February 9, 2021 at 3:44 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
The challenges of conducting in a pandemic
Eugene Rogers, gay news, Washington Blade
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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