Concert to Come: William Baker Festival Singers Perform the Music of Ed Frazier Davis

The Rising Young Composer Celebrates Friends, Family and Renewal in a Concert Directed by his Father, Sir Andrew Davis

In late January, the William Baker Festival Singers rehearsed in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in downtown Kansas City. (photo by Jim Barcus)

When the William Baker Festival Singers step into Helzberg Hall to perform the music of Ed Frazier Davis, it’s not just a concert. It’s a celebration of friends, family and renewal.

“Ed writes like no one else,” said William Baker, founder and director of the Festival Singers, “so we are doing music that is completely different, in some ways, than we’ve ever done before, and when we do that, then we are created anew.”

Since 2016, Davis, age 30, has been the composer-in-residence for the Choral Foundation, which supports the Festival Singers. “Our organization has had a commitment to new music for 30 years,” said Baker. “I look for composers who create something new with every project they undertake.”

This concert also includes performances by the William Jewell College Concert Choir. The repertoire features pieces written specifically for the Festival Singers, as well as a few significant works from beyond Davis’ tenure as composer-in-residence. It also includes the world premiere of “Hymn to Saint Cecilia,” for soprano and orchestra, performed by Sarah Tannehill Anderson and conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

Ed Davis came to Kansas City to pursue a doctorate at the UMKC Conservatory in 2016. A year later, he suffered a mental health crisis, including an attempted suicide.

Baker was one of the first people he talked to after the attempt. “He was there for me,” said Davis, who shares openly about his health, his life, his triumphs and his struggles.

“I love Ed like a son,” said Baker. “When Ed went through his challenge, the chorus rallied to him like a close family . . . (with) love that is unconditional and support that is unquenchable.”

Ed Frazier Davis (photo by Jana Enloe)

Reevaluating his life, Davis left academia but stayed in Kansas City, where he had established personal and professional ties.

“Each thing I do professionally satisfies me in a different way,” said Davis, who also sings bass with the Kansas City Chorale and is assistant choirmaster at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Brookside, “but I think the most meaningful I’ve had, since moving here, is with Bill Baker and the Festival Singers. He’s a real champion of me and young composers in general; he’s kind of given me free rein to write whatever ideas I have for them.”

Davis has also had recent premieres with Kansas City Chorale, Te Deum Chamber Choir and the American Choral Directors Association.

But a career in music wasn’t something he originally considered. The only child of the world-renowned conductor Sir Andrew Davis and acclaimed American operatic soprano Gianna Rolandi, Davis would tag along on his folks’ work trips during school breaks.

“But growing up they never forced it on me,” he said. As a child, he was in a few operas at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where his father was music director and his mother director of the Ryan Opera Center. “I did get to see the backstage life of the opera house, but other than that I didn’t care much about it. I was trying to be a normal kid.”

“I really loved music, and in the back of my head I thought, ‘I could pursue this as a career,’ but then a nagging part of me thought, ‘Well, why even try; your parents are really successful in what they have done, and you’ll never get to that level; why bother?’” he said.

Thrown into a World of Music

Davis originally majored in creative writing at Knox College, but after joining Laura Lane’s choir, he started considering music as a possible career. “I was thrown into a world of music I found out I loved to listen to . . . it’s a separate world in a lot of ways from the one my parents inhabit. My dad tells me to this day that I know more about choral music than he does, which is a good boast, I guess.”

One day, he was reading a poem by Emily Dickinson and started having ideas of how to set the text. He cobbled together a setting and showed it to Lane, who encouraged him. “She said, ‘This is good. You should consider doing this more often.’” He chuckled, “and so I did.” That was in 2009.

He graduated with a music degree and returned to Chicago. “I started working as a singer professionally. Well, singing and dog walking,” he said.

He attended Roosevelt University for his master’s degree and studied with Stacy Garrop, who laid out the realities of making a living as a composer, along with the practicalities of orchestration or score presentation.

Ending up in Kansas City and with the Festival Singers was serendipitous. He first considered the area because he was a fan of the Kansas City Chorale and applied to the UMKC Conservatory. While still in Chicago, a Festival Singers board member happened to hear his “Music, Thou Queen of Heaven,” learned Davis was moving to Kansas City, and connected him with Baker.

That fortuitous piece starts the concert, which features a selection of sacred works including Davis’ “Seven Last Words from the Cross” for chorus and orchestra, the award-winning “O Magnum Mysterium” for a cappella voices, and a piece he wrote for his wedding, “Set Me As A Seal.” The only secular piece is “Yearning to Breathe Free,” a setting of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” made famous as the text for the Statue of Liberty.

He approaches each piece without formula. “It’s important to write with the intended singers in mind.”

“Usually the ideas that come first are certain flashes of seconds of music, and I try to piece them together . . . it’s never linear,” he said.

His new work for orchestra and soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson uses poetry by friend and former Chanticleer member Gregory Peebles, exploring a mystic and personal ode of Saint Cecilia, filled with abstract celestial imagery.

Once he knew he would be writing for Anderson, the ideas “came straight away, because her voice is so beautiful and so unique, too, and capable of so many things.”

Joined by his Famous Father

Davis’ father conducts the orchestral works. “He works with the best people in the world, but at the end of the day he’s still an amazing dad, so he jumps at the chance to work with me.” Last November, Davis wrote a work for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, celebrating the senior Davis’ tenure with the ensemble.

“Honestly, we did not originally envision this concert with Sir Andrew, because I never dreamed he would be available,” said Baker, considering Sir Andrew’s international performance roster.

They had the opportunity to meet over lunch. “He was expressing his gratitude for the project, and he said, ‘well, if there is anything I can do to help,’ and I put my hand on his shoulder, and I looked him in the eye and said, ‘I would love for you to be our guest conductor,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I would be honored to.’ And bam, there we are,” said Baker.

“He was game immediately,” recalled Davis. “That’s kind of a sign of who he is. Even though he traveled a lot when I was young, he’s always been a guy who, even if he’s halfway around the world or doing the Ring Cycle or whatever, he still will make time to talk.”

While this concert is a culmination of Davis’ work in the last 10 years, it’s really a beginning. He will continue his role as composer-in-residence, and they are looking to expand that role. Davis is also working on a project with students from Leawood Middle School, and there’s talk of more orchestral work to come.

“Writing music is the thing that makes me come alive the most, I think, even more than singing . . . The notes on the page are my personality coming through, or my beliefs. We all want to tell our stories, and that’s how I tell mine.”

The William Baker Festival Singers present “The Music of Ed Frazier Davis” at 8 p.m., March 6 at the Kauffman Center. For more information and tickets, www.festivalsingers.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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