"No matter how thrilling an orchestral concert might be," Robert Page points out, "it always seems to be more thrilling with the presence of a chorus."
As director of the Cleveland Orchestra Choruses since 1971, Page knows whereof he speaks. "The choral idiom," he says, "is so accessible. People say, 'Hey, everybody can sing. After all, God gave all of us voices.'
"But God also gave us arms, and how many Joe Louises are there?"
Seated on a bench in the Grand Hall of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion earlier this week, Page reflected on the undeniable appeal of choral singing. Meanwhile, members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale quietly began to assemble nearby for their first rehearsal of Haydn's "Creation," presented tonight at the Music Center.
Page is a veteran of choral wars in Cleveland, Pittsburgh (where he heads the Mendelssohn Choir) and Philadelphia (where for nearly 20 years he conducted the Temple University Chorus). Now he is able to pinpoint the irresistible lure of voices in harmony: "There's an excitement in the sound of one human voice singing with another human voice, whether it be a duet or trio or a full chorus. That sound communicates in the loftiest sense."
While agreeing that most audiences "think of choruses in terms of Kyries and Glorias," Page insists that this does not present the whole picture. For him, choral singing involves "a tremendous discipline of the body. One must consider the sheen of sound, the precision of the performance, the emotional commitment. And, the rhythmic vitality has to be there."
To emphasize his personal campaign to maintain the highest of choral standards, Page points to his choral duties in Cleveland. "I re-audition all of my singers each year," he boasts. All of them? "Everyone. Individually. Each singer gets 15 minutes with me. It's our quality control."
Obviously, that same "quality control" must be set aside during a guest engagement, such as his Master Chorale appearance this weekend. Page seizes the opportunity to heap praise on the chorus (he last appeared here five years ago). "This is a group of educated voices," he says. "What the Master Chorale does, people will notice. I can't really think of another organization in this part of the country with such a reputation."
An unavoidable question, then: With the tenure of music director Roger Wagner apparently nearing an end, would Page consider a more permanent move West? The conductor suddenly guards his words. "I have great respect for this organization," he says. "But I haven't started packing.
"I have never enjoyed working on a plateau. I'm always looking for other opportunities. I would love, for example, to be music director of an orchestra (He is in his sixth year as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra). There seems to be a stigma in being a choral conductor. In fact, we have a much wider repertory. We have to know both crafts."
Is there a sense of frustration in serving as choral coach for an orchestra concert, only to slip toward the sidelines and watch the quarterback--be it George Szell or Andre Previn or Eugene Ormandy--get all the glory? Nonsense, Page responds.
"I learned so much from Ormandy. I learned what works with an orchestra and what doesn't. Mostly, I learned about textures. He was a great 'textures' conductor.
"It's an exhilarating experience to see the change of conception from my hands to the conductor's. That's the way I grow."