One voice and 34 (+1) faces

75 years RIAS Kammerchor ( synopsis for 10/23)

In October 2023, the RIAS Kammerchor will celebrate its 75th birthday. Why is this ensemble mentioned in the same breath as the Berlin Philharmonic, or considered the Anne-Sophie Mutter or Martha Argerich of choirs? What is the difference between a good choir and a bad one? Or in this case: between the outstanding and the best choirs in the world?

1. sketch of the film

The conductor calls out just one number, slowly raises his arms and takes a deep breath - as he exhales he lowers them again, then immediately jerks them up into the air, where the outstretched index fingers paint wavy lines in the air in time with the singing that is now beginning.

The view widens to a long shot in a former factory hall, the Berlin motor factory in the northeast of the city, on the left the conductor, on the right the choir, in two rows, in front the women, behind them the men.
In a slow motion and close-up (close-up) shot - head and shoulders only - the camera pans down the front row of the choir, the row of men in the background behind them slightly out of focus, but quite recognizable. While the choir as a whole seems to sing with only one voice, breathing in one rhythm, a body of many limbs, the faces of the male and female choir singers could not be more different.

Tired and sad almost one, young and committed the next, underlining every note, every melodic arc with expansive gestures and facial expressions. One looks intently at the notes, and nowhere else, as if she were all alone on the floor - while her neighbor frowns, keeps her eyes on the conductor, grabs her hair and laughs during "Hallelujah" - the next one stands like a pillar of salt, the singer next to her seems rather to dance and sway, finding her notes out of the movement of her body.

The conductor breaks off because he has discovered that the accompanying harp is tuned a quarter tone lower than the tubular bells.

With the next scene, we are at one of the singers' homes, or gardens. Scattered throughout the film, we watch the singers prepare for their parts. All of them are trained soloists. We also film some of them doing completely different activities, as they have other engagements besides the RIAS Kammerchor. Outside of the choir, they are on the road as soloists or direct children's or amateur choirs, or teach schoolchildren. One of them wires huge sound systems for concerts, another collects historical instruments from all over the world, yet another devotes himself to his beehives after rehearsals. They tell us how they came to join the RIAS Kammerchor, what choral singing means to them, where they have to subordinate their soloistic abilities to the overriding identity of the choir, thus on the one hand losing part of their individuality, but at the same time gaining something as part of a larger whole. This series of selected highlights will come together in the course of the film to form an overall picture of the personality of the choir.
This would be one strand that runs through our film - statements or mini-portraits of a selection of the ensemble members, which at the same time provide the keywords for the second strand of the film, which deals with the history of the RIAS Chamber Choir. There is some documentary material on this in the archives of RBB (co-production, formerly SFB) and Deutschlandradio (formerly RIAS). There is also a film that was commissioned by the press office of the Berlin Senate in the 70s. And there are contemporary witnesses who can tell the stories that happened at the historical sites. We would like to pick out two of these events in particular:

- The basement rooms of the telegraph office in Winterfeldtstr. Berlin / Schöneberg, in which the first provisional studios of RIAS were located from 1945. More than the then 37 singers could not fit in there.

- At a legendary New Year's concert in the Philharmonie in 1985, Herbert von Karajan conducted Johann Sebastian Bach's Magnificat with his Philharmonic Orchestra and the RIAS Chamber Choir. The choir's transparency and lively articulation had moved so far away from the orchestra's primarily sound-oriented playing that, in the end, only one ensemble stood out as the real bearer of the musical interpretation, before which the maestro bowed respectfully.

Our trailer also shows the young conductor of the chamber choir, Justin Doyle, who here does not at all play the cool Brit with understatement, but knows how to inspire his choir with temperament, singing along, eloquent and with many gestures. The result is precisely those finely drawn sound structures and meshes for which Justin Doyle is famous. Part of this exposé is a series of photographs whose stirring emotional content we need not comment on further. In addition to traditional concerts of Handel oratorios or Bach cantatas in the Berlin Philharmonie, he loves to present "his" choir with carefully staged lighting or in unusual places, or to move around the stage or around the audience in small choreographies. This is what the third strand of our cinematic narrative will be about: We will follow Justin Doyle, his team and ensemble as they prepare and stage Judas Maccabaeus - one of G.F. Handel's most popular oratorios -- not only musically, but also scenically, in order to reach today's and also young audiences with this music.
The RIAS Kammerchor used to be a radio choir, but over the decades it has developed into a concert choir that has taken it upon itself to blow a breath of fresh air into the classical form of a choral concert. For this reason, Justin Doyle does not like to be called a "choir director" at all - he leads, he conducts, he stages the choir's concerts, with and without orchestra, he not only thinks up the programs (not him alone, with his team), but he asks himself how to bring - what is close to his heart - to the people in a lively way, how to inspire them.

