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Chatting with … Kevin Vondrak

Conductor and composer talks “Alma Mater” and breaking out of a creative funk during COVID-19.

Kevin Vondrak Hero
Kevin VondrakImage: John C. Hawthorne

By Martin Wilson
November 30, 2020
Online Exclusives

When Kevin Vondrak ’17 MMus was singing pop songs with his a cappella group as an undergrad, he could never have imagined that he’d end up sitting on a hill in rural Pennsylvania with Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and singer Caroline Shaw. But thanks to his Northwestern graduate education and his mentor, Bienen School of Music conducting and ensembles professor Donald Nally, Vondrak found himself sharing a clementine with Shaw and discussing her composition “Partita for 8 Voices,” which he had long dreamed of conducting. “She guards the piece closely,” says Vondrak, “so it was really special to be entrusted with it and bring it to life at my graduation recital with a group of my Northwestern friends.”

In the years since, Vondrak has found himself working with many of the biggest names in contemporary choral music as a composer, arranger and conductor. He currently serves as the assistant conductor and artistic associate for The Crossing, a Grammy Award–winning professional choir based in Philadelphia that is conducted and led by Nally. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get started in music — especially with your focus in choral music?

I did my undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis, splitting my musical time between a student-run a cappella group and classical music. I loved collaborating and making music, particularly choral music, and I was really lucky to have an incredibly supportive teacher named Nicole Aldrich ’97 MMus who encouraged me to apply to Northwestern. That changed the trajectory of my life.

What are some things you learned from professor Nally that have stuck with you?

I’m really lucky that Donald is my mentor, that he was my teacher for a long time, that I get to continue to work with him and call him my friend. When I started at Northwestern, I knew what I liked to do, and I had a pretty good sense of what I was good at, but I didn’t know how to put that into a path to a career. 

Kevin Vondrak standing with Donald Nally in front of Lincoln Center, NYC with their arms on each others shoulders

Kevin Vondrak, right, with Donald Nally at Lincoln Center during performances of Fire in my mouth with the New York Philharmonic in January 2019.

So I arrived at Northwestern, and I had — I now realize — a somewhat misinformed idea of what I should be that was inhibiting some of who I was. Donald chipped away at some of those misconceptions and reinforced and really encouraged some of the natural creativity that I felt. He provided that kind of beacon to look toward — to be able say, “I want to do that, and now I can see what the path is.”

How did you join The Crossing and what did you and professor Nally work on together once you were hired?

The time that I was at Northwestern coincided with a really important time in the development of The Crossing. The summer after my first year I asked Donald what I should do over the summer. I could go work for my uncle’s contracting company and make money, or I could do something related to my degree. And Donald said, “If you can find your way to Philadelphia, we can find housing for you, and you can just kind of be around.” Then after I graduated it was natural to move to Philadelphia and join The Crossing team full-time.

At the beginning, it was very much a coordinating job. But that first year Donald and I were also working on a non-Crossing project together called The Mile-Long Opera. It’s an opera for 1,000 voices, spread out across The High Line in New York City. Donald was the music director, and he hired me to assist him. I worked my way up to become the assistant music director of this high-profile project. And basically, through that experience, I would say I proved myself to assume the role of assistant conductor of The Crossing.

Any moments from your time with The Crossing that have stuck with you?

We did this project called Fire in my mouth. And that was The Crossing, the Young People’s Chorus of New York and the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center — David Geffen Hall. And it was a new composition by Julia Wolfe. There’s this moment in the third movement where the women in The Crossing are holding giant scissors that are about 12 inches long above their heads, and they open and close them at very specific times. They are in front of the stage and they can’t watch the conductor, and because they’re holding scissors with both hands they can’t look at their music. It was very particularly and irregularly timed so I was given the task of being an auxiliary conductor at the back of the hall. It was really cool. That performance was released this year and nominated for a Grammy.

Can you talk about your recent arrangement of Northwestern’s “Alma Mater” that the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble (BCE) recorded?

One of the things that I always think about whenever I’m starting an arrangement is the structure of it — the broad journey that you go on in any piece of music. With this one, the original Peter Lutkin chorale is very traditional in terms of its character. So I found a couple of different sources of inspiration. The first is the original Latin lyrics, based on the Northwestern motto Quaecumque Sunt Vera — “whatsoever things are true.” The beginning of the piece starts out in Latin, so [my arrangement] starts out in this more ancient musical sound. And then it jumps into the present day in English, so [my arrangement] really jumps out into a fight song style. I also tried to throw some a cappella tricks in there — stuff that lends it some pop excitement. The arrangement ends with a musical quote from Herbert Howells' "Nunc Dimittis" from his Collegium Regale collection. That piece is particularly special to me, as it was one of the selections I conducted with BCE during my Northwestern audition. 

And I will admit, for the record, that it was Donald’s idea to end with “Go ’Cats” instead of “Amen.”

Northwestern's “Alma Mater,” arranged by Vondrak and recorded by The Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, directed by Donald Nally

How have you and The Crossing been handling the pandemic?

Our sound designer, Paul Vazquez, created this amazing system where singers can be appropriately distanced from each other in order to sing safely, and can also overdub their voices to create textures that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

We posed some questions to our singers: What does this pandemic mean to you? If we were to never be able to sing in choirs again, what would you miss? And Donald took all those responses and created a libretto, and then he and I wrote the music for this piece called The Forest. We went to a wildflower preserve up in New Hope, Pa., called Bowman’s Hill. Along this path in the woods that was a third of a mile long, the 24 singers were spread out pretty evenly, and created this sound-world that is just magical. All the singers were singing about not being able to see your mom in the hospital and missing the feeling of being in that musical community.

It was really special to see the way the singers reacted to it and the way the audience reacted to it, and I was grateful because it helped me snap out of a bit of a funk. To work that out in a musical form with your friends was really special.

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