Conducting Excellence

Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the September 2016 Issue

Windsong Chamber Choir might be the metro’s best kept musical secret. Thirty trained vocalists comprise this prestigious, mid-sized chamber choir. The sound of classical acapella is their mainstay, but their concerts include an array of music, from Mozart and madrigals to jazz.

“Choir music isn’t for everyone, but when people hear us, they know they are listening to quality—even if they don’t know why we sound so good,” said Kerry Barnett, founder of Windsong. “We have powerful singers with a distinctly unified sound.”

Windsong Choir founder Kerry Barnett with new director Jeanise MortonThe long-term force behind that sound is artistic director, Kerry Barnett. He and his wife, Marilee, formed Windsong in 1991 with the goal of providing Oklahoma City with virtuoso music, both sacred and secular. The first rehearsals were held in their home, with the family dog sitting at their feet.  

Eventually, the choir performed at a variety of venues, but for many years, their home base was at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City, where Barnett was the music minister. In order to welcome a larger cross-section of the community to their concerts, Windsong stopped selling tickets for most of their concerts. Since then, both attendance and donations have steadily risen. Now, the choir is celebrating its 25th anniversary. For Barnett, it’s a time to reflect on the choir’s rich history and his personal career as a professional baritone. 

In truth, Barnett might never have gone far as a performer, if not for the mighty quest to find a girlfriend. Barnett had no musical aspirations as a child in California, but he did enjoy singing in the church choir during junior high. Because of his rich voice, he was invited to bump up to the church’s adult choir.  

“I noticed that my friend from another choir was always talking to a really cute girls,” Barnett said. “I thought he was kind of a nerdy dude, so I asked him how he was getting all this attention.  He said, ‘I sing in the choir.’ I said, ‘How do I get in?’”

So he auditioned, and it paid off.  Barnett got his first girlfriend. By high school, the choir was singing advanced works by Brahms and Mozart. Barnett felt behind because he didn’t know how to read music. “I came into music late, but I soaked it up as fast as I could,” Barnett said. “I had the remarkable opportunity to learn from the great choral director, William Hatcher in college.”

After prompting, Barnett auditioned for the world-recognized Roger Wagoner Chorale in Los Angeles. “Roger Wagner handed me a sheet of music and said, ‘Sight read this.’ I sang through it, but he kept interrupting to say, ‘No, no, no, you got that wrong.’ So, I left with my tail between my legs.”

Surprisingly, Barnett received a contract three months later. For the next seven years, he toured the world as a baritone with the Roger Wagner Chorale. When he wasn’t singing, he was surfing. He also took jobs as a voice artist for television, commercials and movies.

When Barnett married Marilee and needed to settle on a career, he decided, “I really like this choir directing thing.” He went to college in earnest this time, where a professor encouraged him to pursue his doctorate in music at the University of Oklahoma. Once in Oklahoma, he became particularly famous for performing a difficult piece from the opera Carmina Burana.

In 1991, he and Marilee started Windsong to bring European-style ensemble music to the Oklahoma scene. Over the years, the choir was selected to perform for the American Choral Directors Association four times, which Barnett considers his greatest achievement.

The choir is at the brink of transition as Barnett faces retirement. In 2010, his beloved Marilee passed away, and Barnett lost his integral co-companion in organizing Windsong. Afterward, he invited Jeanise Morton to serve as assistant director and recently promoted her into the role of artistic director. The two work closely together to continue the founding ideals of Windsong.

Morton began singing with Windsong ten years ago. The choir actually got a package deal, because she auditioned at the same time as her mother and father—and all three were accepted.

Unlike Barnett, Morton came from a musical background. She began playing flute at age seven and discovered her singing ability in high school. She enrolled as a pre-med student at Oklahoma Christian University, but when she auditioned for the Chorale, her talent came to the forefront. Morton changed course to a double-major in flute and vocal music and even had the rare honor of conducting a musical as a student.

Her career took a different turn after she spent a year as a missionary in Japan. Upon return, Morton entered the accounting world and is now the Business Manager at Edmond Public Schools. For several years, her only connection to music was singing with her church’s praise team. Being accepted into Windsong alongside her parents was fulfilling. 

Once again, music was at the forefront of Morton’s life. In 2011, Barnett invited her to conduct three songs for a concert. Morton realized that conducting was something she was “born to do,” and Barnett recognized her talent. “She shares my vision of Windsong,” Barnett said. “It’s unusual for a choir to have dual artistic directors, but we work well together and both have a high level of expectation.”

Adding one more layer of music to her life, Morton also directs the contemporary worship service at Southern Hills Christian Church in Edmond, which is now the home base for Windsong operations.

To celebrate Windsong’s 25th anniversary, the choir will perform Handel’s Messiah this Christmas at Southern Hills. Next May, the choir and alumni will perform their most-requested music back at Westminster. Both Barnett and Morton are thrilled to share the stage at this historic event

“The legacy that Kerry and Marilee began has continued to grow,” Morton said. “Windsong is stronger than ever and brings a depth of talent and musicality I’ve never seen before.”

“From the beginning, I wanted professional singers that understood our tenants of diction, resonance and vibrato,” Barnett said. “Our continuing excellence is something that really pleases me, and I love that Jeanise is an artistic director who’s looking to the future of Windsong.”

Visit www.windsongchoir.org for more information.

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