I spent most of last week in Minneapolis for two concurrent conferences. The first was the annual meeting of Chorus America, a service organization which represents professional, volunteer, children/youth, and symphonic choruses throughout North America. The second was ChoralConnections (no space), a conference organized by the American Composers Forum that was designed to allow composers to interface with one another as well as with the attendees of Chorus America, especially choral conductors. All in all, some 95 composers from 30 U.S. states as well as several Canadian provinces showed up for three intensive days of panel discussions, workshops, concerts, and various meet-and-greets. Two of the days even began with “composer-conductor” speed dating sessions.
(Thanks to Claire Tiller at ACF for the video footage.)
I’ve long been a fan of Chorus America’s annual conference. Two years ago, I had to juggle attending it and the League of American Orchestras conference, each gathering taking place in a hotel on opposing sides of Atlanta. Readers of these pages may recall that I much preferred my time at Chorus America, mostly because I felt that the choral community seemed much more engaged with new music throughout the conference. Directors of choruses are frequently composers themselves, and composers and new music—even when not front and center—has played a role in about every session of this conference I had ever attended. But ACF’s construction of an entire composer track in tandem with this year’s gathering kicked it up more than a notch. (This whole thing would not have been possible without the tireless dedication of ACF’s President and CEO John Nuechterlein, VP of Programs Craig Carnahan who oversaw the whole thing and moderated many of the talks, and Program Manager Claire Tiller who made sure all the composers knew where they were going. Chorus America’s team, in particular President and CEO Ann Meier Baker and Catherine Davies, the organization’s director of operations and membership services, also deserve a special shout out here.)
The opening concert, rather than featuring some new music, was completely devoted to new music almost exclusively by Minnesota-based composers, most of whom are alive and were present to hear the audience cheer after listening to their music. A consortium of youth choirs based throughout the state was led by Francisco J. Nuñez, artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, in performances of his own music and a couple of other works. Then, in turn, eight professional Minnesota choruses took the stage to perform local repertoire. At the end, they all joined forces, a total of 500 voices, to premiere a new work by local hero Stephen Paulus.
The following evening, Philip Brunelle, who was the host and ringleader of this year’s Chorus America conference, led his extraordinary group VocalEssence in a program of, once again, all new music including a world premiere by Paul Rudoi and a rare performance of Dominic Argento’s Walden Pond, a setting of Thoreau for chorus with three cellos and harp. Argento came up on stage after the performance and was fêted like a movie star. The performance of Xtoles, a short Mayan-based work by Mexican composer Jorge Cózatl, was enhanced by all conference attendees receiving complimentary copies of the score in their tote bags. The highlight for me, however, was Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved which, to the best of my knowledge, is the first-ever setting of a mass for chorus and bluegrass band. The score was miraculously faithful to both choral and bluegrass traditions and did not come across at all as gimmicky. I had heard and loved the recording of this 2007 composition soon after it was released, and this is now the second time I’ve heard it live. Each time I’m still completely enthralled.
But the most exciting event of the entire week, at least for me, occurred on the last day—a reading session and master class workshop of four new choral works led by Dale Warland. Warland is officially retired and the venerable Dale Warland Singers, long champions of new music, have since disbanded, so Warland led a pick up group. But you’d never know it. And as they were reading through each piece, you’d also never know that this was a reading session and not a polished concert performance, although each of the four pieces—works by Kala Pierson, Connie Moon, Dale Trumbore, Ben Houge—received two complete run-throughs and the second was always more engaging than the first. But this is because the second time around, the performance incorporated small changes in the scores that grew out of sage comments by Warland, singers in the chorus, and the army of composers in the room. While I was thrilled to see that three of the four composers were women, I was perhaps even more thrilled that it was not particularly an issue. No one brought it up; it was completely natural, as was the synchronicity between composers and interpreters throughout the week. It really showed how valuable the experience of performing and listening to music by a composer in the same room as you can be, despite the comments researcher and management consultant Alan Brown made during his plenary talk at the conference earlier in the week.
Brown spoke to how arts organizations need to do a better job integrating participatory culture into their programming. He explained how some major philanthropists, like the Irvine Foundation in California, will now only fund organizations which create opportunities for active participation rather than the passive receiving of artistic work. I would argue that listening to music, reading a book, looking at a painting, etc. are hardly passive experiences, and as we attempt to engage audiences by devaluing a core way in which the arts have traditionally been experienced, we run the risk of destroying what is perhaps the most effective metaphor for being a citizen in a democracy. Without learning the ability to listen to others, we revert to a narcissistic society in which people hear only what they want to hear and are incapable of having empathy for a diverse array of ideas and opinions. Wait a minute, we’re already on our way there. I guess that’s why I’ll take the composers over the consultants every time. But thankfully Alan Brown’s address to the delegates of Chorus America formed only a small part of my experience in Minneapolis, although it was particularly jarring since it immediately followed the formal presentation of the 2012 Chorus America/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming to the San Francisco Choral Artists, the Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble, and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir–groups which make vital connections with audiences through their presentation of new music. Of course, witnessing almost everyone’s appreciation for new music throughout the entire week was extremely gratifying.
Nevertheless it’s nice to be back home, but I won’t be here for long. On Wednesday I’m off to Greece for the annual meeting of the International Association of Music Information Centres. So all the 6 a.m. composer productivity I wrote about so glowingly last week has had to remain on hiatus since then, alas, and must remain so until I return late in the evening on June 26.