Election 2016: An exchange concerning the renewal of SCFD funding for the arts in Denver

yeson4bbanner-2-1-201609081626Against my better judgment, and knowing that it would likely only result in my blood boiling, I engaged in a debate with a friend’s relative in that most onerous of all arenas, the Facebook comment box.  The topic was this year’s ballot issue 4B, the renewal of the minuscule sales taxation that allows the entity known as the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District to distribute funding to arts and cultural non-profit organizations in Denver.  (More on the SCFD’s mission can be found here.)  Here is the redacted exchange, edited for anonymity of the other party:

S.P.: It’s very important to vote against [4B]!…the arts can be supported by voluntary patrons.

(At this point an argument was made by my friend that Denver School of the Arts (DSA) is positively affected by SCFD funding, and I met this friend while attending DSA.)

S. P.: [4B is] about spending other people’s money, extracted from them through taxation. People who are taxed less, have more disposable income to voluntarily support causes dear to them. DSA was/is a big taxpayer funded boondoggle. Most of those who graduated are not [working professionally in the arts]. Those who are, arguably, would mostly be anyway. Other than a marginal case here and there, DSA is a wasteful use of other people’s money.

This was the statement that compelled me to join the debate.  Here follows my response:

I’m a DSA grad and the Artistic Director of an early music ensemble in Denver. My livelihood as a professional musician depends on the revenue generated by SCFD. We pay taxes because as Americans, we contribute to the common good. We all share the same roads, streetlights, airports, and first responder agencies. Taxes pay for all of that. We can all enjoy the arts in Denver because of SCFD. I have a job because of SCFD. But I suppose you can continue to think that your life is encapsulated and not connected to anyone else’s, and I suppose you can try to buy your own roads and streetlights and hire your own personal firefighters and snow removal team. Best of luck refusing to contribute to the greater whole. If you aren’t going to buy into the system of taxation that supports all of us, I suppose we shouldn’t share our tax-funded snowplows with you, or let our tax-funded firefighters rescue you. But why isolate yourself like this? Why pretend that you’re somehow exempt from the basic things we all need as a society? Your premise is based in fear, that you don’t have enough, so you don’t want to share because you’re afraid of losing it all. Why not live on a premise of love and abundance, sharing a bit of what you have with love for your fellow countryperson so that we can all benefit, and rejoicing in the abundance that is created when we all agree to pay our fair share?

I also take umbrage with that outrageous statement that DSA grads who have gone on to work in the arts are “marginal cases”. Is Gabe Ebert, who recently won the Tony for his Broadway performances, marginal? Is Iyabo Boyd, who has participated as a filmmaker in the Sundance Film Festival? Aimee Schachter, who is assistant to Steven Tyler of Aerosmith? And these are just my classmates. I’d encourage you to call up Principal Bill Kohut so that he can rattle off to you the very long list of national and international competitions, international awards, and other prestigious accolades racked up by DSA grads. Who work in the arts. As a direct result of having begun their studies at DSA. Like me. I went on to study music at the Peabody Conservatory, which is part of Johns Hopkins. I’ve performed at the National Cathedral, at Rutgers with Amherst Early Music, just this summer with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Bravo Vail Music Festival. Yup, pretty marginal. Would you say that a high school football team was a waste of money just because the entire team didn’t go pro? I think not. Because somehow, sports seem to be the acceptable form of youthful edification in our society, whereas the arts are a frivolous throwaway. I guess business and corporate employers don’t value things that you learn as a young artist, like teamwork, innovation, collaboration, design, leadership, research skills, public speaking and interviewing…nah. Employers don’t care about those things. They care only about what was on that standardized test we all had to take.

S.P.: I’m certainly not saying that nothing good came from DSA, or that it was not formative in any way for those who attended or attend. As a DSA [relative of a student], I have many wonderful memories of seeing the amazing talent of the students highlighted. This, however, doesn’t mean I should vote for ballot issues that spend other people’s money, whether they are interested in supporting the arts or not. Art will not perish for lack of government support.
Also, SDCF resulted in government funding of what I will call ‘controversial art’, which put government’s finger on a scale where it doesn’t belong.
There are very good arguments that some services are best provided by government, though libertarian writers also argue that most, if not all, could be provided by the marketplace. Art does not really fall into the category of roads, firefighters, police and snowplows. There is no good argument that the arts require collective funding, unlike the other services mentioned. Conflating them is an intellectual fallacy. Museums, Art Expositions, Libraries, etc., were once funded by wealthy patrons and philanthropists. Today, tax laws allow any of us to support non profits that we have affinity with, and deduct it from our taxable income. This allows voluntary philanthropy, which seems preferable to me over coercion.

