The Arundel Vocal Arts Society has engaged a sterling new musical director to preside over the local chorus' silver anniversary season of two concerts.
Having returned last month from working with the Fairbanks Alaska Summer Arts Festival, JoAnn Kulesza will concurrently serve as music director of AVAS and the Peabody Opera Program, where she will conduct Benjamin Britten's 1954 psychodrama Turn of the Screw in November. She also directs two choirs at Eastport United Methodist Church and has also been engaged to conduct Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld in April for Opera Vivente in Baltimore.
She replaces David Daniel, who served for two seasons with the Arundel chorus. At its first rehearsal on Aug. 29, Kulesza had everyone stand and turn to the left to massage the backs of their neighbors before turning right to do the same. Next were stretches before some unique exercises emphasizing vowel singing.
Kulesza started out wanting to be a choir director and got "sidetracked" when opportunities presented themselves, since she sees "all the jogs in the road as opportunities."
Raised in Michigan, she and began piano lessons with music theory at age 7. By age 14, she was serving as organist and choir director at a Polish Catholic church. After majoring in music education at Western Michigan University, Kulesza discovered opera by becoming rehearsal pianist for Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, which she said "was the beginning of the end of my nicely planned life."
She went to graduate school at the College Conservatory of Music of Cincinnati and after two years took her first professional job coaching and accompanying singers in opera and lied on the staff at the Hochschule Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria where she became "immersed in the culture and rich support of the arts."
When she returned to the United States, she worked at Wolf Trap with Roger Brunyate, who was a stage director at Cincinnati during her student days. That was followed with many operas with regional companies before apprenticeships in San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera Chicago. During this time she conducted diverse works from Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny Songspiel to Jules Massenet's Werther and Gioacchino Rossini's L'Italiana in Algieri.
Involved with young singers in several apprentice programs, Kulesza became aware of how much was lacking in their education and chose academia "to make a difference in the shaping of the artists of the future." Today she is much in demand as a guest educator and clinician throughout the country.
A choral music enthusiast, Kulesza has worked with professional choruses including the Lyric Opera of Chicago and as chorus master for Washington National and Wolf Trap Opera Company.
Before her first rehearsal with the Arundel Vocal Arts Society, Kulesza said, "Now I'm here with people who come together for the sheer enjoyment of singing. I can help bring all of these voices together into a cohesive unit to create a unique, homogenous sound."
Of Kulesza's appointment as music director, society director Glenette Schumacher said, "We are all delighted that a person of her caliber is interested in our little troupe. She has been more than cordial, enthusiastic, certainly knowledgeable and excited about the opportunity."
After the first rehearsal, Schumacher said, "She has an excellent ear and didn't let us get away with a thing, and that's what we need. You could tell the opinion of the group just by the fact that they were hanging on every word she spoke and everyone was totally engaged during the entire rehearsal. It was hard work for a group that is used to singing most of the time, but I think we're going to have a great experience with her, and I hope she feels the same."
AVAS rehearsals are for the Dec. 2 concert, which consists of Donald McCullough's The Holocaust Cantata: Songs from the Camps, in which all texts were written by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. The 43-minute work is accompanied by cello and piano. The first half of the program will conclude with Michael Horvit's Even When God is Silent.
The second half will include Britten's A Ceremony of Carols followed by Irish carols and Jerry Herman's "We Need a Little Christmas" from Mame.
Rehearsals are held from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays at Magothy River Middle School. For more information, visit www.arundelvocalarts.org. To arrange an audition call 410-268-3131.