Cleveland’s choral teams grapple with distinctive challenges amid COVID-19 pandemic


CLEVELAND, Ohio – What a shame for the world’s choir singers. Your pandemic live performance drought continues or is just ending.

Cleveland’s choristers, hold back by the nature of their art form, have spent most of the past year working remotely or waiting for the pandemic. Some have no specific plans to return yet.

While many of their colleagues from the fields of dance, instrumental music and visual arts returned to their creative spaces months ago or have never left them, groups like Apollo’s Fire and Les Delices have hired individual singers who are separated by distance or clear dividing lines.

“It has been difficult for all organizations,” said Scott MacPherson, director of the Cleveland Chamber Choir and professor at Kent State University. “I never thought we’d make music like that, but we do what we have to do.”

MacPherson is one of the happier ones. His students at KSU belonged to the vocal avant-garde. They returned to the hall that academic year and sang in person to be sure by gathering in large rooms, standing far apart, and putting on vocal masks.

The Cleveland Chamber Choir, meanwhile, made a successful leap into the expensive, time-consuming art of virtual programming. It recorded Mozart’s “Ave Verum”, Abbie Betinis’ “Resilience” and other works by putting together individual performance videos. It has also performed live, recorded radio spots with a handful of singers, and will soon be recording a new live video without an audience called “Madrigals of All Times”.

“Pretty much everyone jumped on the virtual videotape,” said MacPherson. “We were just waiting for it. We were fortunate to have a performance profile. “

Quire Cleveland, a professional chamber choir specializing in early music, took a more conservative approach. All performance activities have been excluded for budget and security reasons, and there are no plans to return until early December.

Don’t call it a waste of time, however. Jay White, the group’s director, said he used the hiatus to reconnect with Patrons and Master Zoom, and both hits will serve him and Quire Cleveland well when the group comes back with a season of four projects.

While “there is definitely envy” of artists performing again, White said, “There is also a lot that I have learned that I will use in the future.”

The Cleveland Chamber Choir, with director Scott MacPherson (left), ran a wide variety of virtual programs during the pandemic.

The Cleveland Orchestra also played it safe and stopped the face-to-face meetings of its adult and youth choirs. However, virtual platforms have been vigorously adopted, with regular recording of performances and publishing a steady diet of educational materials to keep the artists vocal.

“When a singer stops singing, her muscles get out of shape,” said Jill Harbaugh, the orchestra’s choir director. “You have to keep using them so they will be ready when we get back.”

Virtual appearances are a new experience, said Harbaugh. Most singers were not used to hearing themselves individually, and each had to follow a series of strict video-recording instructions in order to align remotely. Editing was a bear.

However, the effort was worth it. For the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, a virtual Christmas concert turned out to be “so emotional,” said Harbaugh. “We were so grateful to meet our standard favorites.” Next up in May: a concert of the greatest choir movements.

Younger singers have also gathered virtually, but with a slightly different focus. The Cleveland Orchestra’s youth, children’s, and children’s preparatory choirs have an emphasis on education.

They sing for each other or for their teachers online and receive comments. They also take private lessons, work on a virtual spring project, and meet online with clinicians, composers, and other experts. Soon they will recognize senior graduates.

“Overall, they said they enjoyed it,” said Becca Varadan, director of the youth orchestra. “You get all kinds of feedback. Many say that they feel like they are growing as a singer. “

When the orchestra groups can sing together again in person remains unclear. Harbaugh said the choirs could arrange an outdoor social gathering this summer, but any rehearsal is unlikely to be in time for a concert at Blossom Music Center. Some sort of program at Severance Hall next season is more likely, she said.

Whenever these and other groups return, the occasion is sure to be unforgettable. When MacPherson’s students reunited at KSU, “we literally cried at the first noises of personal singing,” he said.

For his part, White said he couldn’t wait.

It doesn’t matter that a “training plan” lies between him and every performance in his future. Standing in front of Quire Cleveland again at the start of a holiday concert season, “I think there will be a great cathartic moment,” he said. “It’s going to be a big party for three or four weekends.”