Norman Scribner was not yet 30 when he founded the Choral Arts Society of Washington in 1965. Since that time, the organization has grown from a community choir to a world-renowned chorus with a staff of 12 and an annual budget of more than $2 million. It has worked with some of the most respected conductors and orchestras in the world. Scribner, a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, has held a number of music-related posts, including director of music at St. Alban's Episcopal Church for 47 years, chorus master of the Washington Opera and staff keyboardist for the National Symphony Orchestra. His most recent challenge has been keeping the world-class chorus afloat during the economic downturn. Last month, Scribner, 74, who is also a noted composer, announced that he would retire on Aug. 31, 2012, after 47 years. He lives in Bethesda with his wife, Shirley. They have four grown children and six grandchildren.
Why he's successful: "Being ready to meet a challenge, combined with being at the right place at the right time" when opportunities presented themselves. "My long association with [conductor] Leonard Bernstein began because he needed someone for a piece Jackie Kennedy asked him to do to open the Kennedy Center called 'Mass.' He needed a choir director to do the church choir part of it ... I got close to [Mstislav Rostropovich] when he conducted the National Symphony. We sang over and over with him, he took us to Russia and we made recordings with him. [Leonard] Slatkin, who followed him at the National Symphony, was a very good friend. It was glorious to work with him."
Biggest obstacle: Slumping donations and "the decline in the marketplace for live classical music. It's expensive, so many people are turning to other forms to get their music. A lot of people don't have the discretionary income to spend $80, $90 or $100 to come see classical music."
First job: The son of a minister, Scribner knew by the time he was a teenager that he would make his living with music. His father died when he was 15, leaving the family financially stressed. "My first job was as the organist at First Presbyterian Church in Cumberland [Md.]. It was wonderful. The organ console was in the rear balcony of the church. It was an electrified pipe organ. Most of the pipe work was up front, so I could sit in the back of the church and play and hear the organ resounding off the front of the church in all its glory. It was like being in a concert hall."
Smartest move: After he left the U.S. Army in 1960, for which he had worked as a church clerk because he was allowed to play organ for services, he settled in the District. "It led to all these great opportunities ... I wouldn't have gotten that in Baltimore or a smaller town. Washington then was not nearly the cultural center it is now. New York was the cultural centerpiece for the country ... I could make a contribution here and grow with the city ... If I had moved to New York in 1960, I would have been one of a million people doing what had been done for decades."
What inspires him: "The music itself. There are a lot of things that inspire me, but at the end of the day, contemplating the next great piece of music and being able to work with something I love so much makes me" [happy]."
What's next: "I'm focusing on what I'll do in the next two years. I've invested a lot in the fortunes of this organization. I will have served it just three years shy of a half century. I don't want the next person to come in and say, 'Oh my goodness, Norman has left a mess!' ... I want to concentrate on leaving a very well-oiled machine here for the next administration ... When we get closer to Aug. 31, 2012, I'll be thinking about what to do on Sept. 1, 2012."
Advice to the aspiring: "Stay in touch with that deep, primal love you had for the job ... Don't get caught up in the infrastructure and start ascribing success to whether you have returned all the phone calls that day. Don't ever mistake the reason why you got into it in the first place -- because you love what it gives you."
Avis Thomas-Lester| September 8, 2010; 12:00 AM ET | Category: success stories Save & Share:
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