Singer’s ‘day job’ a performance, too

Posted April 15, 2010, at 7:24 p.m.

Suzanne Nance doesn’t draw too broad of a line between what she does on the air each morning as host of Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s “Morning Classical Music,” and what she does when she’s onstage performing her music with orchestras and operas.

Sure, in one instance she’s broadcasting, explaining everything from Renaissance to modern classical music to thousands of listeners across the state, and in the other she’s singing for audiences across the country. Make no mistake: Whether she’s on-air or onstage, she’s performing.

“I think of every show as a performance on the air,” said Nance, who will solo with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra this Sunday in the fifth concert of the season. “When I’m singing, I’m performing for, say, 200 or 500 people maybe once a week, whereas on-air, I’m performing every day for tens of thousands. I think the drive and conviction to be a musician applies just the same to broadcasting. You’re communicating.”

Though not every morning listener to MPBN might know it, Nance is a gifted soprano, having performed with opera companies in the United States and Europe. The Philadelphia native studied vocal performance at Syracuse University and DePaul University, served as professor of voice on the faculty of the Cappelli Institute of Music in Chicago, and appeared in operas such as “Madame Butterfly” and “Cosi fan Tutte.” In Maine, she has performed with the Bangor and Portland symphony orchestras, and the DaPonte String Quartet.

It was her lifelong immersion in classical music, both as performer and fan, and her natural ability as a broadcaster that brought her to radio — though at first it seemed like a bit of a fluke. In between undergraduate and graduate studies, Nance took a job with WHYY in Philadelphia, the public radio station famed for producing Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air.” It was her first experience in radio, and she assumed it probably would be her last.

“I thought it was really interesting, but I never ever thought it would be a career choice for me. I was always going to be a singer,” said Nance. “After grad school, I was finally making a living as a singer, but I never knew where my next paycheck was coming from. Typical artist’s life. I needed a day job. Someone told me, ‘This radio station in Oregon is looking for a host, and you have experience.’ So I went for it.”

Nance didn’t get the job in Oregon, but she did get a similar job in Aspen, Colo., covering the Aspen Music Festival and School during the summer of 2007. That same summer, the opportunity to come to Maine presented itself when the morning classical position opened up. In September 2007, Nance moved to Bangor, where the self-described “workaholic” has made herself very busy, on-air during the day and performing with various groups evenings and weekends.

“I fell in love with Maine the first time I was here, and I always wanted to come back. I love the dichotomy between the more urban feel of Portland and the extremely rural parts like Fort Kent,” she said. “A lot of the people at MPBN [have] given their lives to this company for sometimes 30, 40 years. I knew it was the real stuff. They know and love their audience. And I love learning and sharing along with my audience.”

Maine also has provided Nance with a surprising number of opportunities to perform. Maine is home to dozens of gifted musicians, though they may live quietly in rural areas, venturing out just a few times a year to give a recital at a church or community center. And Nance has gone to meet them, making the trek to Presque Isle and Fort Kent regularly to perform.

“There are so many opportunities to collaborate in Maine. I think musicians are less distracted, and more giving, than in bigger cities,” said Nance. “It really gets down to what music is all about.”

This Sunday, she’ll perform 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” a choral piece composed in 1959, which also will feature the University of Maine Singers and Oratorio Society. Also on the program for Sunday’s concert is Mozart’s Symphony No. 31, the “Paris” symphony, and Saint-Saen’s Symphony No. 3, his “organ” symphony.

“I like with this concert that there’s one piece from each century,” said Nance. “Poulenc loved breaking tradition, so while the piece is very much about him embracing his Catholic faith, there’s also a bit of impudence in it, a bit of sauciness and bounciness. I know a lot of people who say this is their favorite piece from him. It’s a treat to perform it.”

Guest conductor Butterman to lead BSO Sunday

Context is everything. Listen to Robert Schumann out of context, and it sounds alternately passionate and sad, pleasurable to the ears but still inaccessible to the average listener. Listen to Schumann with the knowledge that he had a wildly romantic relationship with his wife Clara, he butted heads with authority figures, and he attempted suicide several times, and it suddenly starts to sound a little more exciting.

That’s the kind of thing Bangor Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Michael Butterman wants audiences, both new and established, to learn when they attend concerts. Butterman, music director of the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra in Louisiana and the Boulder Philharmonic in Colorado, as well as a conductor with orches-tras in Jacksonville, Fla., and Rochester, N.Y., likes to give listeners the full classical music experience.

“Nothing about human nature has changed in the past 300 years,” said Butterman. “People still have the same anxieties and joys and emotions now as they did in the 18th century, and when you connect classical music to those kinds of feeling, as well as the cultural and historical context, it suddenly makes much more sense to people. There’s that moment of recognition. It can be an entry point.”

Butterman will conduct Sunday’s BSO concert, leading the orchestra through a program of Mozart, Saint-Saens and Poulenc. While he fundamentally respects and loves the music of the classical repertoire, he always seeks to include newer, contemporary programming when working as a music director.

“It’s really gratifying to be able to have an impact on a community, and if you’re a music director, you can kind of chart the course of the musical experience you and the audience are going to have,” he said. “There are ways to reflect in programming the community you live in. You can find the vibe of Bangor through music, through soloists, through guest artists. The things we do as an orchestra need to connect to the place we’re in.”

In his 10th season as principal conductor for education and outreach for Rochester, Butterman especially likes to find ways to make classical music accessible to the youngest listeners.

“In some of our children’s concerts, we’ve done things like drawing parallels between primary colors and different tones in music,” he said. “The key is to make things as accessible as possible.”

This weekend’s concerts with the BSO are not his first time in Maine — a summer during his undergraduate career was spent on the coast around Yarmouth. When Butterman met BSO executive director David Whitehill at the League of American Orchestras conference in Chicago last summer, they hit it off. Maine was an easy choice for him, when he applied last spring for the position of music director.

“I haven’t spent any time in New England in years, so it will be a really nice experience to be here,” said Butterman. “I love getting the chance to explore different parts of the country and different communities. I’m interested to get a sense of what Bangor is all about.”

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