Choral Journal’s ongoing column called “Choral Conversations” features interviews with noted choral conductors and composers. An interview with James Benjamin Kinchen Jr. is featured in the December 2020 issue.
You can read the interview in its entirety online at acda.org/publications/choral-journal. Click “Search Archives” and choose December 2020 from the dropdown menu.
What principles and core values guide you in your conducting and your teaching?
Choral music is a vocal art. My work honors the centricity of the human voice and the appreciation of the beautiful range of colors and timbres that the voice can bring. I am excited by the capabilities of the voice. Choral music is also an ensemble art; we are not a group of undisciplined singers singing together. Choral singing is the ultimate experience of a team effort. The composer must speak. I believe very firmly in trying to understand what the composer wanted by studying and knowing the score. I think these are my best moments as a choral artist, as a conductor, as a teacher. I have discovered enough of what the composer wants and how I might achieve it to aid the singers and orchestra in that direction so that the composer speaks to the audience. Choral music is, above all, a human expression. As a conductor, I want a balance of head and heart in the art so that there is this intellectual piece of music-making right alongside this emotional/spiritual component. Most often, the best of what we do is the result of hard work. The sweat has to be there to enable the inspiration to happen.
From where did your interest in the negro spiritual come?
It is a connection that goes back to junior high, where we performed many of the classical arrangements of the “spiritual.” (Negro folksong was the term that Dawson always used.) Growing up, I heard them sung as folk pieces in our church, too. But in junior and senior high school, while we performed the sacred and secular music of Western composers, we also did the “spirituals.” It seemed so natural for us. As we did them more and more, I came to appreciate them more—mainly when I understood where they came from. They were utterances of my ancestors, profound expressions of faith in religion (Christianity). Even though given to my forebears by their subjugators, they were able to turn it upside down to make it become something relevant to them and their situation. So, they knew whose side God was on when they sang, “Go down, Moses.” They understood that they were the people who needed to be let go and be made free.
Read the rest of this interview in the December 2020 issue of Choral Journal.