America Sings! How to Launch an American Masterpiece

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Music Director Philip Brunelle takes a bow

Music Director Philip Brunelle takes a bow at the end of the concert "America Sings!" at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland. Photo by Jim Saah.

he NEA launched American Masterpieces: Choral Music with "America Sings!," an exuberant celebration of the nation's rich choral music heritage, in partnership with Chorus America. Held at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, the concert -- featuring 12 choruses, an orchestra, a fife and drum corps, a barbershop quartet, and even square dancers -- was spearheaded by Philip Brunelle, the initiative's artistic director.

Founder and director of the Minneapolis chorale VocalEssence, Brunelle worked closely with NEA staff to develop the program's choral music component. "When Dana Gioia met with me, he asked me to think about -- from my years of choral work -- who were the figures past and present in American choral music that really stood out, that would be called American masterpieces." The resulting list of 29 composers ranges from early American composer William Billings to 20th-century legend Leonard Bernstein. Said Brunelle, "[The list is] so wonderful because it includes a wide range of people and a wide range of styles, from some things that are a little more esoteric to some things that are a little more down home."

Featuring work by 14 American composers, Brunelle organized "America Sings!" to showcase the diversity of the country's choruses, using staging as well as singing to keep the audience engaged. "If the music you do is not done in a way that's interesting and catches the attention of the audience, they go away just saying ‘Well, that sounded very beautiful,' but they're not attracted to what you've done."

Despite the extra hours of work, Brunelle thinks the program is an important one. "We in the United States in the choral field have not done enough to celebrate our composers, and so I see this initiative as one that will help make more people aware of the treasures and the beauties that we have in American choral music. I just think that this is the kind of initiative that will have a lasting impact." Brunelle also applauds the Arts Endowment for its continuing commitment to bringing the nation's art to all Americans. "All of the groups that have received [American Masterpieces] funding wish to not only perform what they're doing in their home location, but also to take it out, and that becomes expensive to try and come up with the funds to go on any kind of tour. So the NEA's support of this initiative really is critical. I do believe this wouldn't even happen without it."