Choral music of Washington, D.C.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Choral music of Washington, D.C)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Washington, D.C. and its environs are home to an unusually large and vibrant choral music scene, including choirs and choruses of many sizes and types.

Choral organizations[edit]

Note - this section does not discuss particular scholastic / university or church ensembles unless they are independently notable.

Symphonic choruses[edit]

Unlike many American cities, Washington, D.C., features several independent (i.e., non-orchestra-controlled) symphonic choruses, including three major organizations with annual budgets exceeding $1 million.[1]

The Choral Arts Society of Washington, founded and directed by Norman Scribner for 47 years, has been led by Scott Tucker since 2012. The Choral Arts Society presents an annual concert series at the Kennedy Center, performs frequently with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), and in recent years has performed with prominent symphony orchestras from Philadelphia, Baltimore, London, Russia (Mariinsky), and China (Qingdao). It regularly participates in nationally televised events such as the Kennedy Center Honors and A Capitol Fourth. It also tours internationally every 3–4 years, including a landmark tour to Russia in 1993 with Mstislav Rostropovich and the NSO, two trips to the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy in 1993 and 2001, opening the BBC Proms in London in 2002, performing with Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra in 2008, and a visit to China with the Qingdao Symphony Orchestra in 2015. The Choral Arts Society is the largest choral organization by budget in the Washington area, and is among the largest in the United States.

The Washington Chorus, previously known as the Oratorio Society of Washington, is directed by Julian Wachner and has a similar performing profile, with regular Kennedy Center performances, NSO guest appearances, and several international tours to Europe, most recently in 2004.[2] In 2000, the chorus (then led by Robert Shafer) received the Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance for its live recording of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Finally, the Cathedral Choral Society is the oldest symphonic chorus in Washington, founded in 1941 by Paul Callaway and directed by J. Reilly Lewis from 1985 to 2016. It performs primarily at the Washington National Cathedral but also appears regularly at the Kennedy Center and other local venues.

In recent years, several new symphonic choirs have formed in the area, and some have folded. The City Choir of Washington was established under the direction of Robert Shafer in 2007[3] in the wake of his departure from the Washington Chorus.[4] The Master Chorale of Washington, founded in 1967 as the Paul Hill Chorale, was once the fourth large-budget symphonic choir in Washington but folded in 2009 due to budget difficulties associated with the Great Recession.[5]

Elsewhere in the Washington metropolitan area, the 200-voice National Philharmonic Chorale performs regularly at Strathmore in Bethesda, MD.[6] The Chorale was established in 2003 when the Masterworks Chorus (founded in 1975) merged with the National Chamber Orchestra to create the National Philharmonic.[7] In Virginia, the 120-voice Fairfax Choral Society has been a community institution since 1962.[8] The Choralis Foundation, founded in 2000 in Falls Church, supports a symphonic chorus and four other auditioned choirs of various types[9] The 200-voice New Dominion Chorale (founded in 1991) performs symphonic repertoire, but is structured as a "singers' cooperative" and does not require auditions to participate.[10]

Mid-size choruses[edit]

There are a large number of mid-size choruses in the Washington, D.C. area, including the Washington Master Chorale[11] which was formed in 2009 by former singers from the Master Chorale of Washington.

Many ensembles have a particular focus on specific geographic, demographic, or ethnic communities of interest. These include the 100-voice Capitol Hill Chorale (founded in 1993) based in the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood, which occasionally performs symphonic repertoire and has a tradition of performing works of the Orthodox liturgy.[12] The 90-voice auditioned Congressional Chorus (founded in 1987) performs "an eclectic repertoire of American music," focusing on artistic collaborations and emerging composers. The 50-voice 18th Street Singers (formed in 2005) is composed of young professionals,[13] Zemer Chai: The Jewish Chorale of the Nation's Capital," founded by conductor Eleanor Epstein in 1976, is one of the nation’s leading Jewish choirs. The choir sings the full range of Jewish choral repertoire, from classical and liturgical pieces to world Jewish folk music in multiple languages, and new works composed especially for the choir. The choir frequently collaborates with other D.C area choirs, such as Chorale Contigas and the Heritage Signature Chorale, and performs at Interfaith and community events. Zemer Chai has performed at the White House, the Library of Congress, Strathmore, and the Kennedy Center, as well as concert halls in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia [14] Kolot HaLev (Voices of the Heart), founded by Hazzan Dr. Ramon Tasat in 2008, is the only independent Jewish community choir in the DC area that does not require singers to audition. Kolot HaLev is the choir-in-residence at Shirat HaNefesh (Song of the Soul) Congregation, and also offers annual concerts exploring the vast treasury of Jewish music, from Italy to Russia.

