Clash of the Choirs II

Last night millions of Americans witnessed the birth of Clash of the Choirs, NBC’s glitzy, Prozac-driven TV competition of amateur choirs. Singers were picked and prepared by celebrities Michael Bolton, Patti LaBelle, Nick Lachey, Kelly Rowland and Blake Shelton. Over four nights, starting Monday, each choir will compete for the votes of American viewers and a quarter-million dollars in prize money for charity.

Music geek that I am, I was excited by the possibilities, imagining millions of viewers transfixed by the beauty of Morten Lauriden’s Lux Aeterna or Mozart’s Requiem. Lives would be changed!

The show arrived at 8:00 p.m. Its arms and legs flailed: it cried lustily. But ultimately, the Clash of the Choirs failed to deliver the great tribute to choral singing I’d imagined.

First off, the actual singing amounted to only about ten minutes out of two hours. The rest of the time was devoted to ancillary material and long commercial breaks. I rarely watch live commercial TV anymore and wondered how people can stand it.

Second, the show’s producers dropped the ball with the auditions. Auditions scare people to death, and with hundreds of prospective singers trying out, the producers had tremendously rich material on their hands. They didn’t seem to know what to do with it. We saw brief flashes of embarrassment, wretched singers wringing their hands and flouncing angrily out the door. But for the most part, everything was super-perky and positive. “It’s the holidays,” you could almost hear the producers say. "Let’s not embarrass anybody.”

We heard back-stories from some of the singers. We met the Silver Fox, a veteran singer in her 70’s. We cried with a Katrina victim who’d lost everything in the storm, save her Ipod. Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child stood to hug her after her audition, wiping back an adorable tear.

Then came the singing part.

I soon realized that the word “choir” actually meant “gospel choir.” I was not going to see Michael Bolton take on Morten Lauridsen after all. The Lachey choir, led by boy band star Nick Lachey, offered a breeze-easy version of Natasha Bedingfield’s 2004 debut song “Unwritten.” Kelly Rowland’s choir sang a pumped-up rendition of George Michael’s “Freedom.” Patti LaBelle beamed at two LaBelle clones and back-up singers she’d collected in Philadelphia. Her choir wasn’t a choir at all: most of her singers stood in the dark.

“I don’t read music,” country music star Blake Shelton confessed to his choir during rehearsal, coaching them to “feel” and “believe in” what they were singing.

Twice, white singers were praised for singing like black people, giving the broadcast racial overtones that made me cringe. You know, I knew what they meant, but I thought we were past all those stereotypes. Look at mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, Rochester baritone Derrick Smith, or white singers who can belt out the blues. We need a new vocabulary. I asked my friend Rhonda, who's African-American, if this kind of thing bothers her. She snorted and said, "A lot of things in this country bother me."

The choirs continued clashing. The singers shimmied, lunged, and clapped their way through short rousing numbers in matching glittery outfits. One group even did jumping-jacks. Then the show paused for another interminable commercial break. I picked up the remote and started surfing. A few stations later, on WXXI, I stopped to watch soprano Audra McDonald singing “Moon of Alabama” in a new production of Kurt Weill’s opera, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.”

McDonald struck me as oddly static. She looked like she was standing in a museum diorama. The body language was completely different. Nobody around her did jumping jacks or clapped. All of the focus was on the gorgeous stream of sound coming out of McDonald’s throat. This looks boring, I thought. No wonder most people my age aren’t into opera.

McDonald finished, and I returned to the Clash.

Later, I went online to check the official website where viewers were already gushing.

“What a refreshing show......finally a reality show with no bs!!! I love it!!”
“I love Nick and Blake. I will probably be voting for both. I have a feeling that Michael Bolten (sic) will sink faster than the Titanic.”
“I haven't been sleeping well and now I just realized it's thinking about Blake Shelton on "The Clash Of Choirs" has consumed my mind.”

Meanwhile, on Choralnet, a website devoted to serious choral singing, viewers described other reactions.

“I feel this is one more nail in the "dumbing down of our culture" coffin. It will be another celebration of mediocrity. It will be just like the final scene of "Sister Act II" in which the disciplined, classic choral groups are portrayed as boring and snooty while the heros (sic) are the gospel-type, step and clap, hoop and holler group . . . I'm concerned that my passion and life's work will be belittled as credit for making a "winning group" is given to the likes of Nick Lachey. How many ACDAs has he attended? How many music classes? How many true choral concerts?”

After briefly wondering what an ACDA was, exactly, I returned to the Clash of the Choirs website and voted for my favorite group, the one with the Katrina survivor that made Destiny’s Child cry.

* * * * *

For other points of view on the Clash:
http://choralnet.org/lists/browsebythread.phtml?listid=1&tab=3
http://www.palmbeachpost.com/blogs/content/shared-blogs/palm...

