About Scott Chamberlain

Hello and thanks for reading. I’m Scott Chamberlain, a resident of the fair city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Welcome to my blog. It came about primarily because I was commenting extensively on the labor dispute involving the musicians and management of the Minnesota Orchestra—long-standing professional and personal ties to the organization have led me to follow the situation closely. Over time I’ll try to reprint some of my commentaries here to give them a more public airing, but I’ll try to keep current with my posts and comment on developments as they unfold. Although that’s the genesis of the blog, I like to comfort myself by believing I have other things to say. So a bit of background. For most of my life I’ve balanced two more or less equal passions: a deep fascination with the past and a love of music (mostly, but not entirely, of the classical kind). I’ve alternated between these two passions in terms of study, employment and recreation since my days as a very wee lad. On the “past” side of the equation, I’ve been an ethnohistorian working on the pre-conquest cultures of Mexico and a traditional historian specializing in Central American urban and cultural history. (I’ve been known to do people’s astrological “chart” in the Aztec manner. It’s a great party trick.) Along the way, I’ve lived or spent much time in Spain, Costa Rica and Mexico. On the “music” side of the equation, I’ve been an active classical singer (currently with the Minnesota Chorale), and an arts administrator with the Minnesota Chorale, Minnesota Orchestra, and One Voice Mixed Chorus. I’ve performed several operas, although my true calling as a performer is choral works. The blog name and cover shot are a fusion of these two trends. It’s named for Xochipilli, the Aztec patron god of music and the arts, and specifically for his public visage that hides his inscrutable true nature beneath. The illustration comes from the Codex Becker, a pre-Colombian Mixtec manuscript, and shows an ancient Mexican orchestra composed of flutes, whistles, trumpets and various percussion.

Arts Marketing Fail, FWSO Edition

Woo-boy.  I’ve chronicled various marketing disasters from the world of classical music before… but I don’t know that I’ve run across something like this.  In other cases, the mishaps were often the result of good intentions gone wrong (been there), ideas that seemed good at the time (been there), working too fast (been there), or some similar reason.  In short, they were unintentional.

This one by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) was not. Continue reading

The Wrong Way to Attract Audiences

For those of us involved in the arts, the past few months have been a time of… well, high drama.  President Trump jolted the country by unveiling a budget that called for the elimination of funding for the NEA (along with the NEH and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).  In response, there has been a flurry of articles, studies, and discussions that have explored how and why the arts are important.  There is a new interest in detailing the value of the arts, and what benefits they convey upon individuals and society as a whole.  A key part of this emerging discussion has been how to show relevance, as well as how the arts can improve their relevance. Several of these articles have been brilliant.

But not all of them.

Yesterday, George Patrick “GP” McLeer, Jr., Executive Director of the South Carolina Arts Alliance, tossed his hat into the ring with a blog helpfully titled Ten Things in the Arts that Should Die.  This article focused on 10 things arts organizations could do to attract people and make themselves more responsive to their community.

And my first thought was, “here we go again.”  Yet another well-meaning arts aficionado has posted a click-baity list about how to save the arts.  And indeed, that seems to be the case.  But as I read through the list I became convinced it wasn’t simply light-hearted, but a recipe for disaster.

I don’t doubt GP’s sincerity or commitment to helping the arts, but as the Board President of an arts organization, an arts administrator with years of experience under my belt, and as an active performer, let me share a few thoughts about this list’s problems. Continue reading

Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” – Rising from the Ashes

Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is frequently regarded as his masterpiece—a towering oratorio noted for its complex score and profound religious message.  In the autograph score, Elgar wrote the work represented “the best of me,” and countless listeners have agreed with him.

It is, quite simply, one of the greatest spiritual dramas ever written.

Gerontius is based on Cardinal Henry John Newman’s epic poem of the same name, which traces the journey of the soul from death to its arrival before the Throne of God in a vivid dramatization of Catholic theology.  Along the way it explores some of the greatest questions of the human experience: what is our purpose? What is a good life? And what is the nature of God?  But the score is so vividly drawn, and filled with such fascinating incidents and memorable characterizations that it never feels like a religious lesson or a string of platitudes.

Unfortunately, the work is still something of a concert rarity in the US—quite a contrast to the situation in Britain, where it generally considered a national treasure, and performed almost with the same regularly as Handel’s Messiah is here.  For listeners coming to a performance on this side of the pond, this represent a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, they will be able to experience this lush, late-Romantic score completely fresh and without preconceptions.  The danger is that because it is such a dense, many-layered score that some of its complexities will be lost.

I have the pleasure of performing Gerontius this spring with the Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale and a crack team of soloists under the direction of Edo De Waart, and it has been a thrill getting to know this sublime score.  Allow me to share some insights to help new listeners understand it better. Continue reading

Rest in Peace, Maestro Skrowaczewski

I think that most people would agree that the Minnesota Orchestra is in the midst of a golden age.  Under the artistic leadership of Music Director Osmo Vänskä, and the administrative leadership of President and CEO Kevin Smith, the ensemble has leapt from one success to another.  Rave reviews, award-winning recordings, enthusiastic audiences, historic cultural exchanges… the Orchestra is enjoying them all right now.

