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Washington’s vibrant choral community has been culled in recent years by the economic downturn, but groups are finding new ways to keep singing. From newly commissioned works, to digging up long-lost pieces by old composers, our area’s choruses are thriving with colorful programming. We explore the choral scene and hear some festive holiday music.
- Frederick Binkholder Artistic Director of the Capitol Hill Chorale; Director of Music, Kingsbury Center; Director of the Chamber Singers, Georgetown University
- Gretchen Kuhrmann Founder and Artistic Director of Choralis; Director of Music, Falls Church Presbyterian Church
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt just wouldn't be the holidays without it. From the powerful strains of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" to the familiar refrains of "The First Noel." Choral music is everywhere this time of year. And in this area, there is no shortage of people who are just waiting to burst into song. The Washington D.C. region is regarded as the Choral Capitol of the Nation, with hundreds of independent ensembles and a handful of premier symphonic chorus'. In fact, about 42.6 million people sing in chorus' today. That's more than one in five households with at least one singing family member.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut like many arts organizations, the areas choral groups have experienced a calling in the economic downturn. And the survivors are using adventurous programming and original compositions to keep audiences in the seats and singing along. Joining us in studio to talk about this is Frederick Binkholder, artistic director of the Capitol Hill Chorale. He's also director of music at the Kingsbury Center in Washington and director of the Chamber Singers at Georgetown University. Fred, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. FREDERICK BINKHOLDERThank you so much.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Gretchen Kuhrmann, founder and artistic director of chorales in Falls Church. She's also the director of music at Falls Church Presbyterian Church. Gretchen, thank you for joining us.
MS. GRETCHEN KUHRMANNIt's a pleasure.
NNAMDILast Friday night when I showed up at the Warner theater for a guest roll in the Washington Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker," members of the Washington Ballet orchestra were picketing outside because the music was taped. Fred, like many areas of the arts, chorus' have taken a big hit in the economic downturn. Last year, we saw two big metro area choirs, the Maryland Chorus and the Master Chorale, shut down because of budget problems. What kind of impact has the recession had on you and your colleagues in music? It's my understanding many musicians are also having a tough time getting gigs with chorus' this time of year.
BINKHOLDERThey are. I had an experience. I conducted a Beethoven mass and sea in November and after the concert, I was talking with some of the instrumentalists and they were commenting that they did not have any jobs, independent jobs in December, like they usually do. Usually, they're very booked with different choruses, different groups that are doing things. And they were actually looking for work and coming up and asking specifically if I knew of anything or if anybody that I knew had anything that they would like to use them for.
BINKHOLDERSo there's actually quite a bit of people wanting work as musicians and not being able to find it.
NNAMDIHow has this affected your programming?
BINKHOLDERWell, for me, we tend to program in a way, the programs that I chose, so that we do, maybe, a big choral concert or a big concert with orchestra about once every three years. And that allows us to build up funds. And if we do, sometimes we use a community orchestra to help us. We recently partnered with the Capital City Symphony and in that we can split costs. And they're looking for performance opportunities and we can do that as well.
NNAMDIRemember the good old days when you could just splurge on Brahm's Requiem and blow your wad, so to speak?
NNAMDICan't do that anymore.
BINKHOLDERYou have to really prepare. And one of the things that we've had to do in this situation is become much more fiscally responsible. And that means that if we want to do a large work, we need to wait a few years, build up resources, build up funds and we need to watch every penny we take in.
NNAMDIGretchen, are grants from your communities and private donations down also?
KUHRMANNUnfortunately, yes, they are. The Grand Tours (sounds like) have had their monies cut simply because, you know, the funding is short. So we, last year, received no grants where we had previously received a lot of money in grants. And this year, the grants are significantly smaller so I think funders are having a great trouble deciding how to disperse money so that they can continue to fund these wonderful organizations.
NNAMDISpeaking of splurging on Brahm's Requiem, Choralis will be performing Brahm's Requiem at Strathmore in March. It's a beautiful piece, but it's got to be a tough undertaking in this financial climate.
