New leader of Lawrence Children’s Choir is an accomplished vocalist who wants all kids to know the joy of music

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Gabe Lewis-O'Connor poses for a portrait in front of the Turnhalle Building in Lawrence on Monday, May 10, 2021.

When you’re young and still deciding who and what you want to be, the options can seem limitless. It can be hard to know which passions will ignite from spark to flame to blazing furnace fire. That was the case with Gabe Lewis-O’Connor when he walked into his first choral practice at the Lawrence Children’s Choir in sixth grade.

That was back in 1994, and Lewis-O’Connor was mainly there at the prompting of his school choir teacher, Janeal Krehbiel, who co-founded the LCC in 1991, and who saw in the young boy a cooperative spirit and a nice voice.

“Having never sung before, or so he says, he, as a sixth grader came to scope out the situation, and he stayed until he aged out,” Krehbiel says.

Neither one could have known that Lewis-O’Connor’s nice voice would ferry him across the world to sing for cheering audiences, then ferry him back to Lawrence, where he is now rejoining the children’s choir — this time as its leader.

The board of directors at LCC have selected Lewis-O’Connor to be the third artistic director to lead the group. He replaces Carolyn Welch, who had served as artistic director since 2012.

“(Lewis-O’Connor) combines a truly exceptional background in choral music with a gentle, kind heart,” Welch says.

Lewis-O’Connor feels excitement when he thinks of his new role as artistic director, in which he’ll be responsible for selecting the choir repertoires, staff, leaders, and where and when the group will tour.

“The thought of working with young singers as they’re trying to figure out what their life holds, that’s unbelievable,” he says. “What this choir has the capacity to do for the community at large is amazing. I started in sixth grade … and it really introduced me to what became my life passion.”

Lewis-O’Connor spent three years under Krehbiel, then pursued vocal performance in college. On a whim, in his first year of graduate school, he tried out for a group called Chanticleer — a Grammy Award-winning, elite group composed of only 12 men.

“I didn’t think I’d be considered, but wanted to give it a shot,” Lewis-O’Connor says. “I was so unbelievably lucky I was asked to join the group…. The true highlight was having a musical family of that intensity.”

Performing hundreds of concerts at venues like the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center, Lewis-O’Connor traveled the world singing. The connections he established and his experience touring are two of many reasons the board selected him as artistic director.

“We are excited about touring opportunities based on his connections,” says Derek Kwan, president of the Lawrence Children’s Choir’s Board of Directors. “The future is extremely bright for the Lawrence Children’s Choir under his leadership.”

While touring is still a challenge due to COVID precautions, Lewis-O’Connor is elated about the future of the LCC. One particular focus of his is accessibility.

“I want to remove any barrier possible for people to join us,” he says.

Tuition, transportation, the hurdle of no experience — these are a few obstacles Lewis-O’Connor is concentrating on.

“I want LCC to be a presence, and a presence that is inviting. At some point everyone has never sung in a choir before,” he says.

And once upon a time he himself was one such person: a lanky sixth grade boy, shuffling into the room to assess the scene, not knowing exactly how long he’d stay.

Now with a doctorate in choral conducting and world experience as a choral performer, he feels equipped to guide a new generation toward music.

“I want any and everyone who is interested to join this incredible community,” he says. “Every time I think about (being director), I get excited. I feel a little bit like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The LCC tours annually, and has performed in England, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, as well as all over the United States.

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