Unlike many arts organizations that have opted to sit out the pandemic, The Washington Chorus (TWC), the DMV’s only two-time Grammy Award-winning choral ensemble, is seizing the moment to create innovative work and remain connected to their audience.
From his home in Arlington, TWC’s executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin explains how the upcoming season has unfolded: “After our new artistic director Dr. Eugene Rogers came on board in February, TWC quickly began developing a new season on the assumption of being able to produce live concerts. But then COVID-19 slapped us upside the head. By mid-March the concert at the Strathmore in Maryland was abruptly cancelled, and things changed dramatically.”
Together, Beaudoin and Rogers (TWC’s first African-American conductor) quickly concluded that closures would not be short lived. “We discussed whether we do something, or take a seat,” says Beaudoin, who is gay. “Many choruses decided not to do much of anything during this time beyond sharing archival stuff. Following Dr. Rogers’ lead, we decided to continue making art and expand access to what we do.”
After innumerable calls and texts between Beaudoin and Rogers, who is based in Michigan where he is also director of choral activities at the University of Michigan, the pair moved forward implementing the upcoming season, TWC’s 60th. The first big event is “Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow” (Saturday, Nov. 14, 7:30 p.m.), a live-streamed world premiere commissioned work by composer Damien Geter and filmmaker Bob Berg. It the tells the story of one individual’s journey as he grapples with recovery from COVID-19.
Following “Cantata” is TWC’s annual beloved “A Candlelight Christmas” (Friday, Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m.), a live-streamed online performance featuring about a dozen singers distanced on the Strathmore stage.
Comprised of 170 singers, the chorus presents many traditions, styles, and composers, ranging from Brahms’ Requiem to Carmina Burana to the holiday pops with the National Symphony to a concert of St. Patrick’s Day music to singing at the Kennedy Center honors for composer Philip Glass a year and a half ago.
As the chorus’ executive director, Beaudoin bears the responsibility of business. It’s up to Beaudoin to meet and exceed revenue for concerts, to collect individual contributions and grants, organize special events, and ensure that TWC grows and retains a talented staff. He’s also responsible to manage and motivate the board of directors. And because he’s a musician and trained singer, he likes to collaborate on the chorus’ artistic vision. Beaudoin says, “I’m a creative individual first, last, and always, and as such I like to be a supporter and partner to the artistic director and production and the artistic side of things at the end the day our job is to create art and foster community.”
TWC’s acclaimed conductor Dr. Rogers was a unanimous choice after a long search for a new artistic director.
While TWC didn’t set out specifically to find a person of color to fill the position, they wanted to open the opportunity to everyone who was qualified: “We didn’t begin with the idea to cast a particular color or gender in this role but we did set out very intentionally to center equity and inclusion in the search and in the process, we had a terrifically diverse candidate pool. Over 40% were women and/or folks of color. We wanted to talk to the best of the best, and we did.”
Prior to his role with TWC, Beaudoin served as executive director of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in Hagerstown, Md. He describes his arrival at TWC as a bit of kismet. A talented singer, Beaudoin had stepped away from singing for a while, but after a vacation to Amsterdam where he experienced a thrilling musical festival along the canals, he wanted to reconnect with music. When he returned home, he successfully auditioned with The Washington Chorus. Soon after, while seated next to a fellow tenor at rehearsal, he learned that TWC was looking for an executive director. He subsequently applied and was hired.
Working at home with his partner of five years Joe, an employee at the Defense Department, he finds things very manageable. The couple enjoys cooking and spending time with their beloved Sheltie Tessa and watching some TV, especially “Love on the Spectrum,” a four-part documentary series following young adults on the autism spectrum as they explore the unpredictable world of love, dating and relationships. All things considered, it hasn’t been too bad, says Beaudoin.
Still, things are tough professionally. Looking forward, he thinks perhaps venues might reopen next summer. In the meantime, the show goes on.
“What’s most challenging is we have to think differently about production. It’s hard to continue to foster a sense of community when we’re all at home for the most part. It’s hard financially – we’re used to clearing a good amount of money from our big concerts. And how many of those people will come to see digital livestream and pay $10 or $15 online? If 10,000 people from around the world pay to watch online, that would be great, or maybe it will just be 100 people? We just don’t know.”
Even with support from D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and some funding from U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, it isn’t easy, he says. “Still, with whatever challenges we’re facing, we know it pales in comparison to the challenges faced by families who have lost loved ones or are suffering financial hardship. And we acknowledge that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color.
“Hopefully, through a lens of inclusive excellence and storytelling, we can help. We think brining new work to music lovers is the most important thing we can be doing this fall.”