Ben Newman

Ben Newman Finds Dream Job at Baltimore Chamber Orchestra

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BALTIMORE — Ben Newman is a man with a passion for music. As executive director of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, he is responsible for every element of the day-to-day operations of the company; in his words, “the marketing, the finances, contracting artists, paying the orchestra, paying for and attending board meetings, sending out fundraising letters, selling tickets, and so on.”

It sounds like a job for a business major with a passion for music; or even a music major who was always good with business. Newman is neither; he’s a classically trained violinist and singer who has a passion for the classical music experience as a whole. He’s translated that passion into a career in arts administration, spanning from opera companies to his current position with the BCO.

It all started with a unique childhood experience that blended the Armenian, Jewish and American cultures in Southeast Michigan.

Detroit Roots

“I grew up in a musical family,” said Newman. “We were all singers, and my sister and brother played piano. And at a young age I was introduced to classical music and really enjoyed the sound of the violin, and I asked my mom if I could play the violin at age 6.”

Newman came from an unlikely background. His father, Gene Newman, was a scion of one of Detroit’s storied Jewish families, and was a convert to Christianity as an adult. His mother, Robin (Soultanian) Newman, was the granddaughter of Armenian Genocide survivors whose Armenian father and non-Armenian mother were both deaf.

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The couple raised 10 children in a Protestant denomination and were ardent proponents of homeschooling. A few of their younger children, including Ben, eventually attended the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School in Southfield, for high school, from where Newman graduated.

Education, reading and high culture such as classical music were strongly encouraged in their home and Newman’s mother eventually got him a violin for Christmas when he was 8. “I started lessons and played all through high school. I was concertmaster for a small orchestra in Livonia called the Livonia Youth Philharmonic. So I pursued  music as my undergrad degree in violin performance, and I added a French major and minor in German and voice.”

Studying French and German made it easier to sing opera, for which Newman has always had a passion. “I love how music and culture are such staples in how people connect to where they’re from and who they are. That totally ties to my passion and identity as an Armenian. I remember my mom told me when the Michigan Opera Theatre was going to produce ‘Anoush’”  opera in 2001. Newman recalls that as a kid he went around telling everyone that there was an Armenian opera. He also had a chance to perform operatic pieces in undergrad at Hillsdale College in rural southern Michigan.

“I sang some sections from ‘La Boheme’ and also ‘Don Giovanni’; they were community performances, basically.”

Although he doesn’t perform or direct an Armenian repertoire on a regular basis, growing up as part of the Metro Detroit Armenian community had a big impact on direction toward a musical career.

“I got introduced at an early age to Isabel Bayrakdarian and became a huge fan of hers, I got her CDs for Christmas and listened to them all the time, and listened to them in college. And the Armenian sound and identity played a huge role in my appreciation of music,” he noted.

The large number of Armenians who have succeeded in the classical music world in the United States and in particular those who came out of the Detroit area, gave Newman the encouragement to believe he could do the same. He cites the nationally-known violinist sisters Ani and Ida Kavafian (who were born in Istanbul and brought to Detroit as children, where they started their careers), and Charles Avsharian, the Ann Arbor native who started the highly popular violin and stringed instrument supplier Shar Music (https://www.sharmusic.com/).

He added, “There were all kinds of connections to singing and stringed instruments, which I fell in love with, and has been a constant source of inspiration to me in my career”

He did have a chance to play part of Khachaturian’s violin concerto in his senior recital. He said that while he unfortunately has not had to the chance to perform singing in Armenian, he has arranged his own version of the Edgar Hovhannisyan’s popular Yerevan-Erebuni, which he plays “all the time” on violin for himself as his own personal source of inspiration.

Ben Newman

Discovering a New Side To The Classical Music World

How did a young man who studied music performance end up running an entire orchestra company at a young age? Newman discovered a niche area of the field which most don’t think much about: Arts Administration.

After graduating from Hillsdale, “I did what many struggling artists did and started waiting tables at a restaurant. I was at Texas de Brazil. [A steakhouse in downtown Detroit]. I got promoted to manager within six months and was transferred to San Antonio, and lived there for seven or eight months.” Newman could have been successful career-wise, but decided he didn’t want to stay in San Antonio and that he wanted music again in his life. Going into performance and succeeding as a working member of a symphony seemed daunting and there were not many opportunities in the area.

He said, “As I was thinking about what it would look like to leave Texas, I started thinking, ‘aren’t there people who run symphony orchestras?’”

Indeed there are, and Newman discovered the field of Arts Administration. Newman admits that it sounds “niche” to many people, “but it is perhaps the thing that I am most excited about in the world.”

“I basically started with looking up anything and everything I could about the field and learning that there are masters programs, but I didn’t have the resources to go back to school. So I thought, maybe I can just work my way up the ladder. But being in San Antonio there weren’t a lot of opportunities. So I left, packed up, and took 5,000 bucks in my pocket and went to New York City to try and make it.”

