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BWW Interview: Eugene Rogers on Creating a New Season for The Washington Chorus During a Pandemic

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The first African-American to lead a major American symphonic chorus, Rogers will begin a new Mahogany Series highlighting composers of color in spring 2021.

BWW Interview: Eugene Rogers on Creating a New Season for  The Washington Chorus During a Pandemic

When Eugene Rogers became the fifth artistic director of The Washington Chorus in February, he wasn't counting on the worldwide pandemic to explode every plan just weeks later. Presenting a 200-person choir, shoulder to shoulder, mouths open was out of the question, even if they were emitting a glorious sound.

So the 60th season of D.C.'s two-time Grammy-winning ensemble will be virtual, at least to start. The schedule, announced last week, includes the world premiere Nov. 14 of Damien Geter's Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow, a commissioned short film and musical work recorded for virtual chorus.

It also offers an unusual socially-distanced Candlelight Christmas, at the Music Center at Strathmore that accompanies three live streamed performances Dec. 18-20.

The first African-American to lead a major American symphonic chorus, Rogers will begin a new Mahogany Series highlighting composers of color in spring 2021 - whether live or virtual remains to be seen.

We spoke to Rogers from Ann Arbor, where the two-time Michigan Emmy Award winner, Sphinx Medal of Excellence recipient and 2015 Grammy Award nominee continues to be director of choirs and associate professor of conducting at the University of Michigan. The conversation was edited for clarity and space.

I understand you are originally from this part of the country.

Originally born and raised in Southern Virginia, in Halifax County. I do a lot of guest work as a clinician and lecturer, so I've done a lot of work out East but never have I had a post on the East Coast, so this is particularly exciting. I see it as coming home, really, because family is three hours away, and some family is in that area. So to be part of that choral scene there is quite exciting.

You certainly didn't expect to face all this when you were announced as new artistic director in February.

Exactly. Nothing of what you see now is what we originally planned, except for the Candlelight Christmas, even though that's in a different format. It's been an interesting few months, as you can imagine. It's an exciting 60th anniversary. What we done and how we've tried to reimagine and reinvent, I'm very excited about it.

How do you go about creating a socially distanced season - for the singers and the audience?

We're using two main platforms. One is a music learning platform. One of the sad parts of COVID, is that for people who don't have internet or computer, it really limits what you can do. But assuming that people have that, we''ll have a platform where people can learn repertoire on their own, in addition to what we call Zoom rehearsals, where I will, with the pianist, be guiding them and we'll give them feedback.

Then there will be a point where where there will be a final submission of audio performances, where they'll be singing with other singers. So what we'll do is pre-record some of our top singers and others will match their vowels or cutoffs. And that will be assembled to create these concerts.

Sometimes it's not just audio. Our first project, Damien Geter's Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow, is a film and it's also a new work. So we will take all that audio from the soloists and the chorus, create this composition, and there's a whole separate film by Bob Berg, and the chorus will come and lip sync to that audio. And the singers and soloists will play to the recording.

Mixing the individual voices must require a special effort.

Yeah, I've done a little bit of that here and a little bit through other ensembles that I conduct, and you know the best practices are good, even over Zoom. Whatever we can do with that, as well as making sure the submissions are really, really solid with the visuals. That makes the work easier in terms of singers. So it's a lot of work.

After the studio work, then the job is easier for them. But then it's me and the engineers, working together to tweak this voice, or tweak that voice. Because unlike in a choir, every voice becomes an equal, so you have to take this down, raise this voice, make this sound a little sweeter so that the product becomes overall like a product that you'd hear in a theater. It's not what we're used to, but it's what we have. It's still a way to connect.

And it's also the reason we have our virtual choral members, because as long as someone can make rehearsals, they can be anywhere and have technology and connect. So we're hoping to have folks joins us for this year, as a way to encourage them and have them connect with another community.

Just as audiences can join from all over the world online, so can singers, right?

All over the world. As long as they can make the rehearsals and have that technology to submit recordings. That's it. That's all that's needed. But my goal is to have one concert, once this is better, where we invite all those folks to Washington sort of a celebratory, in-person performance of what we learned virtually.

