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Andrew Howell moves from singer to chorus director
In 1995, Andrew Howell joined the Chorus of Westerly as an impressionable 12-year-old - and he's not exaggerating now when he says that it changed his life.
"In terms of music, it fed me from when I was 12 and first started singing. It shaped everything I wanted to do," he says.
Indeed, he discovered not only a passion for music but a robust career in it as well.
In a bit of karmic harmony, this past summer, Howell was hired - after an intensive national search - to become the Chorus of Westerly's new music director. In fact, he became only the chorus' second music director, taking over for George "Bunky" Kent, the man who founded the group in 1959 and has been its guiding light ever since.
Ask him what it was like taking over for Kent and stepping into the leadership role, and Howell, 29, laughs.
"It was terrifying," he says. "But it's thrilling, and it's exciting, and I can't imagine anywhere else I'd rather be."
On Sunday, he'll hit another landmark: conducting his first concert as music director of the 190-voice chorus. For this debut program, Howell picked Benjamin Britten's cantata "Saint Nicolas." He's a big Britten fan and, beyond that, he likes that this piece - a tour-de-force about the patron saint of children who was the inspiration for Santa Claus - is very theatrical.
"There's so much in it. There's so much for the chorus to do. There's so much to emote out of it. There's really a lot of fantastic material in there," he says. "It's just a fun piece, all around. Nicolas has the big storm scene, the men are singing on a boat in a storm, the gallery choir is the lightning and thunder ..."
The concert also features Britten's cantata "Rejoice in the Lamb."
Howell has plenty of fans already. Michael Freitas, now the chorus vice president, sang in the chorus with Howell for years. He has sung with him as well as part of the St. James singers that Howell leads at St. James Episcopal Church in New London.
"He's very inspiring. He's full of energy, and you can tell how passionate he is about everything," Freitas says, adding that Howell is extremely knowledgeable as well.
Daniel Van Winkle, chorus president, says that Kent is a hard act to follow but "the members of the chorus have every confidence in the world in (Howell). ... He's really tackling it from the ground up, and everybody loves him."
Before becoming music director, Howell worked with and grew with the chorus over time. He ran some rehearsals during recent years. The singers got a chance to see him develop and to build a level of trust.
Howell says, "The singers have been very warm to me and have been doing an amazing job. I've been pushing, and I have my own style that's different from what Bunky has done for such a long time, and yet we also have a lot of similarities."
It makes sense that there are similarities, since, in addition to their Chorus of Westerly connection, Howell spent years working with Kent at URI, where Howell earned his bachelor's degree in music and his master's degree in choral conducting and organ performance.
Howell started conducting at age 15 at a small church in Alton, R.I. He was drawn to conducting because he likes people; he enjoys leading people and creating music - and there's no bigger way to do that than being a conductor.
"You really get to shape everything," he says.
Having grown up as a Chorus of Westerly member, the chorus is family to Howell. He uses the family comparison figuratively, but it's also true in a literal sense: he met his wife, Emily, when they were both teen members of the chorus. They now have three children, ages 4, 2-1/2 and 8 months.
Howell believes in the strength of the chorus, but he's made some alterations as well. He has added some new programs, most notable a training choir program for the newest, younger singers. The sessions focus on things like learning to read notes and learning rhythms so the youths can then ease into a full season with the entire chorus.
Classes have been offered to the adults singers, too, focusing on voice in one and musical literacy in another.
Howell also switched the rehearsals that had always been held Thursdays, from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m., to earlier in the week and earlier in the night. They now happen Mondays from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., which, he says, "I think has been good in enlivening people. Thursday from 8:30 to 10:30 is kind of late."
The adult rehearsals now boast an accompanist, Melissa Woolverton. Kent used to play the piano himself, and Howell still does that for the children's sessions. But conducting the other rehearsals allows Howell to connect more with the singers, and they, in turn, get used to watching him as a conductor.
As far as programming goes, Howell has added a March concert. This season's will focus on American composers, with a world premiere of a commission from Peter Niedmann, who grew up in the chorus and is now a composer and church musician.
Along with his Chorus of Westerly job, Howell is organist and choirmaster at St. James Episcopal Church in New London, and he is director of the URI University Chorus.
Howell co-founded the Eastern Connecticut Children's Chorus in 2009.
As an aspiring conductor, Howell always had, in the back of his mind, the idea that he'd really like to be the conductor for the Chorus of Westerly someday.
"But to actually have that is humbling and amazing," he says.
IF YOU GO
What: The Chorus of Westerly concert, the debut of Andrew Howell as the group's new music director
When: 4 and 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: George Kent Performance Hall, 119 High St., Westerly
Contact: (401) 596-8663,