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JOSEPH’S MANY COLORS: UMKC Flummerfelt residency will culminate in performance of Brahms’ choral masterpiece

For about the first 20 years of my acquaintance with Joseph Flummerfelt’s artistry, I had no idea what he looked like. He was the silent presence behind great recordings of choral-orchestral works by the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras that I and many Americans cut our classical teeth on. As director of the Westminster College Choir (the chorus of the school in Princeton, N.J. where he taught for 33 years), chorus master for the New York Philharmonic, choral director for the Spoleto Festivals, and one of the leading conductors in America, Joseph has prepared choirs for performances with most of the top orchestras and conductors of our time — from Bernstein to Barenboim, Leinsdorf to Levine, Maazel to Muti, Slatkin to Salonen.

The man whom Musical America named Conductor of the Year in 2004 — in recognition of more than three decades at the pinnacle of choral music internationally — is in Kansas City this month for a 10-day residency at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. And the good news is that not only are all of the activities from March 17th through the 26th open to the public, but the residency culminates in a March 26th performance of Brahms’ German Requiem, a specialty of Joseph’s, led by the Maestro himself and featuring Conservatory musicians.

“One of his natural traits is his ability to inspire and to discipline a group,” says Ryan Board, visiting professor of choral studies at UMKC and a former student of Joseph at Westminster Choir College. “He has an incredible presence in the room, as well as exquisite ears, and of course a comprehensive knowledge of the choral repertoire.” There is a magic in the room when Joseph conducts: “He stands on the podium and casts spells from the big book,” Ryan says with a laugh. When Joseph retired from the College in 2004, he made it known to his current and former students that he planned to stay busy. “We asked him what he wanted to do, and he said, ‘Well, when you all have your college choirs one day, I want to come and work with them.’ ”

Joseph has continued his work with the New York Philharmonic and Spoleto USA, and he continues to lead the New York Choral Artists, which he founded in 1979. He has conducted extensively around the world: For 23 years he was maestro di coro at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, he has been nominated for three Grammy Awards, and he holds a fistful of honorary doctorate degrees. Born in Vincennes, Indiana in 1937, Joseph studied at DePauw University before doing his master’s and doctoral work in choral conducting at Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and the University of Illinois. He was also a student of legendary composition guru Nadia Boulanger in France. He taught at Illinois, DePauw and Florida State before joining the Westminster faculty in 1971. He has counted among his friends and colleagues major musical figures such as Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Igor Stravinsky.

I’ve always marveled that Joseph was able to take an ever-changing group of students and turn it into one of the best choirs in America, year after year. The key is his uncompromising focus on the duty at hand, Ryan says. “He is a very strong presence in the room: He’s a very ‘large’ man. There’s something daunting, even intimidating about him. But he can also take on an almost child-like adoration, for his students or for a piece of music. He has a charming, light-hearted side as well.” The ability to inspire is essential to a choral director, Ryan says. “As a choral conductor, you’re never on your own with your instrument: Your ‘instrument’ is other people.”

Joseph has always been a conductor for whom singers love to sing, Ryan says, because he understands the critical aspects of breathing. “He’s very gracious as a ‘singer’s conductor.’ To be a singer’s conductor you have to constantly think in terms of tension and release.” Each phrase begins with a breath, initiating tension which the singing of the phrase releases. “He’s very big on the breath, the breath as a crucial moment. It’s a very spiritual moment, that first breath.”

The Flummerfelt residency includes choral conducting master classes, topical discussions, an open rehearsal on March 21, a Meet the Conductor session on March 23 at Village Church, and a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem on March 26 at White Recital Hall. Except for those noted, all events are at Grant Hall, Room 122. For a detailed listing of events, go to conservatory.umkc.edu/calendarofevents.aspx.

IN BRIEF: 
* Imani Winds is a unique ensemble devoted to expanding the relatively limited repertoire for wind quintet. Not only do two of its members compose for the group, but its repertoire also complements the European and American traditions with music by Africans, Latin Americans and others. On March 27th they’ll perform on the UMKC Conservatory prestigious Signature Series at White Recital Hall. The Grammy-nominated ensemble consists of Valerie Coleman (flute), Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe), Mariam Adam (clarinet), Jeff Scott (French horn) and Monica Ellis (bassoon). Their Signature Series program includes music of American composer Elliott Carter, Czech-American composer Karel Husa, Mexican-born Arturo Márquez, Uruguayan composer Miguel del Aguila and Coleman herself. For tickets call 816-235-6222.

* The International Center for Music at Park University presents two concerts featuring Park faculty musicians and international guests. On March 26 soprano Julia Korpacheva and pianist Alexei Goribol perform a program of Russian songs and piano pieces including music from Tchaikovsky’s Sixteen Children’s Songs, Op, 54 and his Album for the Young, Op. 39, and Mussorgsky’s song cycle The Nursery. On March 27 their “String Extravaganza” includes Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, Mozart’s mighty Divertimento for String Trio, K. 563, Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, and Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet Souvenir de Florence. Featured are guest artists Brant Bayless (viola) and Brian Manker (cello). Both concerts are at Graham Tyler Memorial Chapel on the Park campus. For more information go to park.edu or call 816-584-6550.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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