At a time when interest in choral singing is at an all-time low, San Diego Master Chorale conductor Frank Almond has succeeded in revitalizing the city’s largest choral organization. His method embraced two seemingly opposite goals: moving the group into singing more popular fare while tightening the chorale’s musical discipline.

After he was appointed music director two years ago, Almond decided that the Master Chorale could not survive “just doing the ‘St. John Passion’ and Brahms’ ‘German Requiem.’ To reach whatever market there is out there, I decided to explore doing lighter choral repertory.”

Sunday night at Symphony Hall, Almond and the Master Chorale will make its first foray into pop programming with a program featuring Broadway show tunes, spirituals and folk songs.


To reward his singers for their loyalty and discipline--"I always prepare the chorale to its highest possible level without driving them crazy"--Almond is leading the chorale on a 10-day tour of Great Britain in July. They will appear in such diverse places as Chichester Cathedral, where they will perform Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”; the Edinburgh Music Festival, and the Duke of Richmond’s garden party after the Oak Tree Stakes races. Eighty-three members of the 120-voice chorale will take abroad an appropriately mixed program of music by British and American composers.

When Almond took over the Master Chorale, both its membership and spirit had suffered under the absentee leadership of its former conductor, Charles Ketcham. When his tenure as the San Diego Symphony’s associate conductor ended, Ketcham took a post with the Utah Symphony. For two seasons he commuted between Salt Lake City and San Diego, sending in substitute rehearsal conductors from Los Angeles when he could not squeeze a San Diego trip into his schedule. This erratic leadership took its toll.

“I was aware of the musical difficulties when I came on board,” Almond said. “I wanted to turn the situation around as quickly as possible.” He quickly gained not only the confidence of the chorale’s singers, but of San Diego Symphony maestro David Atherton. As a rule, half of the chorale’s season is made up of appearances with the symphony. During Ketcham’s latter days with the Master Chorale, Atherton, whose performance standards are notoriously exacting, was looking for alternatives to the group. Almond’s appointment came not a moment too soon. According to Almond, it took Atherton only 10 minutes of conducting the chorale to acknowledge his satisfaction with their improvement.

The chorale is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Originally formed as an adjunct organization of the San Diego Symphony and called the Symphonic Chorale, the organization separated from the orchestra in 1979.

“The jury is still out on whether or not it was a wise move,” Almond said. “Nothing prevented the chorale from doing independent concerts while under the symphony’s wing, and they had their own board.” And the chorale still faced the challenge of raising an adequate budget.

A member of the San Diego State University music faculty for 15 years, Almond conducts the university’s concert choir and chamber singers, as well as supervises the students in the master’s degree program in choral conducting. From this vantage point he has noted the decline in choral singing.

“Fewer and fewer people are interested in singing choral music--the days of the 800-voice college chorus are long gone,” he said. “And it seems to be that way all over, from the state colleges to the public elementary schools.”

He noted that “it could be the influence of popular music, where smaller, chamber-size groups are the norm. Large choruses are definitely not part of the popular scene.”