Voices Chorale NJ is hoping to find a new voice under David A. McConnell. McConnell takes over as artistic director of the recently restructured choral ensemble, which will present its first program of the season in two upcoming concerts.
“A Winter’s Night” will feature works by Bob Chilcott, Nicholas Myers, John Rutter, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and others, including a seldom-heard setting of the “Magnificat” by Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745). Though greatly admired in his day — his scores were familiar to Johann Sebastian Bach — Zelenka remains puzzlingly neglected. His music is frequently energetic, harmonically inventive, and daringly virtuosic. The “Magnificat” will be led by Voices’ assistant conductor, Cory Davis.
McConnell will direct the balance of the program, which will be presented on Saturday, December 8, at 4 p.m., at Princeton’s Trinity Episcopal Church, and Sunday, December 16, at 3 p.m., at Pennington Presbyterian Church.
“This is a group that has reorganized itself and has become more singer-led than it was before,” McConnell says. “The singers have more ability to vote on things. They have a representative on the board. There’s an effort to have it run so that the people who are making the music are part of the process. I think that’s a very good thing.
“My hope is that I can help them discover all the possibilities that are entailed in that kind of leadership, and then to help them make music as good as it can be for as many people as they can make it for.”
Voices Chorale is an auditioned community chorus of 30 to 50 volunteer singers. Its rehearsals are held on Monday nights at Music Together Worldwide, 225 Pennington-Hopewell Road, in Hopewell. Formal auditions are announced on the group’s website, though McConnell says he is willing to give applicants a hearing “just about any time.” Interested parties should email email@example.com or speak to a representative after one of the choir’s performances.
The staff includes, in addition to the music director and an assistant conductor, choral scholars who support each section. The organization is governed by a board of trustees with input from the chorus at large.
“The choral scholars are there to aid with learning the music,” McConnell says. “They kind of help the other singers in their sections learn a little bit more about vocal production. So it’s kind of a mentoring situation. They tend to be young singers, who are coming fresh out of college. It gives them a chance to experience new repertoire but also to take a hand in helping people learn that repertoire.”
McConnell says the group is usually assisted by four or five such scholars. Right now, there is one. Alex Meakem is acting as this season’s alto scholar.
The original Voices Chorale was the brainchild of Lyn Ransom, who conducted the ensemble from its founding in 1987 to her retirement in 2017. Richard Tang-Yuk, artistic director of the Princeton Festival, stepped in to lead the group last season. McConnell’s appointment was announced in August.
“I discovered an ad for it, like, 24 hours before the closing date for the application,” he says. “I sent my stuff in, obviously, at the last minute, and I guess they thought it was intriguing enough that they invited me to come work with them.” McConnell spent a short time with the choir and then met with the board. He says the entire process took only about an hour, but the synergy was palpable.
An artistic director’s job is multifaceted. He must inspire, support, and challenge his singers, while fostering an environment in which enjoyment provides a counterbalance to education. His programming must be thoughtful, diverse, and inclusive. Ideally, his energy and personality should be such that he can easily connect with audiences, hobnob with donors, and engage in community outreach with seniors and students.
Among his other duties, McConnell expects to work very closely with Cory Davis, who recently completed his master’s in choral conducting at Temple University.
“Part of the role of the artistic director is mentoring the assistant conductor,” he says. “I’ll be taking this year to work with him and help him, and he gets the opportunity to work with a really good choir that is also patient enough to be a learning instrument.”
McConnell is also excited about the prospect of re-instituting the choir’s Young Composers Project.
“Education and enrichment are equally important to these singers,” he says. “They want their music to enrich the lives of all who hear it. But they also want to actively encourage young people wanting to sing and compose and write choral music, and I think that is quite wonderful.”
Born in Philadelphia into a musical family — his father was a music teacher and a church musician, and his mother was a singer — McConnell credits his student years in Princeton with deepening his appreciation of the choral art.
“I went to Westminster Choir College as a church music major, with organ as my principal instrument,” he says, “but I think once I experienced the level of choral music that I did at Westminster, it kind of filled me with a desire to change my major. I definitely developed a passion for it when I was at Westminster.”
McConnell also attended the prestigious Pierre Monteux School, in Hancock, Maine, the Conductors Institute of South Carolina in Columbia, and the Conductors Institute at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley. He received a master of music in choral conducting at Temple University and a doctor of musical arts from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
He recently concluded 16 years as minister of music at Immanuel United Church of Christ in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He is now music director at Grace Lutheran Church in Lancaster. In addition, he teaches at Penn State Berks and Alvernia University in Reading.
McConnell is a resident of Reading. There, he co-founded in 2014 the Berks Sinfonietta, an intergenerational chamber orchestra that brings together professional players and gifted students. In 2012, also in Reading, he followed much the same approach in founding the chamber choir Vox Philia. He is artistic director of both ensembles.
His writings on music have appeared in journals of the International Federation of Choral Music, American Choral Directors Association, Conductors Guild, and American Beethoven Society. For an upcoming book about Beethoven and the composer’s hometown of Bonn, Germany, he has also written a chapter on the so-called Piano Concerto No. 0, one of Beethoven’s earliest works, conceived at the age of 14.
Conducting for McConnell is a labor of love. He thinks nothing of the fact that it’s a roughly 90-minute commute from his home in Berks County to Princeton.
“It’s not bad,” he says. “Frankly, many people who live in New Jersey and work in New York probably drive at least as long as I do, and they do it five, six times a week. So it would be kind of silly for me to say that it’s too long of a drive. I think that’s just kind of the norm for musicians. They go where the great music-making can happen. I think the choir and I can do a lot of great music together.”
A Winter’s Night, Voices Chorale NJ. Trinity Episcopal Church, 33 Mercer Street, Princeton, Saturday, December 8, 4 p.m. Pennington Presbyterian Church, 13 South Main Street, Pennington, Sunday, December 16, 3 p.m. $10 to $40. www.voiceschoralenj.org