Christopher Bell and the Festival Vocal Fellowship
May 1, 2023 | Noel Morris
Each summer, a new collection of string and vocal fellows come to Chicago to work alongside the Festival’s star-studded lineup of professional musicians—Festival Chorus Director Christopher Bell being one of them. I recently caught up with Christopher, who's finishing up a banner year with the National Youth Choir of Scotland, an organization he founded in 1996.
NM: You've been part of the Vocal Fellowship from the beginning. What do you think are essential ingredients to a successful and beneficial young artist program?
CB: A good young artists program recognizes potential and offers the building blocks for that talent to achieve success in the profession. In our case at Grant Park, we are looking for singers who have the talent and the versatility to be a member of the chorus, a position that requires a set of complementary skills to those of a soloist. At Grant Park we seek singers who can develop these skills, thus ensuring that should they wish it, future work at Grant Park is possible for them.
NM: You're part of the audition process for candidates for the Fellowship. What are you looking for?
CB: A voice that is working well, with good tone across the range that we need, and the ability to be versatile with it. A chorister must fit with colleagues, have a wide range of colors in the voice and be able to switch between them as the music requires. Good musicianship is also crucial, as we prepare a lot of music in a short time, in a variety of different styles, so ability to read music well and quickly is vital.
The range that we need is an interesting one—thinking about the bass and baritone voices, Chicago possesses a large number of very fine baritones, which, if you like, is the higher voice in the ‘bass’ category. There is a need for that voice, but one also really needs low basses, and they are in much shorter supply! When a new low bass appears for audition, that is a very exciting moment.
NM: Are you looking for people who will fit in well with the Grant Park Chorus or are you looking for career potential? Or talent? Is there a difference?
CB: So all these things are linked. Many Chicago singers have what is called a portfolio career. Certainly, in their early working years—they mix some solo singing with chorus work, a church job, singing, teaching, and the like. For Grant Park, my ultimate aim is to find singers who will work well in the chorus, a job that perhaps they had not necessarily considered when they went to a college where the focus is likely to have been more on their solo voice. Once they have experienced the high level of work we do here, the hope is that they realize that there is a satisfaction to this work, too, alongside the rest of the portfolio.
NM: Generally speaking, when fellows come into the program, how far along are they in their development as musicians?
CB: They are generally quite far along; applicants for the Fellowship will have done undergraduate and likely graduate programs which is a considerable investment of time and dollars to get to this point. The aim of the program is to create opportunities for under-represented singers in our profession, and the work we do is very valuable. This is a process that starts many years earlier, in schools and communities. We are able to do what we do because other passionate teachers start the process when the students are much younger, and we are so grateful that they do.
NM: Describe for us the difference between solo singing and choral singing. Do singers easily shift between one and the other?
CB: This is a huge one; in choral singing it's about working as a team and endeavoring to create a unified sound with the singers around you. In solo singing, it’s more about the individual voice, though there will be moments when a soloist must work with another singer or even perhaps a solo quartet.
NM: This year, several Fellowship participants have won the audition to join the chorus. How does that feel?
CB: I think it's a measure of the success of the program that singers return and win places in the chorus after the Fellowship. They liked what we offered, and want to return. Alongside, they can give us what we need in the chorus. Win-win, I’d say.
NM: Chicago is one of the few cities in the US that can support a fully professional symphonic chorus. It's one of the few cities in which professional singers can make a living as a performer. Do you have any advice for young singers who hope to pursue a career in an environment such as this?
My advice to singers is threefold: 1. Develop your instrument and keep it healthy. 2. Be open to a wide range of possibilities from solo work, to chorus to church singing, etc. 3. If the pandemic taught us anything, having a good side hustle is useful as a parallel/additional career.