Bethesda man brings music, art and people together
June 22, 2005
Chris Williams
Staff Writer

J. Adam Fenster/The Gazette

Carl Banner took a leap six months ago, leaving a secure job with the National Institutes of Health to devote his full time and attention to his musical and artistic passions. Through Washington Musica Viva, the organization he founded with his wife, Marilyn, he is building a community of musicians, poets and artists in Bethesda and beyond.

Banner's passion becomes vocation

Carl Banner spent much of his career at the National Institutes of Health bringing people together.

He gathered scientists from around the country to conduct peer reviews of scientific research, building diverse panels of experts. It was a comfortable role for the 56-year-old Bethesda resident. But six months ago, he left that comfort zone for the less secure career path of a professional musician.

"I loved it," Banner said of his work at the NIH. "It got better and better. It's very funny to leave a job when you're liking it more than you ever have. But I was just too busy to work anymore."

In the seven years before his departure from the NIH, Banner was leading a double life. In 1998, he founded Washington Musica Viva with his wife, visual artist Marilyn Banner, to provide intimate and informal performance venues for classical and contemporary chamber music, often accompanied by visual arts displays and poetry.

Performances usually feature an ensemble of guest musicians including members of the Washington National Symphony Orchestra, local freelance musicians and artists from New York, Boston and elsewhere. The intimacy comes from not only the small venues, but through interaction between the artists and audience.

"We wanted something different than what we saw when we went to performances in town," Marilyn Banner said. "We saw these neat-looking people and we couldn't go up and talk to them."

They began staging monthly performances at Marilyn's 750-square-foot warehouse art studio on Howard Avenue in Kensington. Carl Banner leads the ensemble of musicians on piano, an instrument he has played since he was 7.

Poetry readings and discussions about the composers are interwoven throughout the Washington Musica Viva experience. Audience members are also instructed during intermissions to meet at least two people they don't know, a kind of ice-breaking exercise Marilyn took from her teaching days at Green Acres School in Bethesda.

"[Marilyn] said, 'The audience is just as amazing as these artists, and these people should know each other,'" Carl Banner said. "That's been really successful in building this kind of community...the composers talk to the poets, the poets talk to the musicians, and new collaborations arise from this and the audience feels very invested in what we do."

Banner's ensemble soon began scheduling regular gigs at other venues including the Dennis & Phillip Ratner Museum in Bethesda an ongoing series at the Czech Embassy, and he became overwhelmed with his own ideas on where he could take Washington Musica Viva. The only thing holding him back was his job at NIH.

"It was like two boats going in different directions and I had to put both feet in one of them," he said.

He left NIH in December after a nearly 20-year career to devote his full time and attention to his passion. So far, so good, he said. It's been a bit of a transition, juggling the three roles of musician, artistic director and executive director of the organization.

"As a musician and artistic director, it's fantastic, things couldn't be going better," he said. "The executive director is responsible for the budget, so it will take a while to make ends meet. That's a real challenge."

There is also a board of directors that runs the organization, with each member filling a vital role, from fund-raising expertise and accounting to graphics and Web design.

Rhonda Buckley, a saxophonist and executive director for the Patricia M. Sitar Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C., serves as the board president. Buckley said the organization will experience more growth now that Banner's has given it his full attention.

"He has made this huge leap of faith in taking it on as a full time project, which really speaks to his passion for this art form," Buckley said. "Now he has the time to go and explore venues that would be a good match for what Washington Musica Viva has to offer."

Buckley also points to the partnership between Carl and Marilyn Banner as a key to the success. The couple is an example of what Washington Musica Viva offers -- a collaboration between artist and musician.

"Being me, I don't think I could be married to someone who wasn't actively doing an art form," Marilyn said. "If someone's got their life focused in that way, they respect that you have your life focused in that way.... We're good partners in this. And that's part of why it's working."

The couple has been married for 31 years and has one son, Gabe, 28, who works in marketing and lives in New York.

"Our partnership is really the key," Carl said. "She does everything. Everything except play the piano."

As Washington Musica Viva continues its transition phase, Banner has a seemingly bottomless well of ideas on where to go next. The underlying theme to all of his plans is the idea building a community -- bringing people together, introducing them not only to different forms of art and music, but to each other.

"We kind of built what we wanted to have," he said. "We would've liked to go to something like that. And when you want it that bad you really have to make it yourself."