I had the most wonderful opportunity to hear the great and inspiring French actress Guila Clara-Kessous at a lecture at Brown University. This talented artist, named an Artist for Peace by UNESCO, has produced and directed plays on human rights in Europe and throughout the US dealing with social causes. Working with playwrights, she creates pieces focusing on contemporary issues spanning from racial issues, to the tragic sex trade industry, to relationships of faiths in conflict with one another.
Hearing her speak made me remember the ways we can make a difference as artistic directors with our various musical organizations. Programming repertoire that speaks to important issues of the day can be a very powerful vehicle for change in the world.
A few years ago, I conducted Sing For the Cure in Houston’s Symphony Hall in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The piece is scored for SATB chorus, narrator and full orchestra (there is also chamber music version). It is in 11 movements and the lyrics to each are entries of woman’s journals on their particular individual journey with breast cancer. The music is set by 11 different composers and tells stories of diagnosis to treatment to the final days. It is a hugely provocative and powerful work. It is an excellent fundraising and educational opportunity. Our particular organization raised over $10,000 for the cause.
Another piece that comes to mind is Rene Claussen’s “Memorial”, a dramatic and deeply moving reflection of the tragedy of 9/11. I had the opportunity to hear this at a concert at Lincoln Center, and what an amazing experience! I have been encouraging choral directors to take this work as a centerpiece on international concert tours. It is uniquely American but speaks to universal loss.
As you work on your repertoire for this year and for future concerts, remember that what you plan can and will make a difference to the people who hear it. It is about the music, yes— but sometimes the message can be equally powerful as well.