In our TV documentary (60 mins.) we want to accompany, above all, the outstanding musical event that this choir will perform on the occasion of its 75th anniversary. Interwoven into its development process, we tell the story of the RIAS Kammerchor in flashbacks.

We want to record this musical event in its entirety for the ARTE Concert website. In preparation for this, the individualities of this choir will be presented in a series of 34 plus 1 short five-minute portraits (all singers plus the conductor - 5 per week). These 35 individual portraits will address from many perspectives the question, "What actually makes choral singing, as it was invented and developed in Europe?" - Polyphony, the many individual voices that can be heard at the same time, which preserve and develop their individuality, but are unconstrainedly connected to a higher unity, to a great and whole, means exactly that: unity in diversity, and in the best case a growing beyond oneself of the individual in the collective, a pulsation between lonely and together, between giving and taking. As a common element running through all these portraits, each singer will perform his or her part from the 40-voice motet Spem in alium by the British Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, composed around 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each. The idea is to perform a five-part choir individually at the end of each of 5 portraits - and at the end of all portraits the recording of the 8-choir 40-part final version (10:00 mins to 14:00 mins, depending on the interpretation).
Together with one of the best choirs or perhaps the best choir in the world, we are looking for an answer to the question: What is the special experience, the special quality of choral singing? - and in doing so, we are aiming at an audience as large as can be imagined, because, for example, over a million active choral singers are organized in the German Choral Association alone: our potential audience.

2. history of the RIAS Kammerchor

Does a choir have a personality, a distinctive individuality, like a famous pianist, a famous violinist? Some choirs have such a personality, especially the best among them. It is within one's grasp when one hears it, but difficult to describe when one has to narrate it. In the case of the RIAS Kammerchor, the Martha Argerich among choirs, it is not only the unmistakable sound, the radiance and at the same time clarity of the musical texture and the special nature of the (almost endless) repertoire - in the case of the RIAS Kammerchor, one also hears history, one hears a choir that for almost 75 years, like hardly any other ensemble, has been at the focal point of overlapping (world) political developments and musical change.

On February 7, 1946 - in the basement of the telecommunications office in Schöneberg's Winterfeldtstrasse - DIAS, Drahtfunk Im Amerikanischen Sektor (Wire Radio in the American Sector) was founded, whose programs could be received over the telephone lines that had survived the war. From the very beginning, this included choral music productions, sung live in the two very small studios - for reasons of space alone, the choir founded for this purpose had a manageable number of singers. Exactly 37 people stand tightly packed around a single microphone, as can be seen in the few photos taken at the time. The choir sings everything there is to sing for choir: Light music, pop songs, romantic songs, classical music, Mozart's Ave verum as the first, baroque music - and from the beginning contemporary music, i.e. new compositions, works that had either been left in the drawers during the Nazi era, that had been forbidden - or works that had only just been written. Those in charge of the American military administration wanted to allow a culture to flourish in their sector that corresponded to their concepts of freedom and democracy - in order to banish the Nazi regime's un-spirit from people's minds and to offer an alternative to the propaganda from the Soviet system in the eastern part of the city.
"The choir became a permanent institution on October 15, 1948, in the midst of the Berlin Blockade, which brought political insecurity along with material hardship: on that day, 37 singers received permanent employment contracts from the station's American guarantor. An important signal."

All of the singers hired were trained singers who had previously worked as soloists in opera houses, among other places. Some of them were injured in the war and could no longer perform on a stage - or the stages no longer existed. It is said that for this reason the choir initially had a rather inhomogeneous sound, because its members tended to drown each other out rather than fit into a common ensemble sound.

"The founding of the choir was only possible, however, because the protecting powers placed a high value on culture in the reconstruction of Germany, which had been destroyed both materially and spiritually. In this context, RIAS played a decisive role in the western sectors of Berlin. In addition to the chamber choir, it also founded the RIAS Symphony Orchestra, which has been called the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin since 1993, and the RIAS Dance Orchestra, now called the RIAS BIG BAND."

