Meet Our New Director of Music Ministries

Meet Michael Conley, Calvary’s New Director of Music Ministries

Please browse this page. The links make it easy to navigate. And, as always, please share with community members and friends. We’re excited to have Michael join us at Calvary in mid-October and hope you are, too.

Michael Conley Formal 

From the Search Team: Calling Michael
A Brief Biography
From Michael: Why I Feel Called to Calvary
Church Experience
Choral Conducting with Adults & Youth
Concerts & Repertoire
Composing
International Tours
Comments About Michael

From the Search Team:  Calling Michael

Late last year our team was appointed to seek a full-time Director of Music Ministries, a first for Calvary. This new position would not just direct the Chancel Choir and plan worship services, but would build more ways for members and new people of all ages to experience God through music. In addition, we wanted someone with a strong sense of call to this work.

The job description was promulgated nationally to churches, seminaries, conservatories, and many other institutions and associations. Michael was one of the applicants who attracted us right away. He is incredibly well qualified and, just as importantly, he feels a clear sense of call to lead music programs in a church context.

All of Michael’s references were effusive in their praise of him, emphasizing that “he is a world-class musician” and “phenomenal conductor,” “a spiritual man” and “extremely generous” in working with others.  “Choruses grow because of his musicianship, personality and exertion,” they said, and they confirmed his genuine interest in church ministry:  “Michael sees working in a church as a calling.”

It was the unanimous feeling of the Search Team that we were being led to Michael and he to us. We believe he will be an effective and inspiring leader, building on our strong music legacy and opening new avenues to inspire people on their faith journeys through music. He will start with us full-time in mid-October. We are excited to introduce you to Michael Conley and feel blessed to have found him.

With great joy and gratitude,

The Director of Music Ministries Search Team: Fred Heuser and Jennifer Miller (Co-Chairs), Dave McDowell, Casey McIlhenny, Chris Nichols, Pam Sebastian, Alan Thomas, and John Weems

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A Brief Biography

Michael Conley has been steeped in music, especially church music, all his life.  When he was a boy, much of his family’s life revolved around their Southern Baptist church and its music.   Michael was born in Wyoming and moved with his family to Virginia when he was 8.  At about the same time he started studying piano.  He also studied violin and oboe, and went to James Madison University in Virginia on an oboe scholarship.  After earning his undergraduate degree in Music Composition at JMU, he earned a Master’s in choral conducting from the highly regarded Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ.  Along the way he also became an organist.

Michael has worked in music ministry roles for nearly 25 years.  He has served at a wide variety of congregations, from UCC to Catholic and Baptist to Episcopalian, and from small country churches to grand, big city edifices. He has lived in New York City since 1996, and has served as Music Director for Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village since 2006.

In addition to his church work, Michael has been the long-time and much-lauded Artistic Director of two prominent choruses—the West Village Chorale (55 voices) in Manhattan and the Hudson Chorale (80 voices) in Westchester, New York—with which he has performed major works accompanied by small ensembles or by full orchestra. For eight years he served as director of the high school chorus at the prestigious Dalton School in Manhattan.   He has led his choruses—including the high school chorus—on eight successful international concert tours. Michael’s conducting and composing have attracted the attention of The New York Times.

Michael’s musical career extends from conductor, organist, pianist, and singer to arranger, author, and composer. He is grounded in the great canon of Western classical music and is delighted with Calvary’s strong legacy in the classical tradition. He is also very experienced in such other genres as gospel, jazz, folk, musical theater, and cabaret, and believes that there are many ways to connect with the spirit through music.

Michael takes seriously the “ministry” in “music ministry.”  He has rich experience as a valued part of worship-planning teams.  Moreover, he views himself as providing music that inspires people along their faith journeys.  What he counts as most important is the quality of the music and its appropriateness to the worship theme. He feels a strong spiritual calling to Calvary, one that gives him the courage to make such a big change in his life.  Michael will be joining us in mid-October. He is excited and so is the Search Team.  May God be with us all on our coming journey together.

Links:

Visit “Response in Song” Sermon to hear Michael describe a significant chapter from his life story. At Judson Memorial Church, lay people are sometimes called upon to give a sermon or testimonial. This was one of Michael’s.

Visit www.michaelconleymusic.com for a range of audio/video links and photographs.

