Choral Capo Canned/New Life for the Athenaeum? | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Choral Capo Canned/New Life for the Athenaeum?

Richard Garring is out as director of the Windy City Gay Chorus. Were his high standards responsible for low attendance?

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Choral Capo Canned

The board of directors of the 15-year-old Windy City Gay Chorus voted last month not to renew the contract of Richard Garrin, one of the chorus's founders and director since its inception. Interviews with numerous board members and other sources suggest the dismissal was largely due to WCGC's deteriorating financial situation and a perceived need to broaden the chorus's appeal with a lighter repertoire. Notes Peggy Garner, outgoing chairman of WCGC's parent organization, Windy City Performing Arts: "We made the decision [not to renew Garrin's contract] based on a need for a change in direction at the chorus and to make the chorus more accessible to its audiences."

Garrin--who was also associate conductor of the CSO Chorus for more than a decade until 1992--was out of town earlier this week and did not respond to messages left on his answering machine. But several of those who worked with him over the years say he was a demanding, at times difficult leader. Observes Scott Director, WCGC's former executive director: "Richard was artistically gifted; his standard of musical interpretation was the highest." Sam Heller, another former executive director of the chorus and former chorus board member, thinks that standard may have been part of his undoing: "The fact that Garrin stayed true to classical traditions...and did not do anything too campy diminished the potential audience for the chorus." Patrick Sinozich, the chorus's accompanist for the past two and a half years under Garrin, was named acting director while the board conducts a national search for Garrin's replacement. Sinozich says Garrin had a vision of the Windy City Gay Chorus as "a real elite," and that he hopes to reach a "more diverse audience" by paying more attention to the "entertainment aspects" of the group's repertoire.

The concerted push for new audiences comes as the chorus grapples with a financial downturn brought on by overambitious expansion at a time when concert attendance and funding were shrinking. "We had a drop in audience participation the last couple of years," says Garner, "though the chorus's technical merits stayed high thanks to [Garrin]." During the same period the chorus took on a paid executive director, substantially increasing administrative expenses. More costly still was the creation in 1992 of Unison, a second choral group composed of both gay men and lesbians. Though the new chorus was intended to diversify the organization, it also meant additional rehearsals and another musical director. "We were naive about fund-raising," says Garner. "We needed to make more money before we spent it." According to Garner and other sources, the chorus's accrued deficit has ballooned to around $50,000 over the past couple of years. For the fiscal year that began August 1, the group has slashed its operating budget from $320,000 to $189,000, a move expected to retire most of the deficit.

There's another factor here: the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, a competing choral group that split off from WCGC 11 years ago and has subsequently pursued a much more aggressively entertainment-oriented artistic policy. "There is little that is sacred to us," says Roger Gumm, vice president of that group's board of directors. While previous Windy City Gay Chorus programs have included world premieres of "serious" works (such as this past June's Letters to the Future, a mix of music by Roger Bourland and letters from poets about what life will be like for gays and lesbians in the next century), Chicago Gay Men's Chorus programs have been filled with Broadway show tunes and pop standards; they've even done staged productions of The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. "We've always kept a choreographer on staff," says Gumm. The distinct difference in artistic perspectives is also evident in the mottoes of the two organizations. WCGC's is "in search of musical excellence," while Chicago Gay Men's Chorus uses a phrase made famous by pop diva Bette Midler: "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." Though it too has seen a slight drop-off in audience, the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, which operates on an annual budget of $100,000, is in the black, according to Gumm. "We've had to work like the devil to stay that way," he adds. The group is currently exploring new ways of reaching its target audience, including direct mail and an increased emphasis on season subscriptions.

The battle to attract audiences and boost revenue may not be an easy one for either chorus, sources say. The spectrum of gay and lesbian-oriented entertainment options has expanded dramatically since both groups came into being. "There is a lot more culture going on out there now outside of the bars," says Gumm. Adds WCGC board member Dan Fitzgerald: "I think the chorus movement is waning a bit because of a big shift in the gay arts community. The fact of the matter is there is an abundance of other activities to go to."

New Life for the Athenaeum?

The 83-year-old Athenaeum Theatre at 2936 N. Southport is getting new management and a modest face-lift. Fred Solari, former managing director of Civic Stages Chicago, which operated and booked the Civic Opera House and Civic Theatre until it folded in 1993, has signed a three-year lease with the Saint Alphonsus Parish to manage and book the 925-seat theater. Solari, who plans to spend about $25,000 upgrading the front-of-house amenities (box office, coat-check room, concessions stand, and signage), hopes to turn the underused space into a venue for emerging and midsize performing arts groups: "The Athenaeum is a great theater that has catered mostly to community theater groups in recent years." He says he'll funnel more money into renovations as it becomes available. Backstage renovations are essential if the theater is to attract more tenants, maintains Susan Lipman, executive director of Performing Arts Chicago, which has booked the theater for several performances this fall. "Nobody has put any money into that facility for a long time," she says. Lipman will try to appeal to audiences by offering valet parking and dinner-and-performance packages. Solari, who proved a pragmatic manager at Civic Stages, is working hard to interest other organizations in the Athenaeum. Groups already scheduled to appear at the theater include the Windy City Gay Chorus, the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, Winifred Haun and Dancers, River North Dance Company, Boitsov Classical Ballet, and Chicago Opera Theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Eykamp.

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