Rick Perdian spoke with Michael Brofman, founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Art Song Society, about the impact of the pandemic on the organization and its plans for the future
In the midst of its tenth anniversary season, the Brooklyn Art Song Society (BASS) had to cancel everything when New York became the global epicenter of the novel coronavirus in March. For its 2020-21 season, BASS is going digital and will celebrate the legacy of Franz Schubert, the first and arguably the greatest composer of German Lieder, with five programs of more than 100 of his songs. In addition, BASS will launch the New Voices Festival, which seeks to reimagine the art song for the twenty-first century.
Rick Perdian: What was your reaction to the cancellation of the remainder of BASS’s season in March?
Michael Brofman: The first decision I made was that, no matter what, we would pay our artists. We’ve all accepted the new reality of canceled seasons, but it’s hard to overstate how gut-wrenching it was to see every one of my colleagues’ careers vanish overnight. In my mind there were two ways it could all go down: either this was the end of the road, so we might as well end BASS with one last noble gesture, or this was the beginning of a long hard fight for survival, and our only hope was to keep the goodwill and trust of our community.
RP: Where did the money come from?
MB: We were able to pay the artists for all our canceled concerts and remain on solid financial footing thanks to several factors: the support of the Brooklyn Public Library (which honored our contract in return for a digital program), the Brooklyn Historical Society (which allowed us to delay our rental contract), the generosity of BASS’s board and donors who stepped up incredibly, and our overall history of tight fiscal management, which kept our overhead low enough to bear the brunt of the storm.
RP: The pandemic wasn’t the first global crisis that BASS has weathered, was it?
MB: The financial collapse of 2008, which coincided with my planning for the first season of BASS, forced me to figure out how to stretch a dollar and how to be nimble and flexible at a time when the cumbersome too-big-to-fail-ness of large institutions was driving the world into a ditch. It’s in this organization’s DNA to face tough situations head on and to find a path forward despite the odds.
RP: Weren’t you also facing some personal challenges in 2008?
MB: I developed a debilitating case of tendonitis in my senior year of college. During what I call ‘the dark year’, I could only muster 10 to 15 minutes of playing before the pain became unbearable. That limited time was devoted to practicing Schumann’s Dichterliebe for an accompanying class. I also spent my copious amounts of free time studying and listening to art song, further ingraining my love for the repertoire.
RP: Did these prior crises impact your planning for the future?
MB: I’ve been thinking a lot in our planning for this coming season about BASS’s ‘origin story’. I also found myself reflecting on my ‘dark year’, seeing so many of my colleagues facing so much hardship. Art song literally saved my life; to repay the debt I feel a responsibility to make sure this music is here now, when it’s needed the most.
RP: What drove the decision to go digital?
MB: After the original fallout, the question was, what’s next? The beginning of my thought process was that we have to do something, and it has to be something that we know, no matter what will actually happen. Unlike giant institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera or New York Philharmonic, we can’t rely on mega-donors to keep us afloat even if we aren’t offering a service. We also don’t have the infrastructure to deal with large-scale refunds and general uncertainty. But we did have one advantage over those organizations, in that we could do the art form as intended. Social distancing will force orchestras and opera houses to present something radically different from their usual product, but two performers standing six feet apart is par for the course in art song. The only problem was the safety of the audience, which we solved with our new Digital Concert Hall.
RP: How will the Digital Concert Hall work?
MB: We will be filming the concerts live in one take and putting them up on the platform 24 hours after we shoot. Once they are up, they are there for good: subscribers can watch the concerts as many times as they like. I’ve described the Digital Concert Hall to friends as ‘Netflix for Art Song’. All the concerts will come with a lot of goodies: texts and translations, program notes and a video pre-concert lecture, which has been a regular feature of our recitals, but with geography not being a barrier we were able to get scholars from all over the world. We will also be having a series of live introductions to each concert as they are released on Zoom and Facebook so that there is a real-time component to the season.
RP: What will the upcoming season look like?
MB: The 2020-2021 season includes two series that have been dreams of mine for a while now. I planned them both long before COVID, and I’m really elated that, despite everything, we are able to present our season’s programming as planned. First, from October to March, BASS will present Schubert, a series of six recitals that show the brilliance, emotional breadth and profound beauty of his musical voice. We are doing the three cycles – Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and Schwanengesang – and two themed programs entitled ‘Nacht’ and ‘Liebe’, as well as a bonus concert of additional beloved songs. I’m particularly excited about the bonus program, which is going to be ‘pay what you want’ to reach as wide an audience as possible.
RP: The songs of Schubert, who died at the age 31, in many ways speak to this moment, don’t they?
MB: I’ve found renewed relevance in Schubert’s music. So much of it is about experience that we all have shared these last few months: feeling alone, longing for a lost past, trying to find meaning in suffering.
RP: And then there is the New Voice Festival that will also be part of the BASS’s 2020-21 season.
MB: In April, we kick off the inaugural New Voices Festival, a series dedicated to song in the twenty-first century. The theme of this year’s programming is Past/Present/Future, with each work taking an element of the art song tradition and finding a way to make it fresh and new. We are presenting 15 works by living composers and six of them are world premieres.
RP: Can you tell us something about what’s in the pipeline?
MB: One of the works we are commissioning that I’m most excited about is Katherine Balch’s new song cycle, which will be a sequel to Schumann’s Dichterliebe told from the point of view of the woman. For the cycle, BASS has also commissioned new poems by the incredible American poet and essayist Katie Ford. In addition, the series will include a re-setting of Schubert’s Schwanengesang by the brothers Brad and Doug Balliett, and a new song cycle on texts from George Eliot novels by Libby Larsen. The other three commissions are by Daron Hagen, James Kallembach, and Scott Wheeler. The festival will also include recent works by Tom Cipullo, Daniel Felsenfeld, Jennifer Higdon, James Matheson, Harold Meltzer, James Primosch and Kurt Rohde.
RP: I take it that you see light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
MB: If there’s one take away I want our audience to have from this season, it’s that art song must and will endure. That this is not the time to despair and mourn the loss of classical music, but to fight and forge a path forward. This crisis is brutal and painful, but it also grants us the awesome responsibility to make sure the music we love is here for the next generation. I am, believe it or not, more optimistic and hopeful than ever about BASS and the future of classical music.
For more information on the Brooklyn Art Song Society, click here.