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‘Best men’s choir’ set to end world tour in Vancouver

Orphei Drängar Men’s Choir, October 25, 2008

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

Many call Sweden’s Orphei Drängar simply the best men’s choir in the world. The group sings for Vancouver audiences Saturday at the Chan Centre, directed by the legendary Robert Sund.

“Maestro Sund is now officially retired from conducting the OD,” according to Chor Leoni’s Diane Loomer, “but is leading them on this last world tour, with their final concert occurring here in Vancouver.”

Westcoast Life spoke with the maestro just before he left his home in Sweden.

Q: It’s probably accurate to call you one of the great gurus of men’s choirs. What will you do now that you’re leaving the OD?

A: Oh, I don’t think of myself as a guru at all. It’s just that I started with the OD as a singer in 1965, and became an associate conductor in 1968, so I’ve been at it rather a long time. Now I’m officially retired, and although I remain close to the choir, I won’t interfere in their business unless they ask me to. I want to continue working and touring so long as my health lasts, and now I have more time for composing and arranging.

Q: Is there an essential difference between men’s choirs in North America and in Europe?

A: Again, we have been at it such a long time. The tradition goes back to the 19th century in Sweden and the 18th century in Germany. In Uppsala a choir was established in 1830. It all goes back essentially to the Romantic movement – the first songs were always about nature, women, and drinking, not necessarily in that order. And the choirs got started in the universities, where at the time no women were admitted.

Q: Over the long, long haul, how has the OD changed?

A: The great Swedish composer Hugo Alfven became conductor in 1910 and stayed for 37 years. He saw the choir very much as “an orchestra of voices,” and concentrated on works of great scope and nationalist fervour. His successor, Eric Ericson, came from the very different tradition of chamber music and Baroque style, a much thinner and more refined sound which made some people anxious at first. Then he too fell in love with the big sound of 80+ men singing together. His innovation was to make the choir think like a string quartet, constantly adjusting its phrasing.

Q: What special problems do male choirs face?

A: The main difficulty is that the repertoire is very limited, and often designed for amateur choirs, so the music is not always as refined as one might like. And it’s hard to assemble interesting concerts; the same pieces tend to come back again and again. And young people today are not so eager to sing about drinking and nationalism.

Then it is always difficult to find the right balance of voices, which is very different from mixed choirs. You especially need tenors who can sing very high, and basses who can sing very low.

Q: Is the men’s choir movement doing well in our time?

A: There are new groups everywhere. I particularly admire the work of Diane Loomer in Vancouver, whose choir I like very much. The trends everywhere now are for gay men’s choruses, and for smaller groups, 16 or so, who view themselves not so much as choirs as singing ensembles. I find the results very interesting indeed.


Thu Oct 23, 2008