Click the play button for our Lexington Singers 50th season slideshow, including current and archival photos, the sounds of the Singers in rehearsal, and reflections from the three directors: Phyllis Jenness (1959-75), James Ross Beane (1975-97) and Jefferson Johnson (1997-present). Click here to see a slightly larger version of the show.
Sometimes there’s good karma in the calendar. With George Zack retiring from the podium of the Lexington Philharmonic in September and the search for his successor still in progress, there was a perfect opening for Lexington Singers music director Jefferson Johnson to take the baton for this year’s performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah.
And the timing is great for the Singers to have its man on the podium: This is the 170-member group’s 50th season.
“It is totally coincidental,” Johnson says, “but it’s pretty neat.”
This will be Johnson’s first time conducting a performance of Handel’s perennial. Usually, he prepares the chorus for the concert and then, as most choral conductors do, hands the group off to the orchestra conductor for the show.
Until this year, Johnson, 52, has spent the concert in the same place: the back row of the Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall, where he is showered with the crystal-clear voices of his chorus.
The feeling is not much different from when he moved to Lexington as director of choirs at the University of Kentucky, and he would go hear the Singers under James Ross Beane.
“I was just in awe of how close to perfection they were singing,” Johnson says. “Like any choral conductor, I would listen for mistakes — we’re all diagnostic by nature. I distinctly remember being struck by how close to perfection they were.”
Technical proficiency has always been a hallmark of the singers, says Mary Janice Towles, 70, who has sung with the all-volunteer group for 42 years. “It’s been the director,” she says.
Craig Foster, a 41-year veteran, chimes in, “They have always insisted that we sing the music right and worked hard to do that.”
The “they” have been just three directors during the Singers’ 50 seasons. Johnson has been on the podium for 12 of them. He was preceded by Beane, who held the baton for 22 years, and Phyllis Jenness, who founded the group in 1959.
Jenness, now 86, says it started with an Easter pageant at UK’s Memorial Coliseum that brought together choirs from around the area.
Jenness liked the idea of a community chorus. She held auditions and formed a group of 32 singers, and they presented their first concert in Memorial Hall, singing works by Johannes Brahms, Ned Rorem and Cole Porter.
“We weren’t sure what the community wanted to hear at the time,” Jenness says of the diverse program. “So we tried to present a broad selection of works.”
“We rehearsed in Room 10 of the Fine Arts Building at the university,” Foster says.
Towles and Ann Thurston, who with 48 years with the group is the longest serving singer, corrects: “17.”
“Oh, they changed the number,” Foster jokes.
But they agree on their evaluation of Jenness.
“She was so tall and impressive,” Thurston, 81, says. “But she was also very thoughtful and sensitive and had this big soul.”
In Jenness’s 16 years, the Singers grew to more than 100 members and picked up prestigious gigs, including singing with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, playing New York’s Carnegie Hall, and traveling to Romania in 1974, when it was still behind the Iron Curtain.
Thurston, Towles and Foster, the three members of the Singers who have been in the group for more than four decades, recall a faux pas on that trip: They accidentally sang the wrong Romanian national anthem.
“We wondered why no one was clapping,” Thurston says.
But most of the Singers’ performances were met with hearty applause. Jenness fondly recalls a Cincinnati newspaper review of one of the performances with the Cincinnati Symphony in which the critic said The Lexington Singers were superior to Cincy’s vaunted May Festival Chorus.
Despite all the travel and reviews, Jenness says, “My heart was really in what we did in Lexington.”
It was in Lexington at a performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion that Jenness experienced “the musical high point of my life,” she says.
“The work ends with a big chorus and a chorale, and there’s a moment in the chorale, just before the end, you know, you read ‘the heavens opened.’ Well, they really did for me. That was the transcendent moment in my life.”
Jenness stepped down in 1975 to focus on directing the growing voice program at UK.
In praise of the people
Beane acknowledges that he was nervous taking over for a beloved founding director who had served 16 years.
“I started thinking, ‘I wonder if they’ll accept me?’ because Phyllis and I have very different styles, and we’re different people,” Beane, 74, says. “There is that thought that a group so reliant on one person may fold.”
But he quickly became acquainted with the group, and it adapted to his style, which Thurston recalls as being exacting, rehearsing until 10 p.m. and “using every minute.”
Despite having to drive from Morehead, Beane stayed with the singers for 22 years, ushering in some of the Singers’ staples, including its strong relationship with the Lexington Philharmonic.
When he took over, Beane had a wish list of more than 25 major works for chorus and orchestra that he wanted to present, and they did all but one, the Requiem by Hector Berlioz.
Johnson’s era has included three international tours, playing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris; commissioning works including the Celebration Canticles by René Clausen, and launching a children’s choir.
“In the next 50 years, I see us continuing to do what we’ve been doing,” Johnson says. “The best thing has been the people, even before the music. If we’d been singing nursery rhymes the last 11 years, I still would have enjoyed it.”