Settlement Music School hires new chief Helen Eaton, 40, of the Chicago Children's Choir, replaces Robert Capanna, who left after 27 years.

Posted: May 24, 2010

Settlement Music School has done something it has rarely had to do in its 102-year history: hire a new executive director.

Helen Eaton, 40, president and executive director of the Chicago Children's Choir, has been named to succeed Robert Capanna, who retired Dec. 31 after a 27-year tenure. When she starts at the end of August, Eaton will be only the sixth director of the school.

The move from a children's choir to a community music school is not as far a leap as it might seem. The Chicago group serves more than 2,800 singers in its choirs and through programs in 45 schools. The group tours internationally and runs eight neighborhood after-school choirs around Chicago.

Asked why she would leave the choir after only three years, Eaton cited a desire to be in Philadelphia and the fact that the Settlement job comes open only once in a blue moon.

"I would say the primary reason is Settlement Music School is renowned around the country as one of the finest community music schools," she said, calling Capanna a "legend" in the profession. "Everyone has made it into a first-rate institution, and it sets the standard for other community music schools."

Eaton is a violist with a performance degree from the Juilliard School and a master's degree in music history and theory from the University of Chicago. She also has Philadelphia ties: She received a bachelor's degree in French from the University of Pennsylvania and has family here.

Before the Chicago Children's Choir, Eaton was associate director of operations and dean of programs for five years at the Merit School of Music in Chicago, a community school of the arts.

She will move here over the summer with her husband, freelance violinist Guillaume Combet (a substitute player for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Symphony Orchestra), and their 13-year-old son (a trumpeter) and 8-year-old daughter (a violinist).

Under Capanna, Settlement's enrollment (children and adults) rose from 2,700 in 1982 to 15,000 in 2008, while its endowment grew from $1 million to $10 million. New branches opened in Jenkintown, West Philadelphia, and Camden, and the school says it is the largest employer of musicians in the area.

What does that leave for Eaton to do?

"I just don't know yet," she said. "At Chicago Children's Choir I was involved in all different facets of the organization. I'm looking forward to meeting with families and understanding the community needs and really serving Philadelphia in terms of the arts.

"For me it's about emphasizing access so that students can participate regardless of income, and working with community leaders in locations where Settlement has branches so that the school can be an integral part of the community."

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/ artswatch

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