KUHRMANNIt really is. And it did require a lot of long range planning on our part. We downsized -- we generally are one of the choruses who do several orchestral concerts a year. And so we downsized our season -- the past two seasons and this season is a little less expensive so that we can make it to Strathmore without stretching the budget too far. And obviously we are watching every penny. Like Fred said, you have to very careful and fiscally minded. And that also means that next season we've planned to downsize some of the orchestral concerts that we would normally take on.
NNAMDIWe'd like to hear from you. Are you a choral singer? Why do you sing? You can call us at 800-433-8850. Will you be attending a choir concert this holiday season? If so, where? The number, 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. A study done last year by the non-profit group Chorus America showed that singing opportunities were being reduced or eliminated from schools across the country. You both work with children in your day jobs. How have you seen this trend playing out or have you seen it play out in your work, Gretchen?
KUHRMANNUnfortunately, that is a huge impact in our school system. Choralis has a great educational outreach program and so we have chosen to put more of our resources into that. While programs are being cut in most schools across the counties, we are finding that children are looking for other ways to be musically involved in the community. And so we have three youth choruses that we promote strongly. We've tried to keep costs very low for parents to be able to let their children participate. We are also really advocates for music in schools and so I do a lot of school visits.
KUHRMANNI tend to work with high school students a lot. We invite high school choirs to join our concerts. We have a summer festival for high school students so we are very proactive in trying to promote music in the community and give the youth and children another resource for having music.
NNAMDIFred, as an adult, I cannot seem to carry a tune, but my entire youth and teenage years were taken up with being in choirs. How does this affect you, the fact that programs are being cut for children?
BINKHOLDERWell, one of the most interesting things about the economic downturn is that I've found that more people want to get into choirs and to do things that are not as tech heavy in our lives. And so singing in choirs, a lot of it, and I know that Gretchen would agree with this, even though that there might not be a funded program, there's always groups that you can find to sing. You can always find a teacher that will help lead. You can always find music to do. And so people have to become a little bit more -- they have to hunt a little bit harder, but they can always find somebody that is there for them.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, Frederick Binkholder is artistic director of the Capital Hill Chorale. He's also director of music at the Kingsbury Center in Washington and director of The Chamber Singers at Georgetown University. Gretchen Kuhrmann is founder and artistic director of Choralis in Falls Church. She's also the director of music at Falls Church Presbyterian Church. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIWe cannot let a conversation about choirs and about kids go by without addressing what you may call the "Glee" affect. What kind of impact has that hit Fox show had on the kids you teach, Fred?
BINKHOLDERWell, the way that I look at it is that anything that brings people to the conversation, you know, that's the -- the biggest thing is it may not be our genre. It may not be the thing that we want to do. However, if it gets kids to sing, then what does it really matter 'cause you can take them from that and lead them into something maybe a little bit more musically substantial, if that's where you want to go. But just that they're able to sing and carry a tune, to me, is a very positive thing.
KUHRMANNI have to concur and actually we're going to use that to build an audience base. We have programmed a "Glee" type concert at the end of our season for our chamber chorus to try and appeal to a broader audience who might not come to a classical music concert.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Gail in Chantilly, Va. Gail, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GAILThank you so much for taking my call and I'm really enjoying this conversation. I'm familiar with both directors and they're wonderful. I've been a member of Fairfax Choral Society for 15 years and it's absolutely what drives my life. It's my spiritual life. It's my social life. It's my fun. It's my hobby. I've been singing since I was a teenager and I think it's so especially good for kids because it teaches you to be a part of a team. And it's just -- I really appreciate this show and thank you for doing this.
NNAMDIYou're correct. I have friends who are in choruses who basically say the same thing as Gail says. It's really my life that we're talking about here. It's the quality of my life. Gretchen?
KUHRMANNOh, yeah, my singers are very big fans of being part of a social network that the chorus provides.
