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Classical Lass

by Carla Reublin

EYES CLOSED AND LSTENING to Janelle McCoy sing, your imagination might take you to a far away place in time. You might envision her as robust and round, belting out in mezzo-soprano on stage scattered with men in flowing white robes (you might even place a Viking horned hat upon her head with blond braids hanging down). However, when you open your eyes you would be surprised to find, singing before you, a petite young woman with a gentle, girlish smile.

Janelle McCoy, touring mezzo-soprano and Artistic Director for the Chamber Music Society of Southwest Florida, was born in a rural town in North Carolina with a population of 500. A shy and quiet child, McCoy took to the piano very early on. Upon the black and white keys, Janelle was able to express herself in a way that she was unable to do socially. “I could always just sit down at the piano and work it all out. It was a very interesting outlet for me, because music was not necessarily pushed in my family.”

Music, however, was pushed through the public school system that Janelle attended. There she found an exceptional band teacher and a program where she began learning extensive symphonic band transcriptions. Although each of her siblings played an instrument in school, academics always came first in the McCoy household.

“My father was a pharmacist who eventually specialized in compound pharmacy. He had a clean room in his pharmacy where he mixed IVs for patients in hospice care so they could be in the comfort of their own home rather than the hospital. He was very service oriented and really wanted to help people. My mother assisted him in the pharmacy, working mainly as his accountant.”

When Janelle came home from school one day and announced to her parents that she would be singing in the high school musical version of Music Man, it came as a shock to her family. She had always kept her voice as her own little secret. At the debut, there onstage, her parents witnessed an incredibly big voice coming out of their studious, shy daughter. They were left speechless. Her father eventually did have a piece of advice for his young vocal prodigy, he simply said, “Don’t let this distract you from your studies.”

“My father grew up in an old coal mining community that was hit very hard during The Depression era. It was very hard for him growing up and because of that, it was impressed on him that the most valuable work, was work where people needed you. Any thought of doing anything artistic, just left him with the feeling that that was not going to take you where you needed to be. It still doesn’t really register with him.”

Janelle went on to Erskine College with the intent to study math and science, but the artist inside of her would not release its grip. One night singing in her room, a friend strongly suggested to her that she join the choir. Once in the choir, the dean of music implored her to focus on her rare gift. Over time, Janelle did become to believe that her voice was unique and it was then that she knew that she needed to move on. She decided to move to Atlanta and attend Georgia University. Within weeks of living there, she auditioned for the Atlanta Symphony, one of the ten top orchestras in the country, and her world began to open up. She met Robert Shaw, the Symphony featured her as a soloist, and she began to get work singing across the country and Europe.

She stayed in Atlanta for ten years until eventually she found herself living in Philadelphia. While there, Janelle continued taking jobs singing in various cities, one of them being Fort Myers, where she first met her husband, Andrew Kurtz, conductor of the Gulf Coast Symphony. After they married, they kept both homes in Philadelphia and Southwest Florida, splitting their time between the two. “Philly is a great jumping off spot, if say, I have to sing in New York. The goal is always to sleep in your own bed”.

Janelle speaks with fervent enthusiasm about classical music, drawing great inspiration from Beethoven and Mozart, but equally thrilling to her are new composers and the contemporary works being written. Her excitement is infectious. Even those most apprehensive to symphony would find great interest in listening to her talk affectionately about melody, movement and tempo. Her current passion is chamber music. She describes it as very similar to MTV Unplugged. “It is so intimate. You are so close. The audience is right there and can feel the vibrations from the instruments. It’s really amazing and the musicians can feel the audience’s energy as well. I think the nice thing about chamber music, is that when people think classical music, they think ‘stuffy’, something they can’t relate to. But when you go to see chamber music, you can almost touch it. It really breaks down the barriers.”

Breaking down barriers is definitely what Janelle has accomplished by founding the Chamber Music Society of Southwest Florida. The audience got a firsthand look at her vision of the future when, most recently, Janelle hosted a stirring, youthful performance by the Attacca Quartet. Comprised of four award winning Julliard students, the show was exhilarating. They attacked strings with feverish abandon. Onlookers could see the horsehair bows fraying in protest to the friction and intensity. Not only was the music transforming, but the audience had the special advantage of listening to Janelle and the musicians sit and talk about the work, gaining a better understanding of what they were hearing and seeing.

“The great thing about chamber music is you can almost touch it and feel it. In our concerts we discuss a lot about how we feel about the music. When the quartet is in rehearsal, half of the time spent is just talking. They want to get each other’s ideas and motivations. They work really hard at having this music interplay and conversation, then having it all come together. There is really a lot of emotion behind it.”

Although Janelle’s life path has not led her to a career in science, she, nonetheless, has her father’s gift of aiding others. With humble chagrin, she effortlessly helps people to understand chamber music’s history and future, while passionately keeping it alive and relevant in our modern world. •

from the May-June 2008 issue

"When people think classical music they think 'stuffy' – something they can't relate to. But when you go to see chamber music you can almost touch it."