When in New York, Newman got an internship in a company called Opera America, which is the national service organization for opera companies in the United States. The company produces an annual conference to help the opera sector. “I was in the right place at the right time when a full time position opened up, and that facilitated what would become the last 10 years of my career, when I was able to build a massive network to understand the opera field at large,” he said. In 2016, Newman left New York and moved to Denver working for Opera Colorado. He has also worked for Opera Philadelphia, Opera Omaha, the Detroit Opera, and then “I got into artist management, representing about 25-30 singers and stage directors.”

The late David DiChiera, founder and artistic director of the Michigan Opera Theatre / Detroit Opera House, was a huge influence on Newman. “David DiChiera was a huge mentor to me in many ways, he came from California but was on faculty at Oakland University [in the Detroit suburbs] and in 1971 he founded Michigan Opera Theatre in downtown Detroit.”

At the time, race riots had recently racked the city leading to a massive exodus of residents. DiChiera was told that an opera company would not work in the inner city and that he should have started it in one of the wealthier suburbs. But according to Newman, “it is integral that the city has an opera company that is in the heart of the city. I really loved his passion not only for the art form but for the city. That was very inspiring as a young person, to see a person so committed.”

DiChiera pulled off remarkable programming for Detroit, like bringing the Three Tenors to Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, in 2000. Newman grew up going to opera performances in downtown Detroit and admired DiChiera as a pivotal figure, but did not get a chance to meet or work with him until he was in New York working for Opera America. DiChiera became a mentor for Newman; he passed away in 2018.

A Passion For Making Classical Music Happen

“I think one of the things that happened for me was I thought that if I’m going to work on the business side, I need to know all the ins and outs. Because I saw incredible artistic directors who were programming great seasons and booking great artists. But there’s a whole business infrastructure, and if I’m serious about doing this, I have to get to know as many sides of the industry as I can; get to know how to do fundraising, artistic planning, marketing, all the things that make a business run every day. So when I work with different people I know what they’re talking about.”

What drives Newman in this niche field is wanting to make classical music experiences available for audiences. “For me it was really framed by having really powerful experiences as an audience member, hearing absolutely fantastic singers. When we would have badarak services with Deacon Rubik [the choir director of St. John’s Armenian Church in Southfield, MI], when he would sing, the liturgy is so beautiful. And I think that appreciation growing up in a strong cultural and religious musical framework demonstrated how powerful music is. I want to share this and make this possible for as many people as I can. Leading up to today, I think about how many people turn to TV or movies but throughout history whenever there’s been a period of war or uncertainty, they turn to the arts and to media to try to find comfort. Very often it is that art that allows us and gives us the capacity to heal. Music is involved in all these things, and they help us to be able to process what’s happening.”

Embarking On a New Role In Baltimore

Over the summer, Newman moved to Baltimore where he was working as a freelance producer and artist manager. His passion for making classical musical artistry possible plays a huge role in this phase of his career. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of singers and different artists working in the field,” he said. “People are so passionate about creative minds coming together, I was hearing a number of artists say they have ideas, and I wanted to help them make that happen. I’m helping a friend work on a program, she’s an operatically trained soprano, but found her passion in jazz and R&B, and international music, and she’s created this amazing program that focuses on the music of the African Diaspora, looking at three singers from Africa, Cape Verde, and the US, showcasing the diversity and experience of these black female icons of different places.”

As for Baltimore, he chose the city because of its proximity to the centers of classical music activity on the East Coast, even before he got his newest gig. “I love Baltimore, it reminds me a lot of Detroit,” he said.

He’s still able to do his independent producing, because it’s “project-based,” he said. But after a few months in the city, he applied for and got a permanent job as executive director of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra.

A “chamber orchestra” features a smaller number of musicians than a standard modern symphony orchestra. There are about 25-40 musicians, specializing in music that was written for that size of orchestra, mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, larger orchestras usually play arrangements of the compositions of the classical era, but the chamber orchestra is more historically accurate. It’s not to be confused with “chamber music,” such as what is played by a string quartet. There are about 15 chamber orchestras throughout the country, Newman said.

For him, the new job meant coming full circle. “It brings me back to my roots as a violinist. And it’s been really refreshing. It’s also really great to be a part of another side of the classical music world.”

As for his independent productions, Newman describes himself as an “independent producer of passion projects. I really love working with artists and performers. I don’t want to be on stage. I view it as a privilege to work with world class artists, and I support it from behind the scenes.”

For younger people interested in the field, Newman has this advice: “Get an internship, study, there are more resources available for ongoing education today than ever before. What a lot of people don’t know is that the work of arts administration is similar to that of the artists. It’s a hard grind. The work ethic to be able to stick it out, it’s not for everyone; but it’s also extremely rewarding.”

To see the upcoming programs, visit https://thebco.org/.

 

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