous for its complexities and the challenges it presents in terms of recording, but the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale have tackled these works without reservation.
Other recent albums include the 2014 album of Gabriel Fauré’s suites Masques et bergamasques and Pelléas et Mélisande, along with the Dolly suite, Pavane (version for choir and orchestra), Fantaisie (arrangement for flute and orchestra), Berceause and Elegie (version for cello and orchestra). The album, which is directed by Ludovic Morlot, features the soloists Demarre McGill, Alexander Velinzon and Efe Baltacigil.
A special gem among the Chorale’s albums is the collection of Howard Hanson’s complete symphonies, released on the Naxos Special Projects label in June 2016. In addition to Hanson’s seven symphonies are hisThe Lament for Beowulf, Lux aeterna, Mosaics, Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitsky, Dies natalis I, Lumen in Christoand the Merry Mount Suite. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale are joined on this album by Susan Gulkis and conductor Gerard Schwarz.
The Chorale is able to achieve such greatness due to its rigorous audition requirements. Every member is required to re-audition periodically. The auditions include recordings and a live audition, which includes sight-reading. While this may seem extreme, the members do not seem to mind. Instead, they focus on the satisfaction the performances bring. Most of the members have been involved with music for their entire lives and have extensive choral experience. Crnko described the typical chorale member as not only heavily involved in music their whole life, but also ‘very efficient’,. Despite a lack of professional training.
One auditionee, a research scientist by day, has been singing since the age of six and explained, ‘Music was always a part of my life, so I don’t consider it an extra. If I don’t do it, I feel there’s something missing’.
While one often thinks of auditions as a method of filling vacancies, that is not the only reason for holding the auditions at the Seattle Symphony Chorale. Crnko says the Chorale is ‘always looking for the right talent to raise the bar and level of the chorus’ and for this reason every member must be at the top of their game at all times.
One member, Barbara Scheel, who had been a member of the Chorale for 14 years, explained that people’s voices change over time and that it is essential that ‘we [the Chorale] have the best people we can put on stage at all times’.
Chorale members are often stretched for time, as they rehearse nightly before a series of four performances, coming directly from their jobs ‘because they love it’. Crnko admits, ‘I respect what they give to make it work. A lot of them sacrifice quite a bit’.
Luckily, the sacrifice is worth it for the members, who like Scheel, “get an incredible amount of joy and satisfaction’. She describes it as ‘such a thrill to be able to sing with the Seattle Symphony…[it] is just and incredible high’.
The spectacular results of the collaboration between the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale remain a wonder and are evident in both their live concerts and their recordings.