VNPAC: A Composer’s Voice in the Chorus—And In the Solution

At the start of my third day of conference attendance, I found myself in a moderately sized ballroom singing African-American Spirituals at the top of my lungs. This is certainly not the way most days begin at the League of American Orchestras Conference and, fortunately, I was not the only one singing. Rather, the day began for me across town at the 33rd Annual Chorus America Conference that is running concurrently with the LAO Conference here in Atlanta this week. I attended two sessions at this conference, the first being a plenary session. Apparently, these morning sing-a-longs are a treasured staple of Chorus America, and I must confess that it did feel pretty good to be actually making music instead of only listening to performances. We were led in song by André Thomas, director of choral activities and professor of choral music education at Florida State University.

Once we were properly warmed up, Crystal Jones presented the Chorus America/ASCAP awards. Winners this year: Cantori Singers (Mark Shapiro, music director); Los Angeles Master Chorale (Grant Gershon, music director); and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City (Francisco J. Núñez, founder and artistic director). The Alice Parker Award went to WomenSing (Martín Benvenuto, artistic director).


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The panel discussion that followed the presentation of awards was titled “Envisioning the Choruses of Tomorrow”. The session, moderated by Matthew Sigman, writer, researcher, and author of Chorus America’s The Chorus Leadership Guide, included composer Gabriela Lena Frank, David Howse, executive director of the Boston Children’s Chorus, Ian David Moss, composer, research director of Fractured Atlas and blogger at createquity.com and Julian Wachner, composer, music director of the Washington Chorus, and associate professor of music at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University.

Sigman began the panel by pulling a key word from each panelist’s bio and asking them to talk about that word for two minutes. Moss’ word was “map.” He is drawn to this word because a map provides a user with a macro view and access to “the big picture.” This is a valuable perspective for anyone in the arts. Each of us must continually ask the question, “How does my art relates to others?” Howse’s word was “social change” (which is two words, of course; but two powerful words). Howse spoke of the need for musical performances to focus around the community. Through the making of music, especially with children, outreach can be made to parents, family, and ultimately community. At that point Howse mused, are we an arts leader or a civic leader? Wachner’s word was “improvisateur” (which we all pretty much agreed was a made up word, but a rather interesting one). Through the use of this word, Wachner stressed the need for performing groups to be flexible. Finally, the word selected for Frank was “identity.” In her bio, Frank describes herself as born to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent. In her work, she continually asks the question, “What does it mean to be of multi-cultural heritage?” This initially private exploration has become the basis of her career in music. Frank also pointed out that all four words were connected to one another.

Sigman did an excellent job of guiding a discussion which, for the most part, concerned itself with choral performance issues. However, comments by Ian Moss near the end of the session are of most interest to all composers. He discussed the group C4 (the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective), a group directed and operated by its singing members. It is the first organization of its kind and one of the few choral groups in the nation to focus exclusively on contemporary music. Picking up on a theme voiced by Russell Willis Taylor during yesterday’s LAO general session, Moss spoke of how C4 was emblematic of the pro-am revolution (see yesterday’s blog entry for more on pro-am). Choruses, perhaps more than other performing groups have a unique opportunity, due to their participatory nature, to embrace the pro-am revolution.


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Following the morning plenary session, I attended a break-out session titled “The Future of Choral recordings: Technologies, Trends and Opportunities.” Unfortunately, this session did not begin with a sing-a-long, but it did provide some very interesting ideas relevant to all composers. In similar fashion to the morning plenary session, this meeting was organized as a panel discussion. Led by moderator Roger Sherman, president and CEO of Loft Recordings and the Gothic Catalog, the panel featured the following participants: Blanton Alspaugh, engineer and producer for Soundmirror, Inc., Vince Ford, director of new media for the New York Philharmonic; Lea Maitlen, senior marketing manager, North America at Naxos of America; and Karen P. Thomas, artistic director and conductor of the Seattle Pro Musica.

The first question posed by Sherman dealt with both the role of the label and whether the CD was even a viable format anymore. Not surprisingly, Maitlen (from Naxos) was quick to assert that the CD was not dead. She recognized that in the world of pop music, far more music was acquired (either legally or, more likely, illegally) via downloads. However, classical music has a broader demographic with many listeners who still buy CDs. It’s hard to argue with that except to note that the younger demographic of classical listeners will still probably download music. Once the older generation is gone, this broad palette of music acquisition is likely to tilt away from physical CDs. My personal feeling is that the CD is on its way out. It will just take a little longer to disappear in classical music.

