The Cathedral Choral Society has chosen a new music director. Steven Fox, 39, is a polymath from New York: a sometime professional singer, a former Russian studies major who, after graduating from Dartmouth, went to St. Petersburg (the Russian one) and founded what may have been Russia’s first Baroque orchestra. Newly married in October, he is figuring out how to divide his time between his responsibilities in New York, where he is music director of the early-music orchestra and chorus Clarion, and his new challenges as the leader of a symphonic chorus in a town, Washington, that’s one of the choral capitals of the country.
Fox has a big and challenging legacy to follow. In June 2016, J. Reilly Lewis, the conductor, organist, musician and beloved citizen of Washington's music world, dropped dead of a heart attack. In addition to leaving a hole in the fabric of Washington's musical life, Lewis left two musical institutions suddenly rudderless. The Cathedral Choral Society, which he had led for three decades, was about to celebrate its 75th-anniversary season. The Washington Bach Consort, which he had founded in his mother's basement with "geeks from the NSO who were also geeks for Bach," as the Bach Consort's executive director, Marc Eisenberg, tells it, was coming up on its 39th. In addition to grieving personally — Lewis was a powerful presence in his musicians' lives — these organizations had to embark on the search for a new music director to replace someone that no one had felt it was time to replace.
“We have not only very large but very unusual shoes to fill,” Eisenberg says. Both organizations acknowledged from the start that it was going to be impossible to replace Lewis by looking for someone with his particular skill set and personal strengths: “It would be foolish,” Eisenberg says.
He adds: “We’re not looking for someone who’s [only] going to do a great 41st season. We’re looking for someone who is going to connect with music lovers, Bach lovers, classical-music lovers in our city, for a good while. Anything less would be not true to Reilly’s memory.”
The Bach Consort is using its current 40th-anniversary season as a year-long audition for its next music director. Each of the five candidates, from an initial applicant pool of 40, is leading one concert — and each concert is the kind of blowout piece that the consort usually does only once a year: four of the Christmas oratorios on Dec. 9; the St. John Passion on March 18; the B minor Mass on April 29. The candidates will also lead one of the free noontime performances that are part of the Consort’s tradition. And everyone — singers, administrators and audience members — can weigh in on the strengths and weaknesses of each, behind the scenes or by clicking a feedback button on the Consort’s website. “They love giving their opinions,” says Eisenberg, who has been pleased with the volume of the response.
The Cathedral Choral Society chose a different process. When Lewis died, the 75th-anniversary season had already been programmed, and to set up the following season as an audition year “would have really extended the time we were without a music director,” says Genevieve Twomey, the executive director of the chorus. “We wanted a process that was solid and strong but a bit more nimble.” The chorus posted the position in February and took candidates through eight steps, starting by asking them to write essays about why this position was a good fit for them at this point in their careers. “That was great,” Twomey says. “We got to see their thinking and approach before we even had an interview.” There were several other steps, including asking candidates to come up with sample programs, before the finalists were invited to come and work with the chorus this summer, culminating in open rehearsals in the cathedral itself before a small invited audience of donors and subscribers, followed by a reception that allowed the committee to see how candidates handled themselves in a range of situations.
“We wanted somebody who was a choral conductor, had been an artistic director and artistic leader of an organization, had been responsible for programming, and had had professional conducting experience with an orchestra,” Twomey says. That seems like a lot to ask, but the Cathedral Choral Society had about 80 initial applicants for the position (and the Bach Consort had about 40) — impressive numbers in a small field.
Twomey said that Fox, who also earned a master of music degree from London’s Royal Academy of Music, stood out at every step along the way. “His programming was incredibly intelligent and creative,” she says, “and very thoughtful in terms of context — something that I would want to buy a ticket to.” She notes that she was not on the search committee herself.
Fox, for his part, is excited about the opportunity to lead a large symphonic chorus in large-scale repertoire in Washington National Cathedral. “I do know that, coming in, working in that acoustic is going to be a big part of my job,” he says, observing that some pieces work better in the space than others. The acoustic can even be a strength, once you learn how to work with it: keeping syllables shorter than you might in a concert hall, slowing down tempi, allowing the sound to bloom.
As part of a new generation of choral conductors in Washington — Christopher Bell has just taken over the Washington Chorus, and Scott Tucker is in his sixth year at Choral Arts — Fox is also part of what appears to be a gradual sea change in the field from the old-school choral conductor a la Norman Scribner, who gave his life to chorus work, to conductors who also maintain careers guesting with orchestras and opera companies. As a polymath himself, Lewis may have been ahead of his time: Today, as the Cathedral Choral Society's search requirements show, such flexibility is practically expected.
Fox, who has management in New York, will continue to do some guest work, though he says that his two fixed posts, with Clarion and with the Cathedral Choral Society, will now be his main focus, as he and his wife settle into their new city, where he will officially take up his new post in October — giving him time to get to know the chorus and be involved with the planning of his inaugural season.
“I wish I had met him,” Fox says of Lewis. “I feel almost like I know him, I’ve heard so much about him. But I’ve heard he just gave his soul to everything he did. He was a soulful musician, and in that way, I really do want to follow him.”
Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated the anniversary the Cathedral Choral Society recently celebrated. It was its 75th, not its 50th.