VNPAC: Balancing Acts in Atlanta – Chorus America and the League

Attending sessions at the 2010 conferences of the League of American Orchestras at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta and Chorus America at another Hyatt, also on Peachtree Road but nine miles away in Buckhead, has been a bit of a challenge. But these two communities have lots of reasons to come together and efforts have been made to connect them this week. It helps that both hotels are along the same MARTA commuter rail line.

We’re now about halfway through both of the conferences and juggling session at the two has been a marvelous way to come to terms with some of the fundamental differences between these communities. For starters, the exhibition rooms: Over at the League there are tons of exhibitors, located in the basement hawking everything from free orchestral scores to promotional audio and video recordings featuring new repertoire and soloists to engage for interested orchestra managers, but there have been few visitors to most of the booths. Whereas at Chorus America, everything from discs and scores to wardrobe is on sale and folks actually buy stuff.

The League’s conference opened with a great deal of bells and whistles. A performance of a marimba concerto by a youth symphony followed by an interactive talk on how to evolve the orchestra into the 21st century that made use of large video projectors, text messaging, and a constant stream of Twitter updates. The mantra was to find ways to increase connectivity: particularly the need to break down the fourth wall that separates onstage participants and the audience. Meanwhile over at Chorus America, with a lot less fanfare, that wall has already come down. Every attendee is actually expected to sing as part of the regular activity of the day. Every morning begins with a group sing and breakout sessions often involve sight singing new repertoire.

A Chorus America session I attended this morning illustrated the power of involving attendees much more than a clever speech by a business consultant ever will. Three composers—Rollo Dilworth, Rosephanye Powell, and André J. Thomas—gave an impassioned presentation about the emotional power of African American spirituals and how to make them relevant to today’s audiences by having us sing through their arrangements as well as new compositions which continue this tradition. By participating in making this music, not just reading the notes on the page but actually being coached in specific techniques, this music came alive for everyone in the room. It was also interesting to learn, after gaining an understanding of this tradition by actually attempting to perform it, that spirituals suffer from the same masterpiece syndrome as standard repertoire classical music. According to Thomas, the Library of Congress has scores for thousands of spirituals but most groups only perform arrangements of the dozen most popular ones since they want to perform something that everyone knows. Sound familiar? Thomas, author of Way Over in Beulah Land: Understanding and Performing Negro Spirituals, has been a major force in promulgating some of the lesser known repertoire.

So far the delegates for the two conferences have come together twice. Last night to hear a performance of the Verdi Requiem by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus followed by a massive party where the volume of both people and din turned any attempt at substantive conversation into the corporeal version of tweeting. And today the delegates from Chorus America came to the League’s conference to hear a series of speakers. Some of them had very thought-provoking things to say. Doug McLennan of ArtsJournal, who is always fascinating to hear, offered encouragement to members of the arts sector about our new world where niche trumps a mass market. Peter J. Brinckerhoff made a compelling case for treating members of different generations like members of different cultures and tried to build intergenerational bridges. But at the end of the day I think we all would have been better off if we were all singing together.

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