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Symphonic Choir head places art before numbers

Benjamin Britten’s choral-orchestral composition “War Requiem” will be presented by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, led by artistic director Eric Stark, at The Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind., at 8 p.m. on Sat., May 3.

Indianapolis Symphonic Choir 2013 "Festival of Carols"
Indianapolis Symphonic Choir 2013 "Festival of Carols"
Indianapolis Symphonic Choir
Michael Pettry
Indianapolis Symphonic Choir

Joining the ISC will be the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Children’s Choir, Indianapolis Men’s Chorus and the Butler University Chorale.

“War Requiem” is one of the most challenging of the musical selections of classical repertoire. It is rarely performed because of the musical demands on the performers (there are 400 in this production), expense, resources required and logistical demands associated with producing such a large scale concert.

Recently sat down with ISC executive director, Michael Pettry, who is in his ninth season at the helm, to chat about the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, his role as leader of the organization and “War Requiem,” which concludes the ISC’s 77th season.

At this juncture, what grade would you give yourself as head of the ISC?

Well, the proof is in the pudding. The numbers are strong. We’ve sold out every show last season except for one and every show so far this season. Aside from the numbers, I think we’ve put the art first, even though my job is the numbers, marketing, etc. Anytime we can put the art first, we’re doing the right thing.

What would you say your greatest accomplishment has been so far?

Growth. The choir has grown substantially. The operating budget has doubled. Revenue from individuals has quadrupled. Corporate sponsorships have increased ten-fold. Our gala revenue has grown significantly. We didn’t even have one when I started.

Have you grown your staff as well?

A little bit. We have changed the staff structure. We have four interns and seven professional staff members. We have meager staff that is pretty nimble.

Tell me about your board.

The board has undergone a complete evolution from what it was a dozen years ago. Not because of me. The organization demanded a board that was ready for the next level. We also have a strong board cultivation committee, too. It should be a strong organization which is peer selected. The board should be selecting their replacements. One of the best things about the ISC board is that they are constantly accessible. I can call any board member and say “Hey, I need a sounding board for an idea” or “I have a question” or “I am kind a lost on something.”

How is your relationship with Eric?

He’s one of my best friends. I think he’s one of the best in the business. Anywhere. Bar none. Hands down. He’s very down to earth. He picks great programming. He picks bold and risky programming but he has a mind to the bottom line. He gets it. If we are going to program something that is really big and risky, we really need to program something guaranteed to bring in an audience. My degree is in music so I want to see the best music possible. The symphonic choir doesn’t exist to balance our budget. We don’t exist to fundraise. We exist to create great music and we have to balance budgets.

What are your long term goals?

The Symphonic Choir still does not have an endowment at this point of any major significance. We need to have that. We need to look towards long term sustainability. I want to continue this growth. It’s been about 15% yearly.

What does the future hold for the ISC?

The choir needs to continue putting its art first. We need to have the best singers. We need to have the best staff, the best board and put the art first. The money will follow.

The ISC has produced some other biggies such as “Berlioz Requiem,” “Verdi Requiem,” “Bach B Minor Mass” and now it’s presenting “War Requiem.” Why do you choose such epic works?

There are two very clear answers. One, we are the folks to do them. Quite honestly, nobody else is going to do them. It’s up to the Symphonic Choir to program those pieces and the second thing is they are good business. Yes, they are expensive to produce. They are rarely performed. “War Requiem” is not performed every year. This is not a "Carmina Burana" that comes around every three years. Berlioz Requiem was 25 or 30 years ago so that’s good business. Yes, we do have “Festival of Carols” which is our equivalent of “The Nutcracker.” It helps to bring in audiences. But these big war horses are good for business.

Tell me about “War Requiem.”

The ISO will serve as the full orchestra. They have hired additional musicians to cover the chamber orchestra. There is the adult choir which is the Symphonic Choir along with the Butler Chorale and the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus. Then the Indianapolis Children’s Choir is the children’s choir that represents the angels and they sing from the back of the gallery. They sing antiphonal from the furthest balcony. Then there are three soloists on stage…soprano, tenor and baritone and the two orchestras. So the full orchestra accompanies the soprano and the adult choir. And the smaller orchestra, which is about 16 musicians, accompanies the two male singers, the tenor and the baritone, but it is all on one stage. For the most part, the large orchestra accompanies the choir, which sings the traditional Latin Requiem Mass, but the tenor and the baritone sing the Wilford Owen war poems.

What kind of interaction do you have with the ISO regarding programming for both of your organizations?

It’s a weird relationship between the ISO and the ISC, right? We share the stage for a third of our season but we are two totally separate organizations. Separate boards, separate fundraising, separate programming, separate staff, all of that. So, what is the intersect between the choir and the symphony for planning, let alone the execution of the plan? We have a great relationship with Maestro Urbanski and the staff of the ISO. Krzysztof and Eric and some of the artistic team at the ISO get together a couple of times a year and put together a wish list of “What should we be doing three years or five years from now?” The audience wants to come to something that is bold and different. They don’t want to come to something that is mundane and the same. It makes the marketing team a lot happier when it is unique and fresh.

Whose concert is “War Requiem?” Is it yours or the ISO’s?

I am glad you asked that. The goal I had when I started here was the audience. The media doesn’t need to know who’s producing it or who’s writing the check. They need to know who’s performing and what’s being performed. I don’t care who gets the credit. It doesn’t matter whether this is an ISC achievement or an ISO achievement. In this case, it’s an achievement for Benjamin Britten, for the art form, for arts and for music. And that was a goal. This is not a Symphonic Choir production. It’s not an ISO production. We are not touting that in our publicity. In the case of “War Requiem,” it’s the ISC with its skin in the game, but the only way we can do these pieces is through collaboration. Not through turf wars and ownership issues.

What can audiences expect from “War Requiem”?

I think they are going to see some beliefs, some preconceived notions and they will be challenged. It’s a vivid, perhaps even graphic work about war but also about peace and reconciliation. So I think if someone comes expecting something. It’s hard to anticipate what they’ll experience but come with an open mind, an open vessel, and they’ll receive something. I think this will be visceral. I think it will be emotional. I think it will be genuine, which is hard to find today, isn’t it?

For tickets and information about the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir’s “War Requiem” call (317) 843-3800 or visit

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