NEW YORK — Everett McCorvey steps into the crisp late-fall, early-evening air at Columbus Avenue and West 63rd Street and surveys Lincoln Center.
"It's been a long time since I've gone to the stage door at Avery Fisher Hall," he says. "So if it's not where I remember it, we'll hunt around until we find it."
On this Monday night, McCorvey is preparing to re-enter the New York music scene, of which he has not been an active part for decades, since the years when he sang at Avery Fisher's Lincoln Center neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera.
That's where he met his wife, native New Yorker Alicia Helm, and they made the moves that led McCorvey to the University of Kentucky, where he has spent more than two decades building University of Kentucky Opera Theatre into a leading training program for students hoping to get to New York. A number of them have.
It was a Kentucky connection that brought him to this return, as the newly appointed artistic director of the National Chorale, the only professional choral organization to establish and maintain an annual choral-orchestra series in a major New York City concert hall.
In July, the Chorale suffered a devastating blow with the sudden death of its only artistic director, Martin Josman, who founded the group in 1967.
Active UK alumna Myra Leigh Tobin has been a member of the Chorale board for years, chairing it at least three times. She said of Josman: "He was the lifeblood of this group."
McCorvey, 57, first encountered Josman when he auditioned for the Chorale as a young singer.
"He was a taskmaster," McCorvey recalls over lunch at Benash Delicatessen, a few blocks from the National Chorale offices in Midtown Manhattan. "He had a real eye for quality in the vocal sound and what he wanted to accomplish musically. He demanded excellence. I got along with him well. That's because I came to rehearsals prepared."
McCorvey says working with Josman and the National Chorale gave him a framework for his own approach to music education.
"It was my experience with the National Chorale that helped me understand what the requirements are for professional musicians, which are you have to be a crackerjack sight-reader, you have to be able to learn music quickly, get it up to a performance level, and perform it as if you've been performing it for six months," McCorvey says. "The people who can't do that will have trouble being successful in the business, because they won't get rehired.
"The conductor expects them to come in knowing the part, because it's not just learning notes, it's making music."
Over the years, Tobin kept McCorvey posted about Josman and the Chorale, and after Josman died, she asked for his advice about a successor. But soon, she set her eye on her own home state favorite.
"I dreamed a dream," Tobin says of pitching McCorvey to the Chorale board. "I guess I made a good sales pitch."
Not everyone bought in initially.
"There were some naysayers who said, 'What does a Kentucky director know about New York City? New York will eat him alive,'" board chair Judith E. Rinearson says. "Then he came in and blew all that away."
At this critical point in the group's history, Rinearson says, "Not only did we need a consummate musician, we needed a people person."
And that was the mode McCorvey was in while finding his way to the Avery Fisher stage door to prepare for the 47th annual Messiah Sing-In, an audience sing-along of George Frideric Handel's Messiah featuring 16 conductors, each leading one of the oratorio's choruses.
They included numerous New York-based choral conductors and a few from outside the area. Among them was Hugh Ferguson Floyd, director of choral activities at South Carolina's Furman University, whom McCorvey invited specifically for his role as artistic director of the New York State Summer School for the Arts. The National Chorale has several education initiatives in New York City public schools, including a major partnership with the Professional Performing Arts High School for children who are professional performers.
In his dressing room, decorated with New York Philharmonic programs that featured legendary figures such as Gustav Mahler, McCorvey contemplates whether to put on his white tie and tails before or after making the rounds to greet the conductors and soloists.
"I'd better do it before I go out or I might get to talking and run out of time," McCorvey says.
That is very easy to imagine, as his wife, Alicia, and others talk during this quick trip to New York about McCorvey's legendary gift for gab. Later in the evening, UK Opera stage manager Marc Schlackman goes to retrieve a chatty McCorvey from a post-concert party so he can have dinner, well after midnight.
Backstage, McCorvey is making the rounds talking to conductors, many of whom knew Josman and the Chorale well and have a keen interest in the organization's future.
Late into a group briefing, where McCorvey introduces himself and gets some pointers from conductors with years of Sing-In experience, conductor Gregory Hopkins rises at the back and, on behalf of all the conductors, welcomes McCorvey saying, "We are excited to see what music you bring to New York."
The National Chorale post is in addition to his work at UK. McCorvey — who is legendary for sending emails with time stamps from the wee hours — jokes that the Chorale "will fill my 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. time slot."
McCorvey notes that for faculty at performing arts schools, perform or perish is their "publish or perish," and the Chorale helps fulfill that requirement. And with the Chorale's involvement in New York schools, McCorvey, who recruits just like UK basketball coach John Calipari, can see the potential of attracting talented students to Kentucky.
The job will involve regular shuttling to New York for which he hopes Alicia will join him as they soon will be empty nesters.
While plenty of the members of the Chorale, an auditioned group, were in the Sing-In crowd, their first performance under McCorvey's direction will be in February, following several days of rehearsal for a show that will be a joint appearance with McCorvey's American Spiritual Ensemble.
As much as the Chorale years ago prepared McCorvey for a professional music career, he says leading the American Spiritual Ensemble, which focuses on the preservation and performance of spiritual music, prepared him to lead the Chorale.
An early afternoon meeting with Chorale director of operations Amy Siegler is a flurry of plans and details, both for the concert at hand and the season to come. A lot of discussion focuses on generating new audiences and donors for the group, which, says everyone involved, seemed like it could have folded after Josman's death.
"I'd like to find ways for the organization to raise more money, create some endowments, maybe create some fiscal foundations knowing there's money to present the season," McCorvey says, then laughs, adding, "It feels like talking about UK Opera. It's sort of the same. The arts are always dicey."
He also has ambitions to raise the profile of the Chorale, looking at the New York calendar for spots where it might be able to present events that would put it in the mix of New York culture, like the annual Alltech Celebration of Song in downtown Lexington, which McCorvey conducted the night before his Chorale debut. Alltech founder and president Pearse Lyons flew McCorvey to New York and was one of several Kentucky notables in the Sing-In audience, which also included Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane; and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who was in New York for a conference.
"He's a rock star," Gray said of McCorvey. "He's a great ambassador for Lexington."
Chorale board chair Rinearson marveled, "We've never had a governor at one of our performances."
McCorvey's onstage demeanor would be familiar to anyone who has attended a UK Opera performance or one of UK Opera's Grand Night for Singing shows.
He engaged the audience in a show of hands to see how many people had been to two, five, 10 and so-on performances, identifying one audience member who had been to all 47. And he led vocal warmups, just as he would for his singers at UK.
"Dad would have been very happy with how he did it tonight," Josman's daughter, Cathy Josman said, noting her family has roots in Covington and Mount Sterling. "He had an energy and enthusiasm that made me excited for the future."
As any artist knows, there's a lot to be said for getting a good review from a tough critic in New York City.