Photo- From Hudson Chorale “Sounding Brass” concert, January, 2015

At Hudson Chorale “Sounding Brass” Concert, January, 2015

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From Michael: Why I Feel Called to Calvary

Michael Conley InformalI am so deeply honored and excited to be joining the Calvary community. I have spent the majority of my life on the East Coast, but have family roots all over the West, so moving to San Francisco feels like a kind of homecoming. I was raised Southern Baptist and value those beginnings because of the history of heartfelt, full-bodied hymn singing which that wonderful tradition imprinted on my musical soul. I have learned and grown, both musically and as a person of faith, by being immersed in a broad spectrum of faith traditions and liturgical practices. All of those rich experiences are part of what I hope will make my ministry here at Calvary successful and meaningful. I believe that great worship is fostered when the goal is not just excellent music making, but an offering of music that enriches our liturgy and faith.

From the moment I first saw the job posting for this position at Calvary, I was excited. I googled the church and was mesmerized by the beauty of the sanctuary, chapel, and other facilities. I was impressed by the diversity of programs and ministries offered, and by how involved and committed the congregation seemed. I admired the great history of the music program here, and marveled at the long and devoted ministry of Alden Gilchrist. Still with all of that, I hesitated to apply. I was reluctant to leave all of my friends and family behind and walk away from almost twenty years of hard work building a career and a life in New York City. But this beautiful place kept drawing me back! Now here we are, several months later, and I am humbled and full of joy to be called as your new Director of Music Ministries.

If you ask me right now what my vision for music at Calvary is, I am going to say “I have no idea.” That’s only partly true; I have a lot of ideas! But I will answer that way for now because, to put it simply, I don’t know you yet. I intend to take my time to get to know you, as individuals and as a community, to get a sense of what kinds of music excite you, comfort you, and stir your souls. I will take my time learning what you as a congregation value most in your music, and what traditions and past accomplishments the choir and other musicians most treasure. I will do my best to listen to your ideas for all the exciting ways we might grow and expand the music program here, and how best to accomplish a collective goal of extending our reach to the community, and to San Francisco more broadly.

Every person who walks through our door because of a concert or other program offered by our music ministry is someone who might come back because they fell in love with the space and discovered an awesome community of loving, welcoming, faithful people. Calvary is already a place that people know and admire for its ongoing legacy of great music. It is both my job and my privilege to help perpetuate that legacy, and to foster it in ways that will benefit all of us while ensuring that music at Calvary continues to inspire us and enhance our journey of faith for years to come.

Yours in service,

Michael Conley

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Church Experience

Michael has worked in music ministry for nearly 25 years.  He has served as a music director or organist for a diverse range of denominations and for several sizes and types of congregations. He is adept at integrating different types of music to enhance a meaningful worship experience. He currently serves as Music Director for Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, where he is pianist, conductor of the Judson Choir, and founder of “Judson Arts,” a concert series that celebrates an eclectic mix of musical styles and ensembles.

Michael began his church ministry during college, as the Organist/Choir Director at a small United Church of Christ congregation in rural Virginia. During graduate school he served in the same role at a small Lutheran church in New Jersey. Upon moving to New York, he was fortunate to land the position of Assistant Director of Music at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, which has one of the most highly regarded music programs in the country. (Go to Sacred Music in a Sacred Space for some samples.) Michael was an assistant organist at St. Francis of Assisi for eleven years. At the Church of the Ascension he essentially built a choral program from scratch, and greatly expanded and enhanced the role of traditional sacred music in the life of the parish. He also worked for a lovely Episcopal church in Rhode Island called St. Peters-by-the-Sea, and a beautiful Catholic church in Staten Island, NY, also called St. Peter’s.

Having served such a diverse group of congregations, Michael has learned how to select and weave music into services in a way that meets the spiritual needs of a range of people with differing liturgical preferences and backgrounds.

 

Michael conducting an annual “Open Sing” of Handel’s Messiah at Judson Memorial Church

Michael conducting an annual “Open Sing” of Handel’s Messiah at Judson Memorial Church

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Choral Conducting with Adults & Youth

Michael has worked with some of the best-known choruses in the greater New York City area as director, conductor, and singer. His work with the West Village Chorale and the Hudson Chorale has already been mentioned (see Brief Biography, above).  For five seasons Michael was the Assistant Conductor for the esteemed Collegiate Chorale (150-175 voices, founded by Robert Shaw), which he prepared for fifteen performances at Carnegie Hall as well as other performances and festivals. He also served as the Chorus Master for the Connecticut Grand Opera in Stamford, Connecticut, preparing choruses for productions of Gounod’s Faust and Verdi’s Macbeth. In addition, he has been a singer, composer and conductor with C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective in NYC.

