Meet A Member: Jean Davidson, Los Angeles Master Chorale

Jean Davidson does not have the background of a typical choral administrator. The Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC) president and CEO took the job—her first in the choral community—after working in theater, contemporary dance, and instrumental music, where she served as the founding managing director of the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma.

“I think the business background is pretty similar no matter what the art form is,” says Davidson. One unwavering theme is the search for new audiences—and if that means sitting down for interviews outside of the usual arts scene coverage, she is game. “I'm generally a behind-the-scenes person, but I say to my team, use me if it's going to promote us and get us into a new market. We've been looking for every opportunity to promote our organization in places that you would not expect.”

A more familiar place to find the Master Chorale is the Chorus America Conference, for which LAMC is serving as host chorus this year in June. “I'm just thrilled that we're going to have so many people here this summer,” Davidson said. “To be hosting the Conference is really an honor.”

Davidson spoke with president & CEO Catherine Dehoney in the latest edition of Chorus America’s ‘Meet A Member’ series.

How did you find yourself working in the choral music world?

JD: I grew up in West Virginia singing in school choirs and I loved it—I made it to All-State Chorus. As I got older I got more interested in athletics, and then eventually theater, and there just wasn't enough time for everything. I'm not sure that I had the raw talent that would've propelled me into a professional singing career. What prompted me to find the LA Master Chorale was that my husband got tenure at UC-Irvine. We had been bi-coastal, so then I started looking for opportunities in LA. Somebody sent me the Master Chorale posting. I asked a lot of my musician friends, and nobody on the east coast had heard of them.

I happened to be coming out with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for a performance at UCLA. I emailed Terry Knowles (now my predecessor) and told her I was considering applying, but I had never seen the Master Chorale perform. I was able to come out and watch a rehearsal. The artistry just blew me away and I fell in love with them. When I met Grant, I immediately felt that he was somebody I could partner with. The artistic director-chief executive relationship is a really crucial one. He’s a true visionary.

Gerson and LAMCWith Grant Gershon at the helm as artistic director of the LA Master Chorale, Davidson has found a collaborative partner.

Is there anything you have found that is unique about the choral field or choral audiences?

JD: What I find is unique about choral music is that so many people sing, as opposed to acting or playing an instrument, for example. Almost everyone has sung in a chorus, whether in their church, school, or community. So the people who are in our audience are, for the most part, also singers in one form or another. It's interesting looking at studies from Chorus America and the NEA that find audience attendance is decreasing nationally, but participation in the arts is increasing. It makes you kind of scratch your head. And when people were asked what art form they participate in most, 60% of respondents said singing.

What can choral organizations learn from other arts disciplines that you have worked in?

JD: Coming out of the contemporary dance world in New York most recently, I think that continuing to innovate within the field is what keeps the art form alive. And while we want to always perform the classic repertoire, it's imperative that we also continue to commission new work. I think that's one of the challenges with audiences—a lot of people want to come and hear their favorite works, and they would be very happy at that. But it's not in the best interest of the form to only do the classics. You have to keep feeding the field and the next generation of composers.

Even going back to Morten Lauridsen's work, he was a new composer at one time. This year is the 20th anniversary of the first performance of his Lux Aeterna, which we're celebrating on our program at the Chorus America Conference this June.

Speaking of the 2017 Conference, what other exciting things is the Master Chorale planning for Conference attendees?

JD: We're kicking off the first group sing of our Big Sing California initiative to serve as the finale of the Chorus America Conference. Grant has been thinking more and more about participation in the arts and we have conceived of a big participatory singing event with Eric Whitacre in Grand Park. The two of them and several other guest conductors will join together with Conference participants and members of the community. Big Sing California will continue into the summer of 2018, when we will fill Walt Disney Concert Hall and other venues statewide with singers from various community groups, and do a big group sing connected by technology (likely live streaming).

The Big Sing is also a next step for Eric Whitacre and his Virtual Choir project, which many people are probably familiar with. There is a Conference session on participatory performanceswith Eric and Grant that might be of particular interest. I imagine that Eric will talk about his experience with the Virtual Choir.

Tell us about one big success in your chorus that you’re really proud of.

JD: I am really proud of our Lagrime di San Pietro (a cycle of 20 Renaissance motets composed by Orlando de Lassus) production that opened our season this year. It was a collaboration between stage director Peter Sellars, Grant, and our organization. Twenty-one singers, fully memorized, with staging. It was truly one of the most remarkable performance experiences of my career, and I don't say that lightly. Our plan is to take the work on tour.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your chorus today?

JD: Despite this week’s good news about arts funding for the rest of the current fiscal year, I continue to be concerned about the future of the National Endowment for the Arts. Its elimination would not cripple us, since we have a large budget and the NEA support is a small fraction, but to me it is a signal of our values to the rest of the country, and the potential ripple effects are very concerning on a national level. For smaller organizations, the consequences would be more severe. A lot of the state government arts budgets are funded through the NEA as well, so it would be a double hit for many organizations.

(Beyond Conference) What’s one exciting thing you have planned for the future?

JD: Grant has a plan for what we're calling the Hidden Handel project, which will be a series of rarely performed oratorios by Handel. We began last season with a semi-staged production of Alexander's Feast. Next season, we will be performing Israel in Egypt, and we are collaborating with a visual artist of Armenian descent from Syria named Kevork Mourad, who is also the only non-musician member of the Silk Road Ensemble. He does live drawings from the stage—he will typically do a pre-recorded section of video animation, and then he will live-draw with that.

Kevork MouradVisual artist Kevork Mourad will work with the Master Chorale this upcoming season.

Our thought was that Israel in Egypt is about people who were forced to leave their home, and we wanted to broaden the message to include other large groups of people who have had that experience. Kevork is an artist whose family has experienced that now twice. The first time they had to flee during the Armenian Genocide, and the family went to Syria. Now the family has had to leave Syria because of the civil war. There's a special place in my heart for Kevork because I know him from my previous work with Yo-Yo. I think our audience is in for a real treat.

Can you tell us about a time where your Chorus America membership has helped you?

JD: I draw on the studies from Chorus America all the time. They are critical for a majority of the grant proposals that we write—the data points are incredibly useful. 

When you take off your choral hat, what else is an important part of your life?

JD: Animal rights is an issue that is incredibly important to me. I think the issue is broader than just love for animals. It's also an environmental issue and a humanitarian issue. I've been vegetarian for over 20 years and mostly vegan for the last decade.

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