Beam Me Up: MAW’s 2021 Alumni Enterprise Award Winners Announced

By Steven Libowitz   |   January 29, 2021

Music Academy of the West (MAW) has always been a decidedly different sort of summer music festival for both the young fellows who hone their classical music skills and repertoire over an eight-week period from mid-June to mid-August each year. That’s because in addition to the academic offerings of its program – which is very exclusive as only about 140 applicants are admitted each year and which nearly all of the fellows describe as perhaps the most intense and expansive summer of their lives – there’s also a ton of community involvement beyond even the deeply engaged audiences. The Compeer Program, for instance, matches fellows to community members who provide support, connection, and mentorship.  

But MAW’s involvement in the students’ lives and careers doesn’t end there, and not only because many Compeers and fellows stay in touch and form friendships that last lifetimes. The last few years have also brought the MAW Alumni awards, which not only follow the fellows as they progress through their careers, but also, instead of asking for donations and a typical educational institute might, offers cash awards for innovative projects to help them progress, and to further seed the classical music industry with much-needed new ideas and platforms.

Rich Coburn’s project “BIPOC Voices: The Library of Music for Voice and Orchestra by BIPOC Composers” is a proposed database of orchestrated vocal works by Black, Indigenous, and other composers of color (photo courtesy MAW)

This year’s six winners – out of a total of 98 applicants – will receive a total of $85,000 in grants to complete their projects in 2021, with plans that address challenges from the pandemic, issues of social and racial justice and gender equality, bridging cultural divides and connecting underserved composers and musicians. The awardees will also participate in an Innovation Residential online in late March when industry heavyweights such as opera producers Beth Morrison, violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, 21C Media Group will lead interactive workshops and panels focusing on entrepreneurial strategies around marketing, fundraising, audience engagement, and interaction. Each winner will be partnered with a professional mentor with expertise connected to their project that will serve as an ongoing advisor.

We caught up with two of the winners to talk about their projects and their time at MAW. (Visit www.musicacademy.org for the complete list of winners and their projects).

Rich Coburn (vocal piano 2014) combines a career as a freelance pianist (including as a piano duo with his twin brother), organist, vocal coach, music director, and arranger with working as an educator who teaches entrepreneurship at McGill University among other endeavors. His project, “BIPOC Voices: The Library of Music for Voice and Orchestra by BIPOC Composers,” is a proposed database of orchestrated vocal works by Black, Indigenous, and other composers of color that also features samples of many previously un-recorded works to facilitate connections.  

Q. What stands out from your summer here and what ways do those eight weeks perhaps still resonate or show up in your career?

A. It was the first big summer program I attended, and it did a lot in terms of building self-confidence and belief in myself. It’s such a wonderful environment. Between the coaches and the teachers and the other students, you learn a lot from just being around people of that caliber. Sometimes you’re stressed because you have performances, but the actual physical environment is so beautiful and relaxing that it makes it a really great place to get into an intensive discovery. 

It seems that what you have done since leaving is to truly follow your desires, pursue things you think are important to do, which is relatively rare for young musicians with any measure of success. 

That’s interesting to hear (because) today I consider myself an entrepreneur who makes music (rather than) a musician who dabbles in entrepreneurship. That clicked for me when there was a (piano) job I was hoping to get in the States but the visas didn’t work out at the last minute. I was really disappointed because I thought it was the end of a long dry stretch, but it fell through. That was the moment where I said to myself, Hey, are you going to spend your whole life waiting around for stuff to happen? Or are you going to go and figure out what you can do for yourself?

I wasn’t even thinking about making money or where my career was going, but when you work in contract work, you always have periods where you have downtime, so you find something fun to do. For me that was dabbling in entrepreneurship. I’ve found a field (conflict resolution, negotiating) that is interesting and that inspires me and that I feel is really helpful and important work. I’m grateful I can make that a big part of my life right now.

I can’t imagine anything more important in our world today than conflict resolution. I’m wondering if the nexus between working as a collaborative pianist sets the table for that. The skills you need to have to work with another musician must apply to what you’re doing now, right? The more empathic you can be in music making, the better you’re going to be at conflict resolution. 