I don’t wish to take anything away from its current, well-earned successes. But in many ways, the foundations of today’s successes were laid by another man: former Music Director, and long-time Conductor Laureate Stanisław Skrowaczewski.

stanislaw-skrowaczewski.

Stan passed away yesterday at age 93 after a series of strokes… but his immense legacy will live on across the world through his dozens of recordings, his riveting biography Seeking the Infinite, and the memories of those he touched.

Over the length of his astonishing career, Stan worked with countless ensembles, in countless places.  Each has a rightful “claim” on him, but allow me to share a few thoughts about his impact here in Minnesota. Continue reading

RIP Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher

What a loss.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds—two legendary performers—have been taken from us this week, far too soon.  As a way to work through the shock and grief, many of my friends have been sharing favorite stories of them.  In that vein, allow me to share a story of my own… a story that involves Debbie Reynolds flirting with me in front of my wife Jill, when we were both working at Orchestra Hall here in Minneapolis.

* * *

Some years back, Debbie and Carrie were supposed to appear together at Orchestra Hall as part of the “Unique Lives” series. This was a group of lecture/interview/Q&A sessions with women who had lived particularly noteworthy lives. I was the Duty Manager/House Manager that evening—essentially in charge.

On the night of the presentation, severe weather was hitting the east coast, and Carrie’s flight was cancelled. We tried a variety of ways to have her call in and do the session remotely… but ultimately nothing was really working, and we regretfully cancelled Carrie’s portion of the evening.

Debbie, however, was there and absolutely radiant. She was just quietly hanging out back stage when her agent waved me and some other staff folks over to introduce us, telling her “This gentleman is in charge tonight.” Debbie—ever the performer—immediately brightened. She smiled a coy smile, put a finger on her chin and said “Oh, goodness. Look at this handsome young thing they brought to take care of me….” I believe I turned fire-engine red as I tried to stammer through some incoherent pleasantries, and tried to walk through the schedule. She patted my arm and said, “Oh, don’t worry, this will be fun!” and walked away to go to the podium for a mic check….

…and in doing so I saw Jill, who had taken in the whole encounter with an arched eyebrow.

I may have smiled weakly and started to say something. Jill, however, was one step ahead of me. She put on her best “1940s-broad” accent, and quipped in faux outrage, “Debbie Reynolds, that skank? You tell her to back down! Getcher own goddamn man, Debbie Reynolds!”

My jaw hit the ground, before Jill and I both collapsed into laughter. Those lines have been part of our marriage ever since.

In all seriousness, working with Debbie was a delight. She was remarkable… a consummate professional and a consummate performer. You knew instantly that she knew more about show business than most of us could imagine, but she didn’t for one moment stand on ceremony or have any pretension.  On the contrary, she was deeply humble, warm and gracious. Most of all she was generous with her time and attention.

Put plainly, she was a true and undeniable star, but never acted like it.

I’m so sorry to lose Debbie and Carrie both—they lit up the world with their gifts, and we’re all a bit poorer without them. Rest in peace.

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Xochipilli

Continue reading

On the “Hamilton Incident”

Last week, we had a cultural moment—the “Hamilton Incident.”  Most of the shouting has died down, but before we get too far away I wanted to share a few thoughts on this, as it hits on several important issues that we in the arts grapple with all the time.  And while this is hardly the most pressing national concern at the moment, the whole dust up hits on larger issues that are of critical importance right now, and resonate with me as an artist and as a citizen of the United States of America. Continue reading

A Thanksgiving Story

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to have a greater and greater appreciation for that most American of holidays… Thanksgiving.  It is remarkable, isn’t it? The coming together of friends and family, and the sharing of food and good stories.  The joyous sense of hospitality.

And most of all, the ability to slow down for a moment and to be grateful for what you have.

My Thanksgiving tradition while growing up was to have a mid-day Thanksgiving feast at the house of Pastor Jim, the man who had baptized me when I came into the world.  As the years passed he had rotated to other congregations, but we always gathered at his family’s home.  Although they were an older couple, he and his wife had adopted two African-American children who were close in age to my brother and I, and growing up there were always shenanigans to get into, either indoors and out (the year we kids decided to act out a Kung Fu movie was particularly memorable).  Plus, there was always an eclectic bunch at the Thanksgiving gatherings.  Some were old friends and families that had accumulated over the years, but Pastor Jim’s family always insisted that any Thanksgiving “orphans” with nowhere else to go were not just welcome… they were expected.  Friends of friends, coworkers, travelers… it didn’t matter.  When these extra guests arrived at the door, it was thrown open with hugs around and can-I-get-you-anything? hospitality.  It always struck me as a thoroughly American experience: Thanksgivings at their house were always the E Pluribus Unum variety.

One has always stood out for me.  Continue reading