from Jeff Parola’s Blog (Re-Posted Here)…On CC’s Performance 4/18

Last night marked an important moment in my life and career, as my oratorio, Such Beautiful Things, was brought into the world through a stunning premiere performance by Vince Peterson’s Choral Chameleon in New York City. Joined by Choral Chameleon was Christina Borgioli (soprano), Colleen Coussinat (mezzo-soprano), Kannan Vasudevan (tenor), Christopher DeVage (baritone), and Brad Whiteley & Jason Wirth (pianists).

The house was fuller than expected, and extra rows of chairs were added just minutes ahead of the performance to accommodate the large crowd. At the end of the performance, the audience burst into applause, and immediately rose to their feet in a standing ovation.

The performers certainly deserved the accolades. The choir fully embodied the dramatic nature of their role(s), and communicated each and every note, gesture, and sentiment masterfully. The soloists blew away the audience with their gorgeous sound and range of expression. The pianists were hard at work for the entire duration of the hour-long piece, and did it with jaw-dropping artistry and technical facility.

None of this would have been possible without Vince Peterson, whose remarkable artistic vision served as the impetus for the project. Nor would the piece have been so successful were it not for Tony Asaro, whose masterpiece-of-a-libretto inspired every note of the oratorio. His gift of prose and theatrical intuition is nothing short of genius.

A million thanks to the fantastic audience for being a part of last night’s premiere, and for the openness and enthusiasm with which the piece was received. I would also like to thank Choral Chameleon’s board, donors, and patrons for all of the time, energy, and resources they’ve invested in the group, and for making all of this happen.

I am utterly and eternally grateful for the work of each and every artist involved in the performance. From the bottom of my heart, thank you Choral Chameleon, Vince, Tony, Christina, Colleen, Kannan, Christopher, Brad, and Jason!

If inside your open ear,
There’s an open heart and mind there,
Then you will clearly hear
Such beautiful things.

(from the very last lines of Such Beautiful Things)

Jeff Parola Writes about “Such Beautiful Things”

Last year, in the spring of ’09, Vince played with a few thematic ideas for the upcoming April 18 concert. By then, he had chosen Conrad’s Susa’s Hymns for the Amusement of Children, and used that piece as the concert’s thematic impetus. For my composition, we considered using other texts by Christopher Smart, until Vince found the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Traveling Musicians. He thought the fairy tale element would fit in well with the “children” component of the concert, and might be feasibly turned into an extended choral work. The idea immediately grabbed me, but I thought the text was too narration-heavy to set to music, and I suggested that it be transformed into a libretto. Vince called librettist Tony Asaro, and the rest is history.

What I love most about the Brothers Grimm tale is the universality of its central message: the imperative to value, accept, and appreciate citizens who are wrongly viewed as useless, lesser, irrelevant, which is a timeless theme when relating to social issues. It was especially meaningful for me to work on the piece during the current economic crisis, since art institutions and programs were among the first to feel the pain of budget cuts, which strongly suggests that the general view of the role of the arts in our culture is that they are secondary. I thought about this issue frequently as I wrote the music. I knew back in the spring of ’09 that we were onto something, but the process of composing the work showed me that people will walk away from the experience of this piece with their own personal understanding of the message.

Tony Asaro’s poetic and dramatic libretto, Such Beautiful Things, paints each animal character as undignified cogs in the industrial machine of the farm. Dejected and downtrodden, they longingly dream of an idyllic land called the “Open Country,” a place where they will be valued for their individual gifts. The farm and the Open Country are conceptually opposite states-of-being (oppression vs. liberty). Tony built the structure of his libretto around this dichotomy by demonstrating what life is like on the farm in three farm scenes, and conversely by revealing the hopes and dreams of the characters in the traveling sequences.

In the three farm scenes, the music is rough and serious, and it moves like a factory machine, much like a conveyor-belt on an assembly line. All members of the farm are fully committed to the work at hand, even though it seems meaningless to their individual existence. In these movements, the audience sees why the farm is a place from which the main characters want to escape.

