Transplanted Composer Calls Kansas City Home
Composer Ed Frazier Davis moved to Kansas City for its performing arts opportunities.
By Kelly Phillips
Kansas City has a lot to offer residents when it comes to the performing arts. Although the metropolitan area is smaller than other Midwest regions such as Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis, Kansas City offers plenty of culture in the classical and performing arts–enough to draw musicians here from larger cities. Ed Frazier Davis, singer, conductor, and Composer-in-Residence for the William Baker Choral Foundation, is pleased with his decision to make Kansas City home.
Davis, who grew up in East Sussex, England, and Chicago, Illinois, makes his living singing, conducting, and composing musical works for a variety of musical ensembles in Kansas City and abroad. Davis could have chosen to stay in Chicago, where his well-known father, Sir Andrew Davis, is the Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Or he could have moved to Melbourne, Australia, or Toronto, Canada, both cities where his father has worked and with which he is familiar. But instead, Davis chose Kansas City, and in 2016 he moved here to pursue his doctorate at UMKC.
One of the factors that drew Davis was the presence of the Kansas City Chorale, a professional 27-voice chorus that performs and tours nationally. Says Davis, “I’ve been a fan of the Kansas City Chorale for about ten years…I found their early recordings when I was a student, and I’ve been a follower of Charles Bruffy ever since. When I wrote out my list of grad school programs to apply to for my doctorate, I looked at schools in towns that had really good choirs in them. Ideally, I wanted to be able to audition and sing with them, but if not, at least I’d be in the same city and be able to enjoy them.”
Davis goes on to mention that when he researched UMKC, he realized that both Dr. Chen Yi and Dr. Zhou Long teach there, professors for whom he has the utmost respect and appreciation. That sealed the deal.
Davis’ work is an eclectic mix. He’s written electronic music pieces such as the one he wrote in college for cello and fixed electronics. That piece includes a video component, which he admits is more on the avant-garde side of his repertoire. Most of his compositions are works for choir, but he also composes orchestral music, chamber music, and art songs.
Throughout his college experience, Davis says he was encouraged to experiment with various types of compositions, expanding into genres, instruments, or ensembles that were outside the norm for him. Regardless of the quality of his pieces, they were guaranteed to be performed; it was part of the university program. This experience gave him a solid foundation and the confidence to compose new pieces as they occur to him. His compositions often start with text taken from other works, such as the Emily Dickinson poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” which was the inspiration for his first composition.
Before moving to Kansas City, Davis served four seasons as Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Chamber Choir. He has performed both solo and ensemble work with various choral groups, including Bella Voce, the Chicago Choral Artists, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. His work reaches beyond Chicago to include intensive workshops with vocal group Chanticleer and a stint as Artist-in-Residence with the Des Moines Choral Festival. Now, as a Kansas City resident, Davis works as assistant choirmaster at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and as Composer-in-Residence for the William Baker Choral Foundation, comprised of nine ensembles in three states.
Davis recently returned from Melbourne, Australia, where he was commissioned by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to compose a piece to celebrate his father’s final season as Chief Conductor. Davis considers his father his most forthright and supportive critic when it comes to his work. “I’ve shown him almost everything I’ve written,” says Davis. “He really knows how to tackle issues like instrumental balance and structural challenges. He’s very honest with me, and I’m grateful for that because it makes me a better composer.”
One of Davis’ most significant projects took place on March 6 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The Kenneth Babcock Memorial Masterworks Concert featured his work performed by The William Baker Festival Singers and Orchestra, the William Jewell Concert Choir, and Sarah Tannehill Anderson, soprano soloist. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the second half of the concert. In addition to preparing for this father/son debut, Davis is currently working on a commissioned work for one of the Leawood middle schools, setting to music a poem written by one of the seventh graders at the school.
Kansas City compares well to larger cities when it comes to the performing arts. “There are a lot of great organizations here that are putting out world-class music,” Davis says. “There’s the Symphony, of course, and the Chorale, and even The Festival Singers. I think they’re one of the best amateur choruses I’ve ever seen or worked within the States. They’re as good as any professional choir. They exhibit that same drive and commitment to excellence found in professional choirs – but none of them get paid.”
Davis is also amazed at the variety of music found in Kansas City. “It’s more than chamber and choral music. Here you find a range of music, anything from classical and baroque to contemporary and the avant-garde. It’s all here,” says Davis. He also loves the spark of creativity found here. “Kansas City puts out a vibe that encourages musicians from all walks of life to get together and create something, whether it’s a new instrumental group or a spontaneous song conjured on the fly. Everything is here. I have yet to see Kansas City lack diversity in the music community.”
When asked what advice he’d offer to someone considering a move to Kansas City, he responds, “Kansas City appeals to people from both ends of the spectrum – the urban to the rural. It’s much more welcoming and homey than larger cities like Chicago or LA, but at the same time, there’s always something going on here. You’ll never lack for things to do.”