DeWitt: Conductor ignites vocal vigor

It wasn't until Kevin Stites was in middle school when he realized his love for music. From there, it all went uphill. Stites broke into show biz -- something he never imagined himself doing -- while still in college and has worked in it ever since conducting musicals such as "Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon" and "Phantom of the Opera."

Last week, the Broadway conductor came to Jamesville-DeWitt High School for a three-day stint during "Vocal Week." Stites led workshops with four choir groups to ready them for their concert debut held April 24 in the high school auditorium.

"Working with kids who aren't doing it for the money, and there's no show riding it, and they're just doing it because they want to (or because they've taken the class and have to go) is inspirational," Stites said. "It's good to get out of jaded New York, being a jaded New Yorker."

Stites was originally scheduled to stay just two days, but called music director Beth Quakenbush back when he realized he would be leaving the day of the concert. He stayed to conduct the show.

The workshops leading up to the performance were laborious but rewarding.

"It's a lot for them. It's a lot for me," Stites said. "I started to sort of teach down and then I thought no, these kids are good. I'm just going to do it as if they were getting paid $1,400 a week and this is their job."

Stites said he basically polished up what they already prepared for the Friday night show. Tunes included pieces from "Aida," "Guys and Dolls," "Once on this Island," and "Les Miserables."

"I want to be able to share five years of experience with them in about 10 minutes but I can't do it," he said, referring to his familiarity with "Les Miserables," a musical he's conducted five times. He has been hired this summer to conduct it at the Hollywood Bowl with an all-star concert and 54-piece orchestra.

Beth Quakenbush was thrilled to host Stites as a special guest. In the past, she's brought her students to New York City where they've spent an afternoon rehearsing with him, but never in a million years did she think he'd say yes to a trip upstate, she said.

As for her students, Quakenbush said they loved him.

"'He's so smart! He's so cool! He's intense but it's great!'" she said, repeating their enthusiasm with one all her own.

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