A Symphony of Voices

On the face of it, a barbershop chorus and a symphony orchestra have very little in common.

Symphony of Voices Blog-TCSC
Twin Cities Show Chorus

Generally a barbershop choir concert is centered around a group of songs, but is deliberately infused with movement (some choreographed, some simply the movements that each individual singer creates to fully perform their part), and oftentimes punctuated with jokes and other silliness. A performance is for sharing the fun, entertaining an audience with a performance that has been carefully prepared in many dimensions.

EMSO in a Traditional Holiday Celebration
EMSO in a Traditional Holiday Celebration

A symphony orchestra has its own set of customs, and performances are generally rife with expectations for demeanor, both from performers and audience members. (Woe to the unsuspecting audience member who claps or moves or makes noise at the wrong time!) A symphony orchestra performance is generally a very serious affair, with an expectation of hushed reverence for composers and performers.

So why in the world would a barbershop chorus and symphony orchestra choose to perform together, and how will such an unlikely performing partnership turned out? The East Metro Symphony Orchestra (EMSO) prides itself in exploring all manner of performing and educational partnerships. Our belief is that as a community musical ensemble we can learn a tremendous amount about our own music making through the lens of another musical form, oftentimes seeing our own music and practices in a fascinating perspective by putting it alongside another. We also strongly believe that it is the practice of making music that is of paramount importance, so it behooves us to get to know, work with, and spotlight other groups of people equally committed to making music. And after all, isn’t it simply fun to get to know your neighbors and share a common and valued experience?

EMSO first became aware of the Twin Cities Show Chorus (TCSC) through one of its members, trumpeter Jim McCarville, whose wife Karen sings in the chorus. Jim speaks of the chorus, as well as Barbershop and Sweet Adeline music with great fondness and passion. He describes barbershop as one of the few truly original musical practices, and proposed basing a joint concert around the concept of “American Originals.” Preparing a joint concert has been an experience of getting to know the individuals, goals, practices and expectations of each other’s organizations. It never ceases to amaze me that even though two performing ensembles are based in community music making, the way we approach our work (and play), how we organize ourselves, how we create programs, learn and prepare our music can all be surprisingly different.

One of the first things to consider in creating a joint program such as our upcoming one, is what should we perform? It is all well and good to simply take turns on stage, performing as we customarily do, for each other and our combined audience, but it is only when we find ways to perform together – ways that are not just feasible, but give each other the opportunity to be as true to themselves as possible – that we really get to create something explosively new and exciting for ourselves and our audience. But that is never simple. You quickly learn that the places that you go to explore and find music for an orchestra are not the same places that you go for barbershop music. (And the places you might go for what is strictly barbershop music – written for male voices, are not the same places you go for female barbershop music – customarily known as Sweet Adeline music.) Through this musical miasma I thought at one point that it would be best for me to simply create orchestral accompaniments for some of the songs TCSC already performs. However when I began to look at their printed music I was amazed to see that the vocal arrangements are simply complete in themselves: there simply was not a place in them to add an orchestra! I truly saw for the first time that barbershop or Sweet Adeline music is exquisitely, perfectly complete all by itself. To me, the person steeped in classical orchestra music, I could only – quite respectfully – describe it as a Symphony of Voices.

Working jointly with an organization that simply prepares a different type of music than you are accustomed to – and quite knowledgeable about – can be a fascinating, sometimes challenging endeavor. But I know of no other way to create opportunities to experience in a new light what is so very familiar – for me, in this case, orchestra music – than to mix it up with another group who are equally committed and accomplished in their own field of music and performance endeavor. I hope and trust all of our musicians and the audience that both the East Metro Symphony Orchestra and Twin Cities Show Chorus bring to our joint performance will agree.

Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes
Music Director and Conductor