Direct hit: Popular former KU choir director readies new professional group for Lawrence debut

Former KU choir director Simon Carrington directs the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers during a rehearsal Wednesday at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City, Mo. The group will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1234 Ky.

When Craig Kenkel moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s to pursue a music career, he often would listen to the same CD nightly to calm his anxieties.

The recording was made during a tour of France the Kansas University choral program took in 1998.

“It put me at peace,” Kenkel says, “knowing I had been part of something really special. It inspired me.”

And secretly, he always hoped to once again sing under the direction of Simon Carrington, who then was the KU choir director.

“I think anybody who has sung with Simon would hope in the back of their mind, ‘Maybe we could do that again,'” Kenkel says.

Kenkel is getting that chance this week, as he and 23 other singers are launching the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers, a new professional group based in Kansas City that will have its first performances Saturday, including one in Lawrence.

Carrington, who was KU choir director from 1994 to 2001, is ending a five-year contract as choral director at Yale University and hopes to spend much of his retirement in France. But he also wants to continue making music on the side, and this new professional group carrying his name will be one of those outlets.

“My wife is hoping I’m not going to be (busy),” says Carrington, 67. “But I’m going to be juggling things a bit. I want to keep making music.”

College revisited

The idea for the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers had been percolating in the backs of several former KU students’ minds for a while.

Kenkel, who lives in Iowa, presented Carrington with a formal proposal for the group in 2005.

“I was excited to see they remembered those days with affection and wanted to do it again,” Carrington says.

It took several years to get a board of directors in place, singers recruited and for Carrington’s schedule to free up enough to spend a week in Kansas City rehearsing.

The result is a 24-voice choir with members from 10 states. Half are KU alumni, with others coming from Yale and the New England Conservatory (where Carrington served from 2001 to 2003). Most are professional singers.

KU graduate students Amy Waldron, center, and Craig Kenkel, background right, rehearse with the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers Wednesday, May 27, 2009, at Grace and Holy Trinity Catherdral in K.C. MO. The group will perform in Lawrence Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church.

One of those is Stefanie Moore, a 1992 Lawrence High School graduate who studied under Carrington at KU. She now lives in Baltimore and sings in several professional groups around the country.

“He’s extraordinary,” Moore says of Carrington. “He has one of the best ears in the world for a choral musician. He can look at a room of 200 people singing and tell you which one is sharp.”

Another is Amy Waldron, a choir organizer who lives in Kansas City, Mo.

“He has this capability of having a clear concept in his mind of how things should happen and this capacity of communicating that,” Waldron says.

She says the choir’s ambitious beginnings — recruiting members from across the country for its first performance — is a testament to the respect singers have for Carrington.

“(Normally) you fly singers in for concerts once you get more established,” Waldron says. “Typically, you’d grow an organization and then call in the professionals. We have the luxury of Simon’s reputation to get us to that point before we’re really even a nonprofit.”

‘Lot at stake’

For his part, Carrington is looking forward to spending some of his retirement in the Midwest.

A native of England, Carrington was a founding member of the King’s Singers, one of the premier male choral groups in the world. But he considers the time at KU as his formative years as a director.

“I always tell anybody who asks, those seven years in Lawrence were of immense value for me,” Carrington says. “I had been in the King’s Singers, but I never had studied conducting at all in the formal manner.”

He learned a lot, he says — including that he didn’t enjoy the bureaucratic side of running a large-university choral program. But he says he did enjoy the music side of being in Lawrence.

Carrington says he wants the new group bearing his name to be involved in several “projects” each year, whether that is touring, one-time concerts or recording sessions.

“I want to keep making music,” he says. “I want to help people to look at music in a different way. My ambitions are not enormously grand. I still think choral music, if done right, can be immensely powerful and touch people’s hearts. I want to do that as long as I’m able.”

For musicians involved in the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers, they’re just hoping the group lives up to the reputation developed by its namesake.

“There’s so much riding on it,” Waldron says. “Simon’s letting us use his name in the name of the ensemble. There’s a lot at stake. We can’t let him down.”