I recently attended a performance at Carnegie Hall of Requiem and Cantata Memoria for the Children by Sir Karl Jenkins. I didn’t know either piece, but I was moved by the performance.
I was also impressed by the fact that there was not only an orchestra, but also several hundred singers in the chorus on stage. I tried contemplating the logistics of putting such a group together, but my mind kept short circuiting. So, I met with Iris Derke, the Co-Founder and General Director of Distinguished Concerts International (DCINY) which produced the concert, and Andrea Niederman, Associate Director of Marketing and Promotions and Box Office. I attended the concert as DCINY’s guest.
Liz Daly: Now that I’ve seen one of your concerts, I’d like to get a sense of what you do, and what your impetus was for founding DCINY – I think it’s a unique entity.
Iris Derke: The start of DCINY … Jonathan (co-founder Maestro Jonathan Griffith) and I are both musicians – Jonathan is a very fine conductor as you saw – and my background is as a flautist and a concert promoter. I’ve always enjoyed the behind-the-scenes of what makes these concerts happen. We had both worked with companies that had done similar types of things – at one point we worked together for the same company, which we left and pursued different paths.
I started receiving phone calls from people I had worked with who said, “Can you help me make a concert happen?” Jonathan had a similar circumstance, and since we had worked well together, we decided to do a couple of concerts. We’re both passionate about what we do and the people who called us are passionate. We learned very quickly that when you bring passionate people together, who have some know-how, you can make big things happen. That first season we did, I believe, 12 events, when we thought we would only do a few. We decided that the first concert would be the music of Karl Jenkins – that was January 2008 – and it’s grown to us celebrating our 10th anniversary next January, again with Karl Jenkins – we’ve commissioned a major work from him.
Liz: How many projects do you do a year?
Iris: About 20 to 24. Our main stage events, like the Jenkins concert, average 12 to 15. Of the remainder, some we do in Weil Recital Hall, featuring solo artists and small chamber ensembles; we also feature smaller choirs and instrumental groups at Alice Tully Hall and other types of events.
Liz: Let’s talk about how an event like the one I saw comes together – a couple of hundred people on stage – and they’re not all from the Bronx and Brooklyn – how far in advance do you start this…. (Editor’s note: the chorus is comprised of singers and chorus members from professional, semiprofessional, and amateur ensembles, as well as individual singers, from around the world)
Iris: Right now we’re working one to three years in advance. Our 2018 season is pretty much built, and we have interest for 2019 already being tagged.
The choirs that you saw on stage were the work of conversations and relationships of our whole team: me, Jonathan and our development team reaching out to choirs, conductors, composers and artists around the world. Some were referred to us. We also have about a 40% return rate of choirs and directors, who, once they’ve done it, have to come back again. All choirs go through a rigorous audition process; we want to make sure that they’re of a certain level, that they’re pointed towards the right repertoire, the right conductor, that it’s the right fit for that particular entity. When those choirs arrive in New York they’re already fully prepared, so that the work in New York is about fitting them together as one large ensemble.
Liz: I was going to ask about how you rehearse such a large group, because it looked like you had about 20 different choirs onstage.
Iris: We had 10 to 12 different choirs with each act, for approximately 280 to 290 singers; those are the types of voices and the types of power you need for the works we do. That’s why we very much pair projects with the right choirs. We wouldn’t do a Bach suite with 300 voices, but a Handel’s Messiah, like we did in the fall, is glorious when you’ve got so many voices.
Liz: How long is the final rehearsal when they all come to New York?
Iris: Everyone arrives already fully prepared – that’s integral to the success of the performance. When they’re here they have two half days of rehearsals – choir and piano with a conductor – those are quite intense. But, many see it as the most important part of the residency, because it’s very much a workshop; we want them to go back as an even better choir than they were when they got here. Then we have the general rehearsal at the hall, which puts everything together with our professional orchestra and soloists… and then the performance. It’s a lot of very good work done in a very intense, focused amount of time.
Liz: You’ve been doing this for almost ten years now, and I’m sure that your background and Jonathan’s make it easier.