My response:

It’s also an intellectual fallacy to pretend that we as a society can function in the same ways that society functioned formerly. You mention wealthy patrons and philanthropists. These individuals existed during a time when the cost of living was much lower, and people spent four decades in the same position and collected a luxurious retirement fund at the end of their careers. If you think this is still possible for working people, you have not been paying attention. Our wonderful “free” deregulated market has allowed those at the top to pocket obscene amounts of money while the average working Joe makes the same minimum wage he would have earned 25 years ago. The people who could have afforded to support non-profit organizations in the middle of the 20th century find it impossible to afford philanthropy now.

A capitalist “free market” can support the arts…as long as people believe that they have a responsibility to contribute to their communities. Without that sense of stewardship, orchestras will fold and playhouses will close.

The concept of our democracy is that WE are the government, that WE, the people, are self-governing. To talk about the government as some nebulous disembodied phantom is another intellectual fallacy. When we govern ourselves, we hold each other accountable to contribute to the common good. If you feel coerced into paying taxes, you’re admitting that you wish not to participate in the contribution to the common good. If you say that you don’t want the government telling you how to spend your money, you’re saying that you believe that you are above being held accountable for doing your fair part to contribute to the common good.

Absolutely, art falls into the category of snowplows and roads. If you believe that the arts can be jettisoned, you must also believe that the species of the earth that hold our collective ecosystem together can be similarly jettisoned. And it is that attitude of exception that will sentence us all to a slow and painful death. The arts, like certain species, are not “extra”. The arts and culture of a city contribute MILLIONS OF DOLLARS to the economy. Artists touch every part of your day, from the moment you open your bag of dark roast (with logos designed by artists), to the television shows you watch in the evening (filled with actors, cinematographers, producers, stagehands, and musicians). None of these things from which you benefit would exist without artists. Artists who hold advanced degrees in their art. Artists who began their education at places like Denver School of the Arts. If you tried to live one week without the products of artists in your home, you would be miserable and struggling. Yeah, you could probably survive, but you wouldn’t have much of a quality of life. And yeah, we can survive without snowplows and paved roads, but it’s not a very nice life to live.

We are all connected. The arts are inextricably linked to every other aspect of our common life, our “ecosystem”, and to fail to support them cripples our way of life. We all have a responsibility to participate in and contribute to our common life, as we are able. For you to claim exemption from this must mean that you are suffering greatly and need others to carry your load for you. When you say, “I should get to keep all my hard earned money! You don’t get to decide where I spend it!”, you are merely saying that you expect others to bear the burden you are not willing to bear. This attitude of “someone else will take care of it. Not my problem” is not how we will succeed as a nation. It is how we will devolve into a wasteland of solitary rogues, every man, woman, and child for themselves. That’s not the America I want to live in. That’s not the America I believe in. E Pluribus Unum – this is the motto of my America. Out of many, one. A collective body, succeeding as one, a united people, helping each other, doing their share. I’m voting for the greater good of the American people on Tuesday. Sounds like you’re voting to keep your wallet safe. And when the recession hits Denver after the arts have failed and the businesses are no longer attracted to a cultured metropolis, when the jobs start disappearing because Denver isn’t a destination anymore, how safe will your wallet be?

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Walking The Labyrinth: Embracing the Vocation of a Minister of Music and Choral Vicar

