American Masterpieces: Choral Music Singing in Communities Large and Small

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The Plymouth Congregational Renaissance Choir

The Plymouth Congregational Renaissance Choir, which won first place as Church/Community Group during Brazeal Dennard Chorale’s spiritual festival in 2007. Photo courtesy of Brazeal Dennard Chorale.

According to Wayne Brown, NEA Director of Music, "Choral music is celebrated by more then 28 million people who sing regularly in one form of chorus or another." Given those numbers, it's no surprise that choral music was the first music genre celebrated by the American Masterpieces initiative. In FY 2006, eight organizations received a total of $490,000 to support regional choral music festivals, including the Providence Singers (Providence, Rhode Island) and Seattle Pro Musica Society (Seattle, Washington). Although only a few of the festivals have occurred thus far, the project already has reached more than 50,000 individuals.

In March, Craig Hella Johnson, Artistic Director of the choral group Conspirare (Austin, Texas), testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies about the Arts Endowment's support for Conspirare's regional choral festival. The January festival featured 14 choirs and included concerts, workshops, and community outreach events. "We hoped to create a variety of experiences within the festival that could highlight the power of choral music to bring people together even when faced with significant differences," said Hella Johnson.

The Arts Endowment will award a second year of choral music grants in FY 2007. Those organizations that received 2006 grants also were invited to apply for additional NEA funding in order to broaden the visibility and awareness of these significant American composers of choral works. "We were pleased to provide the additional support to those organizations...who wanted to take advantage of regional radio broadcast and recordings. I would say most of them have accepted that invitation and are taking steps to see that we have subsequent airing and broadcast of those works that have taken place," explained Brown.

In FY 2008, a first round of American Masterpieces grants are planned for chamber music. Brown said this is a natural evolution of Continental Harmony, a previous agency program that supported composers and ensembles in residence in all 50 states. American Masterpieces will use that existing network to support a series of chamber music festivals nationwide.

For Brown, American Masterpieces underscores the Arts Endowment's mission. "This initiative has provided a great opportunity for all of the [NEA discipline] directors to become reacquainted with those works of repertoire...that resonate with communities large and The Plymouth Congregational Renaissance Choir, which won first place as Church/Community Group during Brazeal Dennard Chorale's spiritual festival in 2007. Photo courtesy of Brazeal Dennard Chorale. small. These works create possibilities for influencing new works going forward. Through an initiative like this one, repertoire that has had strong impact regionally has the potential to become known and observed in other parts of the country."

Detroit's Brazeal Dennard Chorale (BDC) received an American Masterpieces grant of $20,000 to support a choral festival devoted to spirituals. Festival coordinator (and director of the BDC Youth Chorale) Nina Scott spoke with the NEA about the importance of the spiritual in American music and the impact of NEA funding on BDC's January festival of spirituals.