One of my least favorite experiences as a choral concert producer took place on a wintery concert night when, after weeks of anticipation and preparation, the church where we were performing had no working heat, and no one around to help fix it. The audience was cheerful but remained bundled up and huddled together, and the singers, half frozen, sang with passionate speed to get to the end of the concert and back into their warm winter coats.
One of the most challenging aspects of the choral concert process in New York is finding the right place for the choir to perform. Searching out affordable space with resonant acoustics that can accommodate a large group of singers, with good backstage and audience facilities, a cool vibe, and a strong reputation for music is a preoccupation I share with many other choir leaders.
New York’s formal concert halls are spectacular in every way. Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and Avery Fisher Hall are among the finest performance venues in the world, but they are out of the financial reach of all but the largest and best-resourced choirs. New York’s vast selection of churches is a good option for many choirs, but not without limitations.
Too often, concert night in a church starts with a team of singers in concert dress and heels dragging church furniture off the “stage” because it hasn’t been cleared from the last service. Meanwhile, the “backstage” area where the choir congregates is littered with toys left over from Sunday school activities.
From an audience member’s perspective, I know how physically uncomfortable a concert in a church can be. An evening that begins with a wait outside in the cold due to a lack of lobby space might be followed by 90 minutes sitting on a hard wooden pew. A trip to the bathroom often requires a scavenger hunt across a rainy outside courtyard to another building or down a tiny, perilous staircase to a musty basement. Plus the ambience in a church can be wrong for a transporting musical experience, particularly for contemporary work.
Venue limitations can also have an effect on repertoire choices. If the organ console is in the choir loft at the rear of the church, the conductor has the choice of having the choir in the loft where the audience can’t see the singers or, worse still, have the organist and choir in separate locations where the likelihood of staying together is slim. Performing contemporary works with electronic components or any amplification in an environment where sound equipment is limited and technical support non-existent introduces a whole new level of challenges. Some churches lack the electrical power and wiring for much more than basic lighting.
At a time when choirs are looking to attract new and younger audiences and to perform broad-ranging and contemporary repertoire, they must start to look at creative ways to bring their music to the public. Contemporary audiences frequently choose to partake in culture where several activities can be combined–socializing with friends and having something to drink while having a cultural experience. Venues like Le Poison Rouge and Joe’s Pub offer a broad mix of culture in an environment that is relaxed, comfortable, and social. They also have technical capacities that go way beyond those of most churches and are more affordable than the major concert halls. Galleries and museums often have large open spaces and cultural audiences that are open to combining visual and performing arts together in one place while new venues such as the Park Avenue Armory offer exciting options.
The search for perfect venues can seem endless. Finding ways to broaden the scope of how, what and where choirs perform is key if the choral arts are to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of both composers and audiences.
Composers–what are your worst and best venue-related experiences?