In the Maryland suburbs, the 40-voice Maryland Choral Society (formed in 1971) is a community choral group based in Prince George's County, Maryland.[15] In Virginia, the 80-voice Reston Chorale (founded in 1967) serves western Fairfax County.[16] The 45-voice Alexandria Choral Society (established in 1970) focuses on choral repertoire[17] while the Alexandria Singers (founded in 1975) focus on American popular music.[18]

Men's choruses[edit]

The 60-voice Washington Men's Camerata (founded in 1984) has been directed by Frank Albinder since 1999 and performs annually at the Kennedy Center. The Camerata has released critically acclaimed recordings,[19] and maintains a National Library of Men's Choral Music.[20]

The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C. (founded in 1981) has more than 250 singing members, performs music across a range of styles, and regularly conducts outreach performances, with a dual mission that includes "champion[ing] gay equality."[21] The National Men's Chorus was founded in 1999 by Thomas Beveridge,[22] soon after his departure as director of the Men's Camerata.[23]

The Suspicious Cheese Lords (founded in 1996) is a men's early music ensemble that focuses on the rediscovery of unknown Renaissance polyphony. Founded by a group of friends with a shared interest in the music of Thomas Tallis and currently comprising about a dozen members, the group's mission is to promote early music throughout the greater Washington area.[24]

Women's choruses[edit]

  • Illuminare[25] - women's ensemble specializing in early music
  • Capital Accord Chorus[26] - women's chorus in Silver Spring, MD, singing four-part a cappella harmony
  • Capital Harmonia - women's chorus focused on arrangements by women composers and performances promoting women's issues.
  • Washington Women's Chorus - 35-member chorus performs works ranging from 11th-century chants, to compositions by Vivaldi and Brahms, and new works by American and international composers
  • Voix de Femmes

Gospel and African-American heritage choruses[edit]

The 130-voice Washington Performing Arts (WPA) Men and Women of the Gospel Choir, founded in 1991 and directed by Stanley Thurston, performs regularly at the Kennedy Center and other local venues.[27] Thurston is also the founder and director of the Heritage Signature Chorale, which focuses on African-American spirituals as well as classical repertoire.[28][29]

Other area ensembles include Mosaic Harmony in Fairfax County, Virginia,[30] as well as Patrick Lundy and the Ministers of Music based in Maryland.[31]

Chamber choirs[edit]

The Washington area has a large number of chamber vocal ensembles. The Washington Bach Consort, founded in 1977 and directed by J. Reilly Lewis, presents concerts using a professional chorus and orchestra using period instruments.[32] The Bach Consort is noted for performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries, and performs a monthly series of weekday noontime cantatas in downtown Washington in addition to regular concert performances.[33] The Thomas Circle Singers (founded in 1976) have a dual mission that includes donating ticket proceeds to area non-profit organizations, and have been recognized for both community involvement as well as musicianship.[34][35]

Lux (founded in 2014) is a semi-professional chamber choir of 16-22 voices founded and run by college-aged musicians, based in Hyattsville, MD and specializing in contemporary choral music.[36] Founded by member Robby Napoli, Lux has been met with some of the highest compliments from professors of local conservatories, the world's most loved composers, professional musicians, and casual audience members.[37] Garnering praise from high-profile composers Eric Whitacre and Paul Mealor, they are dedicated to "excellence, innovation, and accessibility in choral performance."[38]

