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Forte: Collaborating with the chorus

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The Yakima Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Oct. 7, 2017, at The Capitol Theatre in Yakima, Wash.

As a young piano student at a summer festival, I had the opportunity to sing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on stage for the first time with a full symphony orchestra. Surrounded by nearly 200 musicians, not so much hearing as feeling the power of the music through the stage and in the air, it was one of the unforgettable musical experiences of a lifetime.

This is why, when speaking at YSO concerts, I often say that the members of the Yakima Symphony Chorus have the “best seats in the house.” There is a lot that must happen behind the scenes ahead of time, however, in order for a collaboration between orchestra and chorus to be successful.

The routine of a professional orchestra tends to be fairly consistent. For any given concert program, the first rehearsal rarely takes place more than two days prior to the performance. If the music is simple and straightforward, as is often the case when accompanying a rock band, it might require only a single rehearsal; more complex repertoire might require as many as four rehearsals for a two-hour program. As professional musicians, the instrumentalists in the orchestra receive their music about three weeks in advance, and they have been trained to prepare on their own in a way that allows for efficient rehearsal once everyone is on stage together.

The routine for a volunteer symphonic chorus is quite different. While there may be professional singers among the ranks of the choir, typically the majority of members participate as an avocation, simply because they love to sing and enjoy performing orchestral literature. Like most community ensembles, they often rehearse only once per week for many weeks prior to a performance. Together, with the assistance of the chorusmaster and piano accompanist, they learn the music gradually in preparation for the two or three rehearsals they will have with the orchestra immediately before the concert.

When these two very different kinds of ensembles work together, each has to make adjustments to accommodate the other. The fast pace of an orchestral rehearsal can be quite a surprise for a first-time symphonic choral singer, and the needs of instrumental and choral forces must be balanced to ensure that everyone is well served with the limited rehearsal time. The orchestra conductor must communicate a lot of essential information far in advance to the choral specialist who is preparing the singers, so that their more gradual preparation is aligned with what will happen more quickly with the full orchestra in the final few days.

This Saturday evening, as the Yakima Symphony Orchestra and Chorus eagerly await the resumption of these familiar routines, the YSO’s ongoing series of free virtual gatherings continues with a YSO Roundtable titled “Collaborating with the Chorus.” Maestro Lawrence Golan will be joined by Chorusmaster Justin Raffa and special guests, including members of the chorus, as they share the backstory of how these collaborations come together, and as we all enjoy an archival video performance by the combined forces of the YSO and chorus.

We also will share what the chorus will be working on in the weeks ahead, along with details of upcoming opportunities to connect with YSO musicians. Registration is available at

• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. He and other symphony members write this weekly column for SCENE. Learn more at

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