Yeah, that absolutely resonates. One of the things that I do now is to teach freelancers and entrepreneurs about collaboration, about negotiation and creating empathy with people, especially in difficult situations. When I started doing that work, I realized that I had already been doing it for a long time in the rehearsal room, especially as a répétiteur (accompanist for opera singers), where you sometimes feel a little bit like a go-between. Sometimes you’re rehearsing with the singer separately, coaching them, but your job is not to take a position (but) to let the conductor get what they want, while the singers might have difficulty talking to the conductor. You have to find a way of negotiating and navigating and helping people understand each other so that they can work well together.

Even with the library that I’ve started building, the reason is much more than (only) helping opera companies find new works that are important and diverse. Obviously in the States right now, it’s an important new beginning of a difficult period because people are trying to find ways to unify. But we are also a divided society in Canada. In Western societies in general, the question of how do you bring people together, or how do you help people who have different experiences of the world find common ground is a really interesting one. 

As soon as you start to talk about politics or anything that people feel differently about, it’s really easy to get bristly and push the idea that you’re right. But there are ways to spend time together and in community and to hold space for others which are easier. To me, the arts are one of those venues, whether it’s films or opera, or theater. I want this library to be successful because I believe that opera companies who are interested in (participating) have an opportunity to be real leaders in actually starting to tell some different stories, starting to introduce people to some new ideas, some new perspectives in a way which is gentle and in a way which people can be open to hearing. It’s not going to single-handedly revolutionize our societies, but I do think that it’s a very important step to help people from different ideologies and different lived experiences start to be able to think outside of what they’ve traditionally thought and perhaps come together around stories and experiences in a very gentle, almost imperceptible but still meaningful way. 

May I ask how much the Black Lives Matters protests after the George Floyd killing influenced this project?

I’ve talked a bunch about this with my colleagues who are Black and American because our experiences of racism are drastically different. I often joke, but it’s true that here in Montreal, in the French-speaking province of Canada, that I’ve been discriminated against more as an English speaker in Quebec than as a Black person in Canada. Growing up, racism was something I knew about but was privileged to be able to ignore. Then I worked in Richmond, Virginia, two months after the Charlottesville protests. I walked around those parks in Charlottesville and saw the (Confederate) statues covered up with tarps. People would go in and rip off the tarps at night and the city workers would come back and put them on the next morning. It was an obviously untenable situation, and no one had been able to find a meaningful solution. That was the first time that I really started to understand a little bit what life was like for some of my black American colleagues. I had never been so aware of being Black. Now I live in Canada again but that really sensitized me to this issue. 

So when I see opera companies making public statements about anti-Black racism and by extension about racism in general, it seemed to me like this is the time to do something productive, to capture that energy and capture that goodwill. But how we come together as a society, how we start to work together, how we start to disagree better with each other – it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time… Still, the last 10 months have taught us that we all have to keep learning all the time. So to have the Music Academy supporting projects like this one… is truly amazing.

How are you going about putting together this database? It seems to be a big project. 

It is. I’m not the most connected person in the new opera scene or with BIPOC composers, but I’m not doing it alone. I already have a lot of partners, and the stage that I’m at right now is just to talk to a lot of people, artistic directors, composers, other organizations, just to understand what would make it a useful resource, and then to leverage my partners to get the word out that this is an easy way to make a difference because they are really well connected in the industry. It’s really important for me that this is as broadly representative as possible… But we decided that it’s going to be American and Canadian composers to start, which I really don’t like because borders are pretty arbitrary and colonial constructs that shouldn’t apply. But what we’re building right now is only the first phase which is designed to test the hypothesis that composers will be interested in participating and that companies will be interested in using it.  

MAW’s Alumni Enterprise Award Winner Adanya Dunn

Adanya Dunn (soprano 2014-15; now a mezzo-soprano) has created a collaborative project as part of her organization Red Light Arts & Culture that consists of a series of indoor and outdoor pop-up concerts in unexpected locations throughout Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District. The concerts – at least 30 over a four-month period – not only represent performance opportunities for musicians during the COVID cancellations, but also provide an opportunity for the small business owners and local entrepreneurs of the district to share their stories with an audience they might never otherwise reach.

