published Monday, June 17th, 2013

Pay for Play: New chorus pays its singers; will that alter the dynamics of local vocal ensembles?

The Tennessee Chamber Chorus is a new professional choral ensemble that is based on successful paid groups such as Seraphic Fire in Miami and Skylark Vocal Ensemble in Atlanta.
The Tennessee Chamber Chorus is a new professional choral ensemble that is based on successful paid groups such as Seraphic Fire in Miami and Skylark Vocal Ensemble in Atlanta.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

FOUNDING PARTNERS

Fundraising may be the least-enjoyable aspect of putting together the new Tennessee Chamber Chorus.

"A lot of people don't like to ask people for money," says founder Cameron LaBarr, "but when you have something so worthy of thought and consideration, I don't mind approaching people and asking them to think about ways to contribute."

So he did.

The first couple he approached were Mike Leuze and Linda Thompson of Cleveland, Tenn.

"I have known Cameron personally for a number of years and have had the opportunity to observe him professionally," says Leuze, now president of the chorus's board of directors. "I have confidence in his abilities as a conductor to create truly meaningful musical experiences for both the performers and the audience."

The board has created a variety of donation levels, but the fundraising emphasis is on attaining Founding Partners, defined as anyone who supports the chorus with a donation of $300 or more, says LaBarr. A perk of becoming a Founding Partner, he says, is that these donors will be listed in the program of every future performance.

To date, they have 33 Founding Partners, with the largest donation being $2,000, he says.

The Founding Partner offer lasts until Dec. 31, and the conductor has a goal of enlisting 100 Founding Partners by year's end.

To make a donation, mail checks made payable to: Tennessee Chamber Chorus, 115 18th St. NE, Cleveland, TN 37311.

Jason Thoms hopped in his 1990 Mazda Miata at the first of this month and drove 2,000 miles round-trip from New York to Cleveland, Tenn., to sing just two performances with the new Tennessee Chamber Chorus.

He says he made the road trip to support the musical endeavor of his friend, Cameron LaBarr, and to be part of a new, exciting professional ensemble.

LaBarr, an assistant professor of choral music at Lee University who holds a doctorate in music arts from the University of North Texas, has captured the attention of the area's music community with the launch of his Tennessee Chamber Chorus.

While Chattanooga has several classical vocal ensembles already, they are all volunteer-driven. LaBarr is paying Tennessee Chamber Chorus singers for performances just as instrumentalists are.

Tennessee Chamber Chorus is not the first ensemble to pay its singers; Choral Arts of Chattanooga was. But TCC is the only one doing so now and is the first to pay a significant amount.

Glenn Draper says he also pays his Glenn Draper Singers, however, they are not strictly classical, performing pop and sacred music.

LaBarr says the idea for the chorus began with a recording last summer.

"My wife, Susan (who is Missouri's composer laureate), works for a music publisher in Dallas called Choristers Guild," he says. "She contracted with me to put together a group of singers to record a demo CD of all the new music coming out last July.

"A few of us said this could be a real endeavor. We toyed around with different names, the best way to market it, and I researched if there was anything else like this in the area," says the conductor.

By October, LaBarr was pitching his idea to area residents.

"There was an overwhelming response that it was something we needed to do," he says, so he began fundraising.

"At the end of November, I had to decide: Were we going to do this or wait? We didn't have enough money raised, but we took a leap of faith and had our first concert in December in Cleveland," he says.

SUPPLEMENTING SINGERS

Molly Sasse was a founding member of Choral Arts of Chattanooga in 1985 and says the pay was not exactly huge.

"Choral Arts was founded to have an ensemble of trained singers paid in the same way instrumentalists are compensated," says Sasse. "We got a small stipend to cover gas expenses to rehearsals and performances. We might have made $150 a year."

The stipend was paid a little more than 10 years until the choir's finances made it impossible to continue, she says.

LaBarr has paid each of 16 singers in TCC's first two performances -- $275 for the first, $350 for the second. Out-of-town singers contracted for the concert received travel expenses as well and were housed with other singers, board members or volunteers, he says.

Funding is raised by TCC's board and LaBarr.

The conductor says he maintains a list of almost 50 regional and national singers, from which he will draw 16 to 24 vocalists as needed per concert repertoire. LaBarr says he has brought in professional singers from West Virginia, Ohio, New York, Missouri and Georgia for the first two concerts to supplement local singers.

A good number of TCC singers are his colleagues at Lee University, however, everyone has professional training, he says, most making their living in some form of music education or performance.

LaBarr calls TCC a project choir model. Once the singers have signed contracts, they are sent their music, which they are expected to learn by the time they convene in Cleveland.

"We don't rehearse every week; we only perform when the group convenes," he explains.

Thoms -- who will sing with five professional choirs across the nation, driving from Santa Fe, N.M., to Yale University by the end of this year -- compares participation in these ensembles to professional training.

"I almost look at it as a workshop when I can learn from a conductor a new and neat way of rehearsing. And often I'll learn what never to do with my choir," he jokes.

"When I showed up for this concert (with the TCC), everyone had their music learned, we didn't spend any time trying to get notes correct. Everyone had learned the music so our only goal was to perform," he says.

VOLUNTEER VS. PROFESSIONAL

Chattanooga's Bach Choir, Choral Arts and Kevin Ford's Summer Master Chorale are all volunteer-driven choirs. Their singers are experienced, many having sung through college, but they represent a wide variety of occupations.

Will the success of a paid ensemble change the dynamic of these community choirs? Is there enough audience support in this area to sustain four classical ensembles?

Kevin Ford, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga director of choral activities, doesn't believe TCC will impact volunteer choruses.

"Our 'work all the time' lifestyle is making the largest impact on choruses in general," he says. "For instance, it is very hard to get basses. There are several churches that pay singers (to supplement their choirs) due to congregation members who no longer have time to give to the church in this manner.

"Volunteer choruses still act as social outlets for many. Singing is a community in a time where our sense of community has changed drastically," says Ford.

David Long, director of the Bach Choir, says "a little bit of competition is a good thing; it keeps you on your toes."

Long says he knows LaBarr and has attended his concerts.

"He brings singers in from other areas; we spend a lot of our money on paying for orchestras, so our choir members are all from within a 50-mile radius of this area."

Bach Choir differs in that its mission is to perform baroque music, Long says, as well as music of composers living in the same era as Bach or composers influenced by Bach.

LaBarr explains that TCC is going to sing "everything from the medieval period to something that might have been written at 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon. Our specialty might be innovative programming, which includes all types and genres of music."

Keith Reas, director of Choral Arts, believes the number of classical choirs competing for audience members is not the problem; instead it's an overall lack of awareness about the talent available locally.

"I don't think we can have too much choral music," Reas states. "What we don't have is high visibility for the groups that we do have. One of the things I have been interested in is to try to increase the visibility of the choral groups we have and create more of a choral culture."

LaBarr stresses he is a "huge supporter" of the other choirs, as well as their conductors, whom he considers friends.

"We're not trying to do anything to compete with any other choral ensemble, but broaden the horizen and add to the choral experience. I'm of the we're-all-in-this-together mentality.

"In this case, we are offering something different that allows our community the opportunity to hear fabulous choral talent from across the country."

Contact staff writer Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

about Susan Pierce...

Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...

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