Funny how the world works. When I tell people that Octarium is in its final full season, the first response is usually an understanding nod and the question, “Artistic differences?”
And it just makes me laugh. Because the answer is, “Yes, we have artistic differences. All the time. But that’s not why we’re ending. That’s why we began.”
Over the past ten years, I’ve had the privilege of working with 18 fantastic singers and fantastic human beings; Ty Abrahamson, Michael Coakley, Andrea Coleman, J. Seth Farrow, Andrew Graves, Leah Hamilton, Megan Helm, Kate Lohmann, Shannon Marsh, Jason Parr, Lucas Pherigo, Brady Shepherd, Renee Stanley, Jaime Tanner, Jay Van Blaricum, Amy Waldron, Ashley Winters and Benjamin Winters. Each of those individuals brings their time, talent and artistic treasure to the table when we sing. They also bring their opinions and their choral baggage. And the balance between all of the artistic treasure and the choral baggage is what makes Octarium special. The founding eight and I worked together to find a relationship that became the sustainable format for our ten years; what we call a “Democratic Dictatorship.”
And it wasn’t easy. There were disagreements (we call it “disagreeance”). And fights, even. But there were also moments of discovery of a surprising and sublime level of choral teamwork that we began call “musical synergy.” It was those sublime moments of synergy we tried to build on.
We weren’t always successful but we succeeded enough that now, ten years later, Octarium is considered a force in choral music world.
But building it was hard enough that considering starting over, with new singers, as I would have had to inevitably do eventually, was daunting.
See, when I first started Octarium, all the singers lived in the Kansas City area and were young, poor college students. I could get them to come sing anywhere, anytime, for three nickels and a sandwich. And an occasional donut. Now they are in their early 30s and their priorities have changed; they are lawyers and CPAs and bankers and opera singers and arts administrators and nurses and teachers. They are having families. Some live on the west coast. Some on the east. Three nickels and a sandwich doesn’t quite cut it anymore.
I’ve always felt kind of bad for harpists because they have to lug that huge instrument around but my instrument is 8 human beings with dietary restrictions, the propensity for motion sickness and busy schedules. The harp is looking better and better.
Currently, Octarium has a core of 12 regular singers but, even with 4 extra singers, it’s hard to gather a quorum for performances, particularly performances that require in-depth rehearsal. That’s why the holiday concerts are easier than most; we have a deep repertoire of holiday music and, for the most part, any combination of the 12 I have can pull a holiday concert together in one or two rehearsals because most of them have sung most of the music before. But we can’t learn new repertoire or do big projects like Art Local or Should Have Been Choral or Masstiche in three days.
About five years ago, I decided to stop auditioning new singers. My current singers were still engaged, still passionate, but I could see the writing on the wall. Eventually, we either had to be all in if we were going to take Octarium to the next level, whatever that next level might be. And none of us, including me, were all in. Many of us had families to support by then, so we needed jobs with a reliable income. And Octarium wasn’t that. As wonderful as it has been, it’s never been financially sustainable. So as I started to struggle to bring together a group of eight to find the musical synergy in piles of new repertoire, I made a decision; I’ll take Octarium as far as it can go with the singers I currently have. I knew I was putting a shelf life on the group when I made that decision. No one really wants to scale back but no one, including myself, can make the kind of life commitment it would take to continue to grow. I cannot pay any of us enough to leave our law firms and our banks and our families to sing full time. So we scale back.
Putting together this final concert serves to prove I’ve made the right decision. Because of work schedules and new babies, we will have one rehearsal before we trot this concert out to our listening public. One rehearsal. One. Who does that? We do. We have to. The other choice is not singing at all. And that’s not really an option.
I keep saying we’ll be like Cher and Brett Favre. We’ll “retire” in quotes. And that’s true. We’ll sing holiday concerts for at least the next four years. I still have a couple of recording project ideas rattling around in my brain, plus a project that is in process right now but not yet done. I also have a couple of live performance projects I’d really like to make work in the next five years. We’ll see if I can leverage enough funding to be able to compensate the singers to make it happen.
So it’s the end. But not the end. We’ll be around.
Krista Lang Blackwood, Artistic Director