The Cantate Chamber Singers (founded in 1984) perform concerts in Maryland and D.C. featuring a broad range of repertoire from the past five centuries, and have released several recordings on national labels.[39] Cantigas focuses on music from the Latino tradition,[40] while Voices 21, also based in Maryland, focuses on music of the 15th, 16th, 20th, and 21st centuries including rarely performed works.[41]

Carmina (founded in 2004), based in Falls Church, Virginia, focuses on early music from the Middle Ages through the early Baroque period.[42][25] The Voce Chamber Singers (founded in 1989) are based in Reston[43] while the Master Singers of Virginia are based in Loudoun County.[44][45]

Polyhymnia (founded in 1991), a 20-25-voice a capella chamber chorus directed by Steve Beck, performs good music from all periods (Renaissance to modern) and many cultures, frequently including less-well-known pieces that should be heard more often. Polyhymnia is based in Bethesda Md and gives concerts in Md, DC and Va. Polyhymnia follows a "pay what you will" policy: performances are free but donations are accepted.

Children's choirs[edit]

  • Children's Chorus of Washington[46] - 150 singer children’s choral ensemble
  • American Youth Chorus, affiliate of the Congressional Chorus, for youth 8 to 14 from all over the Washington metropolitan area.
  • Cantate Children's and Youth Choir of Central Virginia - brings classical choral music to the children and youth of Central Virginia
  • Strathmore Children's Chorus
  • World Children's Choir - economically disadvantaged children in the area
  • D.C. Boys Choir[47] - Offers membership, by audition, to boys ages 9–13 who are enrolled in the D.C. public schools
  • Washington Youth Choir - free after school music education and college preparatory program for students ages 13 to 19

Barbershop choruses[edit]



  • Potomac Harmony Chorus
  • Vienna-Falls Chorus of Sweet Adelines International
  • Heart of Maryland Chorus-Sweet Adelines

A cappella ensembles[edit]

Washington, D.C. has a very vibrant a cappella scene. Sweet Honey in the Rock, which formed in 1973 and focuses on music rooted in African American culture, has shared a Grammy Award and received multiple Grammy nominations for its children's albums. Afro Blue, an a cappella vocal jazz ensemble based at Howard University, received significant national attention when it placed fourth on season three of the television show The Sing Off in 2011. There are several ″vocal bands″ in the area, while The Capital Hearings bridge the lines between the choral tradition, vocal jazz, and contemporary a cappella.

Church choirs[edit]

The Choir of the Basilica is the resident choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The twenty-voice all-professional ensemble gives nearly 100 performances a year, and its performances are often broadcast on the Eternal Word Television Network. The Washington National Cathedral also maintains several resident choirs, including various professional and volunteer ensembles.[48]

The area also includes at least 100 other church choirs, composed of varying mixes of volunteer and professional singers. Singer Source, established in 2003, serves as a local clearinghouse to connect area singers with choirs, including for church jobs and other volunteer and professional opportunities.[49][50]

Service choirs[edit]

Several of the nation's military service choirs are based in Washington, D.C., including:

  • U.S. Army Chorus - associated with U.S. Army Band
  • Soldiers' Chorus (Fort Meade, MD) - associated with U.S. Army Field Band
  • Sea Chanters - associated with U.S. Navy Band
  • Singing Sergeants - associated with U.S. Air Force Band

Members of the service choirs are typically full-time professionals.

External links[edit]

  • Singer Source - local clearinghouse to connect singers and choirs, including church jobs and ensemble auditions.


The tradition of choral ensembles in the area is longstanding, with ensembles dating back at least as far as the Civil War era.


Early groups included the Washington Saengerbund, established in 1851, of which a successor version continues to exist today.


