Saturday, September 26, 2009

"It would be enough if music could make people listen."

As the leader of a non-profit arts organization, the "state of the arts" is an omnipresent concern. The Virginia Chorale is set to kick off its 26th season with a program entitled Sing in the Seasons. I've already posted the program notes for this concert. Last month I wrote a book review of Why Classical Music Still Matters. If that seems like a non sequitir, making connections is one of my raisons d'etre.

This week a colleague forwarded a link to a new Kennedy Center initiative called Arts in Crisis.

This "is a program designed to provide planning assistance and consulting to struggling arts organizations throughout the United States." And make no mistake about it, arts organizations throughout the US are struggling more than ever. I just started reading a book that's been on my list since I first learned of it, by the president of the Kennedy Center, Michael Kaiser. The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations is a blueprint for how non-profits can rethink, revise, and restructure in order to turn things around. His mission-focused agenda is full of practical advice. This advice is supported by case studies of the major organizations he has helped turnaround in the past 20 years: the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Kansas City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and London's flagship opera company at Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House.

Kaiser's mantra is "good art marketed well." I know our organization is fulfilling the "good art" half of that equation. It is increasingly challenging in today's world, however, for smaller organizations to be the visible presence necessary to garner the attention and support required for the successful turnaround.

The Chorale was recently told by one of the (lamentably few) major corporations in the region that we're simply not big enough. "Not enough bang for the buck" was the reason we were denied sponsorship by a company that supports our big brother organizations like the Opera and the Symphony.

While a cappella choral music may be among the most rarified of classical music genres, it is no less relevant, no less vital, no less current & important than any of the omnibus genres that require larger stages & ensembles (and audiences). I would argue, moreover, that the meeting of poetry and music sung by a group of human voices in harmony is sui generis and thus the specialized nature of a cappella choral music is a singular and defining virtue.

One of the defining virtues of classical music in general is its ability to transcend specificity and be relevant across time and space. Our opening concert features a variety of settings of Shakespeare. One of his love poems features the line "When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed." This 400-year-old poem inspired a contemporary response by the American composer Dominick Argento. His setting of Sonnet LXIV is a gripping, haunting, and moving elegy for 9/11.

Though it seems to pass with less ado with each successive year, 9/11 is a case study of why classical music will always matter. The most meaningful expressions of the emotions associated with such tragedy--grief, sorrow, anger, confusion, lament--are best expressed via the arts. And no form more than music gives life to such expression. I would argue that choral music in particular is best fit for performing, enacting, and embodying such expression. In the aftermath of September 11th, and in the anniversaries since, the major works most often performed in commemoration have been Beethoven's 9th (choral) symphony and the Requiem settings of Mozart & Brahms .

Our fall concert is framed by two classic standards from the American songbook. Autumn Leaves and Summertime are two great ballads that happen to be the work of Jewish composers. The first example, made famous in this country by Johnny Mercer's lyrics, is a song of the Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma, who fled Nazi Germany for Paris in 1933. Earlier tonight I read a review in this week's New Yorker of Dancing in the Dark, a survey of art from the Depression-era thirties. While it did not mention the Gershwin brothers' ground-breaking work of musical theater, Porgy and Bess, it is worth noting that this operatic musical appeared in the same period.

Victor Hugo said "music expresses that which cannot be said and cannot be suppressed."

The subject heading of this post is a quote from one of Claude Debussy's letters. His Trois Chansons (Three songs) are at the center of a program of great music inspired by the seasons of the year. 17 of the finest singers in the Commonwealth will be singing that program next weekend. There is not another group like ours in Virginia. And there is no better way to experience the wealth and immeasurable variety of such expression than by participating in a concert of live music.

Come. Hear. Outstanding. Rewarding. Artists. Listen. Engage.

We hope you'll come hear what we're up to Oct 2-4.

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