The traveling sequences are, in essence, daydreams in the minds of the characters, which accompany and motivate their journey northward. They fantasize of what life might be like in the utopic Open Country. The music is filled with longing and tenderness, and is strikingly different in comparison to the music of other movements. The mere idea of the Open Country is enough to make them forget the harsh reality of their life on the farm, and the music helps the audience accomplish that, too.

The chorus plays the largest role in Such Beautiful Things. They represent the relentless activity of the farm, they serve as narrators, sometimes they act as actual characters (farmer, robbers, the farm crowd), they embody the action of the journey within the traveling sequences, etc. The music for the chorus is technically demanding, and requires the excellent musicianship of a group like Choral Chameleon. It also demands theatrical flexibility since the chorus plays many roles as characters, places, and psychological states-of-being.

When writing for the soloists, I was most concerned with communicating the essence of each character. The Ass (baritone) is wise and old, and even though he is unhappy on the farm, he approaches his emancipation with a sense of peace and calm. The Dog (tenor), on the other hand, is angst-ridden and highly emotional, and focuses intensely on his personal suffering. The Cat (mezzo-soprano chanteuse) is a whimsical, fun character who is gutsy, restless, and far more casual than the others. The Cock (soprano) is virtuosic, loud, and showy, often singing in the stratosphere to ensure he captures everyone’s attention.

The piece as a whole is diverse in terms of style and genre, blending elements of opera, contemporary concert music, minimalism, musical theater, and popular music. Sometimes it feels like a musical theater piece, other times a classic oratorio. And as it develops, it even feels like an opera. I chose to do this for two reasons: 1. Choral Chameleon prides itself on its ability to transcend barriers of style and genre, and 2. Tony Asaro’s libretto offers many opportunities to be all of these things; consequently, the piece also begged to be all of these things. It also seems fitting for a tale about musicians seeking freedom to be artists.

It has been a great joy to work on Such Beautiful Things, and I would like to thank Vince Peterson for his inspiring vision to make this happen. He is the reason all of this came to be. I must thank Tony Asaro for his incredible libretto, which was so easy to set because it is, in and of itself, a brilliant piece of music. Further, I would like to thank Choral Chameleon for their rare enthusiasm for new music, and their good will to composers like me. It is a rare privilege to work with a group that is fully motivated by their supreme love of music.

– Jeffrey Parola

Tony Asaro Works With Jeff Parola, Such A Beautiful Thing

by Andrew Cook-Feltz

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Composer/lyricist/singer/musical übermensch Tony Asaro has collaborated with Choral Chameleon’s composer-in-residence, Jeff Parola, in an extensive oratorio that will be unveiled at the concert on April 18th:  Hymns For The Amusement of Children.

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It’s not always easy for me to find blog topics to write about.  Hoping he’d jump at this opportunity, when I approached Tony about doing an interview for the Chameleon blog, he reacted with just as much humility as could be expected.

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“Talk about myself? Gosh, I wouldn’t know where to begin… Hang on, let me get out my prepared note cards.

Of course! Sounds fun!!!”

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How did you become involved in this composition with Jeff Parola?

Vince [Peterson, artistic director of Choral Chameleon] approached me about the commission in an email.  The email’s subject was “A Favor…”, as if it was somehow an imposition!  The idea was to adapt the Brothers Grimm fable The Traveling Musicians into a full length narrative work for choir.  I read the story, and I jumped at the chance to be involved.  The chance to write something of this scope with a composer like Jeff, and performed by the Chameleon?!  Hardly a favor!

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Did you know Jeff Parola prior to Vince Peterson and the CC connection?

I didn’t know Jeff until Vince introduced us.

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What do you think of Jeff Parola as a composer? Any favorite compositions you’ve heard?

I love Jeff’s music.  I listened to a bunch of his things online after we’d been introduced.  His In Pace and De Profundis are gorgeous.  He has a way of building sound and volume that isn’t like anything I’ve ever heard before.

