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Phoenix Chorale: Grammy Winners Turn to Facebook for Survival

It's bumper-to-bumper gridlock in the Roosevelt Historic District as eager music fans rush to find the few remaining parking spots. Some who are fortunate to score parking aren't so lucky when they reach the doors of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral — many people are being turned away from the sold-out performance. This never happened before, they grumble to the ticket takers.

Inside the picturesque church, the pews are packed. Concertgoers jockey for shoulder space along the walls. Others are allowed to sit behind the group in the sanctuary, something else that's never happened at one of these performances.

Moments later, the 27-member Phoenix Chorale takes the stage. Tonight's "Darkness and Light" program, as conductor and artistic director Charles Bruffy explains, is meant to be a meditative experience. Unlike some choirs that blah through moth-eaten material, tonight the Chorale will feature modern compositions inspired by poetry written during times of extreme highs and impossible lows.

Then it hits you, that Phoenix Chorale sound. It takes just one note from the concert's opening tune — "With a Lily in Your Hand," written by 33-year-old Eric Whit­acre — to be brought back to center by sonic whiplash.

There are the sopranos, whose relentless empyrean frequencies travel at all sorts of angles throughout the church, and a bass section that could massage the stress out of your trouble areas if you stood close enough to them. During some numbers, such as James MacMillan's "A Child's Prayer," the singers create shifting color palettes that you can almost see. Later in the concert, they nail an a capella version of U2's "MLK."

This is why the turned-away were forced to find something else to do with their Saturday night.

Much has changed for the Phoenix Chorale since it won Grammy Awards in 2008 and 2009. In the past two years, the 51-year-old group has changed its name (from the Phoenix Bach Choir); successfully performed in New York City, Seattle, and North Korea; and played to sold-out houses throughout the Valley.

In one way, all the growth and positive recognition proves that death doesn't become classical music, even when some data points to the genre's struggles. (According to SoundScan's 2009 year-end figures, sales of classical music accounted for less than three percent of all record sales.) On the other hand, the homegrown, tight-knit ensemble's successes have become an albatross to the organization's pocketbook. Like many arts-based nonprofits, the Phoenix Chorale — which some have dubbed "the new face of choral music" — has been hurt by state budget cuts and a general lack of arts funding. As a result, the organization has turned to an unlikely income source, one that anyone with a mild Internet addiction knows about.

After winning a Grammy for "Best Surround Sound Album, Classical" in 2008, the Chorale followed with the more prestigious "Best Small Ensemble Performance" in 2009, and that award really seemed to launch the group into more mainstream music minds. For example, during the '09 awards ceremony, people like ?uestlove, the famed drummer for The Roots, took notice of the group from his seat through a series of Twitter updates: "lol regional mexican album was announced and i swear 68 people walked onstage to accept"; "whew. the phoenix chorale was gonna tear this mutha out if they didn't at least get one of their noms"; "damn they [Phoenix Chorale] beat the mexicans for the most cats onstage."

Another realization was birthed at the Grammys: Aside from being beautiful to hear, these artists are stunning to look at. During the Northwest Division American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) Convention in March in Seattle, where the Chorale performed to a packed venue, the president of the convention jokingly wondered whether being beautiful was one of the Chorale's audition criteria.

Luckily, these singers, many who have been with the group for at least three years, can sing no matter what they look like.

"Each one is a talented soloist in his or her own right, but they put that ability aside to become part of the collective whole," says Sterling Beeaff, music director of the Valley's classical station, KBAQ 89.5 FM.

What's not pretty is the Phoenix Chorale's financial situation, according to the group's executive director, tenor Joel Rinsema.

"We recently lost $20,000 from the city and state. Funding amounts these days are at 1980s levels," says Rinsema, who acknowledges it's been a wonderful but tough few years for him professionally.

Several singers, who don't make anywhere close to a living wage as a group member, continue to live in the Valley just to be a part of the Chorale. Naturally, Rinsema doesn't want to lose them.

A few months ago, Rinsema, after chats with Chorale marketing director Jennifer Rogers and others, asked themselves: What if the organization asked the singers, whose collective access to friends and family members is sky-high, to fundraise for the group? He ran it by everyone and they were into it. On April 9, the organization launched the "$30K in 30 Days" campaign through the Phoenix Chorale website.

Instead of snail-mailing pledge forms, which can be easily ignored, many of the group members decided to push the fundraising effort through e-mail and wall posts on Facebook.

"I'd been on Facebook for two years and had never been hit up for money," says Rinsema, who says he hasn't received any flak for the online drive. "Using social networking for fundraising felt weird at first, but I got over the stigma pretty quickly."

The results have been remarkable. Within a week of launch, the Chorale raised close to $19,000. At press time, the pledge amount had exceeded $25,600. To Rinsema's knowledge, there aren't any other arts-based organizations in the country doing this.

The money, by the way, won't be used for lavish gifts or anything like that. Instead, the Chorale hopes to create another album in the near future (it's been close to three years since it last recorded), go on additional tours, and perform more locally. There's even been some talk of bringing in a DJ with a classical-music background for a composer's spotlight. Basically anything that will hip more people to a unique and accessible music that won't ever blow up like popular music.

"The idea of being a global success [in classical music] is a tough one. If that were the case, the New York Philharmonic would have hit records," says Beaaff of KBAQ. "I think it's enough to have the Phoenix Chorale as a great treasure in this city, state, and region. We're lucky to have them."

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Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen