Friday, April 29, 2011

Sing out!

I was about to write about the parlous state of some orchestras in the country (Philadelphia, and Detroit among them) and will at a later date, but was diverted by a recent event in my life. On Good Friday April 22 the Choir of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Garrison NY sang Brahms’ “A German Requiem” before a packed church, accompanied by a piano duet.  I am a member of the bass section of this 26 member group, all of which volunteer their time. The requiem is a difficult and demanding work and we worked hard for weeks in preparation.  The result was more than satisfactory judging from the audience response. For me and my colleagues it was an inspiring and deeply gratifying experience.  I find singing in that choir, preparing a different anthem each week nine months a year, plus special concerts, has become a major part of my life.
I am happy to report I am not alone. A 2009 study by a group called Chorus America found that 32.5 million adults sing in choruses or choirs in the USA, and if you include K-12, the number jumps to 42.5 million singers in at least 270,000 choruses. Those numbers got my attention. As the study concludes, singing in a chorus represents our nation’s “most popular form of participation in the performing arts.”
Not to be ignored is the fact that a vast majority of the participants are amateurs – they are not paid, they sing for the pleasure in it. A typical chorus member, I can cite myself as an example, loves music, enjoys the sense of community that comes with the experience and finds it a rich source of learning.  The study takes it a step further and posits that singing in a chorus promotes “civic engagement,” an attribute that is in short supply in our society.  I admit I have an IPod and love it, but sometimes when I ride the subway in NYC I’d like to wield a pair of shears to those wires dangling from the ears of many around me who cut themselves off from their surroundings via “earbuds.”
The redoubtable and venerable folk icon Pete Seeger lives in Beacon NY, a community close to my home.  In any performance he gives, he insists that somewhere along the line the audience joins him in singing. He believes communal singing brings people closer together, even if the group is a transitory one, such as at a concert.  He is right.
Many years ago I spent two summers as a work-study student at the Berkshire Music Center, the educational arm of Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in western Massachusetts. At the beginning of the summer session, there was an opening convocation, where everyone would gather – students, faculty and staff. At the conclusion, from music that had been distributed at the event, all would sing Randall Thompson’s anthem Allelulia, which the composer had been commissioned to write for that purpose. It was not a great performance, but it was a communal one and a fine start to a busy summer, where everyone would be going their own way.
Here’s an idea. At biennial swearing-in of the U.S. Congress, why not have all 435 legislators, their families and staffs, join in the singing of America the Beautiful  in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives ? And for good measure, let’s be sure to invite a few lobbyists. 
Sing out, wherever you are.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What’s in a name?

Last December  there was a front page article in the Wall Street Journal (in the space at the bottom reserved for “off-beat” subjects) about the struggles of  Chesterwood, the historic home and studio of the  sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) near Stockbridge, MA in the beautiful Berkshires.   French was the artist who created the monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln that dominates the Lincoln Memorial in Washington as well as another icon, the Minuteman in Lexington MA.  The property is owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

The gist of the article was that Chesterwood attracts only about 10,000 visitors a year while down the road the Norman Rockwell Museum is bursting at the seams with an annual audience of over 130,000. Rockwell (1894-1978), the famed painter and illustrator, also lived and worked in Stockbridge.    

Of course as the piece points out, Rockwell is a household name.  Many of his works popularly are familiar and often reproduced. He is, as one of the locals quoted states, a “brand.”   Daniel Chester French is not. But one solution, suggested by a Chesterwood advisory board member, is not the answer. She wants to have him be called “Dan French” - to be more relevant.  By the same token, we could  call Rockwell  “Norm.”  

Branding is not created by names; it is created by an understanding instilled in the public about what the product represents.  Volvo and safety is often cited as an example.  Rockwell symbolizes American wholesomeness. Daniel Chester French equals  - ?  No contest.

Sometimes a name can help- or harm - public identification. “Chesterwood,” named by its original owner, certainly reflects Daniel Chester French’s name for those who know it in the first place, but beyond that carries no meaning, although names like it are used for housing developments and nursing homes.  When I first came to Boscobel in 2006, the sign at the entrance on the heavily travelled Route 9D declared: Boscobel Restoration, Inc., a Museum of the Decorative Arts of the Federal Period. Along with public puzzlement over use of the word “restoration” and uncertainty as to what “federal period “ meant,  the name gave no clue as to what the visitor might expect beyond the brick walls. A year later we changed the name to Boscobel House & Gardens– a descriptor closer to reality. 

I have visited Chesterwood. Although the house is of no special interest, the site is lovely and French’s studio fascinating. Rather than fiddle with his name, perhaps the National Trust could attach the image of French’s Lincoln Memorial statue to the Chesterwood title. Millions have marveled at the majesty of that work. It is a highly recognizable image and might serve to draw more people to its creator’s studio. But forget about challenging the Rockwell Museum in the attendance wars.

Another site devoted to an artist, his home and workplace, is the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish NH.  Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was also a great American sculptor. The site is magnificent in its every aspect.

I will be writing more in the future about the issue of visitation at historic sites. 
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