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    Friday, September 29, 2023

    New Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus director also helms Coast Guard Academy Cadet Vocal Music programs

    Daniel McDavitt, newly appointed director of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus, in Harkness Chapel at Connecticut College. (Rick Koster/The Day)
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    In his capacity as a much sought-after composer, director of Cadet Vocal Music at the United States Coast Guard Academy and the newly appointed director of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus, Daniel McDavitt spends a considerable amount of time thinking about and teaching music.

    Does that mean he’s above random and silly-for-the-sake-of-it speculations about, oh, how well Johnny Cash’s ragged-Levis baritone would work in the complex harmonic Milky Way of one of da Palestrina’s Renaissance era motets?


    In person, one can see the concept amuses McDavitt. His eyes twinkle and a smile crosses his features at the incongruity — despite the fact Cash is no longer with us and da Palestrina had more sophisticated vocalists in mind when he composed and arranged.

    The truth is, McDavitt is refreshingly open and always curious when it comes to music and how it helps inform our lives. Dressed in a dark suit, he sat down last week inside the otherwise empty Harkness Chapel on the campus of Connecticut College, where the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus has been rehearsing Brahms’ A German Requiem for his first concert with the group. It takes place March 18 with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in the Garde Arts Center.

    With casual eloquence and good cheer, McDavitt speaks engagingly about the philosophy and psychology of music, how he and his family ended up in southeastern Connecticut, and how lucky he feels to have positions with both the academy, where he started in January of last year, and the ECSC.

    New beginnings

    “At this point in our lives, we wanted to land in a place that has something special about it, a place where you recognize that quality as soon as you see it,” says McDavitt, who’s married and the father of a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old. “As soon as I stepped on the campus (of the Coast Guard Academy), I said, ‘THIS is it. This is the place. I want to be part of it.’

    “And I felt the same way when I met (Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra executive director and music director/conductor) Caleb Bailey and Toshiyuki Shimada and the chorus members. They’re remarkable people; the chorus is a very talented group and game for anything.”

    His confidence fairly shimmers via the choice of the gorgeous but challenging Brahms Requiem, which the ensemble will follow on Palm Sunday with a similarly ambitious presentation of Fauré’s Requiem in Norwich’s Cathedral of St. Patrick.

    “After a few months of rehearsals, I couldn’t be more impressed,” says McDavitt, who takes over for previous ECSC director Wendy Moy. “It was like, ‘The Brahms Requiem?’ They didn’t blink. ‘Let’s take it on!’”

    "Daniel brings such a refreshing and joyous perspective to the process of leading our chorus,” Bailey says. “From the very first audition rehearsal, his bright energy has helped recruit more members and makes for a wonderful music-making experience for our volunteer singers. On top of all that, he has an interesting perspective artistically that will help us grow and stay relevant in our programming. We are so happy to have him on board and to hear our chorus under his direction."

    At the academy, McDavitt oversees the 50-member Glee Club, the Chorale and the USCGA Idlers men’s singing group and teaches a music course in the humanities program.

    New England-bound

    Born and raised in Missouri, McDavitt received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University, then met his wife — a Yale grad — when they were both pursuing Ph.Ds at the University of Illinois. His faculty credits include appointments at Goucher College, Loyola University and Knox College, and he’s composed commissioned work for a variety of university, community and school choral ensembles. When his wife expressed a desire to return to Connecticut, they began looking for opportunities. Clearly, they were successful.

    He says he immediately felt at home at the academy and enjoys working with the students and the personnel. He says, “I learned quickly I really enjoy doing this specific work in the context of a service academy and its musical requirements and possibilities.”

    A civilian, McDavitt welcomed and respects the chance to work within the parameters of a service academy repertoire, which means music appropriate to ceremonial and traditional events. “There’s a discipline in mastering that material, and we take pride in being prepared and well-rehearsed,” he says.

    At the same time, he has “a decent amount of freedom” to expand repertoire. “I have to give Superintendent Kelly a lot of credit,” McDavitt says, referring to Rear Admiral William G. Kelly, president of the Coast Guard Academy. “He specifically asked for a more diverse repertoire to reflect the broader representation of the Coast Guard because it will look very different in the years to come — so that’s part of my job.”

    His own musical philosophy

    The curriculum at the academy also means McDavitt has refined his methods. “It’s a little different with cadets. For them, singing is a release from some of the rigors of their daily routine. They’re forming a sense of community through music, so I’ll sacrifice some rehearsal time to allow for discussion and bonding.”

    One of McDavitt’s ways of expanding repertoire is by teaching the humanities course, which is called “Music in Your Life.” “There isn’t a music major at the academy, but I proposed the idea of a class that focuses on the effect of family and culture on your life and the music you associate with those things. There’s a lot of study being done about the psychology of music on young persons, and we devote a unit to the idea of memory and music and how music helps form identity.”

    Over their first year in Connecticut, McDavitt and his family grew familiar with the area and are very impressed by the region’s arts scene. Then he learned the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus was looking for a new director. “I have a friend who sings for the chorus,” he says, “and she kept saying, ‘You should look at us as an opportunity. You really should.’”

    With the chorus, McDavitt also utilizes an approach that goes beyond what he calls the “drill, drill, drill” method.

    “For example, as we prepare, we’ve been talking a lot about where Brahms was in his life when he wrote the Requiem,” McDavitt says. “(The composer) was in mourning about (the death of his close friend and mentor, the composer) Robert Schumann. He was very concerned about Schumann’s wife Clara and their children.

    “Brahms was not a religious person — he was a humanist — so this is a humanist requiem. And I think talking about these backstories add context and depth to the music and our performances of the music.”

    But, given the relative lack of time the chorus has to rehearse — the ensemble is comprised of volunteers — McDavitt emphasizes they do have to work diligently. “I push them really hard and we move very quickly because that’s the only way to attempt a piece of music like this,” he says. “What’s been rewarding is that, after every rehearsal, someone will come up and say, ‘This is exactly what I needed.’ It’s a good workout and a healthy amount of exhaustion.

    “So in some ways, the differences between the academy and the ECSC are almost opposite because of the circumstances.” He laughs. “But they’re also similar. I try not to overthink it, but I do believe that in motivating large groups, the brain assimilates music more efficiently in smaller bits and with social interaction rather than just pounding away at the material.”

    He pauses, thinking. “I’ll say this. We’re really lucky to be in an area this rich in the arts. New London and the extended community are so energetic and committed. That means that both my jobs are very fulfilling.”

    If you go

    Who: Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus

    What: Performs Brahms’ A German Requiem as part of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra’s “Britten & Brahms” concert

    When: 7:30 p.m. March 18

    Where: Garde Arts Center, 375 State St., New London

    How much: $12-$65

    For more information: (860) 444-7373, www.ectsymphony.com,


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