Kinnara Ensemble has scheduled three New Jersey “Provenance” concerts to mark the end of its 10th year. Each — including the Saturday, April 1, presentation at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Princeton — features a program of previously performed favorites, ranging from the 16th century to today and including voice pieces by the Renaissance Flemish-French composer Orlando di Lassus, the German Romantic era’s Johannes Brahms, 20th-century French innovator Francis Poulenc, and Alberto Ginastera, the 20th-century South American composer.
The 32 participating singers coming from all parts of the United States to rehearse before the opening concert will also linger afterwards to make the group’s first commercial recording.
“It makes perfect sense to prepare for three concerts, then capture the concerts in the recording. In a sense, the concerts are a rehearsal for the recording,” says J. D. Burnett, Kinnara’s artistic director, during a telephone interview.
“We wanted the recording to show repertoire that we felt particularly attached to,” Burnett says. “And we selected the name ‘Provenance’ to show our roots.”
As a Princeton-based professional choral ensemble, Kinnara is on the cutting edge of contemporary choral procedure in following what Burnett calls “a roster and project system.”
The roster consists of more than 100 singers scattered from California to Georgia, and Texas to Massachusetts. Roster members perform in three to five projects a year. The number of vocalists performing in a single project ranges from 16 to 32. And each project uses a balanced choir with equal numbers of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses.
Singers for a particular project are engaged and contracts are signed about a year in advance. “As the time gets closer, we send the program and music scores to participants,” Burnett says. Not until the week before the performance do they gather to rehearse.
“By then they have learned the music,” Burnett reports. “Over half of the singers are somewhat local. The rest are from all over country.”
Kinnara singers usually assemble on a Sunday or Monday to begin a daily regimen with five or six hours of rehearsal. “Usually we take a day off to recuperate and refresh ourselves,” Burnett says. “Then we give three concerts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.”
“This is the way things are done in the professional choral world in the United States more and more,” he adds. “There are more professional choirs today than ever before. That means that singers have new opportunities to practice their craft. And it means that singers can make a living singing choral music.”
The American model grew out of the fact that, unlike Europe, where professional choirs are largely state-supported, choirs in the United States are independent. Burnett attributes the success of the American roster and project model to technological advances. “In the project model everybody convenes for a short period of time to prepare a concert and then disperses. That’s possible because of air travel and regular flight schedules. It also depends on the ability to communicate easily using e-mail and the web.”
“There are still a handful of fine, high-achieving chamber choirs that rehearse weekly,” Burnett notes. “But there is a growing number of project-based ensembles. They’re blazing a trail. They figure out the exact appetite for choral music in a given community. They expand audiences.”
Princeton’s Westminster Choir College (WCC) was the breeding ground for Kinnara. Burnett,who earned a master’s degree in choral conducting from WCC in 2007, left New Jersey for a one-year interim appointment at California’s San Jose State University and returned to New Jersey in 2008. At that time a handful of WCC graduates, maybe eight or nine, he estimates, decided that they wanted to continue singing together.
“They put together holiday concerts for Christmas, 2008,” Burnett says. “They felt that the endeavor had legs and asked me to be the director. In our first days we were nomadic. We would sing wherever we could get a space in New Jersey. We even ventured into New York City. But we tried to develop Princeton as a home, and we are basically a Princeton organization.”
The name Kinnara comes from a creature in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Typically, Burnett explains, a kinnara is half human and half animal; most of the time the non-human component is a bird. “The name is unusual enough to be memorable, but not too hard to pronounce,” he says.
For three years Kinnara rehearsed every Sunday. However, when Burnett pursued a doctoral degree at the University of North Texas in Denton, Kinnara changed to a project model, with two concerts a year. The project model remains ideal now that Burnett’s base is at the University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music in Athens, where he is assistant professor of music and associate director of choral activities.