A Choral Society of 150 voices (later the Washington Choral Society) was organized in the 1883–84 season, giving its first concert on Feb. 23, 1884.[51] Its success delivering "ten consecutive seasons of concerts, oratorios, and operas" was noted in 1893.[52][53] In 1896, the Choral Society marked the passing of Henry Clay Sherman, musical director of the "original Choral Society," who had again taken charge of musical duties at the beginning of the 1895-96 season.[54] The Choral Society ran into financial trouble in its 22nd season during 1904-05,[55] but it re-organized and continued.[56] In 1906, Sydney Lloyd Wrightson was elected director,[57] but the following year, Wrightson left the organization in the wake of disagreements and founded a Washington Oratorio Society.[58] The Choral Society replaced its popular annual Messiah performance with Handel's Judas Maccabeus in 1908,[59] and may have formally disbanded that year.[60] A performance in 1911 may have been the last to receive media attention.[61]

The Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society was founded in 1901,[62] was made up of 160-200 African-American singers, and sponsored Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's first trip to the United States[citation needed].


  • 1916—H.E. Cogswell (temporarily) takes over from Wrightson as Washington Oratorio Society director.[63]


In 1930, the Washington Choral Festival Association was organized.[64] It renamed itself as the Washington Choral Society in 1932, using a name "hallowed by historic associations."[65] The Washington Choral Society was taken over by a civic group in 1934,[66] formally dissolved in 1935,[67] and re-formed under the same name shortly thereafter.[68] Its director, Louis A. Potter, resigned in 1949.[69][70][71] Soon thereafter, Paul Callaway was offered the directorship, and it was eventually folded into the Cathedral Choral Society which Callaway had previously formed in 1941.[citation needed]

1960 and beyond[edit]

Many of the major ensembles still active in the Washington area had their origins in the 1960s and early 1970s.


