The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus has won almost as many Grammy Awards as Adele. But whereas Adele makes millions, ASO singers get paid … nothing. A visit to an ASO rehearsal explains why these singers volunteer.
To get into this choir, performers need a great voice that blends well with others and the ability to read music really well.
Meaghan Curry has those skills.
"I get so much joy out of singing with the chorus and getting to hear this orchestra,” she says.
Curry has sung with the chorus for about a decade. She's one of quite a few members in this 200-person choir who have music degrees and make money in the field. Curry is an elementary music teacher, but her time with the chorus is unpaid. “The volunteer time is paid back constantly -- and then that joy and that community is what I bring to my students," she says.
Singing here is a major commitment. During performance weeks, rehearsals happen almost every night.
David Hansen has been putting in that time for about 30 years. He says, for him, it's about, "the opportunity to sing with soloists and conductors' repertoire of this quality in the venues that we do.”
The ASO Chorus has made the rounds from Berlin to Carnegie Hall and has sung almost all the choral "master works."
Hansen started under Robert Shaw, the legendary conductor who made the chorus famous. Current ASO Chorus Director Norman Mackenzie told WABE’s "City Lights' last year that Shaw made a name for himself conducting professionals.
Later in life, Mackenzie said, Shaw preferred volunteers.
"He was completely turned on by that kind of thing; the interaction that could happen with people who were not there looking at their watches or waiting for their next Met audition,” Mackenzie said.
And, Shaw knew how to teach amateur singers to sound like professionals. To this day, conductors all over the world use his techniques.
During chorus rehearsals, Shaw gave instruction in rhythm, pitch and diction.
“He had to spend hours getting it there that he wouldn't have had to spend with a professional chorus,” Mackenzie explained. “But, he became convinced that the final result was, in some ways, more transcendent."
Mackenzie was Shaw's accompanist and protégé, and he uses the same methods with the ASO Chorus today.
It's unusual for a major orchestra's chorus to be entirely volunteer like this. Even symphonies in smaller cities like Milwaukee and Norfolk, Virginia, pay a few singers to enhance the sound. Some elite choirs are entirely professional.
Of course, by using volunteers only, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra saves money. But, Mackenzie says it's not about finances. It's about the sound.
The next performance of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus is called "Creation/Creator." It's Thursday and Saturday at Symphony Hall.