World and German premieres among others: Hindemith Requiem (57), Schoenberg Moses und Aron, Krenek Kafka motets, Penderecki Dimensions of Time and Silence, Henze Novae de infinito laudes, Dallapiccola Canti di liberatione, Stravinsky A Sermon, A narrative and a prayer, Zimmermann Requiem für einen jungen Dichter (69).

The small instrumentation of the RIAS Kammerchor with initially 37 voices, which was rather due to the limited financial means and the size of the recording studios, is still rather a disadvantage in the 50s and 60s, since according to the formative musical ideas of, for example, a Herbert von Karajan or Karl Richter, a rich, voluminous romantic sound ideal is pursued. It was not until the early 1970s, with the emergence of historically informed music-making, for example by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, that Bach cantatas or oratorios were no longer performed with 100-voice choirs, but were oriented toward the instrumentation practiced during Bach's lifetime. With only two, three or a maximum of four singers per voice, polyphonic choral movements can be arranged in a much more agile, lively and transparent manner than with a large mass of singers, as was customary until then. For music-historical and aesthetic reasons, this choir should not have been larger.
Alongside Harnoncourt, the charismatic Swedish choral conductor Eric Ericson changed European singing culture at this time - his ideal of an absolutely homogeneous sound of the choral voices and his idea that the interpretation of the music must follow the understanding of the text (both by the singers and the listeners) influenced, among many other choral conductors, Uwe Gronostay, who, coming from Bremen, studied with Harnoncourt and became an admirer (and later friend) of Ericson after experiencing only one radio broadcast. Gronostay took over the direction of the RIAS Chamber Choir in 1972, until Marcus Creed succeeded him in 1986.

How largely the RIAS Chamber Choir moves in a different musical-aesthetic cosmos than many other renowned orchestras in the city is told by the following little incident. When Herbert von Karajan performed Johann Sebastian Bach's Magnificat with the choir and his orchestra in 1985, on January 1, a critic wrote in the Berliner Tagesspiegel:

In contrast, in the Magnificat, one of the first works Bach composed for Leipzig in 1723, the RIAS Chamber Choir provided the phrasing that had been lacking until then ... The Philharmonic, however, played no differently, as if instead of the slender and agile RIAS Chamber Choir, the larger and more ponderous Vienna Musikverein Choir, which Karajan usually prefers, was still singing. The discrepancy between the orchestra's primarily sound-oriented playing and the choir's articulation of articulation was instructive, at least to this reviewer. Since the RIAS Chamber Choir also realized the great dramatic contrasts ... in the most beautiful way, it distinguished itself, as Herbert von Karajan correctly signaled with his final applause, as the real bearer of this Bach interpretation.

These lines are an early indication that the RIAS Chamber Choir, at least in the context of the Berlin cultural scene, was at the time one of the forerunners of a new aesthetic - a change in style that naturally held a great deal of conflict in store. Just as the interpretive approaches of choir and orchestra rub up against each other here, so the topic is discussed controversially in public. In the words of Gerd Albrecht, the Tagesspiegel titled its article on the fortieth anniversary of the choir in the 1988/89 season, which at the same time marked the beginning of its own subscription series consolidating its status as an independent concert choir: At that time, it was still said about the goals that the ensemble wanted to convince the audience in performances of baroque music that it is quite possible to reconcile the historicizing instrumental and tonal philology of the specialists with the listening expectations of a modern audience.
And this incident tells a change concerning the self-image and function of the choir. In the first decades of its existence, the RIAS Kammerchor had primarily served the interests of the radio station RIAS, thus singing everything that the station needed for its radio operations. It sings everything only once, until it is "in the can", and then immediately devotes itself to the next tasks. Today Schönberg, tomorrow operetta, the day after tomorrow folk songs - and of course literature for choir and orchestra with the station's own radio orchestra. Supported by the special insularity of West Berlin, the choir begins an extensive touring activity in addition to its broadcasting obligations, and takes on, so to speak, a musical-cultural ambassadorial activity - accordingly, a film about the choir, commissioned by the Berlin Senate Press Office in 1978, is called: RIAS Kammerchor als musikalischer Botschafter Berlins.
1963 Coventry - 1966 Paris - 1967 Oxford - 1971 Southern France tour - 1976 Wroclaw - 1976 Flanders / France - 1980 Los Angeles - 1982 Madeira - 1983 Frankfurt, Gent, Brussels, Dusseldorf - 1986 Warsaw - (The list can be extended at will, see the appendix of this exposé ....)

