Sculpting in Air and the Kansas City Chorale
by Brian Justice
Since 1982, the Kansas City Chorale has performed a diverse repertoire, and under the leadership of Charles Bruffy, 57, the choir has been praised for its refined sound, phrasing and flawless intonation. Beyond the traditional season of local concerts, Bruffy has brought the choir’s talent to the global stage. In 2009, Bruffy led the Kansas City Chorale and the Phoenix Chorale in a performance at the Alice Tully Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The New York Times review noted Bruffy seemed to be “sculpturing in air, carefully molding each finely hued note he coaxed from his choristers, and the choirs performed with a buoyant pulse and energetic finesse.” In 2007, the Chorale received a Grammy award for Best Engineered Classical Album, along with four other nominations, including Best Classical Album. In 2012, “Life and Breath, Choral Works of Rene Clausen,” won the Grammy award for Best Choral Performance. The following are excerpts from a phone interview with Bruffy in early September.
“I am from Savannah, Missouri, and my undergraduate degree is from Missouri Western in St. Joseph. I had just finished my undergraduate degree in piano and, dramatic as it sounds, I cut my finger with an electric knife. And to add insult to injury, it wasn’t even plugged in! It sounds way more dramatic than it was. But at the time, it still kind of inflicted a little bit of a nervous breakdown because I thought that my life as a pianist and music teacher was over. So I moved to Kansas City in 1982 and began a Masters in voice performance.
One Friday night I got a call from the Kansas City Chorale. Their tenor soloist was sick and could I do a Saturday morning rehearsal, and a Sunday concert? And that was back when I was mostly singing. So I started with them as a pinch hitter tenor soloist and they invited me to return the next year and be their assistant conductor.
They asked if I would do a tenor sectional, rehearse just with the tenors. And when we arrived to rehearse there was only one room that was open and so the entire choir had to rehearse there, so I ended up directing the whole rehearsal. It was just one of those situations where I had to kick it into overdrive, so I learned the meaning of ‘fake it until you make it,’ because that was certainly what I was doing.
I became assistant director in 1986, and associate director in 1987. At the time we had another conductor from Houston, so I did all of the rehearsals leading up to the concerts, then he would come up and do the Friday night, Saturday afternoon rehearsal and the concert on Sunday. So really, even though I maybe didn’t know what an incredible gift it was at the time, it really was wonderful for a student to have a wide, laboratory choir to work with, like I did.
I became the artistic director in 1988 and, coincidentally, that was the millennial of Christianity in Russia. I was working on my doctorate at UMKC, and my Russian history music teacher, Olga Dolskaya Ackerly, took me to a Russian music symposium in New York. I had absolutely never heard anything like it. So, when I came back to Kansas City I brought that same program that I had heard in New York, and my first concert with the Chorale was all Russian liturgical music.
That was a huge departure from the classy/sassy program that they had been doing: classical choral music in the first half, then arrangements of top 40 pop tunes in the second.
I think that as artistic director and conductor I’ve strengthened the chorale and I have learned how to listen at a more profound level, how to diagnose and how to communicate with the singers. We have a very inclusive and safe working environment that requires every singer to bring their A-game to every rehearsal. And to share their own musicianship with the choir, versus just waiting for me to tell them what to do.
The Kansas City Chorale is a professional chamber choir with around 26 singers, and they come from varied musical backgrounds. We do a four-concert season, but we also do some additional performances, and we do some touring, as well. And we are embarking on our 34th season. Sometimes we perform at the Kaufman, but we mostly perform in churches. Not that we sing church music, but that’s because the acoustics of those buildings, many times, are very conducive to what we do.
In our programming I think that it’s really important that we promote historical music while, at the same time, support contemporary, living composers. So we have kind of made a specialty of discovering young, unknown composers and uncovering little-known treasures in the choral repertoire.
I think that the hallmark of the Kansas City Chorale is that now our listeners depend on a meaningful and quality performance, no matter what the music is that we are singing. If we sing Chinese folk songs, we try to sound exactly Chinese. When we sing Brahms we try to sing like we are German. When we sing Rachmaninoff we try very hard to emulate what the composer had written and freshen it with, frankly, how I think the song goes.
But the fact is that art groups of all kinds have the challenge of, frankly, selling tickets. You have to create a balance for your audience and for the artists. Those pieces that are familiar to the listener and then balancing that with world premieres or, at least, regional premieres. So we have kind of been on both ends of the pendulum. Sometimes too much early music, sometimes too much contemporary music, but we did win an ASCAP award for Adventurous Programming. That was a cool thing.
And it was an amazing thing to win a Grammy, because at the Grammys you are sitting there next to Elton John or Johnny Depp, or in the same row as all of these icons. Even though the classical music awards are always in the ‘As previously announced …’ section, you don’t know who the winner is until they actually read your name. And, frankly, it’s overwhelming to even be nominated. When you just get to be included in that long list of heroes, and the other choirs that are in the world arena. It’s just really gratifying to know that people in the music industry include the Kansas City Chorale in that company.”