(photo by Jim Barcus)
The Kansas City musician is enjoying a jam-packed schedule composing and performing an inventive repertoire from classical to country
“Take it all in” is how vocalist/musician/composer Leah Sproul describes her creative process.
And, in her case, “all” encompasses a lot. Her family background includes “European opera stars, suburban church organists, flower-child reggae guitarists and breezy campfire pickers.” It’s an extraordinary mosaic, and, putting it to full use, Sproul’s works run the gamut.
Her classical pieces can be delicate, haunting or operatic, sometimes jaunty and playful. Her experimental contemporary works are adventurous and bold. Sascha Groschang, cellist with the newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, was so affected by them that she used to “sit in the corner and weep.” “The Kansas City Star” once wrote that Sproul’s music is able to “carry itself with confidence and to spark a sense that concert music might have a future after all.”
Since graduating from UMKC Conservatory in 2014, Sproul has made appearances all over town. These days, her schedule is jam-packed. Last winter she was a guest on Classical KC’s Sound Currents’ Valentine show, where she was interviewed and one of her classical music pieces was played. In the spring she was a steady presence with Folk Alliance International, and in June she performed a dance night at the Black Box. In November she was featured in Heartland Song Network’s Joni Mitchell Tribute concert, and she serenaded an audience at the Westport Center for the Arts with her western swing band, Cowtown Country Club.
Sproul has recently been working on a full-length solo album of original songs scheduled for release in February/March — what she calls “a huge dream of mine since I was a kid.” She performed at The Brick Jan. 27 with Kristin Hamilton and the Heat, and this weekend she will debut a new commissioned work, “The Joys of Childhood,” a set of four songs for voice, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and toy piano, for NewEar at its Feb. 4 and 5 concerts. (Sproul composed both music and text and will attend the concerts to discuss the music; for tickets, https://www.newear.org/season-30.) Then, on Feb. 11, Cowtown Country Club will do a show at Minibar. The band, made up of Greg Gagnon, Jessica Salley and Brian Werner, performs tight four-part harmonies in a western swing or straight-ahead country honky-tonk style. Storytelling is a strong element in the songs.
Sproul’s repertoire is extensive, but she admits her true heart remains in her country and folk roots, performing as an “achy-breaky belting balladeer.” Growing up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, she was crooning country and movie musical songs by age 6. She took piano lessons and assisted her mom, a line dance instructor, “two-steppin’ and boot scootin.’” She got her first guitar in high school. She gravitated to folk and Americana but felt an affinity for all genres. She recalls a personal epiphany when she realized “there are still composers.” In her mind they belonged in the past and were all male.
As a composer herself, Sproul is fascinated by how a piece of music can be interpreted by both listener and composer and how that interpretation can change over time. “A song is one side of a prism, one view of a situation or idea,” she said. “You can’t say everything in one song. It’s a snapshot. It’s distilled. And when you grow or change over time, those ideas can hit differently.”
Sproul earned a bachelor’s degree in composition at Oklahoma City University and a master’s degree at the University of Louisville. In in 2010 she enrolled at UMKC Conservatory for a doctorate in composition. During her time there, the Kansas City Symphony did an open reading of her operatic piece “To Catch a Beast” in 2011. The next year she received an ArtsKC Inspiration Grant to develop her opera for youth audiences, “How the Camel Got His Hump.”
Sproul has studied with some of the most respected composers of our time, including award-winners Chen Yi and Zhou Long; she has taught composition at the Conservatory, Avila University and Interlochen Center for the Arts, in Interlochen, Michigan. According to Paul Rudy, Curators’ Distinguished Professor and Coordinator of Composition at the UMKC Conservatory, “She was always a free thinker and on her own unique path. My favorite kind of student!”
Sproul’s ties to the area run deep. In the early 1900s, her great-great grandparents stopped in Kansas City during a national opera tour of Wagner and liked it so much they stayed and were among the first voice faculty at UMKC Conservatory. Her father spent his childhood in Brookside. “I definitely felt a sense of finding my roots when I landed here,” she said, adding that the wealth of talent and support among artists are what have kept her in Kansas City 10 years. “Once you start to travel and realize not all cities are like this, you understand what a really special thing we have here.”