French choirs crescendo as hit movie inspires singers

'Les Choristes,' a postwar reform-school drama about the power of song to redeem wayward teens, is making choir cool in France.

AS soon as I have finished writing this I will have to dash off: can't miss choir practice.

I would never have expected such a statement to elicit glances of admiration and even envy from my neighbors, but in France this autumn, singing in a choir puts me at the cutting edge of a social movement.

"All of a sudden, choirs are trendy," says Guillaume Deslandres, president of the French Institute for Choral Art.

A surprise smash-hit film, 'Les Choristes' (The Choristers), appears to have triggered the phenomenon, boosting the number of applicants to amateur neighborhood choirs across the country as they took up rehearsals again after the summer holidays.

Certainly my choir has taken on an unusually large number of new recruits over the past two weeks: and our choirmaster, an enthusiastic Bulgarian post-graduate music student, was delighted to be able to apply real rigor as he auditioned applicants.

The movie, which France is putting up for an Oscar as best foreign film, tells a feel-good story of juvenile delinquents in postwar France who are redeemed by the power of song.

More than 7 million people have seen the film - which makes it more of a success here than even Harry Potter - and a fair number of them seem to have been inspired to try out their own vocal chords.

But even before "The Choristers" came out, choir singing was on the move in France. Mr. Deslandres reckons there are about 7,000 amateur choirs nationwide (not counting school choirs, or church choirs) giving around 300,000 people the chance to sing in public.

"Five years ago, choirs were outdated, the sort of thing that only senior citizens joined," recalls Deslandres. "But a whole new repertoire has completely changed their image."

Drawing people in are new choirs dedicated to popular French songs and hits from musicals, which many people find a lot more fun (and perhaps, without being too sniffy about it, which demand a little less vocal skill) than more traditional pieces.

"There are a whole lot of choirs where people go mainly for social reasons, to be convivial, and they hit the right notes if they can," says Deslandres. "I'm very happy about this, and there is nothing wrong with them, but I don't think the overall musical standards of French singing have improved" because of them.

Less noticed in the sudden popularity of communal singing, he adds, are the choirs "with real artistic goals."

My choir, called 'Divertimento,' probably falls somewhere between the two. Not many of us are much good at reading music, but we are all trying to get better at it as we work our way through a repertoire of Mozart, English Renaissance madrigals, and some more Baroque church music, lightened by a couple of music hall numbers we throw in at the end of our concerts.

We meet for two-hour rehearsals every Monday evening in a room beneath a community cinema just down the road from my flat, and I have been going for the past three years because I find it both energizing and relaxing to sing out loud and my children object when I do so in the street.

I also enjoy the social aspect, not least because I have met all kinds of people I would not normally run into: my two neighbors in the bass/baritone row are a paleobotanist who specializes in 3 million-year-old fossils of ferns and a haberdashery salesman who specializes in zippers.

We all miss about the same number of notes, which is reassuring, and we all take the same amount of pleasure in missing fewer and fewer as the year goes by, and our two annual concerts in Paris churches approach.

As our choirmaster tells us, "The main point is that you should all have fun singing. But it's nice if the audience can enjoy it too."

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