Courtesy of artoftheland.com

Courtesy of artoftheland.com

On Christmas Eve, between services I had a bit of a break. I was going in search of water, robed in my plain purple cassock, when a lady from the previous service’s congregation spotted my official-looking attire and asked for directions to the Cathedral’s labyrinth. Armed with my years of Tattered Cover bookselling training, in which you always escort and never simply point, I guided her across the street to the courtyard where the labyrinth lay. By that time her husband and two college-age daughters had caught up with us, and I showed them the entry to the path. “So, how does this work, exactly? Isn’t there something spiritual about this that we have to do?” The lady asked quietly as I turned to go. “You know, I’ve got a few minutes. I’ll walk with you,” I decided out loud. I adore labyrinths, and studied them extensively during my undergraduate work in medieval history.  How could I resist a quick turnabout?  I instructed them to clear their minds of all thought and concentrate on their breathing and the movement of their footsteps, and to be a casual observer to any thoughts that happened to float by.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes the five of us silently walked in broken circles, sometimes almost walking shoulder to shoulder, sometimes briefly passing as we turned and turned.  When I arrived in the center of the six-petaled floret, the distinctive design marking the labyrinth as a replica of the one embedded into the floor in Chartres, France, I positioned myself on top of one of the petals and waited for the others to finish, hoping they would follow my lead and stay in the center with me.  They did, and each one stood silently on a circular petal until the last daughter came into our circle.  They all looked up and a collective sigh and smile was released.  I waited for them to speak, and then asked if they had any questions, or if they wanted to share any of the thoughts that came up while they were walking.  I explained the history of labyrinths, talked about their meaning and purpose.  I told them about how labyrinths were a form of pilgrimage and meditation for medieval people, and how labyrinths can be found all over the world, in all eras, countries, and cultures.  Then I talked about what the labyrinth means to me, how I find it such a perfect metaphor for life.  “Wasn’t it interesting to notice that sometimes we were walking together, perhaps only for a moment, or perhaps for a while? Isn’t that so much like life?  You meet people, you love people; sometimes it’s just a brief encounter, sometimes they’re with you for the long haul.”  I described for them how walking a labyrinth reminds me that I am living my best life, even when it seems like everything is going wrong.  “You have your goal in mind, right?  Your idea of how life is supposed to play out.  You have your hopes for the ultimate happiness, and ideas of how to achieve it.  But then life takes you wandering off somewhere else and you say, ‘how did I get here?  Wait a second, this isn’t where I’m supposed to be!  I wanted to be a lawyer, why am I working in this coffee shop?  What does this misery have to do with my happiness?’  But you have to trust that there is just one path, and it will lead you to your center, and that the way to the center is to walk through all the bends, and be carried far off from your dreams, so that you can lead a fulfilled journey and be whole when you arrive.”

Short of time (and needing to prepare my music for the next service), I bid our parishioners good night, after we talked and shared and listened to the buzzing cold quiet of the Christmas Eve night amid the city hum.  As I walked back to church, I felt the chilled wool hems of my cassock flapping against my calves in the wind, and thought that this must be how it feels to be a priest: to see questions and troubles in the eyes of others, and to be able to bring peace and understanding to their minds, even if just for a moment.

I have had several such moments, in which I feel a spiritual beckoning to be a minister of some sort.  I can see myself being filled with the joy and awe of opening and revealing the light of God before a group of people; for some of whom, that moment may be their awakening.

For church musicians, it can often become just a job, musical work that happens to take place in a church.  You go, you sing, you play, you stand, you sit, you kneel, you stand again, and then you leave and go to brunch and collect your paycheck.  I’ve been there.  I’ve punched my clock in churches filled with negative, hateful vibes, churches who prioritize damning over deepening.  When inequality is preached at the pulpit, the vocation of sacred music devolves into an unpleasant but necessary obligation, a hard-to-swallow source of income.

But I work in a special place now.  A place where women consecrate the Host.  A place where two men thread rings on each others’ left hands and joyfully, justly, allow God into the full presence of their holy union.  A place where children sit squirmingly, wigglingly at the feet of the altar during the holiest part of the Mass.  A place that is full of tradition, dignity, reverence, and honor.  I work in a place that won’t demand that I sacrifice my love of justice to remain silent in the face of prejudice, but a place which will echo at the pulpit the cries for equality that resound in my head as I sit and stand and kneel.  That’s not to mention that the music program is among the best in the country, so that I go to work feeling challenged, feeling respected and valued, and feeling called to grow and flourish as the best musician I can be.

In a place such as this, I, who have felt called before, am empowered to fulfill the role of musical minister that my job description asks of me.  I can truly be a choral vicar at this Cathedral, so that the vestments I wear can be an authentic testament to my work in ministering to the spiritual life of the community.  Whereas at former gigs the heaviness of moral oppression compelled me to simply punch my clock, this Cathedral has compelled me to enliven my ministry by extending the reach of the choir stalls and leading meditation in the labyrinth (off the clock, I might add).

The entire Christmas Eve experience was uplifting and joyous, but even the ringing of the brass and the mighty exclamations of the wide-open pipe organ could not achieve the awesomeness of walking that quiet stone path in the frigid midwinter darkness with those strangers; and hopefully, changing the course of all our lives, with yet another gentle loop towards the ultimate grace.

Insights: The Mozart Requiem

In honor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming performance this weekend of one of my favorite Classical works, I’m posting some of my own research and analysis on the Mozart Requiem.  This was a Powerpoint presentation given to my colleagues for a theory course at the Peabody Conservatory.  I think it provides a helpful overview of the Confutatis and Lacrimosa, the very final movements that Mozart penned before his death.

