An Interview with Joe Heitz, Cantus Executive Director

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An Interview with Joe Heitz, Cantus Executive Director


You’re an experienced arts leader, with degrees in music, journalism, and business, and you’ve worked at such places as the Boston Symphony and Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. You come to Cantus from the DeVos Institute of Arts Management in Washington D. C. where, as the Director of External Relations, you facilitated the transfer of the DeVos funding portfolio from the Kennedy Center to the University of Maryland. What drew you to become the Executive Director of Cantus?

 I was drawn to Cantus for its artistic product and its collaborative process.

First and foremost, I have so much respect for Cantus’ level of artistry. The quality of music is exceptional, and each program is thoughtfully crafted to explore a timely theme. There is also genuine commitment to musical excellence that reaches beyond genre, allowing Cantus to build a repertoire list that encompasses arrangements of music from Franz Biebl to The Beatles to Beyoncé. The result is consistently strong and fits with Cantus’ growing reputation for ambitious, intelligent, and enjoyable music.

However, I’m equally excited about the process behind-the-scenes. The fact that Cantus operates without an artistic director—or, more accurately, with eight of them—is remarkable. Cantus’ collaborative, consensus-oriented process requires a high level of intellectual engagement, commitment, and mutual respect. That collaborative mentality extends through the staff as well, and I’m grateful to work with such an amazing team.

You also spent a year in Slovenia. I’m curious about what you did there and how you came to hold dual American and Slovenian citizenship?

My grandmother was Slovenian, and I have cousins in and around Ljubljana. That family connection initially sparked my interest in Slovenia (and enabled my dual citizenship), but I soon discovered this small Alpine country has a rich musical tradition. For example, around 10 percent of Slovenians sing in choruses—around twice the European average—and the country is home to one of the continent’s oldest community bands, the 350-year-old Idrija Miners’ Band. Along with a distinctive language, amateur music helped to define and preserve national identity while Slovenia was part of Austria-Hungary and, later, Yugoslavia.

With this in mind, I earned a Fulbright grant to explore how the Slovenian government uses public funds to support active participation in the arts. I did most of my research at the Public Fund for Cultural Activities, a government agency that provides financial and instructional support for community-based arts organizations across the country. I also joined a community band in Ljubljana—Papirniški Pihalni Orkester Vevče—and found it to be a fascinating and incredibly enjoyable perspective into a country where active participation in the arts is prioritized and considered integral to national identity.

How do your past experiences inform what you’ll be doing at Cantus?

Prior to joining Cantus, I worked for a consulting firm led by Michael Kaiser, Kennedy Center President Emeritus, that served arts organizations across the country. Michael emphasizes that the key to sustainability for cultural organizations large and small starts with producing great art—no amount of marketing savvy can compensate long-term for programming that is dull, predictable, or irrelevant to its community.

I think Cantus is particularly well positioned for success in this regard. The ensemble already does exceptional work, and the singers are continuously challenging themselves and one another to raise the organization’s standards of excellence even further. Whether by elevating musicianship, exploring an ever-wider range of programmatic themes, or pursuing exciting new collaborations, Cantus continues its commitment to producing great art. I think that will serve the organization and its audiences well, both now and in the future.

You’ve been working as Executive Director for a couple of months now. What have you learned? What has surprised you?

The past couple months have really flown, and the experience so far has been exhilarating. As with any new job, this role has entailed a steep learning curve, but I’m immensely grateful for the guidance and insight of Cantus’ staff, singers, and board, as well as supporters and audience members.

The level of engagement between Cantus and its audience has been my biggest surprise (and it has certainly been a positive one). I have especially enjoyed learning how those in the broader Cantus family came to know the ensemble. It’s wonderful to know that audiences find value in what Cantus does and that our work resonates with listeners here in the Twin Cities and around the country.

What distinguishes Cantus as an ensemble? What do you want people to know about Cantus that they may not?

I am consistently impressed with how collaborative the group is. The ensemble functions without an artistic director. This might sound like a small detail, but in practice, it means the eight singers must cooperate throughout the entire creative process, from programming through rehearsals and, ultimately, onstage at a performance. Each of the eight singers brings a distinctive artistic vision. However, through discussion, some compromise, and a lot of mutual respect, the group manages to create music that reflects the insight of eight talented men, rather than one artistic director.

(If you haven’t observed the process firsthand, I’d encourage you to come to one of Cantus’ open rehearsals:

As an arts administrator, where have you seen meaningful engagement between artists and communities? How about between communities of different cultures and ethnicities?

Wolf Trap is pioneering a program that harnesses the power of the performing arts to promote school readiness among children who live in economically disadvantaged circumstances. Artists trained in the Wolf Trap method use music and dance to teach reading and math fundamentals to preschool and Kindergarten students, reflecting the growing understanding of how early childhood education shapes students’ long-term academic success.

As a fundraiser at Wolf Trap, I loved to bring donors into preschool and Kindergarten classrooms around Washington, D.C., so they could observe the program firsthand. The students were clearly engaged and excited—and they were learning. A study funded by the U.S. Department of Education, for example, found that the Wolf Trap arts-integration method is equivalent to more than an additional month math instruction each year. It was wonderful to see music and dance strategically deployed for the tangible benefit of those in the community.

Music has always been an important part of your life. What most excites you when you hear or play a piece of music?

I think the idea of exploration is an essential part for me. When I was in high school I played French horn in the Dubuque Youth Symphony. We played a good variety of repertoire, and our conductor oftentimes described the context that surrounded the piece and its creation. When we played a Shostakovich symphony, for example, he described how the composer may have used the work to reflect and subtly mock Soviet society. This made the piece come alive for me. By the late 1990s, the Soviet Union was history—but the crunchy chords and insistent rhythms offered a window into the feeling of a reality that no longer existed (at least in that political form). Since then, I take every opportunity I can to learn about a piece I’m listening to or performing so that I can appreciate it more deeply and use it to explore a time, place, or perspective that I might otherwise never experience.

You play the French horn. Will we have a chance to hear you any time soon?

I hope so! As I settle in to the Twin Cities, I’m eager to find a community band or orchestra with an opening for a French horn player.

How about when you’re not working or playing music? What are you likely to be doing?

I love to travel and to explore places near and far. I’ve been very fortunate to have opportunities that allowed me to visit new countries and experience different cultures. But I also enjoy daytrips to explore all that there is to do locally. I grew up not far away – in Northeast Iowa – and am now really looking forward to getting to know my new home state of Minnesota.

What are your hopes and goals for Cantus in the future?

I’m interested in making sure Cantus is well positioned to pursue its artistic goals. The singers have excellent ideas for artistic endeavors, and I believe my role is to find the most effective, efficient way to ensure they have the organizational capacity and financial resources necessary to make great music. I’m looking forward to working in partnership with them—and with our staff, board, audiences, and supporters—to serve our community and ensure we realize Cantus’ mission to the fullest extent possible.


Patricia Kirkpatrick, March 2017