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Comments

I only caught the tail end

I only caught the tail end of the first choir, and stayed to listen to the rest. If that had been my introduction to choral music, I would not be singing now! I was also bothered by the comments about the white singers who didn't sound white, and it seemed like it was not so much about choral singing as a particular style of pop music, with lead singers & a backup group. It also seemed like LaBelle was the only one who listened to everyone before deciding on her choir - how could Bolton listen to that quartet and only take one of them!? The other 3 were better than some of the men he had already accepted.

Thanks for your comment.

You write that if Clash the Choirs was your intro to choral singing, you wouldn't be singing now. What do you sing and who do you sing with?

I started out with a church

I started out with a church choir, which I still do. As well, I'm in a community choir, taking voice lessons, and studying music at university. I will probably not end up singing professionally - I'm thinking of going into teaching - but I will always have some involvement with choral music.

NBC Clash

ACDA = American Choral Directors Assoc. I'm sure the writer was referring to ACDA's annual conventions which feature some of the best choral singing on the planet.

Hi, Dean

Thanks for clearing up the meaning of "ACDA." I figured it was something like that, and most of the people reading that site know what the acronym stands for, I'm sure.

Brecht lives

Brenda, these things are fascinating, like a train-wreck, but why torture yourself?

The words of Weill's tune offer, if not an answer, at least a strategy:

"Show us the way to the next whiskey bar
Oh, don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why

For if we don't find the next whiskey bar
I tell you we must die
I tell you we must die
I tell you, I tell you
I tell you we must die!"

Brecht lives

Carl,

How about Weill's Solomon's Song? There's less despair there.

You all have heard of Solomon
The wisest man on earth
He understood humanity
And so he cursed the hour of his birth
And saw that all was vanity
How great and wise was Solomon!
And yet before the day was done
The world could see where it would end
His wisdom brought him to his bitter end
How fortunate the man with none.

I'm trying very hard not to be a snob. ;)

Brenda

Brecht Girl

I snobbishly recommend Marianne Faithfull's version of Alabama Song. Clash of the Choirs was about what I expected - after all, it's Nick Lachey we're talking about, not John Rutter - but given the choice that night between Audra McDonald's soulless preening, it was a no-brainer to go back to NBC to check out Patti Labelle's group of singers. They might not have been a "choir," but they sure found a groove.

It's all good.

I just wish people had more desire for subtlety. And I didn't mean to imply that Audra McDonald was soulless, just that she was all about sound, not image. Substance over style. I've missed the last 2 Clash nights. Who's winning?

Alliteration

"Soulless" was totally my own estimation. I actually tuned in for Audra, but couldn't take it. Anyway, it just occurred to me that maybe the only reason NBC used the word "choir" is that "clash" starts with the same letter. Maybe "Battle of the Baritones" is next, or "Schism of the Scat Singers!" I do think that Carl's right that choral arts are alive and well. This show couldn't possibly turn any potentially serious singer down a different road. As for Ms. Lenya, you can't compete with her provenance, but Marianne brings a ragged desperation to "the next pretty boy" that I didn't hear from Lotte.

Who's the perp?

We shouldn't lose sight of the facts. The choral arts are alive and well in the US. Just ask the ACDA or our local Choral Consortium. Not having seen any of this show, I'm extrapolating from what's been written here. If some people have replaced in their minds the wider spectrum of choral music with the singular style of gospel, that's not the fault of gospel.

It is instead the fault of television that, as usual, it simplifies and distorts a human activity out of all recognition and reality, to suit its own needs. As it has done to our politics. And if there is a racial subtext going on, that's not accidental, either. I'm anxious for people to recognize when they are the victims of media. And then to stop giving it any thought or attention. That's the reward it deserves, and what it most fears. I'd be proactive and start ignoring most of it today. (Present company excluded.)

Mark, I like Ms. Faithful, but I think Lenya is the Ur text in this rep: www.quazynet.org/Alabama-Song.mp3

Perp

So I get home last night at 9:30 and my mom and dad and kids are glued to the final episode of Clash of the Choirs. My dad, a bona fide classical music snob, complains that Patti LaBelle's choir isn't even a real choir. "It's a bunch of soloists with back-up singers." Team LaBelle starts singing. "This is awful," says my mom. "It's late, let's go." But none of us moved. We sat there, totally glued, until the bitter end. It's all about suspense and story with music as the backdrop. Interestingly, classical music organizations are taking cues from the success of these shows. Last year, the Rochester Oratorio Society started a Classical Idol contest and the RPO has a similar Stars contest for teens. I'm waiting for hybrids now. Clash of the Survivor Choirs goes to Tanzania, hosted by Donald Trump. The Biggest Cellist vs. American Gladiator.