Ruth Bader Ginsburg tribute required innovative donations
The upcoming world premiere at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra of a classical music piece inspired by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would probably have been impossible if not for a bunch of lawyers in the Chicago area, a Long Island fine arts foundation and an award-winning pianist and composer who put the deal together.
Such is the art of financing new musical works in the midst of a pandemic.
Even in the best of economic times, finding funders for new orchestral works is typically difficult.
“You’re looking for support for something that doesn’t exist,” said Jeffrey Biegel, a pianist and composer on the faculty of Brooklyn College who has managed to bring together donors and composers to create more than a dozen musical works since 1999. “We have no idea what the first notes will sound like until we have enough money to pay for it.”
In the course of commissioning previous music projects, Biegel estimates he has raised a total of $600,000. But with many arts and entertainment nonprofits now debilitated by COVID-19 and donations declining along with event revenue, raising the $25,000 to $100,000 to commission a new work has become harder. The sector is still recovering from a loss of about 35% of its jobs as of last September, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Civil Society Studies.
Biegel, 60, of Lynbrook, New York, recognized that in order for “Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich to reach fruition, he needed to approach it differently.
“This piece marks a moment in time when a very significant historical figure lived and left her legacy in so many ways,” he said. “I thought a piece of music to honor her and commemorate this legacy was in order, and donors came to help for that.”
Kim Noltemy, president and CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, said she jumped at the chance to be part of the new Ginsburg piece, which will premiere on Thursday in Dallas, with one of the justice’s favorite singers, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, joining the orchestra in its performance.
Ginsburg’s love of Graves’ work and of opera in general is well-known. A night at the opera, she would tell interviewers, offered a rare break from thinking about the law.
“I just feel like a musical tribute to her is such a wonderful way to acknowledge her love for music and the arts,” Noltemy said.
“We had to find a way to move forward,” said Noltemy, who drew praise for having quickly restored live performances of the orchestra, even though at lower capacities, it made the concerts unprofitable. “It’s my job and my team’s job to figure out a safe way to do it. But we need to keep this music going.”
“Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” co-commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, received support from the American Composers Forum and the Norma and Don Stone New Music Fund. Even so, the project still lacked enough funding to be completed.
Biegel turned to the Long Island-based Billy Rose Foundation, which he had worked with previously.
“It was on the verge of falling through and it struck me as something that should be out there,” said John Wohlstetter, the foundation’s president, who said his organization offered a “modest sum” to help keep the project afloat. “It’s the arts in general. We are living in a time, frankly, when a lot of the culture is in the sewer. I don’t think any of us are better off for that. It is good to have some new modern work.”
Yet in the end, Biegel said, a group of enthusiastic lawyers, fittingly enough, pulled the Ginsberg project across the finish line.
“It’s the greatest topic with the greatest team behind it,” said one of them, Todd Wiener, of Evanston, Illinois.
“I just want to help get them started,” Wiener said. “I would twist arms of a lot of people I know in the legal community to make donations to make sure everything is there for them.”
“Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg” was written by Zwilich, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for music composition. Graves, who won a Grammy Award for best opera recording in 2020 as a soloist in “Gershwin: Porgy and Bess,” performed during Ginsburg’s memorial service. And Biegel was the pianist for Kenneth Fuchs’ Grammy-winning piano concerto, “Spiritualist,” in 2019.
Sunil Iyengar, director of research at the National Endowment for the Arts, noted that the complications of dealing with COVID-19 can be overwhelming for some arts groups and require innovative solutions.
“There really is a need to find other, new means of revenue and some social transformation,” Iyengar said. “If there isn’t substantial support for the arts recovery, we’re talking about potentially depriving whole generations of artists, arts workers, arts audiences and arts learners — and then we’re impoverishing our nation’s cultural, emotional and intellectual life.”
Biegel said the Ginsburg project has benefited from a wide range of philanthropic support — and not just financial help. Numerous artists have contributed their Ginsburg-inspired art to help raise awareness of the piece. He asked Harrison Sheckler, one of his students from Brooklyn College, to orchestrate Biegel’s own Ginsburg-inspired piece.
“I told him, ‘I have no money to offer, but if you do this, any rentals or purchases of this arrangement will be split with you.’ ”
Biegel, who will also perform his own composition “Reflection of Justice: An Ode to Ruth Bader Ginsburg” as part of the Dallas program, said he is thrilled that the world will soon get to hear “Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
It represents, he said, not just a collaboration of artists but also of donors.
“It’s a lot of work,” Biegel said. “I don’t get paid for doing it. I tell everyone — and I don’t mean it in a disrespectful way, I mean it in a very positive and productive way — this is not about you.”
“This piece may make it, it may not,” he said. “It may become popular 50 years from now. That’s just the way it is. This is about the future.”
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