Passing the baton: New conductors in Cincinnati’s changing choral scene

Choral directors come and choral directors go. It’s the natural course of things.

But over the past three years, it seems that there have been more than the usual number of notable leadership changes among Greater Cincinnati choral groups. Some shifts were driven by retirements. Others came about as directors departed for new positions. And some were propelled by the uncertainty that has upended nearly every aspect of life during the past two years.

But change, especially in high-profile choral conducting positions, has been extensive. 

  • Neal Hamlin retired last year after 27 years as director of music at Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church. Ben Owen now holds the position of director of music and choirmaster, and also leads Cincinnati Camerata.
  • Earl Rivers retired as director of choral studies at CCM in 2020 after five decades at that institution, and was succeeded by CCM grad Joe Miller, former conductor of the Westminster Choir and the Westminster Symphonic Choir, which serve the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra.
  • Anthony DiCello retired as music director at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter in Chains in the summer of 2020. Matthew Geerlings, who spent two decades as music director at the Cathedral of the Epiphany in Sioux City, Iowa, stepped into the position.
  • Christopher Eanes left the Cincinnati Boychoir and the Collegium Cincinnati in July 2019 to become the executive director of the Cathedral Choral Society at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Jason Alexander Holmes became the Boychoir’s artistic director the same month, and Christ Church Cathedral’s Stephan Casurella now conducts Collegium Cincinnati.
  • Trevor Kroeger, director of music at St. Rose Church in Cincinnati’s East End, joined forces with soprano Alexandra Schoeny to rebrand the church’s professional choir as The Union and install it as the chorus-in-residence for the church’s music series.
  • KellyAnn Nelson stepped down as founding artistic director of the Young Professionals Choral Collective in April 2021 and became the manager of the annual fund and corporate engagement at Chorus America in Washington, D.C. She was replaced at YPCC by Danielle Cozart Steele, who came from Indiana University East in Richmond, Ind., and also leads choral music at Mount St. Joseph University.
  • Juanjo Mena led his first performances as principal conductor of the May Festival in 2018, following James Conlon’s nearly four-decade tenure.

These appointments are sure to change the face of choral music in Greater Cincinnati. It’s unlikely to happen quickly. And it may not be particularly radical. But each of these distinctive musical leaders will reshape the musical offerings they share with audiences.

During the past two years, though, it has been difficult to remain optimistic.

During Miller’s time as director of choral activities at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, he was involved with Chorus America studies that chronicled the “amazing trajectory” in choral activity in the U.S. and Canada.

“But all of a sudden COVID hit and we had to question what was going to happen to that momentum we had been experiencing,” Miller said.

The pandemic made choral life more complicated, more stressful and more risky. Singers became designated as “super-spreaders” of the virus.

“Overnight, we found ourselves working in the most dangerous, illegal profession there was – gathering in groups and spraying hazardous aerosol particles into the air,” Nelson said. “My farewell gala was scheduled for March 14, 2020. But you know how that went. I didn‘t get that moment of transition.”

Nor did her singers. Or other choral musicians throughout the region. Nearly every aspect of choral music – anything involving face-to-face encounters – came to a halt.

Remarkably, things are gradually starting to resume. It’s far too early to use the word “normal.” There usually are masks involved. And sometimes, audiences have to be limited in size. But in-person music is happening again.

After Miller recounts some of the difficulties his students have faced, he talks of spending the previous weekend auditioning singers in New York City for CCM.

“Honestly, I’m as enthusiastic as ever,” says Miller. “We’ve adapted. We’ve made changes. We’ve learned to sing with masks. But I think these changes in the world and in digital technology have hyper-charged the need for human contact.”

Perhaps he is right. Despite all logic, the past two years have seen the founding of several new choral groups. In addition to The Union, conductor Tony Burdette founded Viva Voices, with ensembles ranging from children to professionals.

“You wouldn’t think that would be a time to start something new,” says the Boychoir’s Holmes. “But I totally understand it. You’ve seen it in a lot of industries. People have a lot of time to sit at home and think about their lives. Once they got beyond baking bread, they started dreaming up new ideas, new ensembles. I mean, when you’re sitting at home and not actually doing music, it’s hard to think about anything else.”

Everything had already come to a halt when Steele assumed her new position as YPCC artistic director in July 2020. Rehearsals were virtual. She didn’t meet her board of directors face-to-face until September 2021. But Steele is as innovative as she is ambitious.

When the weather turned warm, the chorus rehearsed outdoors in the parking lot of the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre in East Price Hill. They performed on the Purple People Bridge and presented a spring concert at Eden Park’s Seasongood Pavilion.

“It rained, but we still had 150 or so people stick around,” says Steele.

They even hosted a “Car-aoke Caroling Drive-in” in the parking lots at Karrikin Spirits Co. using a low-wattage FM broadcast so people could “sing together” in the comfort of their own cars. They’ll do it again this year on Dec. 21.

“When you want it bad enough, you can always find a way to sing together,” says Steele.

Fresh Voices this Christmas

Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter in Chains
Nov. 28, 3 p.m. Advent Lessons and Carols

College-Conservatory of Music
Dec. 4-5, various times. “Feast of Carols,” Corbett Auditorium.

Cincinnati Boychoir
Dec. 19-26 (virtual) – December Showcase: “Rhythm of Celebration.”

The Union
Dec. 16-17 & Dec. 19, various times. “Let Love Be Heard”: The St. Rose Church Christmas Concert

Young Professionals Choral Collective
Dec. 8, 6:30-8:30 p.m. “The Merriest Hour,” Below Zero Lounge
Dec. 11, 4 p.m. Fa’s & La’s: YPCC family concert, Christ Church Cathedral
Dec. 21, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Car-Aoke, Karrikin Spirits Co.

May Festival Chorus
Dec. 3-5 & 10-12, various times. “Holiday Pops,” with the Cincinnati Pops, Music Hall.

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