The Washington Chorus Names Dr. Eugene Rogers as Artistic Director for 2020-2021 Season

As the two-time Grammy Award-winning choral ensemble, The Washington Chorus [TWC], prepares to observe its 60th anniversary this fall, the 2020-2021 season brings further reason for music lovers to celebrate.

Dr. Eugene Rogers, a leading conductor and pedagogue throughout the U.S. and abroad, recently assumed the helm as the fifth artistic director for TWC.

Rogers, a two-time Emmy Award winner, a 2017 Sphinx Medal of Excellence recipient and a 2015 Grammy Award nominee, has become accustomed to the role of trailblazer, not so much because of his new role with TWC which makes him the only Black to lead a major U.S. symphonic chorus. Rather, he accepted the challenges and responsibility of being “the first” even earlier in life when he became the only African American to earn a Ph.D. in conducting from the University of Michigan.

The upbeat singer-turned-conductor says despite pervasive racism which has long-defined classical music and the industry, he realized years ago that remaining focused on his goals and improving his skills at every opportunity were the best ways to prove his mettle.

“I fell into conducting after taking my first class and knew at that moment that I wanted to pursue it as my field of studies and as a potential career, giving little thought to people’s assumptions of how a conductor should look,” said Rogers, a native of Halifax County, Virginia.

“When I began graduate school, I realized I was the only Black in the choral, orchestral or wind programs. Upon receiving my doctorate in conducting, again, I was the only Black candidate. At that point, I thought my success would be best achieved if I only showed certain parts of myself. But that would be a very heavy burden. So, I became convinced that the best thing to do was to take what I needed. What mattered most was making sure I was good at my craft.”

“However, even after having conducted choirs around the world and despite the prestigious titles I had earned and been awarded, some of my closer white colleagues reminded me that none of it would ever be enough to change how some people perceived me – as a Black first and then as a conductor.”

“That was a hard lesson to learn because on a subconscious level, I wanted to prove that I was good enough – that I was a good as anyone else. But I had to accept the reality that because I’m Black, I may never be good enough for some. With that understanding, I stopped worrying about what others thought. I didn’t have time to care anymore. I just kept working hard, improving my abilities and doing the kinds of work that gave me pleasure and further empowered me,” he said.

Rogers’ ability to ignore that which he could not change would pave the way for opportunities and pathways that he could have never imagined. And the programming he has developed for TWC this season will reflect his willingness to push the envelope in ways he’s certain will improve the chorus while also resonating with audiences.

“Opposition has become normal for me but so have encouragement and praise,” he said. “I cannot hide my skin color or my sexuality so I just hold up my head and walk through the doors. Washington Chorus was an easy decision because its leaders have a desire which mirrors my own – to bring greater diversity to the stage and audience as well as within its group of dedicated financial supporters. TWC’s vision of moving forward into unexplored terrains was a perfect match of what and who I am.”

Rogers exudes excitement when discussing the new season and some of the special features he has planned like the Mahogany Series which will showcase the chorus performing music from genres rarely undertaken by American symphonic choirs.

“We’re fortunate to be in D.C. in an area where Black and Latinx communities co-exist with white communities,” he said. “Diversity isn’t foreign to the DMV but with a predominantly-white chorus and donor base, it cannot be truly achieved if we don’t allow for more musical experiences, allowed to develop organically and include jazz, Black opera, Latinx and old Renaissance composers all the way to the present day. We’ll be featuring a new cantata written by a Black composer, which will be premiered as a film, using music from the spirituals to Bach with a storyline based on the COVID-19 pandemic. We begin filming around the District in a few weeks and I’m very excited.”

“Naturally, there’ll be one concert that will serve as our annual commitment to taking all of those cultures and then displaying all the diversity and its colors. But it won’t be held during Black History Month as is normally the case.”

“And in the tradition of TWC, we will present out candlelight Christmas concert – five or six performances with three digital premieres, a core choir of about 10 singers and me at Strathmore.”

“Yes, we’ve had to re-pivot because of coronavirus. Still, as I cannot predict the future, I’ve made it a point to not look too far ahead. However, the virtual rehearsals and programming, which are now the only way we can proceed, should not be considered anything more than temporary.”

“There’s no way to replace what we know live art does to humankind and for the human experience. But I believe in time, things will return to the way it was when live audiences and performers fed off of one another’s energy. Perhaps it will be refashioned in slightly different ways but I’m hopeful, it will happen,” Rogers said.

For more information about the season or TWC, visit thewashingtonchorus.org.

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THE WASHINGTON CHORUS / 2020-21 SEASON CHRONOLOGY

Dr. Eugene Rogers, artistic director, in his debut season with The Washington Chorus

Virtual Open Sings
Co-presented by Berkshire Choral International and The Washington Chorus
Friday, October 30
Friday, December 11
Digital program; online only

TWC 60th Birthday Bash 
Saturday, October 3, Time TBA
Digital program; online only

“Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow”
Saturday, November 14, 7:30 p.m.
Digital program; online only

TWC Candlelight Christmas: Live at the Music Center at Strathmore
Friday, December 18, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, December 19, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, December 20, 3 p.m.
Digital programs; online only

The Mahogany Series
Spring 2021 / Exact Date and/or Venue TBA
Hybrid online and, if possible, in-person gatherings

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