The Boston Children’s Chorus is a local treasure like none other. Since 2003, the BCC has stunned audiences across the world with its critically acclaimed music, performing in countries including Japan, Australia, Cambodia and many others. It provides children with a comprehensive music education while teaching them about music’s transformative power.
That transformative power gets to the Boston Children’s Chorus’ broader mission: to empower young leaders to use the power of music to bring together Boston’s diverse communities. World-renowned guests and high-profile leaders — including former President Barack Obama — have performed with the chorus and helped further develop social curriculum for creative approaches to social justice.
So when it was time to find a new director, who would be only the third director in BCC’s history, a yearlong nationwide search led right back to Boston. It turns out the perfect new director was already working for the BCC, Kenneth Griffith. The new musical director for the Boston Children’s Chorus joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss his new role and the BCC’s past, present and future.
Arun Rath: I should disclose right at the top — the bias was probably dripping from my voice in that introduction — but I love the BCC, and my daughter is in the BCC. So you’re a familiar face to us already. But, as I hinted, you were already with the BCC. Tell us what you were doing and how you initially came to the Boston Children’s Chorus.
Kenneth Griffith: I have a background in choral music education. I was a high school teacher, and I was approached by Boston Children’s Chorus to be co-conductor for Premier Choir, which is their advanced high school ensemble, as well as the recruitment manager, a new position coming out of the pandemic. We wanted to reengage communities and think about how we can build our membership again to do the good work that the organization is doing.
So I came in as recruit manager and conductor for Boston Children’s Chorus, and I really very much enjoyed the experience that I had there. Working as the recruitment manager, I had to go into all sorts of different schools across Boston and the Greater Boston area to offer workshops and get to know the community of teachers and singers that eventually make up the body of the Boston Children’s Chorus. During my time there, I was codifying programs and workshops at different schools and engaged students from all over the city back into the community at BCC and the after-school program.
I became the Associate Director of Choirs at BCC this past fall, leading up all of the artistic programming, planning for concerts and really thinking about our programming from within — and building upon the great work that BCC already does.
Rath: Can you talk about what excited you about the Boston Children’s Chorus? What made you want to come here and then made you, once you were here, decide that you would like to be the director?
Griffith: From the first interview, listening to the senior leaders who were part of that process talk about social issues, the questions that they asked about diversity, equity and inclusion were all things that resonated with me immediately. I knew this was a special place, that these singers were going to be very intelligent, that these singers were going to be committed and passionate, and that these singers were going to want to use music not just for beauty’s sake. It’s beautiful to have that — and, to use that music and this powerful tool we have as an opportunity to engage communities on topics that really matter.
And then being in rehearsal with the singers and getting to experience the high-level artistry, being able to engage in conversations with them, and then also to have such a diverse and supportive and supremely talented staff of conductors, teaching assistants, assistant conductors and collaborative pianists with whom we work on a regular basis. It’s just a privilege to be here and a dream opportunity. So when this opportunity came up — to be the music director and to be at the helm of such a great organization — I leapt at the chance.
Rath: With these times that we’re living through right now, there are times when the consciousness the BCC has of civil rights history, and its connection to the social justice movement just becomes so much more poignant than ever. Is the job of bridging these communities harder now? What’s changed about this kind of work?
Griffith: The great thing about BCC is that it was founded back in 2003 with Hubie Jones, who is a civic leader interested in social issues and a mover and shaker in that space. So from the very beginning, the work that Boston Children’s Chorus did: we lifted up social issues and concerns — and music and artistry — at the same time. They’ve been hand in hand, it’s part of the DNA of this ensemble, of this group, of this community. In that way, nothing is different. We care about these issues, and we make sure that all of our themes and concerns speak to communities and the issues that they are experiencing.
As we have entered political discourse over the last few years and it’s become a lot more fraught, people have a harder time learning to express themselves in ways that are conducive to a conversation, growth and change, or at least understanding.
I think our work at Boston Children’s Chorus has become much more important — more important than it was before. In our rehearsals, we teach our singers to ask questions, to disagree with each other, to know how to be empathic, to understand the experience someone else may have, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and be able to have that kind of experience at its root, to understand at its heart and to be a deep listener is core to what we do at BCC and our rehearsals. So our singers at BCC are specially equipped to do that and to be the change-makers.
Rath: The big local event for the BCC seems to be the Martin Luther King Jr. concert, which we just had last month. Kenneth — there was an extraordinary energy, and I know part of that was the feeling of coming back from the pandemic, but it felt bigger than that. What’s your sense of it? Am I imagining that?
Griffith: No, I think you’re right on the money with that. This year, with this being our 20th anniversary, it’s a big deal for Boston Children’s Chorus. Our season is entitled ‘We Are,’ and it’s a season of reflection, of evaluation, of visioning for the future.
During this concert, we had the opportunity to think about Martin Luther King Jr.’s time in Boston — at Boston University, and marching in the streets of Roxbury, and meeting the love of his life at the New England Conservatory and thinking about: What it means to be this great figure, to be this monument? And to see ourselves in that.
I think, at this point, to consider all of the wonderful work that Boston Children’s Chorus has done since its founding and to think about what we can do in the future, it’s just a very exciting time and full of possibility. I think the BCC has a unique opportunity to spark this next new generation of change-makers and artistry across our city.