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Washington Chorus forges ahead amid pandemic

New livestream productions planned for fall

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‘We decided to continue making art and expand access to what we do,’ during the pandemic, said TWC’s executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin. (Photo by Kenton Waltz courtesy Oh! Creative)

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.”

Washington Chorus, gay news, Washington Blade
The Washington Chorus Artistic director Dr. Eugene Rogers came on board in February, just before COVID restrictions began. (Photo courtesy Sundeep Studios)

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.”

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Music & Concerts

May pop-up performance features women composers

Whitman-Walker Health and the Goethe-Institut present ‘Kept Under Glass’

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(Image via ‘Kept Under Glass: Unheard Women’s Voices’ Facebook event page)

Whitman-Walker Health (1701 14th St., N.W.) and the Goethe-Institut present “Kept Under Glass: Unheard Women’s Voices,” a multimedia street concert, May 5-6 on the corner of 14th and R Streets.

This free event features songs about love and a longing for connection by rarely heard Austian and German women composers, including medieval chants, classical opera and early 20th century works.

The four performances will take place over the course of two evenings at Whitman-Walker’s new cultural center, The Corner at Whitman-Walker. Performances will last 30 minutes while three performers, each in their own window, sings to sidewalk audiences on the other side of the glass.

Event times and other information is available on the event’s Facebook page.

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This queer ‘Genera+ion’ doesn’t care what you think

HBO Max ‘dramedy’ follows the stories of a group of queer students

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Justice Smith stars in ‘Genera+ion.’ (Photo courtesy HBO Max)

If there’s anything pop culture has taught us, it’s that the future belongs to the young.

It’s a statement of the painfully obvious, of course; the patterns of our existence are shaped and defined by the repeating cycle of generations succeeding each other, to the point that we take it for granted. Yet for the same reason, it’s a fact that is easily forgotten – or, perhaps more accurately, ignored – when we are living in the present.

This is especially true if we belong to the generation that “owns” the present, who have suffered through the frustrations of coming of age under the thumb of our elders and are in no hurry to pass the baton to the kids who are next in line.

Pop culture, however, has a way of reminding us that our days are numbered. Driven by the fires of capitalism, which are in turn stoked by the tastes of the most lucrative demographic (and we all know which age bracket they belong to), it repeatedly confronts us with glimpses of our own inevitable irrelevance – and that’s terrifying.

Which is why the history of pop culture is also the history of youth rebelling against age, and while the individual skirmishes in that eternal battle might go either way, only the most delusional among us could doubt which side will always prevail in the end. Usually, these are the ones who respond with the most violent distaste when they see a vision of the world as imagined by young people; clinging to the hope they can hold fast against the winds of change, they dismiss, decry and disparage, attempting to exert control by invoking the same core beliefs and traditional values their own elders used to control them.

Today’s kids, however, will have none of it.

Consider, for instance, the case of gay singer/rapper/songwriter Lil Nas X, who just last week shoved aside the homophobic boundaries of the music industry – yet again – with the debut of the spectacularly subversive video for his newest single, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” in which the out Lil Nas appears first wearing a body-hugging sequined onesie, then sporting full Marie Antoinette drag, and finally clad in underwear and a pair of stiletto heels as he performs a lap dance for the Devil himself.

In an Instagram post marking the release, addressed to his own 14-year-old self, Nas fully acknowledged that he was “pushing an agenda… to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.” It was not an apology, nor an attempt at damage control over an inevitable backlash he already knew would be fierce. Nas was throwing down the gauntlet – it was a given there would be an outcry against the no-holds-barred queerness of the video, and he was sending a clear message that he was there to take on all challengers.

These included the predictable right-wing suspects, like “Blexit” founder Candace Owens and anti-trans South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, but also fellow musicians like rapper Joyner Douglas, who lamented in a pearl-clutching tweet that Nas had “dropped some left field ish & all our kids seen it” – joining many other homophobic commentators who trotted out the time-worn and long-discredited idea that any expression of queer sexuality is harmful to children. What’s telling is that while many of these attempts at “cancellation” come from younger voices (most, but not all of them, overtly right-leaning), the justifications behind them are based in ideologies that can safely be called ancient.

Needless to say, Nas has been more than up to the task of swatting aside all these objections in the still-ongoing social media fray, and it has been truly glorious to watch.

At 21, Lil Nas X is a voice that rises from a generation waiting in the wings, and it’s a generation that won’t wait quietly. They’ve caught on to their own inevitability, and they’ve decided they’re just going to go ahead and claim their time right now.

It’s that particularly “now” spirit of youthful rebellion that can be felt in “Genera+ion,” the HBO Max “dramedy” that premiered earlier this month and follows the interwoven stories of a group of queer students at an Orange County high school. Created by father-daughter team Daniel and Zelda Barnz, it depicts the struggles of teens as they try to make sense of their sexuality in a world defined by adults – and often, by the baggage those adults carry with them from their own struggles.

Widely compared to “Euphoria,” HBO’s other show about the severely dysfunctional hidden sex life of high schoolers, it’s a series that opts for a lighter spin. This manifests in the sure-fire humor to be found in typical comedic cliches of teen stories – awkward gaffes, clueless adults, “Mean Girl” style social politics, etc. – but can be found, albeit more subtly, in its handling of dramatic tropes, too. In its pilot episode, for instance, it introduces the relationship between defiantly queer star student Chester (Justice Smith), who has been slapped with his third violation of the school’s “dress code,” and new school counselor Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) with a scene in which the assumptions of the older man color his perceptions of the younger, resulting in an attempt at guidance that – at least in the beginning – seems more a response to his own inner conflicts than anything being felt by his new charge.