Iris: For us at DCINY it’s almost ten years, but the collective experience – Jonathan has conducted around the world and he’s also an educator; I’ve been producing events and performing for well over 20 years, and our team: our development, production, promotion and PR teams, Andrea and audience development… so much talent, passion and drive with our team – it’s impressive what can be accomplished when you harness that energy with one focus. There are so many aspects to what we do and what we enjoy doing.
Liz: What are the major challenges to putting on a concert?
Iris: We don’t have two days here that are the same, and we have a team of people who embrace that. You need to have that flexibility in the arts in order to produce the best possible results. It’s that happenstance of life and logistics that I think we see as a plus: flying in for 23 hours from New Zealand, the bus not being at the airport, not being in the right seat at the beginning of the performance, but ending up in the right seat because you met two people from Japan and China who are now your best friends, that you’ll be traveling with next year …it’s that spontaneity and surprise that produces a delightful and exquisite experience like no other.
We always have special cases, special music requests, but that results in each concert being infused with its own unique and incredible experiences. That’s why we have concert capsules on our website giving one a perspective, or at least a glimpse, in to what happened that day!
Liz: I would imagine that if you’re participating in a performance like the one I attended, that it’s a chance to meet people you otherwise wouldn’t encounter.
Andrea: We invite all our singers into private Facebook groups so they can get to know each other and ask each other questions; when you get to rehearsals, you’re looking out for other people.
In concert, you’re seated by height and voice part, not by the choir you’re in, so you’re forced to meet the people next to you, you mingle at breaks, then there’s a big party after the concert… it’s a lot of fun.
Iris: Again it’s personal, for all of us in this office we’re here because we personally feel plugged in to what we do, and we want that experience for everyone. We get letters back from our soloists – these are professionals who are hired, many from the Met – who write “that was the most amazing experience, let me know when I can perform with DCINY again, because I want to be a part of this!” That makes me so happy.
Liz: At the Jenkins concert, there were two children’s choirs. Do you often work with children?
Iris: We work with all ages. It depends on the needs of the project. For example, in June we have a concert where one act features children’s voices. We engage guest conductors who are really tuned into children and know how to harness their best work and produce incredible experiences. We often work with Francisco Nunez, Artistic Director of the Young Persons Chorus of NYC. He jumps on the podium and the kids just come to life and sing and perform with every part of their being and soul.
Andrea: Conductor and composer Cristian Grases is just remarkable – he will be conducting a world premier for us. I oversee audience development, and it’s so much fun when the audience gets into it, and connects, and the conductor connects, and the choir…. then we’re making music and everyone’s involved. That’s the best.
Liz: I’m sure for those kids on stage, they’ll carry that experience with them for the rest of their lives, whether or not they continue with music. DCINY’s tag line is “Changing lives through the power of performance,” can you elaborate?
Iris: It’s very important to us. We like to set up collaborations and partners to affect as many people as we can. It’s true that everyone who’s on stage performing with us may not go on to become professional musicians, but when they go home, they continue with their musical activities, and when the NY Phil or another traveling musical ensemble comes into town, they purchase tickets and attend their performance. They keep classical music alive because they remember how it felt and understand how important it is, whether it’s on-stage performing or sitting in the house and hearing a concert. At the Jenkins concert, people were crying around me – and there are fewer and fewer opportunities to touch people like that…
Andrea: While we’re fortunate to be growing, we’re cognizant of our place, and we like to give back. We’ve worked with Highbridge Voices in the South Bronx (they’re on our YouTube page). They raised money for their programs via Ticket Funder – they sell tickets to the concert they’re performing in, and keep a large portion of the proceeds for their programs.
At the Jenkins performance, you saw the call to action [asking the audience to make donations to organizations that work with children]. We try to do as many things like that as we can, to give back, to partner with organizations that are doing good.
Liz: Andrea, how did you become involved with DCINY?