  1. ^ Anne Midgette, New groups like National Master Chorale signal key change in D.C. choral scene, Washington Post, Dec. 19, 2009 (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  2. ^ The Washington Chorus, Tours and Festivals, visited Apr. 5, 2015
  3. ^ Tim Page, A Musical Reprise for Robert Shafer, Washington Post, Sep. 1, 2007 (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  4. ^ Tim Page, Robert Shafer of Washington Chorus to Step Down in '07, Washington Post, Sep. 6, 2006 (visited Apr. 5, 2015). Coincidentally, Shafer's departure from the Washington Chorus and eventual formation of the City Choir occurred 100 years after an earlier Washington Oratorio Society split away from the city's original Choral Society in 1907.
  5. ^ Anne Midgette, Music Review: Anne Midgette on Master Chorale's Finale, With 'Carmina Burana, Washington Post, May 19, 2009 (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  6. ^ The National Philharmonic, National Philharmonic Chorale Archived 2015-04-14 at the Wayback Machine (visited Apr. 5, 2015).
  7. ^ The National Philharmonic, History Archived 2010-05-26 at the Wayback Machine (visited Apr. 5, 2015).
  8. ^ Fairfax Choral Society, Who We Are (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  9. ^ Choralis, About Choralis (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  10. ^ New Dominion Chorale, Our History (visited Apr. 8, 2015)
  11. ^ Midgette, Anne, "New groups like National Master Chorale signal key change in D.C. choral scene", Staff Writer, Washington Post, December 19, 2009. Retrieved: September 2, 2011.
  12. ^ The Capitol Hill Chorale, About (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  13. ^ 18th Street Singers, About the 18th Street Singers Archived 2015-02-01 at the Wayback Machine (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  14. ^ Zemer Chai, About Us (visited June 27, 2015)
  15. ^ Maryland Choral Society, History of the Maryland Choral Society (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  16. ^ The Reston Chorale, About the Chorale (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  17. ^ Alexandria Choral Society, About Alexandria Choral Society (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  18. ^ Alexandria Singers, Group History Archived 2015-05-30 at the Wayback Machine (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  19. ^ Washington Men's Camerata, General Information (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  20. ^ Washington Men's Camerata, Library (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  21. ^ Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C., History (visited Apr. 5, 2015).
  22. ^ National Men's Chorus, About (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  23. ^ Letter to the Editor, In Defense of the Men's Camerata (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  24. ^ Downey, Charles T. (2011-07-18). "A Night With the Suspicious Cheese Lords". Washingtonian. Retrieved 2015-04-08.
  25. ^ a b Reinthaler, Joan, "Carmina and Illuminare sing as one", Washington Post, "The Classical Beat" blog by Anne Midgette), June 14, 2010. Retrieved: May 31, 2013.
  26. ^ Thornton, Laura L, 5 "Things to Know Today: Sept. 1" Archived 2012-10-04 at the Wayback Machine, Chevy Chase Patch (Maryland), September 1, 2011. Retrieved: September 2, 2011.
  27. ^ Washington Performing Arts, About the Washington Performing Arts Men and Women of the Gospel Choir (visited Apr. 7, 2015).
  28. ^ Heritage Signature Chorale, Mission & History (visited Apr. 7, 2015)
  29. ^ Tucker, Neely, "Slavery's Unchained Melodies", Washington Post, Sunday, February 20, 2005.
  30. ^ Mosaic Harmony, Meet Our Choir (visited Apr. 7, 2015)
  31. ^ Patrick Lundy and the Ministers of Music, Biographical Statement (visited Apr. 7, 2015)
  32. ^ Washington Bach Consort, About the Consort (visited Apr. 7, 2015)
  33. ^ Washington Bach Consort, Noontime Cantatas (visited Apr. 7, 2015)
  34. ^ Thomas Circle Singers, About Us (visited Apr. 7, 2015)
  35. ^ Music: The Thomas Circle Singers 35th Anniversary Concert, Washingtonian, Events Calendar, May 14, 2011. Retrieved: September 2, 2011.
  36. ^ "Lux Choir — Home". LUX. Retrieved 2018-06-05.
  37. ^ "Lux Choir — About". LUX. Retrieved 2018-06-05.
  38. ^ "Press Kit". LUX. Retrieved 2018-06-05.
  39. ^ Cantate Chamber Singers, About Us (visited Apr. 7, 2015)
  40. ^ Cantigas, Mission, Vision, and Core Principles (visited Apr. 5, 2015)
  41. ^ Voices 21, About Voices 21 (visited Apr. 7, 2015)
  42. ^ Carmina, About Carmina (visited Apr. 7, 2015>
  43. ^ Voce Chamber Singers, History (visited Apr. 7, 2015)
  44. ^ "Best Bets: Master Singers in Concert", Local Living section, Thursday, February 19, 2009.
  45. ^ Master Singers of Virginia, Ensemble (visited Apr. 7, 2015)
  46. ^ "Children's Chorus of Washington - Your voice. Our Sound. An Unforgettable Experience". 2013-01-18. Retrieved 2014-03-19.
  47. ^ "Russian celebration in Washington DC", Spero News, Nov 13, 2007.
  48. ^ Washington National Cathedral, Choirs Archived 2015-03-28 at the Wayback Machine (visited Apr. 8, 2015)