NNAMDIYeah, forget Facebook, join a choir. Fred, as I mentioned in my introduction, the Washington D.C. metro region is widely regarded as the choral capital of the nation. In that environment, how do you distinguish yourself and your programming amidst all that competition?
BINKHOLDERI think that programming is the key. For that we do -- when I'm programming a concert, I try to choose a theme and stick to that theme throughout the concert so that people can come and listen to one common thread that runs through the entire work. And a lot of time, it helps me in programming because there's millions of pieces out there and it helps to narrow it down and to find a specific focus for the concert. It's a wonderful way to bring people to the table and to have them come to a concert that they might not ordinarily come to because they're interested in the pieces that you're going to be doing and finding music that has not been done or let's say overdone.
NNAMDIBut the Capital Hill Chorale's forte is Slavic music.
NNAMDIAnd especially Russian literature, which receives big audiences. Early this summer, the chorale performed the piece that had not been performed in its entirety for a hundred years. Tell us a little bit of the story behind your discovery of this forgotten work by a famous composer from the Republic of Georgia.
BINKHOLDERMm-hmm. Zachariah Pius Schveelee (sp?) . I dearly love programming music that is of a Slavic nature. And, in fact, the liturgy of St. John Christofsthom (sp?) is a particular subject that we enjoy. We've done Rachmaninoff. We've done Tchaikovsky. And the great thing about the chorale is that there's so many very bright people that make up its membership that they are great researchers as well. And one of them contacted -- Theo Austin (sp?) contacted the president of Musico Rusico (sp?) , who is a music publishing company, and asked if there was some other liturgy of St. John that we don't know about.
BINKHOLDERAnd when he was a full bride scholar in Russia, he went to the Lenin music library and found a copy of this liturgy of St. John that he took from micro-film and faxed it to her. She gave it to me and that's where that began.
NNAMDIWe have a clip from the chorale's performance of this work. Fred, you can explain the (speaks foreign language) .
BINKHOLDER(speaks foreign language) , which is The Trisagion Hymn, the Holy God.
NNAMDIThe Capitol Hill Chorale. I thought I could hear Elizabeth Weinstein clearly in that...
BINKHOLDEROh, you definitely can.
NNAMDI...in that (unintelligible) is she in your choir?
BINKHOLDERShe is in my choir.
NNAMDII knew I heard her voice in there. Gretchen, adventurous programming seems to be a way to assert your vitality in this market. We're seeing many choruses in the area debuting new works, including yours. Tell us about your plans for the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.
KUHRMANNYes, we have commissioned a piece by a local composer, Gary Davison, for the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks and the concert will actually be on September 11th at 4:00 p.m. at National Presbyterian Church. The piece is structured in such a way -- he's still putting the finishing touches on it, but he's commissioned work from a local poet. And it is dealing with the seasons of life. He has a sort of a winter and spring theme going on. I have heard some of the segments of it. It's a lovely, lovely work.
KUHRMANNAnd Gary -- one of my favorite quotes by Gary is that he is not afraid to write something that is beautiful. He is not one of those current composers who feels like he has to try new and edgy things to make a mark. He writes in a rather traditional style. So I find that his work is much more accessible and easy on the ear and I think audiences will very much enjoy what he has written for this incredibly significant event.
NNAMDISeveral choirs in our area are debuting new compositions, including the Washington Chorus where my friend Glen Howard sings. It started an annual contemporary series at The Atlas Performing Arts Center. The Washington Chorus is featuring works in April by American composer Elena Ruehr. And other choirs, like Cathedral Choral Society and Choral Art Society, have new pieces in their programming. In May, 2011, the Choral Art Society will premiere a new piece by a Finnish composer whose name I hope I'm getting correctly, Olli Kortekangas. Is that correct? Hopefully, that is correct.
