In this together

September is an important, milestone month in Chicago’s “classical music” world. Calendars, venues, and programs were set months ago; now, the brochures are out to the public, and email blasts are a regular feature of my morning’s email perusal; Facebook is liberally larded with news of upcoming concerts, special ticket deals, artist bios, previews, the beginnings of critical review notices-- we are doing what we can, imaginatively and creatively, to draw attention to ourselves, to renew support amongst our regular followers, to attract new listeners, to stand out amongst the community of our competitors and colleagues; to signal, universally, that we have something special, unique, to offer-- come hear us and be surprised, be uplifted, find a new home for your ears, your eyes, your dollars. Altogether, our vocal music community of artists/ensembles/presenters is really very small. We cover everything from the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Lyric Opera to Bella Voce, Haymarket Opera Company, and the Newberry Consort-- repertoire that ranges from the 14th century to the present, ensembles that range in size from the hundreds, down to five or six, venues that range from tiny churches in gentrifying neighborhoods to Orchestra Hall and the Civic Opera House. Our singers traverse all the territory between the sonic power of dramatic soprano Christine Goercke, to Ellen Hargis’ intimate, nuanced interpretations of music and poetry from the time of Shakespeare. Our ensembles range from the highly-trained and -paid choristers of Music of the Baroque, to the amateur volunteers who people the majority of the city’s choruses.

Somehow, we all know, within the community described above, that we belong together, that we occupy the same subset, that we pursue the same audiences and similar goals. We know each other, we receive one another’s promotional pieces in the mail, attend one another’s concerts, peruse one another’s donor lists. We assume essential common ground between 16th century madrigals, Wagner’s Ring, and the most recent tintinnabulations of Arvo Pärt. We see many of the same faces in all of our audiences; we are reviewed by the same critics. We can’t quite define it, but we know what is us and what is not—and so does our audience.

Great thinkers and writers ponder this question, as well as marketers and promoters, and young performers attempting to find a professional direction, and the amateur singers who wonder whether they should spend their limited time away from demanding work and family schedules at a karaoke bar, or seated on a chancel with sixty other singers, attempting to conquer the difficulties of Old Church Slavonic: if a barful of inebriated listeners will loudly cheer and applaud you—why isn’t that enough? If one sold out rock concert at a major venue could fund most of us for an entire year—why don't we put our eggs in that basket? Who is to say that Christine Goercke is more worth listening to than, say, Lady Gaga? Or that there is anything to be gained for her, through working so hard at what she does.

Cost/benefit analysis really doesn’t help us much here-- unless we are willing to accept gut-level responses to what we do, and to what others hear us do. Somehow, the high aspirations of our art, the refined craft of composers and performers, the care we take to get it just right, the thrill we experience on all levels—ethical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual-- is worth it to us. We understand, innately and through experience, that the music we present is humankind’s highest achievement, that it contains revelations, even some answers, about how we should live our lives, about what is truly meaningful and worth pursuing at great personal cost. We are privileged to experience first-hand, as well as from the other side of the podium, that which, indeed, makes us human at all.

We should never forget, in the midst of trying to steal listeners and donors from one another, that we are in this together—and what a great privilege “this” is!