Category: Alumni Profiles

Lighting the Way With … Evan Bravos: A Grammy nod on the road to a life in music

Evan Bravos ’10 calls Chicago home but he has performed all over the country and Europe: “The Midwest, and Chicago specifically, has always remained my musical epicenter.” (Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography)

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence alumni. Today we catch up with Evan Bravos ’10, an opera singer who is featured on an album nominated for a 2020 Grammy Award.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Opera singer Evan Bravos ’10 has a new entry for his already impressive and growing resume — Grammy nominee.

The Greek-American baritone is prominently featured on a recording nominated for a 2020 Grammy Award for best choral performance. Sander: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, composed by Kurt Sander, is an original recording of Russian Orthodox choral music in English language. It’ll be in contention for a Grammy at the Jan. 26 awards show in Los Angeles.

The nomination is the latest win for Bravos as he builds an opera career from his home base in Chicago. In the past year, he has debuted with the Milwaukee Symphony in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, sang the role of Inman in the West Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain with Music Academy of the West, and made his debut with the Ravinia Festival in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.  

Up next is a production of The Merry Widow (Jan. 24-26) with New Philharmonic in Glen Ellyn, Illinois — Lawrence alumna Alisa Jordheim ’09 joins him in the cast — and then the Chicago premiere of Jake Heggie’s Two Remain with Chicago Fringe Opera in late March and early April before embarking on a series of performances of The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 9 Songs.

Another Grammy connection: Lawrence’s Albright featured on Bon Iver album.

Bravos came into Lawrence with the Class of 2010. He stayed for five years, graduating in 2011 with a double major in vocal performance and music education. He would go on to earn a master of music degree from Northwestern University.

“Lawrence prepared me for a life in music in more ways than I could have ever imagined,” Bravos said.

We caught up with Bravos in advance of the Grammys to talk about the Sander album, his blossoming opera career, and the work he put in at Lawrence to prepare him for the stage.

On being involved with the landmark Sander album:

Peter Jerminhov, music director at St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago, asked me to join him in recording an album in the summer of 2017. Chicago has been my home base since graduating from Lawrence, and I had come to know many of the churches and directors in town. Peter has quite the extensive resume, and I was very excited to join his project.

For the Kurt Sander album, we rehearsed and recorded at the New Gračanica Monastery in Lindenhurst, about an hour north of Chicago. The week of recording was monastic in and of itself. We arrived on the grounds every morning at 8 a.m. and rehearsed well into the late afternoon. For daily lunch in the humble church hall, a few of the monks and nuns prepared us very filling traditional Serbian cuisine. We were completely absorbed into the culture. The majority, if not all, of the singers recruited for this project were of Orthodox heritage — be it Greek, Russian, Serbian, Armenian or Romanian — so it was really a very exciting and collective collaboration. 

On why the project was so personally satisfying:

I grew up attending an Orthodox church in the suburbs of Chicago, though my heritage is Greek, not Russian. Growing up, I sang in the church choir, occasionally cantered for baptisms and weddings and played as organist. I had always had a fondness for Orthodox music: simple and down-to-earth, but also divine. Professionally, I had sung some of the featured works in various choirs, but this was the first project dedicated exclusively to the genre that I had been fortunate enough to work on. 

While at Lawrence, I also served as choir director of St. Nicholas, the local Greek Orthodox parish in Appleton. The job served me twofold: it helped me maintain my cultural ties while allowing me to cultivate my musical tastes. By my fifth year, the choir had grown to be the focal point of that small church. Frankly, it was the glue holding the community together. This choir was made up of only six singers, but we always sang in four parts, a rarity in most Greek churches. I can honestly say that those five years were very important to my spiritual and musical growth.

On the excitement of the Grammy nomination:

There had been some earlier buzz about it potentially happening, but I was completely shocked the day that nomination was announced.

On how his Lawrence experience prepared him for the opera stage, this recording and a myriad of other musical opportunities:

The academic and musical rigor of the college/conservatory combo was invaluable in every way. Being fully immersed in a culture of curiosity and of unending learning and surrounded by other deep thinkers who even during their college careers wanted to do more than just think was infectious in the best way possible. When I think of Lawrence, I think of Midwestern work ethic meeting global perspective: Age-old, tried and true values intersecting with an ever-more-demanding modern world. My time at LU taught me how to organize words, thoughts, and time, not to mention my craft as a singer — thank you, Kenneth Bozeman — and how to help shape my own world as an artist and the world around me. 

