Studio Visit: Ollie Watts Davis

Studio Visit appears first in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. Here, Melissa Merli visits with Ollie Watts Davis, a conductor and director, a member of the University of Illinois music faculty since 1987, and a recent ACE Award winner.   

Q: How did you feel about receiving the ACE Award for lifetime achievement?

A: Very enthusiastic. I was very pleased. It was totally unexpected, and I felt very honored to be recognized by the artistic community.

Q: How long have you been a music educator?

A: I've been on the University of Illinois faculty since 1987, but prior to that, in 1981, I started conducting and teaching the (UI) Black Chorus. I did teach public school in West Virginia for one year, prior to coming here.

Q: How did you end up here?

A: I was recruited by William Warfield to come here for graduate studies in vocal performance.

Q: Was he your adviser?

A: I studied with several teachers. Initially, I studied with Grace Wilson, Lorna Haywood and Willa Stewart and then William Warfield. And my coach was John Wustman.

Q: So, after you received your doctor of musical arts degree, you stayed?

A: I graduated in May and was invited to join the faculty the following fall. I was very excited. I was able to teach, perform and raise my family, all from Champaign.

Q: So did Warfield discover you?

A: Yes. He was in West Virginia (her home state) preparing to perform as a guest artist for a cultural festival. He was the main concert, and I was preparing for a smaller, young-artist recital. A mutual friend invited him to my rehearsal and he came and invited me to apply for the UI, which I did. I was offered a fellowship to come here and study.

Q: Are you glad you did?

A: Without a doubt, because in addition to realizing many of my dreams and my goal of graduate study in vocal performance and launching my career as a vocal artist, I found my calling as a conductor and educator. My life working with the Black Chorus has been tremendous. I tell them they are an integral part of the accolades that have come my way and of my accomplishments. Teaching those students in my studio and in Black Chorus has helped me develop as a musician and an artist.

Q: Do you still have a singing career?

A: I do. I'm off to San Jose, Costa Rica, in January for performances as a guest artist for their celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. I just finished (performing Ludwig van) Beethoven's Ninth (Symphony) with Sinfonia da Camera. I'll also perform for the inaugural Faculty Women of Color conference in April. And I have several conducting and directing conferences in the spring with the Black Sacred Music Symposium, which will be in March on campus along with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I'll be conducting the Black Chorus in a number of signature performances related to that series of events, which start in January.

Q: How did you get into classical music in the first place?

A: I always enjoyed listening to it. It was not my primary musical expression growing up. I sang a lot of hymns, gospel and popular music. It was during my studies as an undergraduate that I joined the choir and sang lots of choral music. I love choral music, and then as a voice major, I was introduced to art songs, arias and sacred oratorios. I found I enjoyed the discipline and the challenge. I had had dreams of a Broadway singing career, but this whole classical music genre really found me. I found I could develop as a singer and a musician, and my voice could faithfully sing it. I love the poetry and the song text. I love the intellectual stimulation of singing art songs and arias, and I found my musical background in sacred music informed my musical expression in classical music. I've been pleased to marry the two; they're not separate, and I don't have a favorite — gospel or classical. I love both.

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