Community chamber orchestras are at the heart of towns and cities across America. Volunteer, amateur musicians often comprise these ensembles, yet some ensembles employ high-level, local freelance professionals and students at nearby universities. The Ann Arbor Camerata (AAC), founded in 2006, is of the latter variety. Until 2019, the AAC existed as a traditional community chamber orchestra that regularly performed in local churches. Now, they do things a bit differently, and they’re making profound connections with the greater Ann Arbor community in the midst of COVID-19.
Thomas Militello, University of Michigan Music, Theatre & Dance alum and Ann Arbor resident, is the current artistic director of the AAC. In a phone interview with the Daily, he spoke about the notable changes in the AAC’s mission since taking over as artistic director, and how the organization is not only staying relevant, but also staying true to its mission of serving the Ann Arbor community at large, especially its most vulnerable members, during this challenging time. Militello graduated in 2019 with a master’s degree in horn performance after completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Southern California in 2017. While he was primarily in school to study horn, he also sought out opportunities in conducting, despite not being in the official conducting studio in the Music, Theatre & Dance School. Through his involvement in Prof. Kenneth Kiesler’s conducting seminar and a conducting cognate with Prof. Michael Haithcock, he grew close with graduate students pursuing conducting degrees. Before Militello took over, that cohort of students ran the AAC.
“The role of artistic director and conductor of the Camerata has been passed down through the orchestral conducting students at Michigan. I wasn’t next in line, so I got kind of lucky. When my class was graduating, they passed it to me because they figured I needed a vessel for experience if I wanted to pursue conducting at the level I was aiming for,” Militello said.
As artistic director, Militello wears many hats. Day to day, his responsibilities include being in touch with venues, curating performances, contracting players, conducting the larger ensembles, managing the ensemble’s online presence and reaching out to current and potential donors. His most significant responsibility, however, has been completely rebranding the organization’s mission with significant changes to its core values.
While the AAC was already a beloved community orchestra before Militello became its artistic director, he felt that there was more that could be done to provide accessible engagement with classical music to the entire Ann Arbor community, not just to those who frequent classical music concerts. With that direction, the ensemble has taken an intentionally accessible approach to bring classical music to unconventional spaces and underserved communities.
One of the biggest organizational changes to the AAC was the pivot to a project-based “cohort of musicians,” as Militello called the ensemble, from the traditional, season-based schedule that most orchestras follow. Instead of having a set, programmatic agenda for the entire year consisting solely of orchestral repertoire, the AAC now sets up concerts with both orchestra and smaller chamber ensembles that are planned in succession.
“With the Camerata being not just functional as a chamber orchestra, we gained so much flexibility in performance locations, repertoire and audiences, as a result,” Militello said. “Chamber music has become a performance medium that’s essential to who we are.”
The AAC had a remarkably innovative concert series centered around bringing diverse chamber music repertoire to unconventional audiences and venues when COVID-19 hit Michigan. The series, called Main Street Bar Crawl, was the first major performance project the AAC had planned since the radical change in artistic direction. The concerts were centered around bringing thematically relevant standard and nontraditional chamber music to popular bars along the Main Street stretch, like a brass quintet playing Irish music at Conor O'Neill's and jazz-inspired repertoire at the Raven’s Club. The series highlights the ensemble’s motto of “come as you are” — no expectations, unspoken rules or frills; audiences can attend live classical music concerts from the comfort of their favorite hangouts and watering holes. Main Street Bar Crawl was unfortunately cancelled for social distancing measures, but Militello’s creative, innovative planning did not end with its cancellation.
“When all the shutdowns started happening, it was disappointing for everyone, both for audiences and musicians in the Camerata. When thinking about how to move forward with the ensemble and stay relevant, I was trying to think about who really needed music right now, and what communities were most vulnerable during this time of need,” Militello said.
The first people who came to mind were residents in senior living homes who were not only most susceptible to contracting the virus and enduring significant trauma with their health, but also unable to have in-person contact with their families and closest friends. With those residents in mind, Militello put a new concert series into action: Doorstep Serenades.
While many arts organizations have scrambled to move their platforms to virtual mediums, the AAC avoided going virtual, valuing the irreplaceable physical human connection that exists specifically in live performances. Attempting to perform in-person concerts posed potential health risks, so Militello reached out to the Washtenaw Health Department to discuss and eventually confirm a health-conscious medium to perform live chamber music. Most senior living residences have significant outdoor courtyard or lawn space, so small groups of musicians are able to play while being properly and safely distanced from one another. The groups choose positive, uplifting music of various styles, and residents are able to watch the musicians from their windows.
“We’ve already reached out to and performed for a few of the larger senior living communities, but we eventually hope to target a demographic of seniors who aren’t usually exposed to as much music as others in wealthier residences,” Militello said.
This unpredictable, difficult time for public health has posed a threat to the future of live classical music at large, but the AAC has effectively used its platform to harness the power of chamber music through its inherent intimacy. The AAC’s out-of-box creativity in programming during the pandemic has led to recognition from The Awesome Foundation as the June recipient of their monthly micro-grants to organizations and people working on “awesome” projects.
“It’s a great feeling to see this series taking off. It’s genuine, central to who we are, and people are connecting to what we’re doing.”