Burnett lives in Athens with his partner, Brandon Baker, a high school choir teacher. He spends considerable amounts of time on what he calls their “huge” house and landscaping improvements. In addition, he likes to travel, read, and watch movies and television.
With Burnett’s various interests and commitments complicated by his location in Georgia, live auditions for Kinnara have become impractical. Instead, Kinnara relies on either electronic auditions or references.
The Kinnara website gives clear guidance about electronic auditions, calling for three components: “One, a resume of singing activities; two, one or two recorded songs or aria, [and] three, a recording of one or two vocal exercises that demonstrate range, timbre, or flexibility of your voice.” Gently, the instructions add, “The goal is to hear you at your best — singing in your most comfortable, full voice with both the song/aria and exercises.”
Burnett, a decisive leader, considers the alternative route of references as a means of selecting Kinnara members to be equal to the audition route. He says he sometimes depends on “the strong recommendation of a singer or fellow conductor whom I trust.”
Born in 1977 in Colorado Springs, Burnett was named after his great grandfather, Jason Daniel. He grew up using only the initials and never the names. He grew up in New York State’s Hudson River Valley. “My dad was a college football coach. From 1979 to 1995 he was at West Point. It’s normally nomadic to be a college football coach. It’s unusual to be in one place for 17 years.” Burnett’s father now coaches at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.
Burnett’s mother has retired from her work as a counselor for social service organizations. She was born in Princeton. Her father, a geologist, earned three degrees from Princeton and was a member of the Princeton Glee Club.
Announcing that his family was not musical by training, Burnett reveals that his mother sang in choirs after her family moved to Orange County, California. His younger brother, whose day job is in New York City, is a percussionist in rock bands.
“I didn’t get serious about studying music until high school,” Burnett says. “There was a great choral program in Highland Falls, New York, just outside of West Point. I started piano. It was my first instrument. I’m much more a singer than a pianist. I was able to sing in professional choirs.”
Burnett arrived at his musical training indirectly. “Growing up at West Point, my friends were sons and daughters of science and math professors,” he says. “They were going into those fields. I started out the same way at Stanford, studying engineering. I was good at it, but I didn’t love it. I missed music. My parents were moving to Oklahoma, where my Dad was going to coach football at Oklahoma State. I did my bachelor’s degree there.”
Building a career as a conductor, singer, and teacher has taken Burnett to many parts of the United States. Currently he teaches and conducts the men’s and women’s glee clubs and the Collegium Musicum at the University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music. He has held conducting posts with the Dallas Symphony Chorus, Houston Masterwork Chorus, Masterwork Chorus of New Jersey, and Montclair University. As a professional choral singer he has performed with choirs in Oklahoma and Oregon, as well as New Mexico, New York, and other locations.
In addition, he worked as a choral editor for publisher McGraw Hill, assembling anthologies for use in public schools in Texas. He was a founder of the Men’s Consort in Houston.
Like other leaders of musical organizations, Burnett strives to expand the audience base for his ensemble. Building on his wide experience, he has developed a two-pronged philosophy for programming concerts that attract new audiences.
“I usually select pieces around a specific theme,” Burnett begins. “My criterion is pieces that I feel are worthy of performance by a professionally accomplished ensemble. I like varied repertoire. I look for variety so the listener doesn’t get inundated with the same sound repeatedly.”
In addition, the structure of Kinnara concerts is a hallmark of Burnett’s making them alluring to new audiences. “One of the ways we [appeal to new listeners] is by having a wide repertoire and giving short concerts with no intermission,” he says. “One hour of music is enough. And an intermission is disruptive. The best thing we can do for an audience is to leave them wanting more, instead of exhausting them.”
Provenance, Kinnara Ensemble, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 16 All Saints Road, Princeton. Saturday, April 1, 8 p.m. $25. Also Friday, March 31, 8 p.m., at Drew University Concert Hall, Madison, and Sunday, April 2, 4 p.m., at Christ Church, Newton, Pennsylvania. www.kinnaraensemble.org.