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Boise State music student leads community chorus to world competition

Boise Chordsmen
Boise Chordsmen (Ian Kelly, middle row, far right). Photo provided by the Boise Chordsmen.

Every October, the best barbershop quartets and choruses in the Northwest compete at the regional championships held by the Barbershop Harmony Society. For the first time in the group’s 60-year history, the Boise Chordsmen brought home the championship trophy – the first Idaho barbershop chorus to do so. The winning offerings? “When I Lost You,” a 1912 ballad written by Irving Berlin after his wife died of typhoid fever, and for contrast, a rollicking version of “The Boise Song,” complete with props and theatrics, written by Jewel after she visited the city in 2010.

The win came with an invitation to the society’s world championships next summer.

“We will compete against 29 other choruses from around the world, in front of 6,000 spectators, in the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, the same theater where the Emmys and Grammys take place,” said Ian Kelly, a senior vocal performance major and tenor section leader in the Boise State Meistersingers.

Ian Kelly
Ian Kelly, performing in the 2018 concerto competition, which he won at Boise State.

Two years ago, Kelly, 29, became the artistic director of the Boise Chordsmen. Since then, in addition to helping the group clinch its recent victory, he has grown the chorus’ membership to 55 active members. It is now the largest men’s chorus in the state. Among its members are two more Boise State students, David Le and Trey Pope.

“I believe that the most important part of being a conductor or a director is to build a culture that people want to be part of,” said Kelly. “You have to have a culture of excellence, but also have fun.” That’s especially key in a group like the Chordsmen, he added, where vocalists volunteer their time.

Though he is still an undergraduate, Kelly has a full resume. Before coming to Boise State to study classical voice, the Washington native already was a seasoned performer. He sang on cruise ships for many years and performed around the world with his three brothers in their modern barbershop quartet, the Momma’s Boys. A lyric operatic tenor, Kelly was chosen for a prestigious summer opera program in Italy and appeared in Opera Idaho’s productions of West Side Story and Aida. Not only did the Chordsmen win in the regional competition in October but Kelly’s local quartet RagTag took home the top prize for quartets. Kelly lives with his wife Sabrina and their young daughter, Rosalie.

Michael Porter, an associate professor in the Department of Music and the director of choral activities, said he met Kelly during a choral recruitment trip to Washington State where Kelly was studying at a community college.

“Ian is a wonderful person and I knew we needed him here at Boise State,” said Porter. “He is a great example of someone who can cross over musical genres. We talk about preparing students for the workplace. That happens in music as well. It’s becoming more expected for students to have all of these different styles at their disposal. Ian can sing pop music, and then has such a beautiful Italian opera style. He can do it all.”

Kelly has studied voice and opera with Laura Rushing-Raynes, an associate professor in the Department of Music.

“The first thing one notices about Ian Kelly is that he is gifted with a stunning tenor voice that has the potential to end up singing in world-class opera houses,” said Rushing-Raynes. “The second thing is his abundant drive, infectious energy and charisma. He influences his fellow singers and helps intensify their artistic experience. His voice and personality have added quality to the Boise State program.”

Under Kelly’s guidance, the Boise Chordsmen began a new scholarship program that provides $1,000 to two music students.

“This is an example of how Ian is giving back to this department,” said Porter. “He understands there’s this love at Boise State and he wants to pay it forward.”

This year’s scholarship recipients are Alisa Millard and Monica Wilhelmsen, who study music education at Boise State. They attend meetings, rehearsals and learn to work with a diverse group of vocalists in a nonprofit setting, said Kelly. They will also be guest conductors at the group’s upcoming Christmas concert.

“I hope to use this scholarship to connect barbershop chapters around the globe with the university,” said Kelly. “The goal is to provide students with podium time to hone their craft, and to give us the opportunity to share this uniquely American art form with the next generation of teachers.”

See the Boise Chordsmen live

The Boise Chordsmen Christmas Show is at 7 p.m., Dec. 10 at Parkview Christian Church (201 W. Ustick Rd. in Meridian). Admission is free with a donation of two cans of food.

— Story by Anna Webb