Monday, September 15, 2014

Guest Post: The Birth of a Classical Music Festival by Alex Underwood

I'm so happy to welcome our next guest in the Collaborative Journey Series: my friend Alex Underwood, a passionate and visionary choral conductor. 

This summer, I put together a concert series in my small hometown in Western Kansas. I envisioned a program that would serve a variety of purposes:

  1. Create high-quality live classical music for the people of Western Kansas
  2. Create an opportunity for high school students and community members to sing.
  3. Create an opportunity for undergraduate voice majors to have professional experience.
  4. Utilize many community performance spaces.
Russell Arts Council Summer Concert Series

Our first performance was with an 18-voice Chamber Choir made of singers who could read music. There were four undergraduate voice majors to serve as section leaders, while the rest of the choir was made up of music teachers, some of my former students, and a few trained community members. We had eight rehearsals to put together the 45-minute program, which included Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, and contemporary a capella music including a new work (a setting of the Gloria mass text) commissioned by a local composer, Michael Davidson, for the opening of the concert series. The performance was at St. Mary Queen of Angels Catholic Church, a church with beautiful architecture and reverberant acoustics that suited the ensemble and the repertoire perfectly. 

Our second concert, one week later, was a recital by the high school’s new vocal music teacher, Michael Davidson who happens to be a tenor with a Masters Degree in Voice Performance from the University of Kansas and the composer of the commissioned work. His entertaining program told the story of a vagabond travelling through life sharing the lessons he learned along the way. This concert was a positive introduction for him as a fully developed musician from whom the young people will be learning.

The third concert was at Trinity United Methodist Church, a hall with clear and clean acoustics. This concert program featured Carissimi’s Jephte and Bach’s Cantata 12. The chorus for both works was made up of only nine high school students, who worked tirelessly and truly captured the essence of the music. The undergraduate voice majors sang the arias in these Baroque works, giving them exposure to repertoire they don’t often sing; I offered them individual coachings to help them polish their work as well as help them understand performance practice. Though we used piano for this performance (instead of the strings and continuo both works are scored for), we did hire an oboist to play the integral parts of the Bach. 

The fourth performance, this time less than a week after the previous concert, featured the four undergraduates singing ten Brahms quartets and three pieces of solo repertoire: an Italian aria, a French art-song, and something lighter in English. The First Congregational Church, whose intimate space suited the repertoire, hosted this performance. Only one of these young people was from Russell, so it was exciting to watch the community show up and support these other singers.

The final performance, one week following the Brahms concert was our big finale. We hired an orchestra and professional soloists to do one rehearsal and two performances of Mozart’s Requiem with a Community Choir formed specifically for this performance. The four undergraduates served as sectional leaders for the choir while the soloists were all professional singers.  One of these performances was in a neighboring, larger community (Hays, KS) at the First Presbyterian Church with the final performance being in Russell at a Lutheran Church with space to house a large choir and orchestra.

The series was by all accounts a success. Each concert had about a hundred people in attendance, and the feedback from the audience was overwhelmingly positive. I had one couple comment how nice it was to hear classical music of this caliber locally instead of having to drive two hours or more to see an opera, hear a symphony orchestra, or watch a ballet. The undergraduates shared how much they learned by working at a professional pace and how it built their confidence to continue pursuing singing as a career. The community singers expressed how nice it was to sing with an orchestra, to learn classical music and to have something positive to do with their time in the summer. The churches were so happy to host something of this nature in their space. Financially, we broke even, being able to pay our undergraduates, the soloists, the pianists, the orchestra, the conductors, the managerial staff, for all of the scores, and for the publicity. 

Next year, I hope to expand the program by hiring a few more artists to serve in leadership roles and produce an additional series to run along side the classical series, which will include a jazz concert, a bluegrass concert, and a musical theatre cabaret. I am hoping to make this festival a major venue for talented young people to get experience, network with other young musicians and move ahead in their careers. I am also hoping to get statewide attention for the festival in order to attract a larger audience base. 

Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, says that everyone loves classical music; they just don’t know it yet. I advocate this philosophy and find it overwhelmingly truthful. This past summer is evidence, that when passionate people come together to make music, we can guide each other towards the deep joy that music can provide.

About the Author: Alex Underwood is a choral conductor and music educator originally from Russell, KS. Alex earned an undergraduate degree from Sterling College (KS) in music education and voice performance before serving as the director of choral activities at Ruppenthal Middle School and Russell High School from 2008-2012. Under his direction, the Russell choirs and soloists earned top ratings at festivals and were selected yearly for all-state choirs. He earned the 2011 Young Director Award from the Kansas Choral Directors Association and the 2010 Horizon Award for first year teachers from the Kansas Department of Education. His work in the theatre includes direction of 30 productions and membership on the board of directors of the Russell Arts Council and the Russell Community Theatre. Russell High School’s 2011 production of How to Succeed in Business… earned 8 nominations and 4 wins at Music Theatre of Wichita’s Jester Awards. Alex completed a Masters of Music in Choral Conducting degree at Westminster Choir College, where he performed with the Westminster Symphonic Choir at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center under conductors Alan Gilbert, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Vladimir Jurowski. This summer, Alex returned to Kansas to serve as the artistic director of a classical music concert series in Russell. He is in his first year of study towards a Doctor of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting degree at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

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