Last March, the spectacular baritone Matthias Goerne gave an emotionally powerful, carefully crafted recital at the Kennedy Center. This was an exceptional concert: Goerne presented a program of Schubert and Beethoven songs with great intelligence and fervor. Yet in another way, the evening was just one in a number of fine recitals presented by the Vocal Arts Society of Washington.
Over the years the society has presented many other leading singers, among them soprano Renee Fleming, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff. A Vocal Arts evening tends to be a highly polished affair, filled with soaring melodies and rich harmonies, and teeming with color.
An interview with the society's founder and longtime president, Gerald Perman, gives a sense of what goes on beneath the surface of this elegant concert series. The affable Perman -- who at 81 remains actively engaged in running the organization -- underscores the constant financial calculations necessary to keep everything running smoothly. While always seeking the best talent, organizers strive to keep costs under control and rely extensively on a broad array of dedicated supporters -- including the artists themselves -- to avoid the fiscal pitfalls that have undone many another musical organization.
"I love music of all sorts, but I really love great singing," says Perman, a practicing psychiatrist who lives in Dupont Circle.
In the 1980s, Perman found himself highly impressed with a concert series put on by Marta Istomin. "I thought it would be good," he says, "to start a smaller series in a smaller hall."
His basic philosophy from the time the Vocal Arts Society was formed in 1990 was to engage singers who had yet to make a name for themselves in the United States. In addition, he says, "almost every concert given by the Vocal Arts Society is either a D.C. premiere or a D.C. recital premiere."
Perman is effusive when talking about some of the society's "magnetic" concerts over the years. The performances of lyric tenor Christoph Pregardien and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, he recalls, "drew tremendous responses from the audience." He speaks like a proud father when discussing the initial appearances of such current stars as mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and Fleming.
Perman says that in many cases, artists who made their Washington debuts early in their careers have accepted less than their usual fees for return appearances with the series.
And he thinks the series tapped into a real niche market: At the time it began, the Washington area offered little to devotees of German lieder, French melodie or American art song. The series now boasts a subscriber base of 300.
Even with the artists' generosity and audience enthusiasm, only about half the cost of putting on a concert is covered by ticket sales; admission is a somewhat modest $35. Donations from subscribers and the board of directors make up the rest.
The generosity of music enthusiasts has also helped ease the often exorbitant costs of concert hall rental. When the series began in 1990, the Friday Morning Music Club helped Perman gain access to the Great Hall at the Sumner School Museum. "It really is a marvelous space," he says, "and the location helped give us a good start."
Later the series spent several years at the sleek auditorium of the French Embassy. Then came a fateful conversation between Perman and incoming Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, who had recently left the Royal Opera House and knew of the series's reputation.
As Perman recounts it, Kaiser came up to him at a gala and said, "You have one of the best concert series in the country. You should come to the Kennedy Center." Kaiser helped arrange an amenable fee for the series to stage performances at the 500-seat Terrace Theater.
Perman says audiences have appreciated the acoustics of the Terrace, though the society has to compete with other arts groups for the space. "Scheduling can be tight," he notes, "but it is a beautiful hall."
For their part, organizers at the Kennedy Center, noting the series's subscriber base, often ask the Vocal Arts Society to co-present concerts. The Washington Performing Arts Society also likes to partner with the series, hoping to ensure that a certain number of seats are sold for every performance.
Perman appreciates the opportunity to work with these organizations, but sometimes worries about overtaxing the audience's enthusiasm. "We could easily put on 12 concerts a year, but you just can't do it." He adds jokingly that "people have other things to do."
Still, the Vocal Arts Society has a busy 10-concert schedule this season, which begins this afternoon with a concert by baritone Nathaniel Webster, who was recommended by the noted mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig. Perman says he can't wait to hear other singers on the schedule, among them the Argentinean mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and the British baritone Christopher Maltman.
The series's singers often stay with Perman during their time in Washington, and he has learned a lot about the rigors of a performer's life. "You have to have a fire in the belly to succeed," he observes. "That dedication often has consequences for a singer's family relationships and social life. Singers have a really hard time."