On Tour with the Eric Whitacre Singers

The Eric Whitacre Singers recently made its debut U.S. tour in March, organized and presented by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY.) Chorus America asked four of the Singers to provide some insight into life on the road, performing in American venues, and working with a choral "rock star."   

What? Eric Whitacre, choral music’s rock star, has his own choir? The 28-member professional ensemble made its debut U.S. tour in March, organized and presented by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY), with stops in Washington DC, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. 

The program included recent works by Whitacre such as “Alleluia” and “The City and the Sea” as well as some older compositions: “When David Heard“, “A Boy and a Girl”, and “Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine”. Other composers featured included Lauridsen, Monteverdi, and Bach.

To keep things fresh, every concert on the tour was just a little different from the previous one. “Eric had a large repertoire list and there were some basic standards he did at every concert,” said Jonathan Griffith, co-founder and artistic director of DCINY. “But on every program there was something done that was not on another concert.” 

As Whitacre is arguably the most famous American choral composer working today, it may be surprising to learn that the members of the Eric Whitacre Singers are all Brits. Whitacre moved to the UK to serve as Composer in Residence at Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge University, and took the opportunity to select a group of professional singers who live in Europe. Already the Eric Whitacre Singers have made a splash, winning a Grammy® award for “Best Choral Performance” in 2012 for their debut album on Decca, Light & Gold.

Chorus America asked four of the Eric Whitacre Singers—Alto Ruth Massey, Tenor Benedict Hymas, Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, and Baritone Greg Skidmore—to give their impressions and highlights from the U.S. tour. 

All of you have been on a lot of chorus tours. How was the Eric Whitacre Singers tour unlike any other?

Tenor Benedict Hymas: I’d say the defining feature of the tour was the electric reaction from the crowds. There was an amazingly large number of young people at each concert. This may explain the rock concert-like cheering and shouting after each of Eric’s pieces. 

Baritone Greg Skidmore: As a classical choral singer, I'm used to performing classical music for classical people—terribly well behaved, mature, sensible, serious people. They can and do, of course, show their appreciation in a heartfelt way, and I respond to that and value it. However, this doesn't usually involve whooping, squealing, and double fist-pumps. This environment was new for all of us—and I loved it!  

Alto Ruth Massey: It was definitely as close as I’ll ever get to feeling like a rock star! And we got to mingle with audience members after the gigs, which doesn’t usually happen. I’m so used to there being a massive sense of separation between audience and performers, and on this tour it felt like we all were in it together – audience and singers alike. 

Greg Skidmore

What did you learn about yourself as a singer, traveler, or chorus member on this tour?

Hymas: I found out that it’s possible to be as immature and silly as we used to be before touring became a way of life. The tour was carefully managed by a dedicated team travelling with us, so we were never weighed down by worrying about logistics or too many things outside the music-making. And Eric's cheeky sense of humour was pretty infectious, too.

Massey: We lived in very close quarters on our tour bus on this trip, and I am proud to admit that I discovered gangsta rap. One of the tenors was playing it on his iPod, and about six of us had our headphones plugged in, all nodding wisely in time to music I never thought I would enjoy. I loved it--and felt very, very cool.

Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas: I learned that I have more stamina than I thought. Five concerts in four days across four different cities is pretty hard work. But aside from learning that America is a big place and that some of your cities are pretty much a country apart, I definitely learned that American audiences give me the greatest buzz.

Elin Manahan Thomas

What was the most unusual, surprising, or gratifying experience on the tour?

Massey: I was surprised and delighted by how much the audiences enjoyed our Moses Hogan spiritual, “The Battle of Jericho”. We were very pleased because we thought we might sound a bit odd singing a rip-roaring, quintessentially American piece in our polite British accents. But I think we must have done okay – at one venue, one guy leapt out of his seat as we finished, punched the air and yelled “Yeah!” That really made me laugh and gave me a huge sense of relief.