He has worked effectively and rewardingly with singers of all ages and abilities.  Michael was the much-loved director of the high school chorus at the prestigious Dalton School in Manhattan for eight years. His references say that the best musicians in New York, singers and players both, love to work with him because of his musicianship, his clear conducting, and his encouraging and collaborative nature.  They also say “he is a master conductor but also very sensitive to people” and can “work well with a very diverse group of people and ensembles.”

Michael says of working with choirs:
“I believe that what fundamentally separates choral ensembles from most other musical groups is the sense of community, and a oneness of purpose that they naturally engender in people. When we come together to sing, we not only work together to create the music itself, but we proclaim words in unison, as one. That is a transformative experience: a community of diverse people, expressing important and inspiring ideas in harmony; great music that is joined with the great poetic and theological thoughts of writers and thinkers throughout history. There is no other communal endeavor that can so effectively and simultaneously ground us in the traditions of our past while connecting us to a shared hope and common purpose for the future. Choral music is unique in that regard. And as such, it is precious. The most spiritually moving experiences of my life have all revolved around music, and the most profound amongst those have been through choral music. I can’t wait to share in that great, joyous privilege with the choir and congregation at Calvary!”

Links to performances by the West Village Chorale and Hudson Chorale, under Michael’s direction:

Sanctus: The West Village Chorale and Orchestra performing the Sanctus from the Rutter Requiem in 2013: Sanctus from John Rutter’s Requiem

Dona Nobis Pacem: The Hudson Chorale and Orchestra performing Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem in 2014: Dona Nobis Pacem by Vaughan Williams

O Shenandoah: The West Village Chorale performing O Shenandoah, arr. James Erb, in 2012: O Shenandoah

Softly the Night: The West Village Chorale performing Michael’s Christmas anthem, Softly the Night at their Christmas Concert at Judson Memorial Church, 2014: Softly the Night

In the Bleak Midwinter: The West Village Chorale performing Michael’s own setting of Holst’s beautiful Christmas Carol In the Bleak Midwinter in 2012: In the Bleak Midwinter

Welten Singen: The Hudson Chorale performing Welten Singen, the finale to Beethoven’s Oratorio Christus am Olberg, in an all-Beethoven concert in 2013: Welten Singen

I’m Gonna Sing: Members of the West Village Chorale and Hudson Chorale performing a traditional spiritual, I’m Gonna Sing while on tour in Croatia, 2014. I’m Gonna Sing

Michael conducting the C4 Chorus during a rehearsal

Michael conducting the C4 Chorus during a rehearsal

C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective “performs pieces written within the last 25 years…” www.c4ensemble.org

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Concerts & Repertoire

Michael Conley has an impressive conducting and performance repertoire. His sacred music repertoire includes great works from Bach, Beethoven, Bernstein, Brahms, Britten, Bruckner, Buxtehude and Byrd… and that’s just a sampling of composers whose names start with the letter “B.” Although “grounded in the great canon of Western classical music” he also works regularly in other genres including gospel, jazz, folk, musical theater, and cabaret. His repertoire comprises a blend of sacred and secular music. See his Repertoire Highlights for a more complete list of works he has rehearsed and conducted.

As Artistic Director for the West Village Chorale and the Hudson Chorale his concerts offered a range of themes, showcasing sacred and secular music, full orchestras and individual instruments, beloved classical composers, contemporary writers and world premieres of commissioned works. To see a list of concert programs he created for the West Village Chorale between 2009 and 2014, go to West Village Chorale Past Concerts .

What others had to say:

After a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy in C minor, The New York Times wrote “Mr. Conley endowed this rare example of third-rank Beethoven with first-rate conducting.”   A write-up in the Vocal Area Network said Conleyhas a sharp ear for programming and puts together concerts of distinctive character.” (The NYC area Vocal Area Network is similar to the San Francisco Classical Voice).

Michael is also known for the “astonishing” program notes he writes for concerts.  His references spoke about his “superb prose” and how he makes “classical and sacred music exciting… amazing and important.” His notes explain the context of the music at the time it was written, the unique qualities and challenges of each work, and why they are relevant today.  To see an example of his notes from the West Village Chorale’s 2013 Winter Concert go to Concert Notes.

With youth Michael strove to find ways to engage them in music that went outside the boundaries of the normal choral repertoire. One of his references said: “At Dalton he had the kids do some spoken fugues; instead of singing, the kids spoke the words with very complex rhythms. The kids loved it.”

