Think of a choir concert. If you imagined a stationary semi-circle of singers on stage with a conductor in the center, you were NOT thinking of Tenebrae, the British chamber choir.
Tenebrae uses a different format. The 17-member ensemble moves about in a performance space. Sometimes it fragments into smaller units as it moves and sings. Its performances are almost exclusively a cappella, without instrumental accompaniment. And it leans toward candlelight for illumination. “The unpredictable light of candles and architecture add to the visual smorgasbord of the performance,” says Tenebrae baritone Gabriel Crouch, who also directs Princeton University’s choral program and its Glee Club.
I am puzzled that Crouch juggles a full-time commitment at Princeton with performing as a member of a professional chorus with an international scope and a base in the United Kingdom. How does he manage rehearsals? The answer is simple. For all practical purposes, Tenebrae doesn’t rehearse.
Crouch takes part in a performance by the vocal ensemble at the Princeton University Chapel Thursday, November 8, at 8 p.m. The program is sponsored by Princeton University Concerts in collaboration with McCarter Theater.
The creator of Tenebrae is Nigel Short, who formed the ensemble in 2001 and remains its director. Crouch and Short’s association began when both were members of England’s six-man Kings’ Singers starting in the 1990s. The King’s Singers visits McCarter frequently.
The name Tenebrae comes from the Latin for “shadows” or “darkness.” It refers to a religious service celebrated during the three days before Easter Sunday. During the service candles are gradually extinguished while readings are given. Tenebrae, the choir, tends to perform in churches, cathedrals, and chapels.
Interviewed in his office on the Princeton campus, Crouch explains that a name associated with a religious service is considered less pious in Britain than in the United States, where separation of church and state is taken for granted. “A name like ‘Tenebrae’ would feel natural to Britons,” he says. “They would be comfortable with the religious ceremony and with the parts of a church building. The church in Britain is part of the culture.”
Crouch’s office is a small no-nonsense cubicle. There are no trophies or decorations. Just bookcases and filing cabinets. The color scheme is white. Tall and thin, Crouch wears comfortable informal clothes. He is gracious and quietly cordial. Deftly, he plugs in my computer to an outlet some place under his desk without asking.
“There is a big difference between singing in church for a liturgical purpose and singing in church for a concert,” Crouch says. “If it’s liturgical, it must be in specific part of the church and have a high purpose; the audience is both human and celestial. If it’s a concert you have a different set of priorities.
“Churches are not designed liked symphony halls. That’s especially noticeable if it’s a big cathedral and the concert has sold well. In a church with a big acoustic delay, those at the back must struggle to pick up acoustic details. Moving around is purely pragmatic. It enhances the auditory effect. Those at the back and sides can hear what’s going on. It’s even nice for those in the front row to have sound wafting in over their heads. The bigger the church, the harder we work to make the sound reach everyone.”
Tenebrae founder Nigel Short’s piece, “The Dream of Herod,” an early success for Tenebrae, started the ensemble on its incorporation of movement. “Stage directions were written into the score,” Crouch says. “It made us look for ways to move in other pieces. Nigel always looks for music that explores space as well as sound.”
Nevertheless, special arrangements need not be devised for each venue, Crouch says. “All church spaces are laid out along similar lines. At the west theyd have an atrium. The audience sits in the nave. A transept crosses the nave. Steps lead up from nave to where a choir can sit, and to an altar. The template is roughly the same.”
Moreover, Crouch adds, Princetonians can be proud that Princeton Chapel is one of very few spaces that gets English performers excited. Just about every singer in England has been to America multiple times, and knows that Princeton Chapel, which is the size of a small cathedral, replicates spaces in Britain.
Still, Crouch points out, “We wouldn’t crowd movement into a piece that required serenity or into a concert hall piece. It wouldn’t be appropriate.
“Another thing,” he adds. “Tenebrae was born with a certain predilection for drama. Its members have had a lot of staged performing experience. Many are part-time opera singers.”
The singers are so well drilled and skilled that if a piece requires eight of them to go off and sing without a conductor, there is no problem. Tenebrae singers might be hundreds of feet away from each other. It takes a lot of courage.
Crouch details the atmosphere in Tenebrae. “We sense that what we’re doing is special, revered, and treasured. Tenebrae is very challenging mentally. Nigel Short has exceptional ears. He hears everything and misses nothing. It creates a lot of adrenaline.”
“A professional choir has to sing anything put in front of them,” Crouch says. He goes to the bookcase, chooses music at random, gazes at it as if seeing it for the first time, and looks confident. “If you get anything wrong, you’re not right for the choir. You must be an immaculate sight reader. You have to read rhythms. There might be some bits you never rehearsed, but you’re expected to get them right at the concert. We’re held to standards like that.”
“The dirty secret of professional choirs is that we don’t have weekly rehearsals. There are no maintenance rehearsals. Before a concert we have a two or three-hour rehearsal. For the most difficult repertoire we take three hours.”
“We do not feel unprepared. We’ve been rehearsing for years and years. Most of the people in Tenebrae have been singing professionally since they were little kids. I’ve been singing since I was eight. That early start gives you the tools you need to make high quality music on short notice. Years of daily experience equip you to handle tough musical problems. The process is as natural as eating.”
Crouch began singing in church choirs when he was about five. At age seven, he was accepted to the choir of London’s Westminster Abbey. “There was an audition,” he says. “You had to read music and play an instrument. At eight, I went away to the Westminster boarding school in London. My family was in Bristol.”
“At Westminster I was involved with professionals for three hours every single day. There was a service every day. If you confront and perform new music every day beginning when you’re eight, you learn to handle it for life. That chance is not available to many outside Britain.
“Still, choral music is in a better situation in the U. S. than in the U. K.,” Crouch says. “It’s because of the prevalence of choirs in U.S. high schools. In England there are great choirs, but they’re for the very elite. In the U.S. a lot of energy goes into creating opportunities for everyone.
Crouch grew up in a musical family. His mother teaches violin and performs. “String playing is the preferred profession in my family,” he says. “My mum claims that I asked for a violin for my fourth birthday. Now I play the violin badly, and will get it out at gunpoint for family occasions. There are five children in the family, and I’m the only singer.” Crouch’s father is an engineer. “He’s a huge Bach enthusiast,” Crouch says. “Baroque music is important in my family.”
Crouch lives in Hopewell with his wife, Christie Starrett, general manager of the American Boychoir.
Asked to compare the 17-member Tenebrae with the 75-member Princeton Glee Club, Crouch says, “Tenebrae is a small choir, but it has very big voices. The pace of Tenebrae is a sorbet to the rest of my life. With Tenebrae, I perform.”
“With the Glee Club,” he says, “my job is not to perform, but to educate. I feel massively privileged to work with some of the brightest kids in America. They’re all volunteers. They have heavy workloads, but they turn up for every rehearsal. With everything else going on in their lives, they attend two-hour rehearsals three times a week. It’s a big undertaking to give them moments of self-revelation. Singing in Tenebrae is very easy. With the Glee Club I need to steel myself every day, to live up to my responsibilities.”
Tenebrae, Princeton University Concerts (in collaboration with McCarter Theater), Princeton University Chapel, Princeton. Thursday, November 8, 8 p.m. $25 general admission; $5 students. 609-258-2800 or www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org.