Andrea: I sang in choir and was a theatre major, so when I saw a posting that looked interesting – it mentioned Carnegie Hall – I applied (it was for a different position). This is my sixth season here. My job, along with my assistant Catherine, is to fill the seats with enthusiastic audience members who are responsive and will give the performers on stage the experience they’re expecting, and vice-versa. The audience is not filled with family and friends – we have a loyal following of New Yorkers. Our tickets cost less than a movie ticket and every concert is different, so you’re not hearing the same thing every time.
Iris: We did our first live webcast last April with video game composer Christopher Ten (Civilization 4), who is the only cross-over musician to win a Grammy for video game music. He has a huge following that brings us new audiences. We decided to do a live webcast with him; by the end, we had almost 800,000 hits. And we just did the same for the Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall in the fall; and we plan on doing it for the Karl Jenkins concert in 2018 for the opening of our tenth anniversary.
Liz: You started out 10 years ago with just two people?
Iris: In the beginning, just Jonathan and I did everything. It’s truly amazing and humbling to see how we’ve grown.
Liz: How many are you now?
Iris: We have 22 full-time people on staff at DCINY, and we also have our own part-time production staff, about 18 people who just come in to take good care of our artists over those important rehearsal and performance weekends.
Liz: That’s great growth – I think the statistic is something like fewer than half of new businesses make it to five years, so to be looking at 10 is fantastic.
Iris: We’re thrilled – I still can’t believe that we’re soon to celebrate our 10th anniversary – our gratitude to all the people who helped us get there is beyond words. For us the tenth anniversary is about saying “Thank You,” not only to our own team – because without each other we wouldn’t be here – but to all the performers, conductors, composers, and audiences as well as the fantastic venues and their crew and vendors who have joined us over the years and have contributed to some truly spectacular performances. We wish to celebrate them all for helping to push our mission forward every day: Changing Lives through the Power of Performance. We have people signed up for January 2018, who say, “I was there for your first concert, I’ve got to come back for this one and celebrate with you. I wouldn’t miss it!” – it’s all so exciting.
Liz: Do you still perform?
Iris: I do … from time to time on our series … I’ve done a few concertos. One of the artists we work with often, DInos Constantinides, surprised me – when I came back from a trip, there was a flute concerto he wrote for me sitting on my desk, just like that! So we’re thinking about scheduling that for 2018.
Liz: Do you still sing, Andrea?
Andrea: Yes, James Meaders, our Associate Artistic Director and I started a choir, Urban Konterei, which is on hiatus right now, but we’ve performed with DCINY and in our own concerts. That’s been a joy, to express myself through music.
Liz: What’s coming up for 2017?
Iris: We’re right in mid-stream on that. In February we have 4 concerts: 2 main stage at Carnegie and 2 at Weil; 4 concerts coming up in March – we go right through to the end of June – and we take a little breath in the summer, although we will be in Barcelona in July, performing a Verdi requiem with Jonathan conducting – we have singers from around the world joining us for that particular performance. Then we take another breath, and we’re back in November. Our year goes in cycles and always stays chock full and interesting.
Liz: This morning I received an e-mail from you, about auditions for singers for 2018?
Iris: We’re very excited about 2018. We sent an e-mail blast for singers who want to audition to perform on April 8, 2018 at Carnegie Hall with conductor and composer Eric Whitacre (if you want to sing, click here ) It’s rare for him to have the time to do these kinds of events. He did one of the first virtual choirs – talk about bringing people together and garnering emotions from people through their computers! It’s a testament to his music and what he’s able to accomplish. Also in 2018, The King Singers will be making their 50th Anniversary performance with us at Carnegie Hall.
We’re filling up the dates for 2018 and hope to close many of them soon, so we can shift to the music focus and know that our performing groups are all set.
Liz: Thank you Iris and Andrea – this has been fun.
Iris: Thanks for helping us get the word out; this is an opportunity for us to make personal connections, with you, with your readers, to create that spark “Oh, I sing with a choir, I’d love to find out more…” to reach those people who haven’t even conceived that there’s an opportunity for them to work with Karl Jenkins or to be on the Carnegie Hall stage…. and the audience – it’s great to see people hopefully changed a little after a night with us.
You can find more information about DCINY, including their scheduled concerts, and how to audition for them here.