NNAMDIWe move on to Susan in Ammendale, Va. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANYes, I sing, sung all my life, choral singer and I currently sing with the New Dominion Chorale in McLean, Va. under the direction of Tom Beveridge, who actually, I think, won the first ever Whammy given for a composer in Washington. But choruses are under terrific financial strain. And we're unique in that we are a singer's cooperative. We have no paid staff. For example, several years ago, our president of our board was the (word?) Virginia Barr. For publicity, we have people who are retired from the Washingtonian. We actually had a member who recently passed away who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the New York Times.
SUSANSo everything is done -- from the publicity, to the ticket sales, to the photography for our posters, to the accounting, every bit of it is done by volunteers. It shows how much people love singing. These are busy people with careers who dedicate tremendous blocks of time, not only to rehearsing and singing and putting on professional programs, but to just keep the organization running in these horrible times.
NNAMDISusan, thank you very much for your call. That enthusiasm is why this area is the choral capital. Here is Barbara in Herndon, Va. Barbara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARBARAHi Kojo. I have a tall order for your -- I have a tall order for you guys. I have a ten-year-old son who absolutely loves to sing. He does love choral music. I'm raising him in a secular household so finding a good output for him can be a little bit of a challenge. And we live in Lowden County so I was wondering if you had any suggestions.
KUHRMANNWell, there are actually some wonderful groups out in Lowden County, but this is kind of the problem that we're having is that there is a difficulty in finding good music programs for children in the school system. I am, unfortunately, not aware of who is doing children's music outside of schools in Lowden County, but I know that you can talk to the Lowden County Chorale and see what they might have going on. They're very active in the community. And that would be a place to start. You can probably find them on the web at Lowden County Chorale and I would recommend you go there and ask them if they know what's going on in your area.
BINKHOLDERAnd Chorus America should have resources as well.
NNAMDIBarbara, good luck to you. Fred, the Capital Hill Chorale will be debuting a new work in 2011, written for your tenth anniversary with the chorus. Tell us about that work and its composer.
BINKHOLDERAbout three years ago, I was in a music store looking for -- of course, going through the stacks trying to find something that would catch my eye and new works by composers and I noticed that there was a name that kept popping up of Kevin Siegfried and I found two carols that he wrote and it was "There Is No Rose" and "Adam Lay Ybounden." And I was looking for a third because I usually program in threes. And so I just went home and e-mailed him and said, do you have a third piece. And he e-mailed me back and said, there is a third piece, but it hasn't been written yet. Would you like to commission it?
BINKHOLDERAnd I said, of course. And so we premiered a new work by him and we had such a wonderful time with that that he is writing an entire cantata for us to be premiered in June and it's called "Child of Earth" that deals with -- that we are all dust and that the Earth is our home and has a very Earth-centric theme to it. And it's just going to be wonderful. Kevin is based out of Boston, but he usually comes down for the concerts.
NNAMDIGretchen, we can't talk about choirs without mentioning the holidays. Choralis' holiday concerts are tomorrow and Saturday. Tell us about how you put together a concert that all audiences can enjoy.
KUHRMANNWell, we try to find a little bit of everything. There's something traditional, something new. We feature high schools and our youth choirs on these concerts so that it's a family-friendly event. There's children's music, obviously, and we always work with the Classical Brass quintet. This is our 11th concert with The Classical Brass. They are professional brass players from the Washington area. They do a super job and we certainly feature pieces that have brass in them as well as let them do a set of their own so the audience can enjoy something along the lines of...
NNAMDILet's hear a little bit of Choralis' "Personet Hodie."
NNAMDIGretchen Kuhrmann is founder and artistic director of Choralis in Falls Church. She's also director of music at Fall Church Presbyterian Church. Gretchen, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Frederick Binkholder's artistic director of the Capitol Hill Chorale. Frederick, thank you for joining us.
BINKHOLDERThank you so much.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Tara Boyle, Michael Martinez and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff with help from Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, Timbet Omeis (sp?) and Soran Yitbarak (sp?) . The engineer today, Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman has been on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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