I’ve been living in Boston for just over six months now, and there’s one thing I can tell you for sure (besides the fact that turn signals are for the weak 😉 ): this place is a never-ending smorgasbord of cultural events of all kinds! It is especially rich – lucky me – in musical delights. I’ve barely scratched the surface, but you can be sure that I will continue to carry out my reconnaissance activities and report back to you, my music nerd army!
I recently learned of the Cantata Singers. They’ve been around since 1964, having started as a group dedicated to performing the cantatas of J.S. Bach. Since then, their scope has expanded considerably, but without losing the dedication and focus with which they began.
On Friday of this week, I’ll be attending a Cantata Singers performance at First Church in Cambridge, featuring works by Heinrich Schütz (their featured composer of the season), John Harbison and Maurice Duruflé. If you’re in the Boston area, I invite you to check it out, too! Tickets are $17, and may be purchased at the door or by calling 617-868-5885.Last month, I spoke with their new Executive Director, Jeffry George, just four days after he joined the organization. Jeffry was trained in music from childhood through college, then worked as an actor before embarking on a distinguished career in management and administration in the theatre world. Coming on board with Cantata Singers brings him back to his musical roots, while presenting him with new and exciting challenges as an arts administrator.
Here’s the first installment of our two-part conversation, wherein Jeffry tells me about how he got to where he is, and shares his views on the state of performing arts today.
Miss Music Nerd: You worked in the theatre world for quite a while. What brought you back to music?
Jeffry George: This position was brought to my attention by someone who knew of my musical background. It just seemed like a perfect fit, and I was more and more magnetically drawn to it the more I learned about it. I’m thrilled to be back in the land of music. Music feeds my soul — it always has.
MMN: How did you first get involved in music?
JG: I grew up in the little town of Wautoma, Wisconsin, where I was fortunate to have a very motivated band instructor in junior high. He motivated all of us, not only musically, but personally. It was all about taking pride in your work.
I had taken an interest in the trumpet, and I became very passionate about it. My parents recognized and supported it — I was very fortunate. I found that I could pick up and learn instruments very quickly, and I made it my charge to touch and to learn every instrument in the band.
JG: I wasn’t very good at some of them, particularly double reeds! Unfortunately, I developed a case of nerves while playing the trumpet, and holding it became a bit of an issue, because I would shake. Of course, that destroys your embouchure. But I had no problem singing — I sang in chorus in junior high and high school. It became a real joy for me to stand up and sing in front of people. The next natural step was theater, so I immediately started to delve into the theater world.
MMN: I was going to ask you if you had performed in theatre before you began managing theatrical groups.
JG: I did. I don’t talk about it a lot, because everybody has their 15 minutes of fame. I had mine. It’s over! But I’ll give you some details if you’d like.
MMN: Sure — I’d love to hear about it!
JG: My first professional job as an actor was doing Shakespeare up in Maine, at the Theatre at Monmouth. I toured with the second national tour of Shenandoah. Then I went on to the national tour of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Alexis Smith. And I was featured in an episode of Trapper John, M.D.
MMN: I liked that show — I’m just old enough to have watched it a little bit.
JG: Well, I learned very quickly that television was not for me. And by that time, I was becoming very interested in technical theatre and management.
MMN: What attracted you to management?
JG: When I was performing in on of the companies of Best Little Whorehouse, in Las Vegas, I liked sitting next to and watching the stage managers work. But I was appalled by [~CENSORED~ Editor’s note: what happens in Vegas — well, you know!]. I thought, “It shouldn’t be that way. If I could become a stage manager, maybe I could do my part to make it better.” And that’s what I did.
So I became a stage manager, then I just kept climbing the ladder. I became a production stage manager; I was the resident PSM at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey for almost 10 years. I had a phenomenal experience, with huge productions, some of them reaching a $3 million budget mark. From there, I became a production manager, general manager, managing director… and here I sit.
MMN: Can you tell me about what an executive director does? What is your typical day or week like?
JG: Right now, it’s getting myself organized and learning what has happened here at Cantata Singers for the last 46 years. I have tons of files to pore through. There’s grant writing involved, budget preparation, and working very closely with the Board of Trustees to promote the organization.
In general, it’s being the extending hand to the community that supports the organization. That has to go hand-in-hand with anything else you do administratively on a day-to-day basis. It’s your job to lead the charge, to make sure the organization really flourishes and prospers, and in turbulent economic times, that you still stay afloat. It’s always a challenge!
The budget has been pared down, but we’re holding onto the integrity of the programming. It’s my charge, now that the economy may be showing signs of improvement, to start moving in a direction where we can expand our programming and outreach to the community. As you know, classical audiences on the whole have fallen back. I love the challenge of trying to bring them back in, and trying to bring in a younger audience. Even though our audience numbers are very strong, increasing those numbers is one of my priorities.
MMN: What are your plans for world domination?
JG: None that I’m willing to let out of the bag today!
MMN: That’s smart! This is a hot topic for me, though, because I’ve had people tell me, “Live music is dying in this country.” But I see very exciting things happening. How do you see the state of performing arts in this country today, and if you could predict a few years into the future, what do you see?
JG: I do not have a failed view of the performing arts. Look what the Met is doing with their simulcasts. Now A Prairie Home Companion is doing it. I learned something yesterday. Cantata Singers commissioned an artist to do a woodcut in association with a piece they did last season. I thought, “What an incredible idea to expand upon — what a great communication tool between music and art.”
I think there’s a lot to be done. Sure, numbers have fallen off. But it’s our job, I believe, as non-profit organizations, to keep that flow going out to the public, and bringing them into the performances. If we didn’t have those performances, where would our culture be?
Tune in tomorrow for part two of our conversation, where we both reveal embarrassing factoids about our musical tastes, and address the question, to tweet or not to tweet? 😀