A Swan Song for an Area Treasure

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, April 19, 2009

The conductor, Kurt Masur, had met these hundred voices just a few days before, but though he was frail and shaking in his old age, he bounced up on his toes, gripping the air as if to pull anguish and reverence from the chorus before him.

"Mere phantoms, we go our way," the Master Chorale of Washington sang out last weekend, a shimmering collective voice floating above the National Symphony Orchestra. "Mere vapor, our restless pursuits."

From the chorister seats in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, these singers -- by day, lobbyists and lawyers, teachers and shop clerks -- poured their all into Brahms's "German Requiem," a huge work that soars from mourning to joy and settles into a soul-drenching peace.

A requiem seemed all too apt, for this was the next-to-last concert in the 42-year history of the chorus that performed in the Kennedy Center's inaugural show in 1971. A victim of last fall's collapse of the stock markets, the Master Chorale, one of four major vocal groups in a city of choral riches, "decided to close with dignity rather than compromise their artistic integrity," says Virginia Austin Schubert, chairman of the group's board.

The chorus was not willing to discard the model set by its founder, Paul Hill, in which about 25 professional singers join with 110 or so auditioned volunteers in a chorus that, during performance periods, may demand 30 hours a week from its members.

The chorale didn't have much choice. Until last fall, its concerts sold almost all available seats, says Don McCullough, the music director for the past 13 years. But last fall's production of Mendelssohn's "Elijah" didn't fill even half the seats at the Kennedy Center. "Even if we sell out every seat, we're losing money," McCullough says. "But you can't go on filling 40 percent of the house."

The chorale is the largest arts organization in the area to fail since this recession began, but it is not the first and will surely not be the last, says Terri Lee Freeman, president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, which manages 700 charitable funds for individuals and businesses. "People are removing dollars from arts groups to fund this emergency, to donate instead for food, shelter and clothing. But who wants to live in a community without culture?"

There's no danger of choral groups vanishing entirely. Ticket sales remain strong for popular works, but lag for lesser-known, more challenging pieces. Still, Washington's curious status as a center for choral music may be in jeopardy. "You have all these choirs looking for dollars from the same audience," McCullough says.

About 30 million Americans sing in choruses -- the highest participation rate of any art form, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Sociologist Robert Putnam has cited choruses as essential building blocks of civic society; singers, according to several studies, are much more likely than other Americans to be involved in charity work, elective politics and other arts.

Theories abound about why Washington became home to so many strong choral groups, but most boil down to this: A lot of well-educated people live here, people who managed to learn about music despite cutbacks in the nation's schools, people who got into choral singing in college.

Brendan Mullen, 29, started singing at Georgetown University and although he now works in strategic planning, he cherishes his time in rehearsal at the Geico headquarters in Friendship Heights. The singer who sits next to him in the tenor section introduced Mullen to the woman who is now his wife.

And that singer, Tom Dower, 35, met his wife in the Master Chorale, asking her out for the first time after the group's European tour in 2000. "This is the other half of my life," says Dower, a lobbyist who lives in Kensington. "This is what kept me grounded and used the other half of my brain during all the years I worked on Capitol Hill."

Some singers wonder if the chorale might have survived if it had had stronger marketing and better management. In December, when singers learned of the financial troubles, they raised $40,000 from their ranks in less than 15 minutes. But with investment losses of about $200,000 on a budget of $1 million, the chorale faced a steep climb. Like most arts groups, it could not live on ticket receipts alone, depending on donations to cover 60 percent of its expenses.

"It's felt as if there's been a death," Dower says. "But we all have this hope that somebody can save us."

"Now you are sorrowful," the requiem says. "But I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you."

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com

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