The next major topic dealt with the issue of freely available music verses a fee model. Maitlen noted that the choral community has successfully, in recent years, cultivated responsibility with respect to printed music. This same responsibility must extend towards recorded music as well. Yet, the pervasive nature of freely acquired music must be addressed. Vince Ford soberly reminded us that 95% of music transactions are pirated. One way to deal with the culture of “free music on demand,” is to offer “legitimately free” music. Ford noted that in Apple’s App Store, customers have the opportunity to download free, less-functional versions of an application. If the application is perceived as valuable, the customer often moves toward the paid version of the application with more functionality. Performing groups—and by extension composers as well—should consider imitating this model with music. Karen Thomas noted that artists must be nimble and flexible and offer a mix of free and paid downloads. Free samples and videos of performances on YouTube will drive sales of paid content.

A third question posed by Sherman asked if choirs (and we can easily substitute the word “composers” here) need to become media companies? Karen Thomas affirmed that, at least for her ensemble, the answer was yes. Vince Ford had the same perspective, noting that over the past three-to-five years, almost all of the New York Philharmonic’s productions have been done in-house. During this discussion, I couldn’t help but think that composers should seriously consider themselves to be media companies. I urge my composition students that upon joining a performance rights organization such as ASCAP or BMI, they should join as publisher members as well. Most of us produce our own scores via Finale or Sibelius. We bind the scores, prepare the parts, and do all the shipping ourselves. We have, in essence, become publishers. Becoming our own “media company” as well is only a small step and a software purchase away in most cases.

There was one final point at this panel discussion that I thought would be of interest to most composers. When making a recording, Lea Maitlen urged performing groups to ask the question, “Why?” Why should these pieces be recorded? Are we adding distinction to the discography by recording a work in the standard repertoire? She urged performing groups to seek out and record new music by “lesser known” composers. Hearing this made me want to burst into song all over again. However, remaining in control of myself, I made a mental note to pass this comment on in the blog and to my composition students. The simple fact that a record label thinks it is a good idea to include new music is a valuable selling point when a composer seeks to have a work recorded.

Following this session and a quick bite to eat, I made my way back downtown to the League conference. After chatting with some colleagues and one last pass through the exhibition hall, it was back to the Woodruff Arts Center and the final session of the LAO conference featuring a performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Before the music began, there was the presentation of the League’s 2010 Gold Baton Award. The award this year went to the Ford Motor Company Fund for their sponsorship of the Made In America commissions. Following the award presentation, there was a greeting by Ben F. Johnson III, chairman of the board, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Finally, Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras gave an address. In his comments, Rosen noted that if we were to take only one thing away from the entire conference, it was that orchestras must move away from playing to audiences and build relationships and community.

As an emphatic exclamation point to the end of the conference, the ASO gave one of the finest performances I’ve ever heard in Symphony Hall. The program consisted of four contemporary works written by members of the so-called “Atlanta School of Composers”: Michael Gandolfi, Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, and Christopher Theofanidis. In performing these composers’ works one after the other in truly exceptional performances, the ASO reminded me of an ace reliever in baseball, throwing one blistering fast-ball after another to the utter delight of all assembled. The concert began with two movements from the large, harmonically muscular, and cosmically minded work, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation by Gandolfi. Golijov’s serene and achingly beautiful Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra followed. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy gave a mesmerizing and deeply felt performance. Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body, with its spiritual contemplation, sweeping cinematic scope, and Mahler-like conclusion was a fitting end to the concert. It was the third work presented, however, that received the strongest ovation. Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire, written for and performed by eighth blackbird crackled with electric energy and virtuosity. The audience leapt to their collective feet with a thunderous ovation at the end of the concert and all the composers (except Golijov, who was not in attendance) took to the stage for a group bow with Spano.


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Beyond the truly exciting performance, I could not help but be impressed with the fact that this was no contemporary music festival or conference. I had just heard a major American orchestra perform an entire program of music written within the last ten years not for other composers or new music aficionados, but for their colleagues from around the nation. Where was the old clichéd notion that orchestras hate new music? That they rarely take risks? In one bold programming move, Spano cast aside old ideas and brought the theme of the conference—“It’s time to take on the future.”—clearly into focus. Of course some may point out the fact that all the music was relatively tonal and “audience friendly.” Experimental and non-traditional aesthetics were clearly avoided. These are valid observations, maybe even concerns. However, for me they did not take away from the truly extraordinary moment presented this afternoon. It was wonderful to witness the League embrace the notion that contemporary music matters and is viable.

I left the Woodruff Arts Center, and the conference, feeling rejuvenated, hopeful about the future, and more in love with orchestral music than before. I’d like to thank NewMusicBox and the American Music Center for the opportunity to attend this conference and blog about it.

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