Member Spotlight: Ben Olinsky, Artistic Director, 18th Street Singers
A shared passion for singing led Ben Olinsky and his friends to create the 18th Street Singers, a Washington DC-based volunteer ensemble. Over the past nine years, the group has changed in size and membership, but the goal has remained the same: to make choral music more accessible to a new generation of audiences.
How did you discover choral music?
I grew up in a family where singing around the dinner table was something we did every week. I had a love of singing from an early age. I sang all through school and actually started conducting a little a cappella group in high school. I loved how that brought people together from different kinds of backgrounds. In college at Yale, I was a music major for three years before switching to political science. But I sang with the Glee Club and an a cappella group, and conducted a couple of choirs, including the Bach Society Chorus, a madrigal ensemble, and an award-winning pop a cappella group. I really fell in love with conducting and took a number of courses in it, even spending a summer at Westminster Choir College.
How did 18th Street Singers get started?
I moved to DC right after Sept. 11 to go into public service, and found that I really missed singing. I joined several groups in town that were fantastic ensembles, but something I really missed was the strong community aspect and social bond of something like a glee club or an a cappella group. There were a lot of people I knew of who were recent college graduates who had sung in college and didn’t feel there was an outlet for them, even though DC is considered by many to be the choral capital of the country.
So in 2004, a couple of friends and I started the 18th Street Singers. Initially the choir was open to anyone who was interested in joining. Today we sometimes have 150 people auditioning for one spot. We found that young professionals who had busy work lives wanted to make high quality music and, most importantly, wanted to have a community in which to share the experience. Over the years, the group has morphed, but that is something we have always strived for—to create excellent music and do it in a way that allows us to be a community.
What do you do to create community among your singers?
We are all volunteers, so that is a sustainable model. There are no dues required for any of our members. For younger singers that is important. Two hundred fifty dollars in dues each season and a certain number of tickets you have to sell can be more difficult for someone just out of college. Twice a year, in the fall and in the spring, we go away for a weekend retreat that is fully paid for by the group. We will rehearse 10 to 12 hours but also have a lot of social bonding time and activities to pull the membership together. It’s a highlight of the season, and it allows us to accomplish a lot musically.
Being an all volunteer group creates a kind of camaraderie in the grand tradition of say, firemen at fire houses in Germany. One of my favorite stories is that Franz Biebl’s famous Ave Maria was originally written for a firemen’s choir. Singing was an avocation for them, but they produced tremendously high-quality music. For us it’s about tapping into that same community singing spirit. Many of our members are paid musicians elsewhere or they are music teachers, so we have professional-level talent, but we have all decided we want to do this as a volunteer endeavor.
One of your goals is to make choral music more accessible to a new generation of audiences. How are you doing that?
Thanks to our donors and our ability to keep costs down, we can sell tickets for as low as $10 a person. That's a big help. We also try to break down that "fourth wall" between the performers and the audience. We introduce songs and give some context, so that even our friends who have never been exposed to choral concerts can get really excited about the music. A while back we performed Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir and rather than just jumping into a 25-minute unaccompanied choral masterpiece, we told people a little about it first.
We also try to combine and contrast different types of choral music and use a lot of music from the folk tradition. For example, when we sang the Martin Mass, we programmed Irish folk tunes along with it. Our last concert was called Defining the Times: American Music through the Generations. In a nutshell, the show traced the musical history of our country from its roots. We started with William Billings and Daniel Read of the First New England School and the Shape Note tradition. But we also sang repertoire that probably few other classical choirs would take on, including jazz standards by Gershwin and other legends, and even a medley of pop hits from rock stars like Katy Perry.
Being able to do a diverse range of repertoire in a concert, we are able to pull in and hook a younger audience. I feel like I’ve done my job when I talk to different audience members after a concert and they all had a different favorite.
Your group also sings in what you might call non-traditional venues.
We do almost exclusively unaccompanied a cappella music, which allows us to take our show on the road. We have performed in some of the places you would expect—the Kennedy Center, Strathmore Hall—but we also perform at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, a venue that typically caters to people in their 20s and 30s. That venue brings in rock musicians and comedians and we were one of the first choirs they featured there. We perform for a young audience that is very enthusiastic about what we do. And we were excited to share with people who would not otherwise have experienced our style of music.
How has CA been helpful to you?
One of the things that is a challenge when starting a new choir from scratch is figuring out how to structure it financially and organizationally. Chorus America has so many resources for that. Also, just seeing what exists in other cities is helpful. There was a spotlight on a young professional choir in Cincinnati doing what we were doing. So staying connected with other choirs, seeing what the trends are, and figuring out how to set up a structure based on tried-and-true experiences of those who have come before has been tremendously helpful.
What is coming up next for 18th Street Singers?
Our concert in the fall is entitled Beauty in the Cathedral. We are highlighting music of all times that was written for large cathedral spaces. We are pairing some earlier music with more modern contemporary music using the same lyrics and text, as well as other pieces like the Howells Requiem, which set a standard for what sacred music is. We are still trying to nail down the cathedral venue for this concert.
What are your thoughts about the future of choral music?
I feel strongly that we are at a moment of opportunity. The average age in some choirs is definitely getting older. And yet, there is "The Sing-Off" on NBC, there is "Pitch Perfect," which was a surprise hit on the big screen, you’ve got a cappella groups exploding in number at colleges and now high schools, and "Glee," a show that has announced singing is cool, aimed directly at school-aged kids, no less.
So there is this wonderful upwards pressure that is bubbling over from younger Americans. And yet even with all this momentum, it’s harder than you’d think to find these young people singing in a classical setting after graduation. How do you capitalize on the buzz, and have almost a "gateway drug" to capture these young Americans once they make it into the real world after college or high school?
That is something our choir is trying to do in our small way. Now that we have nine years under our belt, we hope to meet up and help other groups that want to get started. It need not be based on age affinity, but rather on taking a fresh look at choral music and presenting it in a way that sparks a genuine connection with new audiences.