But Washington Chorus is unique, as we celebrate our 60th. This is our 60th season and we have a lot of new compositions. I think thats the thing It's unique for an organization to be commissioning as many new projects in the middle of this time. That's very exciting we have that. And the fact that our tickets are on sale right now. You don't see many classical music organizations either having virtual platforms or right away offering tickets for our season at what I think is a pretty good price: $15 generally for a ticket, I think is a good price. And our collaborations. I'm really excited that we are also continuing that work. We're collaborating with ensembles, organizations and artists. That's what the Chorus is known for. We hope to be continuing that in my first season.

The Candlelight Christmas, for all its traditions, will be different as well.

Obviously, normally we have organ, brass and timpani and full chorus at Strathmore and Kennedy Center, so what we we're doing this year is that the full chorus will still perform, but they will perform virtually, that's were you'll get some stories and a full, virtual choir.

But then I'll have a group of eight singers who will be in Strathmore on stage performing chamber works, some things that are reminiscent of the past, but some new works as well. [Former Washington Chorus conductor] Bob Shafer has written us a brand new carol called the Nativity Carol. J. David Moore, a composer out of Minnesota has written us a glorious work, Preparing for the Prince of Peace, a new work that we're premiering. And that will be with organ and piano and that chamber group. And they will intersperse that with unique dialogue and full chorus numbers and we'll have that concert streamed three nights in December.

Hopefully, it's closest we're going to get to having a little bit of our normal holiday / Christmas experience. But I hope to vary it, visually and artistically, so it will feel like they're having a Christmas experience even though they'll be in their homes and living rooms.

The eight singers will be separated and socially distanced on stage?

Separated and in different positions. We're still trying to work that out. We're going to follow the guidelines. We're not going to do anything that's unsafe. But there's a lot of room on that stage for eight singers, a conductor and an organist to still have some beautiful, different formations, so it's not static.

There must be sonic variations, too, if choral singers are standing close together or far apart.

There's so many things you have to take into consideration. I mean, can they hear? Can you hear individual voices? That's why I don't know how much live it's going to be. We'll see. But it will be a good product in the end, and hopefully people will still feel that it's the Christmas spirit in the end.

For the second half of the season you've got your fingers crossed that you'll be live again?

I think that's exactly right. We have dates sets and the halls set that can work with smaller groups if we can. If not, we're going to premiere a couple of other works. Julian Walker has written us a piece called Here's the Thing. He partnered with Samiya Bashir, who is an award-winning poet and librettist. At this point, we're definitely going to premiere virtually but who knows? It could be a live teaser. We're definitely going to do an excerpt of that work.

And then our Mahogany Series - that's our brand new series that I wanted to start with the Washington Chorus that focuses on the musical and artistic contributions of Black, Latinx and American Indian communities. That's going to be realized this year mainly through web programs through our repertoire throughout. If we are able to have a concert in June or May or April, we will do a small chamber version of that. But we're going to let the pandemic and the safety and health guidelines regulate and determine what that really looks like. And then hopefully, the National Symphony Beethoven performance will happen in June 2021. But again, this is all speculative right now.

What's the feeling in the performance world of what will come out of the pandemic?

Right now, I'm seeing people think out of the box, thinking of unique ways to stay connected to their mission and to their community supporters. I think the worry we all have is: How long will this go on? Certainly things can only come back in the chamber-verse, but when will we see a full chorus of 200 singers, and a full orchestra doing a symphonic work, or a huge Broadway production with a pit and a cast? That's the bigger question.

I think the real hope is that new works come out of this - new Broadway productions, new choral productions that will honor the social and safety expectations. That's what I'm interested in. What are the writers doing? What are they going to bring us as a result of this time that maybe we can still stay connected and keep our rapport?

I think we've seen that virtually with artists trying different things. But I think that's only going to expand, especially if we think this is going to continue for than a year. I think we're going to see people reinventing. As long as humankind has existed, we have found a way to connect artistically. That's what I feel. Maybe I'm just the optimist. But I think we have no choice. Other than that, it's just gloom and doom and you get depressed. I think we have to keep hope.

Tickets for the Washington Chorus 2020-21 season are available online.

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