  49. ^ Singer Source, Welcome to Singer Source! (visited Apr. 8, 2015)
  50. ^ Huan Hsu, Bible Belting, Washington City Paper, Sep. 30, 2005 (visited Apr. 8, 2015)
  51. ^ The Choral Society Concert, Washington Post, Feb. 24, 1884
  52. ^ Its Record a Proud One, Washington Post, Apr. 16, 1893 ("If ten consecutive seasons of concerts, oratorios, and operas, all more or less distinguished successes, constitute a sufficient test, then certainly the Choral Society of Washington is entitled to be numbered among the established musical organizations of the country.")
  53. ^ Our Choral Society, Washington Post, Nov. 5, 1893 ("In Its Ranks Are Included a Number of Washington's Best Musicians--Nearly All the Church Choirs of the City Contribute to Its Rolls.")
  54. ^ Resolutions Over Dr. Sherman's Death, Washington Post, Oct. 7, 1896, p. 7
  55. ^ Choral Society's Future, Washington Post, Jun. 29, 1905, p. 5 ("Radical Changes Probable in Case Organization Continues. Past Season Unprofitable for Various Reasons, Necessitating a Call Upon Those Who Guaranteed Funds. *** Its future is now problematical. Fears are entertained that the venerable institution, which has seen twenty-two winters, may pass out of existence.")
  56. ^ Choral Society To Hold On; Steps Taken to Reorganize and Give More Winter Concerts, Washington Post, Nov. 26, 1095, p. 2 ("Representatives of the Choral and Musical Art Societies and the citizens' committee met last night at the Washington College of Music and formulated plans for the reorganization of the Choral Society. It was recommended that a board of managers be nominated and elected at the annual meeting of the Choral Society, which will be called on Wednesday, December 6, by the retiring president, William Bruce King. Sydney Lloyd Wrightson presided at the meeting.")
  57. ^ Choral Has New Head, Washington Post, Jun. 22, 1906 ("Sydney Lloyd Wrightson was elected conductor for the Washington Choral Society last evening, at a meeting of the board of managers.")
  58. ^ Choral Society Wars, Washington Post, May 28, 1907 ("Wrightson Defeats Managers for Re-election. WILL ORGANIZE RIVAL BODY After Successfully Opposing Meyer Cohen and Miss Mary A. Cryder for Membership on Board, Director Announces He Will Launch Washington Oratorio Society -- Officers Elected. *** Last night's meeting of the Choral Society, at which nine new managers were elected, was full of high explosives. Director Sydney Lloyd Wrightson stood at the entrance electioneering against the re-election of Meyer Cohen, Miss Mary A. Cryder, and William Bruce King.")
  59. ^ Not to Sing Messiah, Washington Post, Oct. 4, 1908, p. 13 ("Announcement That Old Traditions Are to Be Broken and Yuletide Is to Be Celebrated With Handel's "Judas Maccabaeus" Shocks Many Washington Vocalists")
  60. ^ Preparing "The Messiah," Washington Post, Dec. 3, 1918, p. 9 ("The annual rendition has been the result of the personal efforts of Mr. [Sydney Lloyd] Wrightson since the Choral Society disbanded ten years ago.")
  61. ^ "Elijah" Well Sung, Washington Post, May 3, 1911, p. 3
  62. ^ Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists Since 1860, ed. Ralph B. Boyle, Cyrilla Barr, at pp. 216-17.
  63. ^ Will Direct Oratorio Work; H.E. Cogswell Succeeds S.L. Wrightson, Who Organized Society, Washington Post, Oct. 9, 1916, p. 7
  64. ^ Choral Festival Plans Announced, Washington Post, Jan. 31, 1930, p. 3
  65. ^ Choral Society Meets Tuesday For Rehearsal, Washington Post, Oct. 23, 1932, p. S4 ("Of great interest to the music lovers of Washington are the winter plans of the choral organization formerly known as the Washington Choral Festival Association, which has recently adopted, by action of its governing board, the shorter title, and one hallowed by historic associations, of the Washington Choral Society.")
  66. ^ Choral Society Is Taken Over By Civic Group, Washington Post, Oct. 28, 1934, p. A3
  67. ^ Executive Body Acts to Dissolve Choral Society, Washington Post, June 8, 1935 ("Dissolution of the Washington Choral Society was voted at a meeting of the executive board last Thursday evening, it having been decided that the interest shown by the public and by the members was not sufficient to justify continuance of the organization at a loss.")
  68. ^ New Choral Society Is Organized Here, Washington Post, June 30, 1935 ("Preliminary organization of a new choral organization, bearing the same name as the recently disbanded Washington Choral Society, was effected June 21 at a luncheon....")
  69. ^ Louis Potter, Choral Society Head, Resigns, Washington Post, Feb. 23, 1949 ("Louis A. Potter, founder and director of the Washington Choral Society for the past 19 years, has resigned effective April 1, it was announced yesterday.")
  70. ^ Paul Hume, Potter Leads Choral Society for Last Time, Washington Post, Mar. 29, 1949, p. B3 ("One of Washington's most beloved musicians took his formal leave from the city's concertgoers last night.")
  71. ^ Louis A. Potter, Church Musician, Is Dead at 94, Washington Post, Jan. 9, 1986, p. C6