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Where did the inspiration for the libretto of Such Beautiful Things come from? Are any of the characters based on real-life situations, people, events?

The Brothers Grimm fable tells the story of four animals ejected from their respective farms who all band together to become a music ensemble.  Together, they defeat a band of robbers and settle into a house together.  After reading the story, Vince, Jeff and I discussed the themes of the piece, discussed the romanticism (individual vs. corrupt society) of it, and we began to flesh out that metaphor.  We also drew parallels to how the story relates to the current state of choral music.  The characters in Such Beautiful Things are archetypes that represent current trends in the choral world.

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So, who are these characters exactly?

The four characters are ass, dog, cat, and cock.
  1. The ass represents the choristers whose choral experience is underfunded, underattended or even disbanded due to lack of support.
  2. The dog represents the choristers who sing for dictator choir directors using their position punitively towards their choir.  Choristers that sing because they are afraid, not because they love it.
  3. The cat represents choristers stuck in the “choral factory” choirs–the predictable programming: holiday carol concerts with unvarying rep, the Brahms requiem once a year… The choirs that don’t ever take risks, and don’t ever create, don’t ever challenge themselves nor their audience.
  4. The cock represents energetic choristers (specifically new choral composers) with so much to say, but suffering from a lack of opportunity–no real way to break in to the established scene.choral chameleon choral chameleon choral chameleon choral chameleon choral chameleon

What was the process like? Were you submitting materials back and forth electronically?

We opted for a traditional “opera-style” collaboration in which the libretto is completed before the composer starts writing.  We started with initial meetings (largely done on iChat) to talk about how the adaptation would work.  Then I began writing.  Over the course of about a month, I wrote a 23 page libretto.  I sent that off to Jeff to peruse.  (Vince also took a look as well, though he was very intent on not influencing our writing process.)  The piece was far too long which I knew, and then Jeff and I discussed how to whittle it down.  In the end, I was able to bring the libretto down to sixteen pages.  Then, Jeff began the composition process.

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Do you think this piece is most suitable for kids?

Actually, no.  The simplicity of the source material suggested simplicity to me for the libretto.  I wanted the choral piece to be as much an allegory as the original fable, and allegories are simple.  Metaphorically, however, the piece is no children’s story.  In an allegory, abstract ideas and principles are represented by simple characters.

Also, though the themes in our piece are complex, overly complicated text does not lend itself to being set to music.  One thing that is important to remember when you’re writing words that are intended to be musicalized is that you need to leave room for the composer to do his/her job.  Once musicalized, the words take on greater weight.  I wager that the finished product will not come across as intended for children.

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About how much time was spent on this project? Was the majority of the work done in a small chunk of time, or was it spread out?

The work was spread out.  I have emails about the piece dating back to February of last year.  Most of my contribution was done last spring and summer.  Jeff is still writing! [as of late January, 2010]

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What is the difference, for you, to work on a dramatic piece for a choir rather than a staged production?

This is something I had to think a lot about.  “Why tell this story with a choir?”  For one thing, the direct parallel to the world of choral music mandated a choral response.  But more concretely, I tried to construct the piece in a way that used the choral ensemble as the main story telling conceit.  Instead of having the four characters moving on a set with costumes and lighting etc, the choir provides the setting, and the environment.  Even the main adversary of the protagonists is represented by the ensemble!  Lastly, the choir becomes a Brechtian narrator who delivers the message to the audience.

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What are you most proud of in your  compositional history?

Oh, my favorite is Our Country.  It’s the piece I’m most proud of currently.  (The most recent production of the show starred Chameleon Jeremy Pasha!)

What else is going on in your compositional/directorial/musician life? What are you currently excited about musically?

I’m very excited about my new musical in development, Going Nowhere—a present day adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native set in a fictional suburb of San Francisco.  On this project, I’m writing music and lyrics and am collaborating with playwright Dan Moyer.  I just premiered three songs from the show two weeks ago, and they went over very well.  (One was sung by Chameleon Katie Zaffrann, and Vince Peterson accompanied!)

