Christmas schedules keep choral pros on their toes
On a Saturday morning in Center City, Philadelphia, outside the First Baptist Church at 17th and Sansom Streets, a singer gets ready for his day.
"Facing a long day of rehearsal," said Steven Bradshaw. "It's 10:30 going to 5:00. Doing a lot of singing."
Bradshaw is a professional freelance singer. Most of the year he ekes out a living singing classical repertoire for organizations like the Choral Arts Society, the Mendelssohn Club, the Philadelphia Singers, and The Crossing.
In December, Bradshaw does the holiday hustle.
"People's appetites for traditional and classical music is awakened during the season," said Bradshaw. "These groups are ready to pounce on that."
Inside First Baptist, a small baroque orchestra tunes up, and about 40 singers take off their coats and warm up with take-out coffee. They have all been hired by the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia for an upcoming performance of Bach's "Magnificat" and Vivaldi's "Gloria."
"You often see the usual suspects at these gigs," said Bradshaw.
One of those suspects is Jenifer Smith, who rattles off her holiday schedule: "Five Messiahs. This concert. Tons of lessons and carols. Gigs singing Christmas shows for hospitals and parties. A lot of church masses.
"Then," she adds with a laugh, "in the summertime I'm sitting around doing nothing."
For professional singers, the advent season is a dizzy navigation of criss-crossing obligations. Many have overlapping gigs, and have to make hard choices about which contracts to take, and which rehearsals they can skip.
High-profile gigs, like Choral Arts, the Mendelssohn Club, or The Crossing, are actually a small part of the pie.
"If I were to add up all my checks from organizations, it would be from churches, singing church masses at various Catholic and Episcopalian churches throughout the city and New Jersey," said Smith. "That's my main cash source. Singing for Jesus is very lucrative."
During this rehearsal, Smith was worried about getting out in time to race over to Princeton, N.J., to sing a Messiah at 7 p.m., while Steve Bradshaw had to turn town an offer from the Philadelphia Singers because their performance in Paoli, Pa., is just too much ground to cover.
On the go
Another singer, Ryan Tibbets, ducked out of rehearsal early so that he would have time to get to his next show.
"It's pretty busy," said Tibbets, driving his VW Jetta on Kelly Drive toward St. Paul's episcopal church in Chestnut Hill. "Choral Arts in the morning, then this concert. A little on the busy side."
Tibbets is working toward a doctorate in choral music and hustles between singing and conducting jobs all over the city. Like any professional, he is able to sing, in perfect pitch, literally all day long.
"If you sing with good technique, you can keep things going. Don't try to sing too loudly, too long," said Tibbets. "Otherwise, take care of yourself. Sleep. Drink a lot of water. Cut down on alcohol, it can dehydrate your throat."
Upon arrival at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, Tibbet's first duty as a singer is to set up metal folding chairs.
"We're putting down chairs for audience members right now," said Tibbets, wrestling an chair off a rack. "We sold this concert out. We need as many chairs as we can put down."
Not done yet
The performance by the Mendelssohn Club — 130 voices strong — was accompanied by a brass quintet. The soaring arches of the 82-year-old church were build like the hull of a ship, with intricately carved angels as rafters.
Those angels were bathed in the voices of the choir, singing a program of modern and traditional classical music focused on the subjects of angels, including the premiere of "In the Company of Angels," by Philadelphia composer Donald St. Pierre.
The Mendelssohn Club's next performance is for the Philadelphia Orchestra's "Glorious Sounds of Christmas" concert, an entirely different program, with an entirely different conductor, requiring an entire different rehearsal schedule.