Adanya Dunn has created Red Light Arts & Culture, which consists of a series of pop-up concerts in Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District (photo courtesy MAW)

Q. How did your time at MAW impact your career? 

A. It opened my eyes up to a world that I didn’t know really existed because coming from Canada my world had been so small. They took a chance on me, and I thought, maybe I can start believing in myself more and consider myself a real singer. That first year was like a summer glow where one day full of music would blend into the next like the summer haze… And I have to mention the Compeer program, because I just don’t know anywhere else where (the community) takes it to such a level of personal involvement and enrichment. It’s beyond financial renumeration and support. It was mentorship. It was friendship. It was family.

Later with Marilyn Horne’s “The Song Continues” program I was connected to up-and-coming conductors and established directors and pianists who are so excited about collaborating. So MAW was a launching pad for me in so many different aspects of my career from art song to collaborating, to creating projects, to coaching and mentoring. 

How did you decide to launch the Red Light District?

When I went to study in Amsterdam, I lived in a housing building for conservatory students that was right in the district at number 69 of all places. We would have thousands upon thousands of people walking by our door, sitting on our doorstep, leaving piles of garbage – tourists, screaming at all hours of the day and night. And I had this idea that we should just open up the windows and sing for them and maybe make money that way. I’d already wondered about how I could bring music to the streets of Amsterdam, because there’s so much culture here, and we’re steeped in art, in cultural architecture, we’re steeped in the visual arts, but I wasn’t seeing anything in my sphere. I wasn’t seeing anything outside the concert houses within Amsterdam. I wasn’t seeing anything (classical) on the streets to engage all those people. 

Then when COVID hit, it was completely silent, especially throughout the late spring and summer. A pianist in the building and I have a piano-voice duo and with the school closed we would be practicing a lot, making music, writing songs, coming up with programming, and because it was warm we’d have our windows open. Finally the streets were so quiet that you could actually hear what’s happening inside. People from across the canal would come out on their balconies and applaud for us and I got me thinking that people are craving music, people are craving connection. I knew I was. 

That’s when I had the idea we could do something for our neighbors, for the people who are living here, people I started recognizing when I hadn’t before in what was an endless sea of people. We reached out to a local organization called We Live Here, volunteers who let tourists know that locals also live in this area that is most famously known for sex workers and the marijuana coffee shops. And it turns out the members of We Live Here were also musicians, and we shared ideas and came up with the concept of pop-up concerts.  

Classical music and sex workers aren’t something that normally coincides. Why did that idea make sense to you?

It stemmed from my musical background and the neighbors who were classical musicians and composers. We decided to go with what we know. But also because it is a stark contrast to people’s assumptions. We just want to add to the rich cultural diversity of the area, not to try to change the view or gentrify. The idea was to have the owners of these businesses, establishments, or coffee houses that have been there for 30 years talk about their initiatives and their connection with the area, to give a platform for local businesses to share their stories and their products, and to help bring in new customers. We want to show that it’s not just the red light windows but a whole other world to discover behind the doors of the residents and of the shop owners. to connect many different bridges.

How has it worked out so far? Are you creating the connections you were seeking? 

We have been very successful in reaching the tourist audience who wouldn’t be expecting classical music there, and bringing in our friends or other people who might know classical music and show them an area they might normally avoid… The amount of people that we’ve met either in person or virtually as a result of this project is incredible. We’re also collaborating with other initiatives, such as Greenlight District, which is about sustainability. We’re connecting with other artists in the area that have let us know they have a space and want us to come. It is through these kinds of collaborations that we can begin to weave this tapestry of arts and culture throughout this area. We want to amplify and highlight and collaborate through this project. And we’re very happy to see that already happening. We have become an incorporated foundation and we plan to stay and be an establishment here. We’re working on festivals and expanding to other artistic mediums and musical art forms. 

 

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