As he turns 80, the artistic director and conductor looks back on a stellar career and prepares to lead “Resist,” the final concert of Musica Vocale’s 11th season
Arnold Epley has devoted nearly half his life to the musical culture of Kansas City and he’s not finished yet.
“I used to say, if you wake me up at 3 a.m. and shake me and ask, ‘What do you do?’ I would say, ‘I’m a singer,’” said Epley.
Epley turns 80 years old May 18. He retired from William Jewell College in 2009, after 27 years, and is a baritone, educator and choral director, working through the years with the Fine Arts Chorale, Chorale Francis Poulenc, Independence Messiah Choir, Kansas City Symphony Chorus and Musica Vocale.
Musica Vocale, which Epley began as a retirement project 11 years ago, is one of the region’s top semi-professional ensembles. It performs both canonical work and pieces at the cutting edge of the repertoire, as reflected in the upcoming May 19 concert, “Resist” (see sidebar), which includes a work inspired by the current immigration debate.
Epley’s continuing role as Musica Vocale’s artistic director and conductor caps a 60-year career that offers plenty to sift through, but getting him to talk about himself is surprisingly difficult. Often, his thoughts turn to his children, his students, his friends and colleagues.
“There is a humility and an unwillingness to acknowledge his own tremendous skill and ability,” said Jay Carter, associate artistic director for Musica Vocale. “I think some of that stems from being a learner his entire life and never (being) done with that aspect of things.”
Epley grew up in Alabama and his early musical experiences were in the church. “The church was at the center of things, at least in our lives,” he said. He originally intended to be a career church musician and attended Howard College (now Samford University) in Alabama. Next came graduate school at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he worked with his first wife, Linda Morrison (with whom he had two boys), at a Baptist church. It was a rich musical experience: He started a boys’ choir and performed his first “Elijah” with the Louisville Bach Society. He spent six years in Pineville, Louisiana, as chair of the music department at Louisiana College.
Then, he went to William Jewell College in 1982. “I really put my life there. I loved William Jewell College from the day I came until I left, and if I could have stayed longer I would have. William Jewell was, in many ways, the school of my dreams,” said Epley, who taught voice, conducted choirs and supervised music education.
“I stayed at William Jewell long enough that by the last 10 years maybe, I was beginning to get the children of my alums,” he said, laughing, “which is rude.”
Many of those students, and his students from Kentucky and Alabama, have gone on to their own successful careers. “That’s the great thing about getting older. These people who have been students become your peers and sometimes your teachers,” Epley said.
That’s certainly the case with Jay Carter, a WJC alum who met Epley as a teenager, at a summer honor choir in Illinois. Now with a solo career as a countertenor, Carter has gone from student, to mentee, to friend. “I count myself endlessly fortunate to have been in a situation where I’ve been able to forge that kind of relationship with him,” said Carter.
Epley also spent “17 wonderful years,” he recounted, helping develop the Kansas City Symphony Chorus. He joined when the orchestra was under the direction of Bill McGlaughlin. “The orchestra was still finding itself and building,” said Epley.
“It was a good community chorus,” he said. “There’s some of our work I’ll put up against almost anyone’s.” Epley fondly recalled performances of Edward Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius,” under the baton of Anne Manson, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, with Michael Stern. “It was some of our best work. And in the Lyric Theatre at that.”
“When I came here in ’82, choral music was hardly there. The first season of the Kansas City Chorale was going on, but now we have six or eight wonderful ensembles here. We have come such a long way,” said Epley.
Most of those are semi-professional, volunteer ensembles. “I’m a great believer that when singers are emotionally involved in an ensemble that is important to them voluntarily, their singing comes from love,” said Epley. After all, “the word ‘amateur’ comes from the same word: ‘amor.’”
Musica Vocale is one such ensemble. The chorus was formed with the encouragement of Epley’s former students. He had retired, just shy of 70. “Some of my alums said, ‘We don’t think you’re through,’” said Epley. “I didn’t know how I felt about that. But I knew there is so much music and I still had all these things I wanted to do, and they talked me into it.”
“Arnold jokingly refers to it as his bucket list, works that he wants to perform or revisit one more time,” said Carter. “The good news is that we keep expanding his list further and further.”
That retirement project has now kept Epley busy for over a decade. “It’s been almost all joy,” he said.
His story is not without sadness, however. Marriages dissolved; friends — and children of friends — have died; he knows too well that health is fleeting. Epley, grieving a recent loss, reflected on that pain. Good things are not, he said, “something we get with a guarantee that all will be well and will last indefinitely. They are simply gifts, and the only credible response to a gift is gratitude for the time you have,” he said. “Gratitude is the only way forward.”
“When you are really old, there are these huge blocks of time to look back on and so much loss, and I wonder at times how people cannot spend every minute doing things that really matter while there’s time,” Epley said. “After 50 years of both pushing at the edges and trying to do the canon, I’m still deep into that.”
That’s also part of his legacy. “My respect for him and my gratitude for what I’ve learned . . .” Carter paused, “. . . there’s no way I can ever thank him enough for that. I think the only thing I can do is to try to be a fraction as helpful to other people as he’s been for me.”
Epley also maintains a private voice studio and, with a 13-year-old son, remains busy and engaged.
“I don’t feel like what I’ve been doing is so special, but I feel like the most fortunate person to be still doing my trade when I’m knocking on the door of 80. I still have people patient with me and giving me opportunities,” he said. “It makes me so happy to be part of the growth of choral music in Kansas City. KC is in full flower and without the rancor in the choral community (that) a lot of towns have.”
Above: photo of Arnold Epley by Jim Barcus