Monday, December 21, 2009

Well, it's official now. The Washington Collegium, or Voice of Washington, or whatever we're going to call this thing, is now a city-wide presence. Anne Midgette, already one of the best around when she was at the Times, has quickly created a place for herself one of the preeminent and most influential music critics of the English language. And for whatever reason, she has given us a not-unconsiderable berth in one of her columns, especially considering that we are a still not-much-known chorus even to DC's choral afficianados. We are now a genuine (albeit slight) presence not only in the DC area, but also a very slight (perhaps still quite infantesimal) presence on the national music scene. We're in no way a proven organization, but we're now officially in a 'watch this group' kind of place. We are now like all those young organizations always mentioned by critics like Alex Ross, Kyle Gann and Greg Sandow. Yet another example of a burgeoning organization that - with enough patience, dedication, and luck above all else - signifies the future of classical music we hope we have in the city and country in which we live. Hopefully we'll be one of the lucky ones who can make this happen. I have every faith that with enough hard work and dedication, people are ready for an ensemble exactly like ours. I just hope and pray that I'm up to the task of making it happen.

Perhaps the enormity of what I've undertaken had not quite hit me until this morning. The Washington Collegium was an ensemble that could have easily gone by the wayside after our old conductor, Ben Hansen, left. There was no guarantees of a continuity and if the Collegium had gone up in smoke, it would have been mourned by a small group of devoted singers and fans. Such is the life of any DC chorus at its beginning. And but for the ability to inherit it, I might have fulfilled my errant dreams of moving to London or New York a good eighteen months ago and tried my hand at being a musician/writer living by the pen in cities like those (I'd probably be a lot thinner). But I inherited a chorus in the city in which I've built a life for myself since 2001 and another one 40 miles away in the town where I grew up. Most of my friends are still in Washington, and my family is in Baltimore. There's no good reason now to be anywhere but here.

But what is clearer now than ever before is the enormity of what lies ahead. We've been mentioned in the Post, but that doesn't change the fact that our organization is still at the stage of being an obscenely loveable rag-tag band of singers. We are sustained by the heart of those committed to us, even if they can't show it all the time, and our ability to command loyalty from those who know what we're capable of is the most exciting reason a person like me can have to get out of bed.

But I think it would be wrong to be anything but direct about what we've achieved thus far. We've had inquiries from upwards of 50 singers, but in order to get those fifty, I needed to put up 500 fliers. Three days later I'd walk through the neighborhoods where which I canvassed to find that nearly all our fliers were taken down. Of the 50 singers who emailed their interest, we sent information back to all of them about our chorus. 1/3 did not respond at all, 1/3 responded to convey their regrets that our group didn't fit either with their schedules or what they wanted, and 1/3 scheduled auditions. We've taken nearly everyone who's auditioned with us so far, because I believe a conductor can make a good singer out of people who never thought they could. But even among the rough third who came into our rehearsal process, nearly half of those have had to leave because of scheduling commitments they didn't realize they had.

The truth remains that the composition of our group seems to change into a different permutation every week. Out of a surfeit of enthusiasm, many singers overestimate the time they have to commit, and many of them have little choice but to recuse themselves before long. You can't blame them, they wanted to dedicate whatever time they had, and they needed to believe for themselves that they had time to fit music into their schedules.

And that's just the new singers. Our old singers, many of whom I used to sing with and who have long since become personal friends, are quite as overcommitted as Washingtonians are known for being. Their ability to commit to a rehearsal is completely dependent on the ability to fulfill real responsibilities in the perpetually overworked lives of capital city dwellers.

Our budget can still be charitably described as negligable and we are straining to find ways to raise money in a country where arts organizations feel the crunch of a recession before nearly any other organization. Week after week, I tell my singers to find their singing friends and bring them to us, by gunpoint if necessary. But as Donald Rumsfeld would say, you go to rehearsal with the singers you have. I was quoted as saying that 'there are always more people from whom you can draw,' but it's no secret that the problem remains how to find them. We've resolved to try everything, and the plan is that you will see us do 'everything' to find them before long the consequence remains that every week still feels like a race to make sure we have enough singers to cover every part, and there is no guarantee of accumulated knowledge from week to week. In our first rehearsal after reconvening we didn't have a single soprano. We've had rehearsals in which the number of altos was twice the number of male singers, and we've also had reherasals in which almost the entirety of our seemingly Morman Tabernacle sized alto section couldn't make it. We've had nearly as many rehearsals in which a male part was covered by one singer as there were rehearsals with more than one male singers.

Realizing that we had to start from scratch was in many ways a heartbreaking experience, not just because of the blow to the ego or occasional gnawing doubts as to why people were actually leaving, but also because I genuinely miss many of the people who used to sing with us. I'm far more an instrumentalist and composer by training, but it didn't take long for me to realize that I love working with singers. They are a different breed from all other musicians - far more willing to work, far less susceptible to auto-pilot work, far more willing to make mistakes and to bare the brunt of (fair) criticism than us instrumentalists. I'm sure every conductor thinks of an ivory ideal in their head of what they hope their ensemble will be, and the ability to envision what an ensemble should be is every bit as important as dealing with realities. But realities are always tough, and rarely fair. Real leadership

In the two months since we began, there hasn't been a single week in which I was completely sure that all four voice-types would be covered. There has not been a single week

...I'm going to regret posting this in about two-and-a-half hours. And I'll probably be five hours away from any computer.

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