The joke might not seem apparent to those conditioned to assume a power dynamic weighted on the side of an older-and-ostensibly-wiser authority figure, but for anyone who can remember being a kid forced to listen to advice from a grown-up who doesn’t even understand your problem, it’s unmistakable.

“Genera+ion” teases the possibility of an inappropriate relationship blossoming between Chance and Sam, and introduces similarly salacious storylines as it interconnects its young characters’ lives – we meet closeted bisexual Nathan (Uly Schlesinger), whose Grindr-esque hook-ups include his sister Naomi’s (Chloe East) boyfriend, as well as Greta (Haley Sanchez) a Latina with a deported mom and a lesbian crush on artsy and seemingly free-spirited Riley (Chase Sui Wonders), and all of that is just in the first episode – and in each case, our expectations are smashed in short order, along with any egoistic presumption that we know better than they do.

It probably goes without saying that “mainstream” reactions to the show have been mixed. Many critics, such as Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, have resorted to snark as they attempt to characterize it, according to conventional notions of storytelling and aesthetics, as an angsty teen drama that tries too hard. But “Genera+ion” transcends these kinds of assessments. It may be messy, confusing, shallow, and even shocking – but that’s the world its teen ensemble (as well as their target audience) lives in.

They may make questionable choices, they may even suffer for those choices, but in the words of a pop culture boundary-pusher from another era, they are “quite aware what they’re going through.”

After all, the clueless adults have already proven they don’t know how to make it better. Why should they listen to anything we have to say?

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The challenges of conducting in a pandemic

TWC’s first Black maestro Eugene Rogers on COVID and inclusion

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Dr. Eugene Rogers, artistic director of The Washington Chorus.  (Photo courtesy of TWC/Sundeep Studios)

When renowned conductor Dr. Eugene Rogers was announced as artistic director of The Washington Chorus (TWC) in February 2020, he was thrilled. As the first African-American maestro in the Grammy Award-winning choral ensemble’s 60-year history, he was eager to get to work. In midsummer, when he was in fact handed the reins to the chorus, the state of the world had changed dramatically and consequently conducting had too, yet he remained equally enthused.

By the end of the year, despite unprecedented challenges, TWC successfully managed to virtually present its popular annual holiday concert, “Candlelight Christmas,” as well as the moving short music film “Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow,” a TWC-commissioned work by acclaimed composer Damien Geter inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rogers grew up singing gospel and R&B in rural Halifax County, Va. He sang everywhere – up and down dirt roads and from the altar at church. A love for music prompted him to earn a bachelor’s degree in choral music education from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and the Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in choral conducting from University of Michigan.

“Who grows up knowing what a conductor does?” Rogers asks. “But from my first conducting class I was hooked. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I’d been put on earth to conduct.”

And now knowing there are people of color who look to him for inspiration, Rogers takes his background as a Black conductor seriously. Through his presence on the podium and repertoire, he draws an increasingly diverse following to the classical music scene and beyond.

In addition to TWC, Rogers is Director of Choirs at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he lives with his husband Mark, a music lover though not a musician.

WASHINGTON BLADE: During a pandemic, what exactly is conducting?

DR. EUGENE ROGERS: For me it depends on the scenario. Here at the University of Michigan I’m in person with my classes. It’s the same but with precautions – we wear masks and the singers stand 12 feet apart. The space seats 300 plus with only 30 people or so in the room.

With TWC, my work is mostly remote. Still, the connection remains strong. The artistic work and inspirational motivational work as a conductor, the logistical work of increased planning, those elements are all there except in a different format.

BLADE: What else is the same?

ROGERS: Even with masks and Zoom, I’m still connecting with people and there’s always the musical merit – the craft, the art of what we do. And that’s why I’m not afraid for the future – if we can get 113 people at virtual rehearsal engaging with this art form even though it looks so different, that tells me we’re not going anywhere.

BLADE: This must require some flexibility.

ROGERS: Because of my background, I grew up able to improvise in styles. I’ve always brought that to my work. An ability to read the audience, change it up. That has benefited me during the pandemic.

I won’t lie — the stress level has been high when you have to throw everything and reinvent.

But together with my nimble, creative colleague Stephen Marc Beaudoin [TWC’s executive director], we’re not afraid to think outside of the box. We’re not afraid to make choices that look different from a traditional symphonic chorus.

BLADE: What’s your favorite music?

ROGERS: Whatever I’m studying at the moment. I love classical equally to folk, idiomatic music, as well as popular music. It changes with my mood, and the story I’m telling in a concert. I don’t have limits.

Right now, my life is mostly classical because I teach grad students who are going to be conductors. Currently I’m in a Mendelssohn and Bach world. Not a bad place to be.

BLADE: As TWC’s first African-American artistic director is inclusion on your mind?

ROGERS: Yes, inclusion ranks high with musical excellence and community.

TWC has a long relationship with conducting local youths. And I’m only hoping to expand that with relationships with HBCUs in the area and DCPS. I started off as a high school teacher.

We’re also creating the Mahogany Series, an annual concert focusing on the artistic contributions of black and Latinx and American Indian communities – symphonic, operatic, musical theater, jazz or blues.

I want to add more chairs to the table. To honor what TWC has done in the past and expand on it.

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