The Day – Dan Brandl brings vision as new director at La Grua Center
All in all, it was a pretty rewarding way to earn a living. That evening, jazz pianist Dan Brandl, then 29, was performing with a singer at the party. They played sophisticated cocktail jazz from the repertoire, and the venue was a billionaire’s mansion. Brandl sat behind a homemade Steinway which he said was worth “more than a lot of houses” and on the walls as he looked around in the middle of the song were paintings he identified as Original Warhols. Recognizable stars from film, television and Manhattan real estate moved around the room.
Not bad at all.
Along with club dates, weddings, and other private functions, it was the kind of work that had helped Brandl get through college and kept him comfortably independent. But the much-loved musician has also worked with established jazz artists such as Jimmy Green, Conrad Herwig, Carl Allen, Christian McBride, Broadway singer Wanda Houston and Paquito D’Rivera. He also had his own popular Latin jazz quartet that once featured on an episode of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.”
That night, however, as Brandl flipped through the chord structures and looked around the mansion, he thought, “Do I really want to do this? Is this what I want? Or should I use my donation to improve my community rather than my pockets?”
It was almost epiphany, but not quite. “On the one hand, it was one of those angel choir revelations in the background, but on the other hand, I realized that was a conclusion I had been heading towards for a while” , said Brandl.
A dream come true
Neatly dressed in a blue suit and open-necked shirt, he sits on a folding chair next to an otherwise empty main space at La Grua Center in Stonington Borough – the arts and culture community center in nonprofit where he became executive director on January 3. Softly spoken and quick to smile, Brandl has a tangible sense of commitment and a subtle wit.
Across the room, under protective shrouds, are the world-class Mason & Hamlin Model AA parlor grand piano from 1930 and the Chickering Scale 77 concert grand pianos from 1886. Who needs a Steinway? And while there are no Warhols on the walls, they are mostly filled with pieces from the current “Coming Out for Art” exhibition, a group art exhibition dedicated to celebrating and representing the art by LGBTQ+ artists from Southern Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Oh, and down the street? It’s where Brandl shares the flat with his wife, Kathryn Procko – head of school at Montessori Discovery School in Norwich and board member of the Stonington Free Library – and their sons Henry, 12, and Elliot, seven.
Brandl has a real-world vision and plans for La Grua through a trident purpose: to emphasize diversity and excellence in programming, to continue to exist and establish new community partnerships, and to maintain financial stability.
Diversity and expansion
“Our core demographic is established here in the borough, and we’re very grateful for this loyal following,” Brandl said. “There’s an expectation and appreciation for the classical repertoire, and we won’t forget that.” He smiles. “But you can’t do much from Bach. Fortunately, our customers are open to new things as well as programming that has always been a hit.”
Brandl highlights a very successful bluegrass concert last week and describes a variety of future concert and conference possibilities ranging from a summer-fall outdoor concert series on the lawn to all-female singing groups. and performances of indigenous music at lectures on the birth of jazz and a series of family events and children’s workshops throughout the year.
“Diversity in programming is something I’m passionate about,” says Brandl. “It’s important to showcase a diverse group of artists or events that will appeal to a wider audience and expand our reach beyond the borough. We’ll have the same quality going forward, it’s just going to look and sound a little different. And part of our mission is to benefit our community through arts and culture – not just for the core group. My experiences so far have led me to believe that is the way to go.
He also fondly mentions partnerships with Stonington Library, James Merrill House and the Stonington Historical Society and says he wants to build similar relationships with cultural outfits in Norwich, Groton and New London.
One of his first decisions at La Grua, with the support of the board, was to use part of the center’s funds to sponsor jazz/classical artist Joel Martin’s April performance at the Stonington Church in Calgary to help an evacuated Afghan family who moved to the area.
“The family are sponsored by Fresh Start, the New London non-profit group that helps resettle refugees,” Brandl said. “If we can at least provide the artist, that means Fresh Start doesn’t have to worry about that part. and cultural. Let’s do our job.”
A musical story
Brandl, now in his late thirties, comes to La Grua after years not only as a successful musician, but also with an impressive range of professional experience in arts education and administration.
For the past six years he has served as Executive Coordinator of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, where he says he enjoyed and learned a lot from his time with Executive Director Caleb Bailey and Music Director Toshiyuki Shimada. Brandl was also an arts instructor at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts High School and resident director of the Spirit of Broadway Theater and the Chestnut Street Playhouse in Norwich. He is also the permanent music director of First United Methodist Church in Mystic. He also volunteered at La Grua on their flagship Music Matters committee.
“The night in that mansion, when the light bulb went out, so to speak, I was already teaching and also at Spirit of Broadway,” Brandl says. “The manager was gone and there was no management, and a group of us still there formed a board of directors for the company. And that’s when I became interested in this what was behind the scenes. ‘How can I do this?’ What is statutes How to find sponsors That’s when I realized I had to go back to school because I wanted to use all the skills I had to help our communities through the arts.”
Brandl grew up on the east side of Meriden in, he says, “a house full of music”. His father played the organ and still does in a local church and his mother sings in the choir. His sister, five years his senior, plays the piano and Brandl says, “I wanted to be like her when I started playing the piano. And I loved it.”
He earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies at Western Connecticut State University, and when he recognized the value of additional training while serving on the board of Spirit of Broadway, he earned a Graduate Certificate in Arts Administration from the University of Connecticut.
“I remember being with my eldest son several years ago and we were just going for a walk,” says Brandl. “And we heard music (at La Grua) and he said, ‘Let’s go see. “”Brandl points to the balcony behind and above him. “We sat there and listened to this wonderful string quartet. And I thought, ‘More people need to know about this. I want to be involved. “”
In the statement announcing Brandl’s appointment as Executive Director, La Grua Chairman of the Board, Jim Quinn, said, “Dan knows our fans, knows our community, understands the nuances of our programming and deeply appreciates the diversity needed to keep La Grua at the forefront as we bring arts and culture to our neighbors. Dan is exactly what we need; warm, approachable, intelligent, imaginative, intuitive and energetic.”
Christopher Greenleaf, the internationally renowned classical music producer with dozens of major label sessions on his resume, who serves as artistic advisor for the La Grua Center, is also impressed with Brandl. “Dan will be a beacon for DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) programming,” Greenleaf said. “He is a deeply sophisticated musician whose knowledge of the arts and arts organizations is exemplary. Dan’s charisma and vision give him a very strong chance to honor the principles of others but also to instill a deeper mission and that will help transform this modest little cultural center into a regional cultural center and it is an honor to be on board such a ship.”
Brandl, who speaks enthusiastically of former La Grua directors Jane Simmons Meiser and Lori Robishaw, says longtime La Grua program director Kelli Rocherolle is an invaluable friend and partner. He understands the pain of COVID and appreciates how the center has shared programming in innovative ways.
“We’ve made it through the last two years, but people are ready to get back to business. There’s nothing like being at a concert or a conference and sitting next to someone. one and feel the excitement and community of a shared experience,” he says.
Some days after work, Brandl comes out of his office and sits behind one of the two La Grua pianos. He looks out the window in the winter light through the water and plays music.
“Man, I love this job,” says Brandl. “I love getting out there and doing it. The music, the art, the speaking engagements – the opportunity to provide the inspiration and the emotions that people need and want…I’m so lucky.”