Meet a Member: Lorenzo Martinez, Houston Chamber Choir

Lorenzo Martinez wasn’t expecting to become the executive director of the Houston Chamber Choir, but his new job is, in a sense, a homecoming. “I feel extremely fortunate to have landed here and work with incredible people,” says Martinez. 

A twenty-five year veteran of social service organizations, he found himself returning to his original passion of music, just as the chorus entered its 20th anniversary season.

“I moved to Houston about two and a half years ago. I had just finished writing a book. I was going to start marketing the book and actually was not looking to get a full-time job,” he said. He was approached about opportunities that, like previous positions in his career, would require frequent travel, (“I didn’t want to go in that direction again”), or relocating to New York City (“it’s too cold! That’s why I left”), but nothing felt quite right until he saw the opportunity at the Chamber Choir.

“Music was very much in my mind at the time.I jumped on it. I didn’t have a chance to think much about it - I said yes!”

Martinez spoke with President and CEO Catherine Dehoney for an interview as part of Chorus America’s ongoing “Meet a Member” series.

What was your book about?

My book deals with my musical background. When I left Cuba I had to give up a scholarship from the government to study piano in Czechoslovakia. The story of the book is about that journey – leaving music and trying to find it again. It was published two years ago and it’s been doing very well. I did a presentation in Miami recently, and I received a citation from the mayor of Miami.

When I came over, I was part of an airlift of 14,000 children that were brought in from Cuba to this country without their parents. It was a journey to freedom and to rediscover the music in me. We were sent to a camp in Miami for five months and I had no piano there. Then we were sent to live with a family in Washington State and they had no piano. I basically thought my music days were over, until I realized this is what was going to open doors for me.

How did your career get off the ground?

I eventually came to New York for my master’s at the Manhattan School of Music, and later a doctorate in music education. I wrote a lot of children’s songs. They were performed on the program Captain Kangaroo. Not very many people nowadays know about that show. I mention it and people go, “What?” (laughing). I also had a couple books of songs for children published.

Then I went in a different direction. It was actually all because of music - I was producing a number of fundraising events for small nonprofits in New York. I was contacted by an organization to do all of their special events (mostly fundraising). I thought, all right, I’ll give it a try. I thought I would do that for a few months or a year or so, and I never left the field.

I worked for an organization that did a lot of work to help the poor, in various countries in Africa and Latin America and so forth. We did everything from hunger alleviation to training for jobs to giving women microloans.

Are there things you learned from your social service work that you have applied to guiding a chorus?

How you deal with fundraising is always the same no matter how large your organization is or what it is that you’re trying to promote. It’s all about building relationships with your donors. Even though the topics and the target audiences are different, how you market yourself is the same. You can’t just send out a press release and expect it’s going to be picked up. It’s all about developing partnerships and relationships with people who can make a difference and help you promote the organization. That’s what I bring in – lots of experience with that. The organizations that I’m familiar with are huge – $30 to $50 million budgets. But ultimately, it’s all the same.

Has anything surprised you about working for a choir?

There have been some things, like finding out we have a proposal due on the first day I arrived on the job. That surprised me! Otherwise, because I’ve been around singers before and have worked with them so much in the past, there’s nothing that suddenly came as a big surprise. As a child I always sang. Then I sang in college, I accompanied many choirs, and I used to do a lot of coaching.

What has it been like joining the staff as a new addition in the midst of an anniversary year?

It’s really exciting because we are at a crossroads. We are growing rapidly. Our funding is increasing, our audience is increasing. We just did a performance at the Miller Outdoor Theater in Houston and we had 7,000 people in the audience, which was a record for us. This is where I can use background in marketing and fundraising to help the organization keep growing. The fact that we’ve been around for this long is quite a milestone. It’s very exciting for me to be part of it.

Do you have any special plans for your anniversary?

We have two specific goals. Right now we are doing a music program with one school, and we are hoping to add one or two schools to the program this year. Also, we want to attract a more ethnically diverse audience. We’re doing a program of Mexican composers in March. A whole program had not been devoted to a specific country like this before. There is a large Hispanic population here in Houston that we need to attract. This particular concert will be very interesting because it will present polyphonic works from the 16th century to present-day works by contemporary composers, so it will be a very diverse program. I have been in touch with various Hispanic groups here in Houston, and they are very interested in helping us promote that concert, as well as some of the other concerts.

What is the biggest challenge facing your chorus?

Keeping attendance at a certain level. Our donors are getting older and we really need to attract a younger audience. I think that’s something that most arts organizations are facing. So I think that will be the challenge in the future. We’re beginning to look into that. I think doing more outreach programs in the schools will be very helpful, and programming concerts that appeal to a younger generation.

What would you say to choruses about being inclusive and reaching diverse audiences?

I think it really all depends on programming. There are certain audiences that will be attracted to something that rings true to their legacy. If you only program Bach or Mozart or Brahms, that will appeal to a certain audience. But I think if you really want to have a diverse audience, you have to start thinking, how do I connect with their history; the music that they grew up with. Even if those people are interested in the classics, I have to make sure they understand that they are important. I know that by developing programs that will address those issues, they will be excited to come. Maybe they don’t get that very often from other groups.

Has Chorus America helped you thus far in your tenure?

I actually have already signed up for a webinar that’s coming up. That’s one of the great things Chorus America provides-all these resources for people like me, who are still learning. And I’m planning to attend the 2016 Conference in Cincinnati.

I think people should use these resources as much as possible. For me, being so new to the field and to the organization, it’s important, but I think that anyone can benefit from what Chorus America has to offer. I know that it’s easy to get busy with the day-to-day work and forget that these things are available, but you need to take the time to make use of what’s there for you. I encourage everyone to do that.

When you take off your choral hat, what else is important to you?

Reading is a big hobby. I don’t even think of it as a hobby, because when you have to write, you have to read a lot to learn from the best. I also love to go out to restaurants and cook.

Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.

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