An interesting and sad piece in the Globe today, regarding the savage bloodletting in process by Boston Symphony Orchestra. The savagery is not within the BSO itself, but rather within their chorus, the world-renowned (and all-volunteer) Tanglewood Festival Chorus (or “Tabernacle Festival Choir” as I once heard the late Mayor Menino announce them). I’ve known several TFC members for years, including some mentioned in this piece, and I’d heard of these actions recently via gossip that I’d assumed to be grotesquely exaggerated. But it was not a grotesque exaggeration: it is simply grotesque.
Most who attend their performances probably don’t know that the TFC are not only unpaid, they are worked harder than the BSO’s paid musicians: the latter have the protection of a union. (This is not a fringe assessment: I’ve been told it by several BSO members.)
One example: it sure looks swell when the chorus sings purely from memory, without the safety net of a written score in front of them. But that swell look comes at the expense of countless hours of memorization, work that the paid BSO musicians never have to do. But the BSO doesn’t care much about extra work for the TFC, as it costs them not a penny. Virtually all of the word’s other great choruses are paid, but the TFC works harder, and for bupkes.
So why do the choristers do it? First off, it’s an issue of supply and demand. Boston being Boston, there is a vast supply of astonishing singing talent, but the demand is sadly not commensurate. So for Bostonians who love to sing in a world-class large orchestral chorus, the TFC’s the only game in town.
But there’s another thing as well, the thing that keeps members coming back year after year despite the sacrifices, and that thing is love. Love for each other, love for the institution, love for the music, and love for the performance. And that love is, I believe, what’s made the TFC a great chorus rather than simply a good one.
John Oliver, the TFC’s founding conductor who recently passed away, built a magnificent chorus but he was a tough bastard – a bully, to be frank – as are many great conductors. But at least Oliver was a loyal bully; his vetting process took a few years, but once you were in, you were in. And once in, Oliver generally had your back for decades if you wanted to stick around that long — and many have.
Now the BSO seems to have embraced the age of Trump by hiring a bully of a far-deeper shade of cruel, one who sees fit to repay TFC’s members for their decades of unpaid toil (from which the BSO has profited handsomely) by casting them to the street like yesterday’s trash if he feels one day that they’re not up to snuff. And the BSO’s response to complaints about this Trumpian treatment? A Harvey Weinstein-esque apology to those who “feel” that it was mishandled.
Well, screw that.
I’ve likely attended more than 100 BSO concerts during my time in Boston, but unless the BSO’s management reverses course and starts to act the way we expect people at Boston institutions to act – with decency, humanity, respect, and love for their fellow humans – I’ll not likely attend another. And I will urge my friends and acquaintances to do the same.
Decent people do not kick others in the mouth, nor do they stand by and profit while others do it.