Specializing in Works for Voice by Living Composers, KC VITAs Chamber Choir Presents its Summer Series

KC VITAs Chamber Choir, now in its eighth year, specializes in performing works by living composers. (photo by Mary Vanhooser)

August concerts will include works by composers-in-residence Kota Hayton and JD Daniel

Now in its eighth year, KC VITAs Chamber Choir continues to excel at presenting eclectic new work for voice.

“The programming is all over the map,” said Jackson Thomas, founder and artistic director, of the ensemble’s wide-ranging performances. “The listener is taken on a journey, because it’s all new.”

Jackson Thomas, founder and artistic director (photo by Mary Vanhooser)

KC VITAs stands for the Kansas City Vibrating Internal Thyroarytenoids. That somewhat intimidating name (thyroarytenoids are muscles in the larynx) plays on the fact that the ensemble only performs work by living composers, breathing life into their music.

Thomas was new to Kansas City when he recognized a need in the community. Though Kansas City was “saturated” with great choral ensembles, he said, “there was really a missing element of that for new music . . . (ensembles) that were really championing living composers’ works . . . not necessarily the composer du jour.”

He formed the all-volunteer ensemble for a one-off summer concert in 2015. “Literally, I got a group of friends together and I said, “‘Let’s do this.’”

More than 400 people attended the first concert. “That was an obvious indicator that we had something here, and we have a lot of people in Kansas City who are interested in being part of that new music scene,” he said.

“Our organization doesn’t just perform choral music, it does all vocal music . . . It’s a great way for us to show the breadth of what composers are doing for the voice.”

Jackson Thomas, founder and artistic director, KC VITAs Chamber Choir

Along with his work with KC VITAs, Thomas is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in music at the University of Kansas and is the director of choral activities at the University of Central Missouri.

The organization has now expanded to a year-round concert series, presenting three to four concerts as well as collaborations with other organizations. This also allows them more variety in programming: large works, chamber works and art songs.

“Our organization doesn’t just perform choral music; it does all vocal music . . . It’s a great way for us to show the breadth of what composers are doing for the voice,” said Thomas.

The ensemble’s Summer Series concert stays true to those roots, with a mixed program in a wealth of styles, what Thomas calls a potpourri.

In mid-spring, the program for this summer’s show was still being finalized, selected from the organization’s most recent call for scores. Choosing what to perform is a hefty lift: They received nearly 300 choral works and nearly 350 art songs. Submissions came from all 50 states and from more than 15 countries.

Thomas’ goal, when selecting pieces, is to create a cohesive, approachable program for the audience, allaying fears that the phrase “new music” automatically — and only — insinuates “atonal.” There’s so much more.

“It’s not going to burn everybody’s ears off. We are going to pace (the concert) with all of the different styles and the different genres,” he said.

Kota Hayton, composer-in-residence (from the artist)

It will include, however, work by the organization’s two composers-in-residence, Kota Hayton and JD Daniel.

Hayton’s work, “Passing trees, far and near,” is a world premiere. This textured, minimalist piece musically represents that feeling of being in a car, watching the “motion parallax” of trees that one experiences when driving swiftly past.

During the last few years, Hayton focused on solo electronic projects and songwriting. Together with a KC VITAs world premiere in April, these are the first performances of his compositions in more than two years. “Now that live music is returning . . . I am re-exploring my compositional voice,” he said.

Along with performing never-before-heard work, KC VITAs also presents new material to the Kansas City audience, with local and regional premieres. Daniel’s piece, “May I Be At Ease,” written in 2020, is both personal and healing and takes inspiration from James Oppenheim’s poem “Assurance.”

“We are living in a time of great uncertainty, and I don’t think we can ever really be absolutely certain of anything, but I know that we can still be reassured, connected, healed and transformed,” he wrote in the work’s description.

JD Daniel, composer-in-residence (from the artist)

For both Hayton and Daniel, the value of the ensemble is not just for their personal involvement, but how that mission serves the greater compositional community. “It’s so important for composers to be able to hear their work performed live. Music isn’t really music until it is actualized into an experience — the ideas and the written ‘music’ are just abstract guideposts to help us create that experience,” Daniel said.

Both composers are also longtime performers with the ensemble, Hayton on tenor and Daniel on bass. As creators, interpreters and curators (they help Thomas with score selection), they bring a wholistic perspective to the process.

“Being one of the performers places me in a naturally empathetic and sympathetic position,” said Daniel. “I want the singers to be able to perform what I write without too great an amount of stress or trepidation.” (As a low voice singer, though, Daniel does indulge in writing low notes.)

Daniel described their involvement as “a joy. In KC VITAs, I find my niche as a performer and composer.”

KC VITAs’ mission, as always, is to serve the composers. They professionally record every concert and share those recordings freely with the composers. “We are able to send them something that they can be really proud of,” said Thomas. “This allows us to make a larger impact in the composing community, not just Kansas City.” KC VITAs shares many of the performance recordings on its YouTube channel as well.

It’s this support for the community, said Hayton, that is the most rewarding aspect.

This summer, they’ll premiere another dozen or so pieces, both world and regional premieres. This past April, the organization performed its 62nd world premiere.

It’s a testament to Thomas’ vision: “That model has lasted, and it’s been great.”

Thomas estimates that the organization will achieve a significant milestone very soon. “I would love to hit 100 world premieres by our 10th year,” he said.

KC VITAs performs at 7 p.m. Aug. 5 and 3 p.m. Aug. 7 at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 6401 Wornall Terrace. For more information, kcvitas.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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