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Alright, you fans of choral music, you.  You might want to do yourself a solid and come hear the world premiere of “Such Beautiful Things”, music by Jeff Parola, words by Tony Asaro, on April 18th, 2010.

But before you do, I sense a second interview with the composer himself in the making!

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Responses written by Tony Asaro himself, with mild editing done by Andrew Cook-Feltz.  All editing was done tastefully and with highest care.

Why Should Anyone Care About A Choir?

                                 

 

by Andrew Cook-Feltz                                                       Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon

The other day I was walking down the sidewalk on my way home from work, and I started to quietly sing the bass line of the SATB choral song “Choose Something Like A Star” by Randall Thompson.  Choral Chameleon sang this song at our concert in December.  The bass line, in and of itself, is simple and step-wise.  There is nothing special about it.  In fact, that’s true of the bass line in most choral pieces.  If the bass line were to stand all by itself, if it were to be the only existing melody in the song, that song would probably suck.

Choral Chameleon sings at the Day of the Dead concert on Nov. 1st, 2009 in New York City.

CChameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleon Choral Chameleonhoral  That’s one of the truths about choral singing, that the individual voice parts alone do not regularly provide a lovely musical experience.  It’s the combination of voices, the harmonies, the sweeping chords and eerie dissonances that compel the listener. 

Without one another, a choir is empty, incomplete.

Perhaps this is why choral groups are not always given the same amount of attention as a solo act.  Perhaps it’s easier to identify with one voice, with one sound, rather than a robust group of voices.  It also appears that broadway shows and professional opera productions receive more credibility and larger audiences than professional choral ensembles, unless they have big name soloists or immensely popular oratorios on the bill.

It’s been my experience as a professional singer, as an insider on this topic, that choral singers (myself included) are often regarded as underlings when compared to opera singers.  The large, projected classical voice is quite thoroughly treated as more legitimate, more deserving of attention and merit than the subtle choral voice which thrives in nuance and collective sound.  It’s certainly alluring to an audience member to attend an opera, to see a story unfold with lights, staging, costumes and a full orchestra.  Yet, even today’s audiences, who have been exposed to blockbuster action movies and hundreds of tv channels, can easily become indifferent to the classic tales of the opera, preferring instead the solace of an iMax movie theater for a fraction of the cost of an opera ticket.  It’s difficult for me to convince my non-singer friends, as enthusiastic as I may be, to attend one of my choir concerts, especially given that they rarely feature staging, costumes, lighting, or a plot.  It would appear that to enjoy a choir concert, you first need to enjoy choral music.

Why should anyone care about choral music?

Choral Chameleons (from top left) Greg Cicchino, Erol Gurol, Jeremy Pasha, Leigh Trifari, Julie Waters and Betsy Jilka

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 Professional choralists tend to be highly-skilled, technical musicians with years of training.  They tend to be excellent with pitch, intonation, musical markings and phrasing.  They are excellent listeners, with an intuitive ability to match timbre and color in such a way that a unified sound is achieved.  It’s been said that there is strength in numbers.  Anyone who has enjoyed a choir concert can attest to the rarest of moments, when something magical takes place.  The looks on the faces of the singers… their bodies breathing as one entity… their voices ebbing and flowing in effortless synchronization… emotions taking over [Click Here and listen to Choral Chameleon sing “Choose Something Like A Star” ]  There is nothing as powerful as a group of people working together toward the same goal.  This is why choral music is still important.  In a world of tragedy, desolation, and human misery, it’s the job of artists to inspire and communicate their messages of harmony and truth to the rest of the world.  All art is relevant, and also can be irrelevant.  Art derives from the word artifice, and can sometimes feel “put-on.”  Yet sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.  When a choir makes an emotional statement, they’re not just creating art, they are joining forces to musically capture an idea, and to express that to everyone around them.

And that is why Choral Chameleon is relevant, because we communicate different messages through changing styles of music.  We go through a cycle of changes when we sing one style, and then another, and continue to move into yet another style- yet we remain ourselves.  We reveal ourselves in different time periods, in different ideas.  We let people know that it’s okay to let their guard down, to be expressive under any and all circumstances.

