Composer and Professor Chen Yi was among the troupe of faculty and students who performed the UMKC Conservatory's 'Crossroads' in New York City.


Conservatory troupe takes 'Crossroads' show on the road to the trendy (le) Poisson Rouge in the Big Apple

WQXR, New York’s all-classical public radio station, has posted an audio recording of the show online. Click here to listen.

The headliner the night before was billed simply as “Macaulay Culkin’s iPod.” The night after, it’s a DJ-driven dance party featuring house and electro music.

“What will they make of us?” Amanda Frederick wondered aloud. 

The UMKC voice major is part of the troupe of UMKC Conservatory composers, singers and musicians that perfomed March 9 at (le) Poisson Rouge (LPR), a trendy Greenwich Village club in New York City.

“It’s not just that we are performing classical music,” Frederick went on. “It’s contemporary classical.”

She need not worry. Contemporary classical music is a regular part of the ultra-eclectic mix at LPR. So are genres such as dubstep, garage, neo-soul and psychedelic. Part stage show, dance club, theatre and poetry slam, the club describes itself as “a multimedia art cabaret” with a mission to “revive the relationship between art and revelry,” loosing uncommon talent on guests who venture in to this self-described “creative asylum.”

The Conservatory’s evening in the spotlight showcased UMKC composers, and the talents who bring their works to life, in a small but extremely high-profile venue.

"(le) Poisson Rouge has been hailed by the New York Times as 'the coolest place to hear contemporary music' and as 'a downright musical marvel' by the Los Angeles Times," said Conservatory Dean Peter Witte. "We're honored to be invited to perform and eager to share UMKC's commitment to living music. We see our Crossroads performance in New York City's LPR as proof of concept -- Kansas City is America's Creative Crossroads."

The club has been called “an epicenter for adventurous music” by The New York Times, where “in any given week … you might hear classical post-Minimalism, beat-heavy electronica, evanescent chamber pop and clever world-music fusions."


A glimpse of some of the performers

Keith Benjamin, trumpet, earned degrees from Morningside College and the University of Northern Iowa, and a Doctor of Musical Arts from Eastman. He’s been at UMKC since 1989, giving private instruction on trumpet.

“The program at LPR is mostly music by UMKC composers. They write fresh, new music unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. James Mobberley wrote the music I’m playing, ‘Icarus Wept,’ especially for me. The work is for trumpet and fixed media, and some movements are intentionally funny, like the one called ‘Strap on your Lobster.’ ”         

“We’re just a bit foolhardy,” Benjamin added. “Trumpet players are the ‘bad boys and girls’ of classical music. We’re always just one note away from doom.”

Vinson Cole started voice lessons at age 9, “encouraged but never coerced,” he said of his family. After earning a vocal performance degree from UMKC, he pursued a professional singing career that took him to most continents, introduced him to prominent composers and gave him the opportunity to perform with some of the most storied musicians in the world’s major opera houses. Five years ago, he came back to UMKC to teach voice.

Cole and Benjamin are veteran teachers who enjoy almost every aspect of their jobs. In particular, Cole wants to pass along to his young singers the insight he has gained from his experiences. For Benjamin, it is the chance to work every day with great, caring people – the same ones who supported him recently through a heartbreaking family loss.

Frederick’s grandfather played piano by ear. His wife pretended to be an opera singer as a child, as she tilled the fields. Frederick recalled her grandmother saying, “You got your musical gift from me. I didn’t get to cultivate it, but you did.”

Frederick came to the Conservatory from Philadelphia, and kept coming back for advanced degrees and the chance to continue her studies with Cole, whom she calls “gifted and generous.”


Dress Rehearsal

In preparation for the New York show, the group presented a local pre-concert performance, "Crossroads." That ups the ante – the local concert was on March 2, exactly a week before the New York performance, and was, hopefully, as polished and flawless as the end product on March 9.

“Preparation,” said Benjamin, “is a matter of muscle memory, refreshing what I know.”

Cole’s situation is far different. One of his selections, a musical theatre song written by John Kander, was composed and arranged for Carol Vaness. That arrangement was not right for Cole, so he turned to friends in Australia. The man is a professional arranger and his wife’s career is in musical theater, so Cole trusted them to rework the number, plus two other musical theatre pieces, for his style and range. Cole also will sing a composition by the late Kevin Oldham.

“Despite the extra work, I am excited to be doing music that is not normally in my repertoire,” said Cole. “Years ago, professional singers had to be capable of doing musical theater, opera or any sort of song – stars like Gordon McRae, Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza and others. Now singers specialize. This really makes me reach.”

Frederick has an athlete’s discipline and puts herself through some of the same rigors.

“I run every day and try to take care of myself. Musicians’ lifestyles cause us to keep late hours, so I counteract that with healthy measures. I want to put opera out there and get rid of the ‘opera snob’ image. Opera is music and we’re regular people. We want to engage the audience and give them a meaningful setting.

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"(le) Poisson Rouge has been hailed by the New York Times as 'the coolest place to hear contemporary music' and as 'a downright musical marvel' by the Los Angeles Times. We're honored to be invited to perform and eager to share UMKC's commitment to living music."

Peter Witte
Dean, UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance

Conservatory faculty members Zhou Long (above) and Vinson Cole (below) are among the artists who participated in UMKC's 'Crossroads' concert March 9 in New York City.