Photo by Liza Wallis Photography, www.snootydog.com

Photo by Liza Wallis Photography, www.snootydog.com

The Hudson Chorale during an all-Beethoven concert, 2013

The Hudson Chorale during an all-Beethoven concert, 2013

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Composing

Michael is a published composer of numerous works in a range of media, from chorus, orchestra, and chamber ensembles to hymns, cabaret songs and musicals. At the age of nine he collaborated with his best friend on his first composition. They affectionately titled the piece “The Star Song”. Years later he was awarded the Mueller Prize at Westminister Choir College for outstanding work in the field of choral composition. One of Michael’s references said “he is a great composer… contemporary but not avant-garde; he likes cluster harmonies and clever rhythms.”

One of Michael’s celebrated works is titled This Bequest of Wings. It is a setting of nine poems of Emily Dickinson for chorus and orchestra. After its premier in 2012, The New York Times wrote This Bequest of Wings, an ambitious, handsome nine-movement work composed by Mr. Conley and based on texts by Emily Dickinson, was tuneful and consonant, but piquant, surprising harmonies keenly illuminated Dickinson’s mix of plain-spoken language and otherworldly disposition.”

Michael’s Appalachian Requiem, soon to be published, has been hailed as a “spectacular composition” and “genius” by his references. The West Village Chorale’s description of the work at its debut was: “Michael Conley’s Appalachian Requiem grapples with the tragic environmental and human impact of mountaintop strip-mining on one of our nation’s most beautiful regions. It follows the normal order of a Latin requiem mass but draws its texts from Appalachian poets and inspiration from traditional Southern hymns, folk music, and Native American chants. It honors the culture, natural splendor, and grit of Appalachia; drives home the devastation that is being wreaked on this area by a brutal mining practice; and creates beauty of its own.”

Links to performances of Michael’s compositions:

Appalachian Requiem: You can hear an excerpt, “The Peace of Wild Things” which serves as the “Agnus Dei”  movement of the Requiem, here at his publisher’s website:  “The Peace of Wild Things.” The full hour-long work for Chorus and Orchestra will be published sometime this year.

This Bequest of Wings: The Hudson Chorale and Orchestra performed the complete work just this past May. Link coming soon!

The Quiet Mind: This is the final movement from a set of three pieces for chorus and piano called Tudor Triptych. Performed by the West Village Chorale in 2013: The Quiet Mind

You can find more videos of Michael’s compositions, including two songs from his Musical Chester’s Quick Lunch on his website: www.michaelconleymusic.com

Photo of Michael from Vocal Area Network online publication

Photo of Michael from Vocal Area Network online publication

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International Tours

Michael has led his choruses on eight international concert tours to great acclaim. The West Village Chorale, along with members of the Hudson Chorale, has toured in Italy, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia, and will travel to Greece next summer with Michael returning as guest conductor. Programs have included the Mozart Requiem, the Fauré Requiem, and a range of shorter works. You can hear them performing the Mozart Requiem in Verona, Italy with a delightful Italian children’s chorus: Mozart Requiem in Verona, Italy.

As the Dalton Chorus Director, Michael led groups of as many as 35 young singers on four European tours. The choruses performed to standing-room-only audiences in churches and concert halls in Europe, including St. Peters in Rome, the Duomo in Florence, and venues in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Salzburg, Germany, and Spain.

On tour in Spain in with the Dalton High School Chorus

On tour in Spain in with the Dalton High School Chorus

The Dalton Chorus on tour in Spain, 2009

The Dalton Chorus on tour in Spain, 2009

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Comments About Michael

The Search Team spoke with many references for Michael, covering his experiences with churches and choruses. Here are some of the comments that impressed us:

“Michael Conley has worked with a wide range of abilities. He can work with good musicians with lousy voices, good voices with few musical skills, and everything in between in all combinations.”

“He works amazingly well with an orchestra. He’s a phenomenal conductor and always gets the best players. They love working with him because of his meticulous and controlled conducting style. He has a great sense of musicality and phrasing.”

“He is brilliant with sacred music.”

“Michael was selected to come in [to the Hudson Chorale] after a beloved conductor had died, and a temporary conductor had filled in for a while. He allowed members to have all the feelings they had and yet built the choir into a stronger choir by his musicianship, his energy and his abilities with people. “

“He is a remarkable person. Michael is ideal for multiple generations. He is personable, charming and intelligent.”

“He is just wonderful with kids. [At Dalton] he was excellent in choosing repertoire to stretch their abilities and arrangements that appealed to them. His enthusiasm really came across and the kids adored him.”

“He is a real team player with everyone inside and outside of the church. He can adapt quickly. The best musicians in town love to work with him.”

“I have never seen Michael not want others in the spotlight. He is extremely generous. He always wants others to look good.”

“He creates a lot of camaraderie in his groups.”

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