That is why professional choral music is just as important as all art- it makes people feel something.

Gearing Up For The Next Concert

Choral Chameleon is back, and better than ever, with an exciting program for the concert on April 18th, 2010. (laimen and laiwomen out there, that’s a clickable link to buy advance tickets!)

Among other wonderful songs we are presenting at the upcoming concert, a brand new oratorio by composer-in-residence Jeffrey Parola will be unveiled (with a libretto by Tony Asaro!)

Also happening in the upcoming weeks are some behind-the-scenes performances by various Chameleons at schools… and other fundraisers yet to be scheduled.

We’re taking over New York, one song at a time!

And be sure to check out some photos from the Day of the Dead concert, taken by the ever-so-talented Amanda Peskin.  More to come soon.


Choose Something Like A New Decade

To the hundreds of thousands of Choral Chameleon fans out there who have been dying for a blog update, never fear, there are new posts about to arrive in the beginning of 2010.  What a busy holiday season it has been in New York!  Luckily, some of the behind-the-scenes dedication of various Chameleons has resulted in the website hosting two incredible performances from the Dec. 12th concert:  “Choose Something Like A Star” and “Give Me A Star.”  Click here to hear! 

These are two very enjoyable performances, with messages of hope and peace to guide us all into the new year.  We hope you’ll listen.  And never fear, the blog will be back in full force before you even know it.

From all the Chameleons, Happy New Year!

Jeffrey Parola, The Star Who Composed “Stars”

Jeffrey Parola is a brilliant, visionary composer who has blessed Choral Chameleon with his musical talents for the 2009-2010 season.  I interviewed him about his latest composition for the Dec. 12th concert.

You visited New York City the week of Choral Chameleon’s Day of the Dead concert.  How was your trip?

Most of my visits to New York have been spent playing tourist; but venturing to New York to hear my works performed added a layer of significance to this particular visit.  The Chameleon concert was THE major highlight, in addition to visiting friends and walking the grand city streets.

 


What did you take away from the Choral Chameleon concert on Nov. 1? 

I was moved by the programming, and felt that the difficult subject of death was treated in a unique, beautiful way.  Though I enjoy All Souls Day concerts that feature Mozart, Brahms, and Faure requiems, I loved the variety of repertoire on Chameleon‘s Day of the Dead concert, which offered a diversity of perspectives on death.

What was it like to hear the choir sing your pieces “Giant Mirror” and all three movements of “Sempiterna?”

I enjoyed hearing Giant Mirror come back to life.  I wrote it in 2004 for a choral composition competition at the San Francisco Conservatory, at which it received its first and last performance, until Chameleon resurrected it.

Sempiterna has a special place in my heart, since I wrote it to commemorate my grandfather’s death. I think it worked well in the context of the Day of the Dead concert, and I liked that each of the three movements were spread throughout the program. The choir did a fantastic job, especially with “In pace,” as they seemed to master the phrasing of that movement.

Choral Chameleon’s Dec 12th concert is called “Choose Something Like A Star” after the Randall Thompson choral piece of the same title.  I first sang this in honor choir in 9th grade!  What’s your history with this work?

Choral Chameleon brought Thompson’s piece to my attention about a month ago, prior to which I had never heard it.  I did a little research, and listened to it a few times. Limited listenings have not yet inspired informed opinions, though, I do find it beautiful on the surface.

 Vince Peterson (artistic director of CC) encouraged me to write a piece connected to the “star” theme of the concert, which led me to seek star poetry.  I found a great poem by Robert Frost, who also penned the poem on which Thompson’s piece is based. Thus, there is a connection between my and Thompson’s pieces.

What is the title of your new composition for Choral Chameleon’s holiday concert?

The new composition is called Stars, based on Frost’s 1915 poem of the same name.

From where did the inspiration for this composition come? 

