Christopher Kendall began focusing on the new millennium in the early 1980s.
It was during this time that he became artistic director of Millennium Inc., an arts production organization dedicated to 1,000 years of Western music. During this period, he also co-produced an Emmy-winning television program on Aaron Copland, became assistant conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, accepted a position as director of music programs at Boston University, created the Folger Consort (the Washington-based early music ensemble) and became the director of the 20th Century Consort--which, like the Folger, is one of the more successful performing ensembles in this city. He is also director of the University of Maryland's School of Music in College Park.
Both the Folger and the 20th Century consorts will highlight the millennium in a concert at Washington National Cathedral. An eight-movement work by Jim Primrosch has been commissioned for the event Jan. 14 and 15 and will contain contemporary settings of music written during the past thousand years. The two groups will be joined by the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys.
Kendall, 50, has been an insatiable eclectic ("generalist" is what he calls himself) since childhood in the Midwest, when he stopped taking violin lessons from his father only to take up the French horn. "I studied with my father for a few years," he recalls, "before I realized that I didn't want to continue--much to my regret now. I was a rebellious little kid, and the French horn was the instrument that I used as my form of rebellion. I remember having tears in my eyes upon first hearing the sound of the instrument in a symphony orchestra."
Kendall went on to learn the guitar and lute while pursuing a graduate degree in conducting from Cincinnati Conservatory. Then he had a chance to study with Leonard Bernstein, Robert Shaw and Antal Dorati, the conductor of the National Symphony at the time. "In some ways, I found him to be one of the most inelegant conductors. He was conducting with his facial wrinkles and not with his baton. Yet he had a profound understanding of the repertoire--a real educator."
Although Kendall went on to conduct the Seattle Symphony, he became increasingly drawn to the chamber repertoire.
"For me, chamber music has always been the ultimate form of music expression. The phenomenon of the conductor of 19th-century music is largely an expression of the Industrial Revolution. Because of this, the orchestra often seems a bit too large and the conductor sometimes adds an authoritarian dimension to the orchestral experience. In chamber music, there exists an intimacy and equal responsibility among participants."
But what made him become involved mostly with early music and 20th-century works?
"I grew up with the mainstream repertoire--Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. I became more interested in the Middle Ages, Renaissance and 20th century because it seemed like unfamiliar territory. There was a pioneering process involved. I still love that. And Washington audiences have always had a sense of adventure. They have always been willing to explore the music that the Folger Consort and 20th Century Consort offers. . . . They realized that we were playing this music out of a natural love of the repertoire; we weren't programming contemporary music in a politically antagonistic way."
Kendall plays lute, harp and other plucked instruments with the two music groups. But he remains a musician with an affinity for administrative and organizational positions. "When I was a child, I used to organize various games with my friends. I coordinated antiwar groups in high school during the '60s, and I was involved in a tuition strike in college. Also, being a conductor has meant combining music skills with administrative talents. When I was offered the directorship at the University of Maryland, it appealed to me because of the projects that were in the making."
The big change is the construction of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, a massive complex scheduled for completion next year that will include a library, theater and dance departments, school of music and six performance halls.
Kendall has ideas about how the center should be used. "I think that people are looking for different ways to attend concerts. We want to provide inner connections among various disciplines--that is to bring in art, philosophy, public affairs, dance, theater, film and, of course, music. We will also program conferences, research, scholarship and performances. It's important not just to focus on one discipline, but to also see the arts in a broader way."
But with all of this whirlwind of activity, doesn't Kendall sometimes dream of doing only one activity in music?
"I resist at answering this," he says, "because I like the sense of adventure in doing it all. Yet, I suppose if I had to choose, I would have liked more than anything else to have stuck with my violin studies with my father. Then I could have been a violinist in a string quartet playing Mozart."
CAPTION: Christopher Kendall with a 16th-century lute: Taking the roads less traveled.