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‘Singing in Schola is a privilege for students at Yale University’

Music‘Singing in Schola is a privilege for students at Yale University’
The Yale Schola Cantorum is a chamber choir that performs sacred music from the 16th century to the present day in concert settings and choral services around the world. It is sponsored by Yale Institute of Sacred Music and conducted by David Hill (Masaaki Suzuki is its principal guest conductor). This year they toured India from 12-19 March, with public performances in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. They also took part in the Sunday service at the historic St. Mary’s Church in Chennai. Reena Ismail, a member of the Yale choir who has also composed a piece for their India tour, spoke to Guardian 20 about the rich history of this musical ensemble.

Q. The Yale choir has members from various departments of the Yale University. How culturally diverse is this outfit?

A. Half of our members are from the Institute of Sacred Music’s programs in choral conducting and voice. The other half comprises students from across the university, this year from departments of Linguistics, English, Literature, Classics, Theology, Liturgical Studies, and European and Russian Studies.

Q. The choir has performed a wide range of music, from the 16th century to contemporary classics. What is the pattern of practice within the choir, and what other aspects enable you to maintain this performative range? 

A. The choir rehearses five hours per week (more in the week leading up to a performance). Schola works with principal conductors David Hill and Masaaki Suzuki during the final stages of concert preparation. Several distinguished conductors prepare Schola throughout the year; they are specialists in performance practice from a variety of historical musical periods. In addition, Schola has partnerships with musicologists, diction coaches for languages other than English, and with living composers.

Q. How do the students strike a balance between their own responsibilities (academic and personal) while attending to the needs of Schola?

A. Academic studies are always the first priority of a Yale student. Singing in Schola is a big-time commitment, and students know this when they audition. Singing in Schola is seen as a privilege (this is the premier Yale choir), and so students prioritise their Schola commitment.

Q. Have you, as a member of the choir, observed any kind of difference in the way your music and performances are received in various parts of the world?

A. Most of the time the choir has performed in places with their own (Western) choral tradition, and performances have been highly acclaimed. This is the first time we have come to India, where the traditions are so very different.

Q. How does the choir feel about performing one of your own compositions, which recently had its world premiere in India?

A. It’s always very exciting to do a world premiere. This piece was commissioned by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music especially for Schola. The musical language and the opportunity to sing in seven new languages have broadened both Schola’s musical experience and the worldview of its members.

“The mission of its sponsor, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, is to understand the role of the arts in sacred worship. Many of the students in Schola will go on to be church musicians, so having both experiences is valuable from every point of view.”

Q. What does David Hill, the chief conductor, focus on and look for in the members of the choir?

A. During the audition process, prospective members of Schola are asked to sing a piece of their own choosing (the Institute of Sacred Music provides an accompanist). They are then given a new piece of music and asked to sing it at sight, to test their sight-reading ability. In addition to these skills, Hill is looking for the perfect sonic blend — determining whether and how the timbre of the person auditioning fits in with the others in the choir.

Q. What kind of musical instruments are used by Schola?

A. Schola sometimes does concerts that are a cappella (no instrumental accompaniment); a few times a year, Schola performs with Juilliard415 [Julliard School’s instrument ensemble], as in India, usually focusing on historical performance of music from the Baroque and Classical periods of Western music; and, depending on repertoire, Schola may hire professional musicians playing period or modern instruments to join them in performance. In church service settings, the group is often accompanied by pipe organ.

Q. Could you tell us more about how the Yale choir came to be?

A. Yale Schola Cantorum was founded in 2003 by Simon Carrington. At that time the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, which already had academic programmes in choral conducting and organ performance, was adding a program in voice, specialising in early music, art song, and chamber ensemble. This was a second track for singers at Yale: there was already a Yale opera program, but an opportunity was needed for those singers whose interest was not opera, but rather oratorio and art song. That two-year voice program admits four students per year, one from each voice part: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Therefore there are eight singers in the program at a time. These singers are Schola’s soloists. So the choir and the voice programme came into being together.

Q. How different is the experience when playing in a concert as compared to playing as a choir service in church?

A. Schola takes very seriously its musical role when singing as part of a church service. The mission of its sponsor, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, is to understand the role of the arts in sacred worship. Many of the students in Schola will go on to be church musicians, so having both experiences is valuable from every point of view.

Q. What about the India tour? How did the choir members and musicians prepare for it?

A. Our musical preparation began in November, and continued almost to the moment of departure. Conductor David Hill invited me to participate in the rehearsal process, and the ISM invited renowned sitarist Rabindra Goswami and tablaist Ramchandra Pandit to help bring the piece to life. In addition to the usual vaccinations and complicated visa process, students have learned a tremendous amount about India through independent reading, a documentary film about Goswami, and meetings with Indian nationals to learn about the culture and what to expect.


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