More here on Lawrence Conservatory of Music

See more Lighting the Way With … features on these Lawrence alumni: Yexue Li ’10, Rana Marks ’12, and Terry Moran ’82, and additional alumni features here.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lighting the Way With … Yexue Li: Mixing art, history, and a high-priced surprise

Yexue Li poses with a vase that once belonged to the Qianlong Emperor in China.
Yexue Li ’10 holds a Qianlong vase that has gotten much attention in the U.K. Purchased by a thrift store shopper for $1.21, it sold at auction for more than $600,000 at the auction house where Li works.

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence alumni. Today we catch up with Yexue Li ’10, whose love of art and history has taken her to a top auction house in England. A tiny vase had her in the news.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Yexue Li ’10 found herself at the center of international media attention earlier this fall.

Well, it wasn’t so much Li who was garnering all the attention. It was the tiny vase she was holding in her hands.

As the head of Asian art at the auction house Sworders in the United Kingdom, the Lawrence University alumna was the point person for the auction of a vase that had been purchased by an unidentified shopper for 1 pound ($1.21) at a thrift store in Hertfordshire. The buyer, having generated a bit of a frenzy after sampling the vase on eBay, eventually brought it to Li at Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers to get it professionally valued.

It was quite the surprise when it was discovered that the vase once belonged to the Qianlong Emperor, a ruler in China’s Qing dynasty during the 1700s. A pre-auction estimate was set at £80,000 ($103,000), which wouldn’t have been a bad take on a £1 purchase.

Then came the Nov. 8 auction. A bidding war ensued, with the final price checking in at £484,000 (nearly $625,000). The thrift shop buyer was, to say the least, pleased.

“The gentleman vendor was in the charity shop and picked out the vase because he liked the look of it,” Li told MetroUK.

The vase is marked with a symbol that means it was destined for one of the emperor’s palaces.

“The vase is special because it comes with the inscription by the Qianlong Emperor, and he must have commissioned this vase,” Li said. “It’s a high-quality vase because it was court commissioned, so it would have been of a high value when it was made.”

Li, of China, was a studio art major at Lawrence. She initially joined Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers in Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, for an internship while she was pursuing her master’s degree. She was offered a full-time position when the internship finished.

We chatted with her via email about her work at Sworders and how her Lawrence journey prepared her for it.

On a favorite item she’s come across

We were invited to a house to look at their ceramic collection, and we saw a wood carving, which they used as a door stop. It turned out to be a zitan brush pot carved extensively with a “hundred boys” pattern, and it was later sold for £150,000.

On what she finds fulfilling about her work

I guess it’s the satisfaction after a long search of any relative documentation. It might be one sentence or a comment from the Archives of the Empirical Workshops, or a similar item in the corner of a painting. Any information that can help us understand the item better excites me. 

On how her studio art major helps guide her work

Art skills are very important in the decision-making during preparation for the sale. I am responsible for the layout of the catalogues, design of posters and other advertisements, etc. We do a lot of valuation days and house visits in the auction business. I need to be able to pick up one item and tell the owner how old it is and how much it is worth. A good communication skill is also required. In addition, there is a massive amount of research involved in my work. We need to find the previous sale records and any related documents or similar items for comparison. 

On one take-away from Lawrence that has paid dividends

It was the speaking and writing-intensive classes. Just the other day I was asked to bring the Qianlong vase to Asian Art in London headquarters to show it to the Board of Committee as a shortlist award for the most outstanding work of art of the year. I didn’t know until I walked in the room that I needed to do a presentation. My most precious experience at Lawrence was not learnt from a textbook but to always be ready and prepared for a situation like this. 

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu. Jaclyn Charais contributed to this story.

Lighting the Way With … Rana Marks: Delivering on Amazon’s sustainability plan

Rana Marks '12 poses for a photo in the Spheres, Amazon’s biodiversity conservatory in Seattle where employees can enjoy the beauty of 12,000-plus plant species from over 30 countries around the world.
Rana Marks ’12 joined Amazon’s sustainability team six months ago. She played a leading role in launching a new website chronicling the company’s sustainability initiatives.

