Rev. Mark Ward: Oh, Let Us Sing!

LeslieDowns-piano-fontI have some exciting news to share with you: after a nationwide search lasting some nine months, I can now announce the next Music Director at UUCA. He is Dr. Leslie Downs, who goes by the name of Les. He starts June 13. As it happens, Les is a local candidate, but only recently so. He came to Asheville three years ago from Oklahoma, where he received his doctorate in piano performance in 2010. There, he was also a musician at a progressive Baptist Church, started an arts academy, taught and coached pianists and singers, and was music director for community theater productions of a number of musicals. Before that he lived in New York City, where he was principal accompanist for the New York City Gay Men’s chorus, worked as an assistant at Carnegie Hall, taught piano, and was music director for music theater productions.

Since arriving at Asheville, he has been a regular soloist for the Asheville Piano Forum, coached and accompanied for the Asheville Lyric Opera, taught at Mars Hill College, and played piano for Spencer Baptist Church in Spindale. Earlier this year he was the pianist for Ann MacPherson’s memorial service at UUCA. As part of the interview process for this position, Les also had a 45-minute rehearsal with our own choir.

This hiring comes at the end of an exhaustive – and sometimes exhausting! – search process. This was the first time that we conducted a nationwide search for this job. Listings were posted in with the UU Musicians Network, the American Guild of Organists and the American Choral Conductors Association. Altogether we received interest from some 30 candidates from across the country – we even had one international candidate! We culled that group to around 13, interviewed nine of them and had six finalists, five of whom we invited to rehearse with the choir.

At the center of this process was our Music Committee, which I expanded to eight members last summer but later shrank to five, due to other obligations of some members. The core committee was Gwenn Roberts, chair; Mike Ellis, Beth Gage, Kassie Hughes-Lamprose, Langdon Martin and Jeff Robbins. Together, we spent many hours first defining the position, then sorting out our priorities for skills and experience, and interviewing both in person and by Skype or FaceTime.

We also felt that especially with candidates we didn’t know it was crucial to experience them with the choir. So, Interim Music Director Melody McGarrahan graciously agreed to let our search process take over two regular choir rehearsals, and choir members generously agreed to come in for one rehearsal on a Saturday. I am so grateful for so many people – Music Committee & choir, especially – for doing so much to get us to this place.

Please plan to welcome Les when he arrives in June. He will need help from all of us to get oriented to this place. And he is interested to learn more about how we tick musically – what kind of music works well for worship – and what the musical interests of the congregation are. The choir will be finishing their regular schedule with Music Sunday on June 5, but please keep an eye out for announcements about rehearsals resuming in August for the new worship year. It will be an exciting time with a new person, so please plan to come and try it out.

It’s been a long haul, but I think the attention and diligence given to this process will serve us well, and I’m delighted with the choice we arrived on.