CU graduate student is gaining national recognition as a musical conductor.
Conductor Kedrick Armstrong (MMus’23) will earn his master’s degree in orchestral conducting this May, but his career is already hitting a high note.
An advocate for classical music performance and publication, plus the preservation of the voices of musicians of color, Armstrong is passionate about bringing recognition to Black female composers — with the Center for Black Music research in Chicago, Illinois, and the Helen Walker-Hill collection at CU Boulder among his crucial research tools.
In 2022, Armstrong conducted the world premiere of Irene Britton Smith’s Sinfonietta (1956) with CU Boulder’s University Symphony Orchestra — the result of a “year-and-a-half labor of love,” he said. “It was truly one of the most life-giving moments for me as a conductor, a musician, a person, an artist and a humanitarian.”
Bringing Sinfonietta to life for the first time in decades was a testament to Armstrong’s belief about what the work of every artist should be: Along with making great art, he said, “…find where your culture, identity and the work you love to do meet the needs of the field and the vocation.”
Choosing such an ambitious piece was something Armstrong sees as a personal and triumphant moment and described his inner monologue as he embraced the daunting endeavor: “I'm going to do this, it's going to be really hard — but we're going to buckle down and figure out how to get through this.”
A Musical Journey
Once the orchestra reached the Sinfonietta premiere, Armstrong felt “pride in myself and the entire school for wrapping their arms around me in the process,” he said.
He highlighted a guiding principle that’s been with him from the beginning: “I strive to make music with people who enjoy it as much as I do, and for me as a conductor it's all about community and collaboration.” With that in mind, Armstrong attributes the success of the performance to the support the orchestra provided since their first rehearsal together.
“It means a lot to a young conductor to have the respect and trust of your peers [the orchestra] and I felt throughout that entire process … they were along for the journey. [Performing Sinfonietta] was one of the special moments in all of our lives, careers — and especially our time at CU.”
Armstrong always takes time to recognize the roles that Gary Lewis — professor of conducting and director of orchestral studies — and Susan Thomas, professor of musicology and director of the American Music Research Center — played in his achievement.
“It was so amazing to have both Susan and Gary beside me along this whole process, guiding and supporting me and finding the resources, people and tools for me to talk to,” he said.
In February John Davis, CU Boulder’s dean of the College of Music, attended Armstrong’s performance as he conductor of the world premiere of The Factotum with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“Not only is Kedrick already widely valued as a conductor, he’s keen beyond his years when it comes to manifold, socially conscious collaborations that connect the dots between artistry and engagement in the social issues of our time,” said Davis. “I’m especially impressed by Kedrick’s active leadership in advancing new and diverse music, and in lifting up underrepresented composers and performers of all identities.”
He added, “In realizing my vision to prepare our students as universal musicians — that is, developing multiskilled, multifaceted artists who are equipped to innovate and engage in a diversity of disciplines as both creatives and changemakers — it’s deeply important to me to support and encourage those students who, like Kedrick, embrace and model what we’re aiming to achieve.”
On That Note
For Armstrong, a classical musician who got his start as a gospel church pianist, conducting The Factotum provided a new professional challenge for him: cohesively blending multiple musical genres for a performance in just three short weeks. Armstrong prepared for the opera infused with elements of barbershop harmonies, hip-hop, jazz and musical theater by listening to shows such as The Wiz and analyzing old videos of barbershop quartets.
“How do we best unify all of these different styles and genres and authentically represent them on the stage? This show and a lot of the work that I do right now requires me to dip into various styles … so that I have something to pull from in a rehearsal room,” he explained.
Looking ahead, the 2023 season offers several debuts and exciting engagements for Armstrong. He’ll begin his duties with the Galesburg Symphony Society and conduct two masterworks and one community concert with the Knox-Galesburg Symphony. Future engagements also include the Opera Theater of Saint Louis and Houston Grand Opera.
Said Davis, “It’s my hope that the College of Music increasingly provides our students the latitude, agency and welcoming space to explore their creative and scholarly work — as Kedrick has done — in ways that encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation, and in ways that positively impact our world beyond their graduation — as Kedrick is sure to do.”
Armstrong is listed among The Washington Post’s 2022 “composers and performers to watch.”
For Armstrong, becoming a conductor is about determining how he can create the best environment for the most authentic musical experience.
“[It] has never been about power, it has never been about status, it's never been about control,” he said. “It's always been about being a servant, a facilitator and a cultivator.”