The KC VITAs are clearing a path for new voices in the chamber scene
To the uninitiated, the Kansas City Vibrating Internal Thyroarytenoids sounds like an organization advocating an alternative health practice, perhaps, or a tinfoil-hat conspiracy group.
And, in fact, there is something a bit unconventional about KC VITAs (thyroarytenoids is a bit of a mouthful). This chamber choir is infiltrating Kansas City’s choral scene with a subversive idea: to perform and record new work — exclusively new work — from a wide array of composers. That mission has set the group apart in KC’s robust and well-established choral-music scene in the three years since Jackson Thomas founded the VITAs as a graduate student at the University of Kansas.
“We started this because of the niche that was not there for new composers,” says Jackson Thomas, the VITAs’ founder and artistic director.
When 400 people showed up to the first VITAs concert, they knew they were onto something. Each subsequent summer-series concert has drawn similarly large crowds. Critics have commended the ensemble for blend, balance, and attention to detail. Anthony Rodgers, writing for KC Metropolis, lauded the VITAs’ “invigorating richness” and “high level of musicianship.” One concert has grown to three a year (winter, spring, and summer performances), all showcasing contemporary classical vocal music.
“We have from the very beginning [been] playing catch-up with how fast it has grown,” Thomas says.
For this year’s call for scores, VITAs received over 200 submissions from composers in 26 countries. (Work is chosen on a blind basis, just a score with no identifying information on it.) The selection committee whittled down the submissions to 11 works, resulting in a concert with five world premieres, five regional premieres, and one U.S. premiere, performed August 3 and 5. (With the permission of the composers, the group recently created a library for the works it has received, hoping to find performance opportunities for quality works that don’t make the initial concert cycles.)
“We’ve got composers who are young — like sophomores in undergrad — through being an established composer,” Thomas says. With each cycle, those chosen perform and record the works, since quality recordings are difficult for young composers to come by and essential to promoting one’s work.
“It seems like every year the quality continues to increase, which is real exciting,” Thomas adds.
The summer series, which includes choral works, art songs and a chamber piece, is “a potpourri of all the styles we feature,” Thomas says. “We have tried very hard to ensure that there is wide array of styles being shown, because the current state of choral music is all over the map.”
Offerings in this month’s concert cover a wide range of styles. There’s Jaco Wong’s avant-garde piece “Psithaura” (the word for the sound of the wind in the trees), which uses complex harmonies, throat singing techniques, and wordless effects to challenge our relationship with nature. Then there are works that are more tonal and dramatic, like Christina Whitten Thomas’ “The Deceiver” (based on the biblical story of Jacob), or Kevin Wilt’s “Medusa,” for voice and cello, which casts a contemporary view on the ancient myth.
Concerts are free and, though the mostly graduate-level singers perform at a professional level, the 32-piece ensemble, including Thomas, is unpaid.
“Our mission is to make new music accessible to all,” he says. It’s a mission as vital as air to the future of the art form.
Friday, August 3, 7 p.m. Atonement Lutheran Church (9948 Metcalf Ave, Overland Park)
Sunday, August 5, 3 p.m. Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church (2552 Gillham)