Skidmore: After most concerts we mingled with the members of the audience. No one knew me from a hole in the ground but all the audience members were genuine, interested, appreciative, knowledgeable, and, of course, enthusiastic. I really enjoyed asking about their schools and colleges, where they make music, what voice part they sing, whether they knew the music we sang, what they thought of the concert, etc. Usually English singers head straight to the pub after a concert, but this was a fantastic way to make a connection with the audiences who had been so great to us.

What was your favorite destination/venue on the tour and why?

Hymas: For me, the all-around prize goes to Philadelphia. We got the loudest reaction of the tour from the audience that night—it actually hurt my ears. Then the bus journey to New York that night was great: a mysterious benefactor kindly provided a crate of beer and we headed up the freeway in high spirits.

Massey: Quite often in concert halls you can hear the two people on either side of you and a couple of people behind you, but not much else, so you end up existing in a kind of acoustic “bubble.” At Boston Symphony Hall this didn’t happen. We were enveloped in the warmth of 27 other voices and it was absolutely magical. We were expecting that this particular concert would be challenging – we’d just spent nine hours on a bus and we were worried about energy levels. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever taken part in, and I think the venue played a large part in getting us through and enabling us to perform to the best of our ability.

Benedict Hymas

Skidmore: Every one of the venues on the trip was outstanding. Choral concerts in the UK are often in churches, cathedrals, or smaller concert halls, and we don’t regularly get the chance to sing in modern, state-of-the-art symphonic halls with thousands of seats. 

What words of wisdom do you have for others who may be touring with their choirs this summer?

Massey: Try to enjoy every second – touring with a choir is an honor and something that most people never, ever get to experience. Never forget that, no matter how tired you’re feeling, however weary from travelling, however stressed with the world you might be because vocally you’re not 100 percent, somebody else is probably feeling the same. On the tour, you’re family, and you should look after each other. 

Thomas:  The brilliant thing about choir tours is that they are as much about friendship and fun as they are about travel and music. It’s something I really miss these days as I primarily work as a soloist. I love making memories that will last a lifetime—both on and offstage. Having said that, they're nearly always quite grueling so my advice would be: music first, merriment later!

Skidmore: Remember that the music is the most important thing. As singers, our health and fatigue levels are really important to how well we perform, or even whether we can perform at all. Drink lots and lots of water and make an attempt to get enough sleep. Keep a good attitude and be prepared for things to go wrong. Everybody deals with touring differently, so keep an open mind to how things are going for your colleagues.  

What is it like working with Eric Whitacre?

Hymas: I like the way Eric grabs the music by the scruff of the neck and wrings out all the juice from the harmonies. He’s got a good sense of flow on stage and knows the importance of silence within the music as well as between pieces. It says a lot about Eric that he traveled on the coach with us between cities. He knew that some of the best banter would be on the coach and he clearly didn’t want to miss out! 

Ruth Massey

Massey: As a conductor Eric has a lightness of touch, a sense of mischief, and a freshness that is contagious. He goes on a spiritual journey when he’s conducting, and you can’t help but get swept along with him. I often wonder whether he gets bored of conducting his big favorites – how many times must he have conducted “Sleep”? Maybe a thousand times. But every time, you could almost think it’s the first time he’s ever conducted it. 

Thomas:  Eric is an incredibly energetic man. I think all the singers were dazzled by how his enthusiasm never fades. He's down to earth, friendly, interested and supportive, which makes working for him an absolute dream. And getting to sing his music for and with him, and giving it the interpretation he’s always wanted, is a real honor. 

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Up to 500 choral singers from around the country and the world gather annually for “Sing with Eric” events presented by DCINY. Excellent choirs and individual singers, high school age and up, may apply to participate in three days of intensive rehearsals with Whitacre culminating in a live performance. New rule: all singers are required to memorize the music ahead of time! The next “Sing with Eric” is scheduled for the weekend of March 28-30, 2014. Contact DCINY at 212.707.8566 or go to www.DCINY.org to learn more.

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