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My Field of Dreams is a Concert Hall

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Like many Americans, I can name a special place in my hometown that has shaped who I’ve become.  We all have our special places. For some, it may be the historic ballpark, the divey pub with the storied reputation, or the distinctive landmark with the cheesy souvenirs.

My special place is the concert hall.  Built in 1978 with lots of concrete and technological ambition, Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall was designed to be a state-of-the-art shared performance space for the city’s ballet and opera companies and the symphony orchestra.  With the opera and ballet playing two doors down, the Colorado Symphony has Boettcher all to itself these days.

My earliest memories of Boettcher are of Symphony concerts: watching, wide-eyed, as the Colorado Children’s Chorale bounded through Christmas carols; or crouching in the ring seats with my mother to hear Leonard Bernstein’s Mass.  I saw one of the last operas staged in Boettcher as a teen, giggling at the antics of the Countess and Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, marveling at the whirlwind in-the-round staging.  Many rainy school field trips were spent within Boettcher’s tubular halls.  Through a kid’s eyes, the building was vast and intimidating, a maze of giant white HVAC pipes and loopy corridors to who-knows-where.

Post-college adulthood led me back through Boettcher’s shining glass doors: a box office gig kept me on the Symphony payroll for almost three years, until budget cuts forced me out from behind the will-call window and back into my role as a patron and advocate. Though I left my ticket-selling job, the connections I had made became my stepping stones into my own professional music career.  Before working for the Colorado Symphony, I never dreamed that I would go on to earn a Master of Music degree from the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, a renowned school with more than a few alumni on the Colorado Symphony’s roster.  The orchestra’s musicians inspired me and challenged me to be my own best self; through their example, they led me into my life’s work and helped me to achieve my own measure of greatness.  For me, every crossing of Boettcher’s threshold is a profound reminder of the influence the CSO has had on my life.

For the past 25 years, I’ve been in a serious relationship with Boettcher Concert Hall.  It has been my playground and my hallowed ground, my sanctuary and my hideaway, my classroom and my practice room, my mirror and my waking dream.  Inside that building, I have laughed and cried, I have fallen in love, I have nursed a broken heart, I have borne witness to miracles, I have been awestruck and dumbfounded.  Those walls have bestowed upon me friends and knowledge and wisdom and true love.  If I had been a little boy who dreamed of being a big-leaguer, Boettcher would be my Fenway Park and my Wrigley Field.  In the years prior to my decision to return to graduate school, I would sit in on orchestra rehearsals and daydream about someday being a soloist on that curvy stage, adorned in a glittery gown, an Urtext of the Mozart Requiem in hand, introducing the first reverent words of the Recordare while the strings undulated behind me.  The audiences who shuffle through the seating sections each weekend have no idea that they tread upon my dreams.

For those lucky few who have authority and influence in the community, Boettcher appears to be a white elephant, an increasingly shabby barn of a concert hall whose fate is destined to be entwined with a wrecking ball.  City planners with dollar signs in their eyes look hungrily about the real estate footprints of downtown Denver for hidden earning potential, and raise eyebrows when they see that a “boring old orchestra” is sitting on all that unmined gold.  Their desire to examine the green in the trees blinds them to the beauty of the forest; that is, that the CSO and its hall are storied landmarks, destination points for visitors both domestic and international, and essential components of any great city.  But more than that, they represent a dynamic and thrilling future.  Far from boring, the CSO leads the country’s orchestras in innovative and eclectic programming, and has consistently proven that it has the marketing chops to endure in a market driven by social media and guerrilla messaging.  While the city of Denver insists that only old folks from retirement homes attend the Symphony, my millennial friends and I are partying the night away with our fabulous CSO.

I am cherishing my evenings inside Boettcher with a new urgency these days.  The hall’s, and the orchestra’s, future is still so uncertain.  I hope that my hometown leaders make the right decision, and choose to restore and preserve a special place that resides in my heart as much as in the Arts Complex, a place that has so inexorably changed me that I swear it must be physically part of me by now, and I a part of it.  Every time I visit, I cast my eyes over the pearly hanging discs and the regal wooden stage with all the love afforded to the faces of those dearest to me.  This place…it has made me a singer, a dreamer, a fighter, and a friend.  No wrecking ball can ever destroy the palace of memory and music that Boettcher has built within me.  But in the words of Yeats:

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”