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence alumni. Today we catch up with Rana Marks ’12, who is part of the much-buzzed about sustainability efforts recently announced at Amazon.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Rana Marks ’12 is just six months removed from getting her MBA at Duke University and already the Lawrence University alumna is elbow deep in one of the year’s most talked about environmental sustainability stories.

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced in September that the global behemoth was committing to an ambitious pledge to fight climate change and be transparent about its own carbon footprint, he pointed to the launch of a new public-facing Amazon website — sustainability.aboutamazon.com — that would report and track the company’s sustainability efforts.

That new website has been the focal point for Marks since being hired in June as a program manager for sustainability at the company’s Seattle headquarters. She is part a team of about 200 employees focused on shepherding the company’s sustainability efforts.

We talked with the Chicago native — she was an economics major, singer, and tennis player during her time at Lawrence — about the road ahead and how the path that got her to Amazon happily went through Lawrence.

On her role in Amazon’s Worldwide Sustainability division

“My job has really been to manage that whole launch of the website, to work across different constituencies in sustainability and tell the story of what they’re doing, but also to work with the developers of the website,” Marks said. “I’m sort of coordinating all of those pieces. It’s a lot of pieces. It’s been a busy couple of months.”

The Amazon announcement included, among other things, a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2040, to use 100 percent renewable energy in its operations by 2030, and to be operating 100,000 electric vehicles by 2030. Bezos also said Amazon has become the first company to sign the Climate Pledge co-created with Global Optimism and is challenging other companies to sign on.

The website project was in motion long before Marks came on board. But she jumped in shortly after arriving in Seattle and helped bring the launch to fruition.

“It’s been a lot work and a lot of hours and a lot of reward,” she said.

Considering Amazon employs more than 600,000 people across the globe and touches our daily lives in a myriad of ways, the challenges ahead are huge.

“Now that we’ve said it out loud and made this public commitment, it does drive a different speed of action internally that has to happen in order to hit those goals,” Marks said.

Rana Marks ’12 stands in the Spheres, Amazon’s biodiversity conservatory in its Seattle headquarters, where employees can enjoy the beauty of 12,000-plus plant species.

On finding her place in sustainability

Marks worked briefly in sustainability for The Boldt Co. in Appleton and then in Chicago for a nonprofit advocating for the blind and visually impaired before heading to Duke to pursue her MBA. She said the work she’s doing now at Amazon meshes beautifully with her interest in both global economics and sustainability, interests that came into focus during her studies at Lawrence.

She came to Lawrence to study economics but already had thoughts of sustainability in her head. It was a trip to China through Lawrence’s Sustainable China program, led by Stephen Edward Scarff Professor of International Affairs and Associate Professor of Government Jason Brozek and funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, that sealed the deal. She knew then that sustainability in some shape or form would be her calling.

“It was an experience that I still look back on really fondly,” Marks said of the China trip. “It certainly helped expand the way I thought about sustainability in a global context.”

She leaned into classes and professors with a sustainability focus. In addition to Brozek, she pointed to economics professors David Gerard and Merton Finkler as big influences.

“Having exposure to classes in natural resource economics and environmental economics developed my interest in sustainability even further,” Marks said.

Learn more about Lawrence’s sustainability initiatives here.

On exploring career paths while at Lawrence

She said she drew insight from a Lawrence business program, similar to what is now known as Innovation and Entrepreneurship, that exposed her to various career paths. That led to an internship with a utility company following her sophomore year that was focused on developing an infrastructure for electric cars. She would later study abroad in Argentina, taking classes on sustainability issues in South America that built on her global perspective.

“I look back and it was all of these little pieces over the course of my four years at Lawrence,” Marks said. “It was certainly an interest I had before coming to Lawrence, but I think the liberal arts education and the sort of dynamic way we learn at Lawrence was something that really catered to the development of my interest in this area — wanting to have a career in sustainability while also understanding the complexity of what sustainability encompasses.

“I didn’t just get a business degree and go into sustainability. It was the interactive learning, the ability to do independent study with professors who were doing things that I thought were interesting, the school giving me the opportunity to study abroad, to take a trip focused on sustainability. It was the collection of all of these experiences.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu