Lawrence Toppman

Musicians are clay in Kenney Potter’s hands

Charlotte Symphony Chorus conductor Kenney Potter likes to study scores at Luna’s Living Kitchen.
Charlotte Symphony Chorus conductor Kenney Potter likes to study scores at Luna’s Living Kitchen. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Kenney Potter runs the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, which he has redesigned in less than a year. (You’ll hear it blast through Orff’s “Carmina Burana” this week at Belk Theater.)

As of last fall, he runs the music department at Wingate University, where the number of vocal students has quadrupled during his 11-year tenure.

He and wife Heather run the music program at First Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, she as director of music and he as director of adult choirs.

Together, they run a Dilworth household overrun (as such households occasionally are) by two youngsters under 10.

And for relaxation, he runs.

“Not competitively,” he says. “I have run several marathons in recent years, (such as) Charlotte’s Thunder Road. My competition is against the clock, not against people.”

Until six hours get added to every day, Kenney Potter will always be competing against a clock. (He has that extra “e” because his first name is a family name.)

“When he took on the chair of the music department and the symphony chorus at the same time, I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ ” recalls Jessie Wright Martin, a Wingate music faculty colleague. “Wingate probably has the best college choir in the state, so the demands on Kenney are very high. A few of us who work closely with him are being as supportive as possible to cover all the bases.

“He knows what his strengths are and what he doesn’t want to do, and I think he is getting his stride now. Sometimes he’s running around like a chicken with its head cut off – we all are – but he has not dropped any balls. It helps that he has an incredibly supportive wife and loves what he does.”

“I have come to know him as someone who’s extremely gracious, very open to suggestions if you find a better solution,” says Seth Hickel, president of the board of directors for the CSO Chorus. “That’s what made the transition and adoption of this new guy by the chorus work.

“His feathers never seem to get ruffled. Last summer, when I was calling extraordinary meetings with the board, going back and forth with ideas under pressure, every phone call began with a calm ‘Hey, Seth, how are you?’ I have never seen him get crazy.”

A career fell in his lap

He’s had that attitude since his youth in Kings Mountain.

“I couldn’t get away fast enough to college,” he recalls. “My priorities were swimming, music and a good football program, so I went to Florida State University. After two weeks, I realized I wasn’t going to the Olympics as a swimmer.”

He took his music diploma to graduate school and “came back in 1993 with two shiny degrees and no job. I was hired for a year at Ashbrook High in Gastonia and thought, ‘I’ll teach one year and then go to Italy to study opera.’ I grudgingly had to admit after that year that I enjoyed it. I didn’t choose teaching; it chose me.”

A casual observer might think chance rules Potter’s life. Take his wife, whom he met while helping with auditions for the symphony’s chorus.

“I saw this tall beautiful woman with big brown eyes, and I was smitten – but she gave me no time at all. Four months later, I brought the East Gaston High chorus to Charlotte for ‘The Magic of Christmas.’

“My high school girls were all up in my business. Looking around the rehearsal room, they said, ‘Mr. Potter, would you date that woman? How about that woman?’ I told them, ‘The only woman I want to go out with is standing there.’ The next thing I know, they’re all over her, asking questions. They come back and say, ‘She’s available!’ ” Romance ensued.

Or consider his job as CSO director of choruses, which he got after a national search picked him from among six candidates. Scott Allen Jarrett, the outgoing head of the chorus, had sung at Kenney and Heather’s wedding; his friendship made the transition smoother.

Says Hickel, “There was a great love affair between the chorus and Scott, who used to call himself ‘minister of the First Church of the Symphony Chorus.’ He would talk quite a bit about the sense of the music, putting it into a historical context or religious perspective. He left it to us to do a lot of fine tuning with diction and listening to each other.

“Kenney shares some of the same types of information about what the music means and the emotion behind it, but he doesn’t make assumptions about our ability to tune ourselves or listen as well as he can. We tend to have more technical rehearsals with him, and that helps.”

Making the toughest decisions

Potter quickly re-auditioned all 130 singers in the chorus and auditioned 40 new ones, some from his crack Wingate squad. He promised not to cut anyone in the first year but wanted to establish a baseline from which to improve.

He also revived the Chamber Chorus, which had lain dormant for four years, and roused this group of 30 voices to sing composers familiar and unfamiliar.

After a June 2 concert at Myers Park Methodist Church – a preview of the one the Chamber Chorus will do at Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto two days later – he’s planning a season that includes David Lang’s Pulitzer-winning “The Little Match Girl Passion” and Bach cantatas.

“(It took) a lot of courage ... to re-audition the entire chorus before we even began preparing pieces for his first season,” says Elizabeth Rennie, the sopranos’ representative on the search committee. “He made tough choices about some singers, and this was rather confronting for a lot of people. Yet these were the right choices and a smart move for the organization.

“He recruited many of his current and former Wingate students to join us. Having these young, vibrant voices along with the now more fine-tuned sound of the existing ensemble is doing wonders. As a 41-year-old singer who majored in music about 20 years ago, I still take pride in my voice, but I know it’s not the same as it was back then.”

Soft speaking, big stick

Music director Christopher Warren-Green trusted Potter enough to let him choose rare choral repertoire for next year’s mainstage season: Bruckner’s “Te Deum” and “Psalm 150,” plus Mendelssohn’s once-revered but now less-known “Elijah.”

Unless CWG gets stranded in London, Potter may never assume the podium to conduct the pieces he prepares. But he could.

He taught himself orchestral conducting as music director of the Union County Symphony from 2006 through 2009 and leads the N.C. Baroque Orchestra when it accompanies his Wingate chorus.

“Kenney’s a communicative conductor,” says Barbara Krumdieck, co-founder of the Baroque Orchestra and a cellist. “Sometimes you get (a conductor) flailing around in his own world, but he’s easy to follow – and you can see the pure joy on his face.

“He’s businesslike but warm, kind and thoughtful. He treats college students with respect and uses all student soloists; he doesn’t hire professionals for solos, which he could do. And he tries to remember everyone’s name.”

If one thing were absent from his life, it might be music – the kind he makes himself. He was once a featured bass soloist at Carnegie Hall and a choir soloist for the Grammy-winning Oregon Bach Festival Choir. He took the small role of Judas when the CSO chorus did Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with Jarrett two years ago.

Doesn’t he miss singing?

“No,” he says. “I get more satisfaction from leading others. Conducting feeds my soul.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Charlotte Symphony Chorus

You can hear the full power of this group May 12-14, singing Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” under Christopher Warren-Green with the CSO and Charlotte Children’s Choir. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Tickets cost $25.50-$89.50.

The Chamber Chorus performs a “Pro Anima: For the Soul” concert June 2 at 7:30 p.m. in Myers Park Methodist Church, 1501 Queens Road. It offers settings of psalms, Duruflé's “Quatre Motets sur des Themes Gregoriens,” Daniel Elder’s “Three Nocturnes” and Matthew Harris’ “Shakespeare Songs.” Tickets cost $10.

Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

Potted Potter

Age: 45.

Hometown: Kings Mountain. His father worked for Johnson Mills.

Family: Married to Heather Williams Potter since 2000; she’s artistic director and conductor of the Charlotte Children’s Choir Harmony and Concert Choirs. They have two children, daughter Syl, 8, and son Calvin, 3.

Education: B.A. in music education from Florida State University (1992), M.A. in music education from Portland State University in 1993, Ph.D. in choral conducting from UNC-Greensboro in 2005. (“My wife and I got doctorates together, commuting to Greensboro for two years. People said, ‘Well, your marriage will either flourish or fail.’ ”)

Humblest professional singing job: Waiter at the now defunct Bravo! Restaurant in the old Adams Mark Hotel on McDowell St.

Most prestigious singing job: Performing with Helmuth Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival Choir n Krzyzstof Penderecki’s “Credo,” which won a 2000 Grammy for best choral performance.

Places you might run into him: Studying a score early mornings at Luna’s Living Kitchen in Charlotte or working out Wingate-related business at Taqueria La Unica in Monroe. He collaborates best over tacos.

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