As I said above, I sought to write a piece thematically consistent with the December concert’s theme. Initially, I though I would write a “Christmas Star” piece, but the poetry I found did not move me.  Then I thought I would find something a bit subtler, and looked for “star” poems that might somehow relate to Christmas.  I found some great ones by Blake, Hopkins, Rossetti, and others, but the one that caught my eye was Frost’s Stars. I found myself immediately attracted to its sense of wonderment, awe, loneliness and isolation.

I initially doubted the poem’s relationship to Christmas. However, after some thought, I realized a connection could be made by focusing on the events that led to the birth of Jesus.  As Joseph and Mary sought shelter to prepare for Jesus’ birth, turned away by several people along the way, they must have felt lonely, doubtful and skeptical that what was about to happen was truly an act of God.  The evening sky, the chill of the night air, and the cold indifference of fellow man must have created for them layers of immense physical and psychological difficulty.  Though Christmas is often celebrated cheerfully, it is ironic that Jesus’ birth was achieved with a large amount of apprehension and anxiety.

How much of “Stars” had been written prior to Choral Chameleon’s Day of the Dead concert?

None of it!

Did hearing the choir perform influence your new composition? Did you get new ideas after the choir’s sound was fresh in your ear?

Hearing the choir gave me insight as to how I should play to Chameleon‘s strengths.  I noticed that the group sounded best when singing vertically, when all of the vowels and consonants matched from soprano to bass.  So, Stars is a bit more homophonic than my other choral works.  Also, while writing it, I kept in mind that Chameleon would have little time to rehearse the piece ahead of the concert, and I minimized the piece’s difficulty-level, whileattempting to express the sophisticated message of Frost’s poem.

When you compose something, do you gain a sense of completion and think, “it’s over, it’s completely finished” or does it tend to feel unfinished?

The double bar line at the end of my compositions rarely indicates completion, and each piece undergoes a heavy editing process. Even though there’s always room for improvement, I eventually let go and move on. I think of my compositions as having their own lives, and at some point I need to let them live on their own beyond the formation I initially gave them. So, in that sense, yes, I think my compositions feel finished after they’ve matured a bit.

How does your new composition compare to your other pieces CC has sung this year?

Sempiterna explores the process of death, which concludes with a clear message of peace. Giant Mirror answers the “why are we here?” question, and celebrates it.

Conversely, Stars is skeptical and, perhaps, somewhat nihilistic. The stars in the sky, though ageless and beautiful, are indifferent to our short lives here on this earth. What we do in this life seems to mean nothing to them, and goes unnoticed…if my interpretation of Frost’s poem is accurate, that is!

The resulting musical material attempts to express a longing awe inspired by viewing the beautiful starlit sky, while simultaneously evoking the loneliness and vulnerability of the viewer.

Are you coming to the Dec. 12 concert?

Yes, I will be there, and I am excited to see and hear Chameleon again!  It is such an honor to know and write for such a great group of talented people.

How is your large work for the April concert coming along? 

I’ve finished all of the choruses for Such Beautiful Things, and am about to send Vince a stack of music so he can study them over break! The solo movements are in the works, and will be done soon. I’m thrilled by and proud of this piece, and I hope Chameleon and the audience enjoy it.

Working with librettist, Tony Asaro, has been a great source of inspiration and joy for me. His lyrics sing right off the page, and it’s been incredibly easy to set his text.

Such Beautiful Things is based on a Grimm’s tale, The Traveling Musicians, which tells the story of musicians – in the form of various animal characters – who are scorned by their respective societies. Each musician escapes the oppressive grip of their society, meeting other musicians in like-situations along the way, hoping to find a place where they might be valued for who they are and what they do.

This story can be applied to many socio-political realities, which makes its message that much more profound. I have found that working on it during the current economic crisis to be quite timely, since the arts are almost always the first victim of a budget cut. It is easy for an artist in this day and age to feel meaningless, devalued, and unappreciated when society is quick to pull support for the arts.

Having said that, the story ends with hope, as the musicians find a place where they can make music, and fear nothing for it.

This blog is written by Andrew Cook-Feltz.