It may play a role that the RIAS Kammerchor is relatively small - and therefore it can travel around the world as a musical representative of West Berlin relatively inexpensively (compared to an orchestra, for example) - at the same time the choir gains reputation, self-image and cosmopolitanism through the abundance of international performances - because hardly any other choir in the world is on the road and on the stages of all continents as much as the RIAS Kammerchor.

From the early 1970s onwards, the choir transformed itself into an independent musical institution, singing primarily what only a professional choir with its 37 trained solo voices can sing - i.e. small-scale choral works from the pre-classical periods - from the Middle Ages to the Classical period on the one hand, and new works by living composers on the other, whose vocal works cannot usually be mastered by amateur or semi-professional ensembles.
The RIAS Kammerchor founds its own concert series, tours with its own programs, and enters into cooperative ventures with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, among others. External conductors are invited as guests, such as René Jacobs, Roger Norrington or Philippe Herreweghe. Harmonia Mundi France releases most of his CD productions. Gone are the days when this choir worked primarily for the needs of the music archive at RIAS Berlin (for which it sang some 400,000 kilometers of tapes until 1986 alone). Gone, too, are the days of complete financial dependence on Radio Im Amerikanischen Sektor. With the merger of Deutschlandsender Kultur and RIAS Berlin to form Deutschlandradio Berlin, the RIAS Kammerchor is absorbed into Rundfunk Orchester und Chöre gGmbH, or ROC for short, which is financed by Deutschlandradio, and half by funds from the federal government and the state of Berlin. The remainder of the budget, about 5%, is contributed by the radio and television broadcaster of Berlin and Brandenburg, RBB. The structure of its funding alone shows that the RIAS Kammerchor has long since ceased to be a regional radio choir, but rather, similar to the Berlin Philharmonic, a musical institution of national importance.

Strictly speaking, RIAS lives on only in the name of the chamber choir, if one disregards a large sign glowing blue at night on the roof of the building on Innsbrucker Platz in Berlin Schöneberg that now houses Deutschlandradio Berlin. The beauty of the RIAS Kammerchor's interpretations lends it eternity.

Berlin, 09.02.2022 © RIAS Kammerchor / inpetto filmproduktion

Tours to cities inside and outside Germany since 2002 (selection)

2002 Wroclaw, Brussels, Rome, Cologne, Poissy, Paris, Madrid, La Roques d'Anthéron

2003 Nantes, Turin, Bilbao, La Roques d'Anthéron, Bregenz, Linz, Vienna, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Bologna, Milan, Lucerne

2004 Poissy, Nantes, Metz, Madrid, Lisbon, Bruges, La Roques d'Anthéron, La Chaise Dieu, Vézelay, Cologne, Poissy, Lisbon, Innsbruck, Bregenz, Bourges, Amsterdam, Utrecht

2005 Paris, Nantes, Cologne, Brussels, Paris, Hamburg, Lörrach, Vaduz, Breda, Antwerp

2006 Nantes, Lisbon, Tokyo, Salzburg, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Essen, Lille, Namur, Soissans, Atlanta, Oxford/Miss., Nashville, San Francisco, New York, Rochester, Montreal, Toronto

2007 Cologne, Lisbon, San Sebastian, Paris, Bruges, Utrecht, Brussels, Amsterdam, Perugia, Paris, Amien, Essen, Lisbon, Dortmund, Antwerp, Utrecht, Groningen, Eindhoven

2008 Magdeburg, Frankfurt, Baden-Baden, Leipzig, Nuremberg, Essen, Valladolid, Cologne, Brussels, Paris, Freiburg, Rome, London


2010 Dresden, Jerusalem

2011 Cologne, Seoul

2013 Beirut

2016 Zurich, Essen, Paris, Amsterdam, Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, Lucerne, Dijon, Lyon

2017 Frankfurt, Barcelona, Gdansk, Paris, Budapest

2018 Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Essen, Freiburg, Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Kanasawa, Osaka

2019 Budapest, Gera, Dresden, Linz

Cast & Crew

Uli Aumüller
Director of photography
Sebastian Rausch
Original Score
Justin Doyle