News Column

Lexington-based singer performs at Chamber Music Festival finale

August 21, 2014

By Rich Copley, Lexington Herald-Leader

Aug. 22--While waiting for the photographer to click, Karen Slack clapped her hands in the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion.

The clap wasn't just to pass the time.

"I wanted to get an idea of the acoustics in the hall," said Slack, a soprano whose other performance halls have included the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and stages throughout Europe.

This weekend, Slack will make her solo debut in her city of residence for the past three years: Lexington.

Sunday afternoon, she will sing Drew Schnurr's Of Mother and Daughter for Soprano, Harp, and Violin in the closing concert of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington's eighth edition. It will be the first time the festival, which is directed by Lexington native and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra first associate concertmaster Nathan Cole, has presented a Lexington-based musician.

"It's pretty awesome," Slack says. "It's nice to sing at home, where I can sleep in my own bed, and I don't have to pack a suitcase. It's very cool."

Fans of the Lexington-based American Spiritual Ensemble may have seen Slack perform in local concerts with the group. But her touring career can keep her on the road for as many as nine months a year. The Spiritual Ensemble was that connection that attracted the native Philadelphian to Lexington as a home base.

Her husband, Thomas Blackwell, was interested in going into sports management, and ASE director Everett McCorvey said they should look at the University of Kentucky, where Blackwell has studied as well as working for Xerox.

"It's been good," Slack says of Central Kentucky. "The airport is small and comfortable, which I really like. I am not home much, so I'm still trying to figure out the roads."

Slack's Chamber Music Festival connection came from her Philadelphia home base. She studied at the Curtis Institute of Music at the same time that three members of the festival's core quintet were there: Cole, cellist Priscilla Lee and violist Burchard Tang. The quintet is rounded out by pianist Alessio Bax and violinist Akiko Tarumoto.

Going to school together means, of course, Slack has a few stories to tell on her friends.

Cole, she recalls, was fairly shy, and Tang had a sweet spot for ice cream. But Lee, she says, reminded her of some of the conservatory dynamics.

"Priscilla and I were in sight-singing class together, and she reminded me that I used to sing loud in class," Slack said, Tuesday. "I was the only singer in the class. We had all these instrumentalists, and everyone was so shy about singing. But not me. I'd just get out there and sing."

Gifted with a big voice, Slack says her career has been a bit of a struggle.

"The people who were handling me really wanted to have the next Rosa Ponselle, and Rosa Ponselle had her Metropolitan Opera debut when she was 21," Slack, 38, said. "But even at that age, I knew that wasn't the right thing for me. I knew I had a lot more to learn.

"This is a middle-aged career, and you need to have experience to sing these parts."

Slack did get her Met debut in 2006, stepping in to the title role of Luisa Miller for a national broadcast of the opera. And subsequent years have brought more milestones, including the coming season where she will make her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut as Serena in Porgy & Bess.

One thing she does not get to do much is chamber music, which makes this weekend even more exciting for her.

"The intimacy of it and the musicians you make music with in a small ensemble instead of big orchestras and costumes and props and everything; it's just you and the musicians, and that's very special," Slack said.

Smaller venues offer different challenges than bigger halls, she said.

"You don't change the technique, you just take more risks," Slack said. "You use the same support, breath support, you would in a big house. But you change the color and the sound.

"Here, the audience gets to hear everything. But it's good. There is the visceral thing of hearing a big voice in a small space."

And that's appropriate, because usually the folks at home know you better.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @LexGoKY. Blog:


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