The Southeast Arkansas Concert Association will present a “Summertime Serenade” at the University of Arkansas at Monticello Fine Arts Center on July 24 at 7 p.m. The performance features baritone Woodrow Bynum, pictured on the left. Bynum will be joined in the Monticello performance with fellow Juilliard graduate and concert pianist Ryan Reilly, pictured on the right. They will perform a wide variety of selections including works by Copland, Schumann, and Ravel.
Bynum, a former Drew County resident, is the music director of the Cathedral at the All Saints in Albany, New York where he leads an all-professional choir. He is a gifted baritone who studied at Juilliard and has performed at the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, singing with choirs and orchestras around the country.
For ticket information, go to the SEARK Concert Association’s web site or call 460-1060.
Woody Bynum’s parents realized there was something special about their son when Bynum, then three, began playing recognizable tunes on his toy piano. Weeks later, he was playing church hymns and before long he was propped up on the family’s upright piano reproducing every song that popped into his head, according to Bynum’s mother, Judith Bynum, a pianist who taught Bynum and his sister, Jody, to sing.
As a child, Bynum spent hours each day at the piano, working out melodies and “crude” left-hand accompaniments.
“I was no prodigy,” he said. “I could work out melodies, but my concept of harmony was very rough. Sometimes after church I would sneak up to the organ loft and get some pointers from Mrs. Suit, our organist. I remember her showing me how to invert chords and even chastising me for using parallel motion. I was still being chastised for parallel motion at Juilliard, so I don’t think I ever learned that lesson.”
Bynum learned the American songbook along with his Montrose Academy classmates during their annual spring musicals under the leadership of Tot Barnes.
“We sang hours of songs — the best songs, and I can still sing those pieces by heart,” Bynum said. “Tot Barnes and Marilyn Jo Borgognoni taught me to love music and made me believe the everybody could learn to sing.”
During childhood, Bynum struggled to balance music with baseball and school work. “All I wanted to do was play the piano and sing,” Bynum said.
Bynum didn’t receive any formal training until his trombone lessons in sixth grade.
“Joan Koskoski, the Drew Central band director, agreed to give me some trombone lessons over the summer so that I could enter band the following year with my sixth-grade classmates,” Bynum said. “That was when I learned to read music.”
He said that being in band was like being a kid in the candy store.
“I can’t believe the level of musical talent at Drew Central,” Bynum said. “The band was so musical, and students spent every spare minute in the band room practicing and getting into trouble.”
In seventh grade, Bynum joined the choir and was selected to sing at the American Choral Directors Association Convention. “Bennie Carol Wade (now Donovan) urged several of us to audition for this,” he said. “I remember her getting me out of class to tell me that I had been selected.”
Bynum traveled with Wade to Louisville to sing in the choir which was made up of singers from all over the country. “This was when I got bitten by the bug,” Bynum said. “I had never heard sounds like this before, and I couldn’t get enough of it.”
In his eighth-grade year, Bynum moved in with his grandmother on Wood Avenue in Monticello. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and this would allow her to spend a few more years at home. After the move, he transferred to the Monticello School District and began taking lessons with the legendary Marjorie Mae Bond.
“She had been my mother’s piano teacher and had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory with a student of Chopin’s,” Bynum said. “To me, she was larger than life.”
It was also during his eighth-grade year that he auditioned for the Arkansas Youth Orchestra.
“I don’t think they were overrun by good brass players, or I never would have gotten in,” Bynum said. “Each of us had to have a private instructor on our instrument, and Mrs. Holley agreed to teach me French horn.”
Bankie Holley, a long-time band director at Monticello, taught Bynum French horn, singing, solfeggio, and gave him conducting lessons.
“She is one of the finest musicians I have ever known,” Bynum said. “Even now when I visit with her, I’m astonished at her knowledge of repertoire. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher and mentor growing up.”
Bynum spent the summer of this ninth-grade year among the lakes and pines of Michigan at The Interlochen Arts Camp where he enrolled as a singer and trombonist. He quickly learned that he wasn’t at the level of the other instrumentalists.
“These kids were world class players,” he said. “I knew my brass playing days were numbered.”
So, Bynum began taking organ lessons from Robert Murphy who had to rework the ‘technique’ Bynum had taught himself while playing the organ at Dermott United Methodist Church. “I was shocked to learn that I was supposed to wear special shoes and that both of my feet were needed to play the pedals,” Bynum said. “Organists are supposed to keep their knees and ankles together, and mine refused to cooperate.”
Eventually, Murphy won the battle and an inspired Bynum returned to Monticello and was given permission to practice at First Presbyterian Church on the church’s M. P. Möller pipe organ. “I spent so many hours in that church,” Bynum said. “It was like a second home to me in those days.”
In addition to the summer music camp, Interlochen Center for the Arts has an arts boarding school called the Interlochen Arts Academy. Bynum attended the academy for his last two years of high school. “I begged my parents to let me go,” he said. “I knew it was the place for me.”
Murphy continued to guide Bynum’s organ-playing and instilled in Bynum his love of church music.
“He (Murphy) would arrive in his 1970s Chevrolet land-yacht at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning and pile all of the organ students in the back,” Bynum said. “We were responsible for playing the opening and closing voluntaries at Central United Methodist Church in Traverse City and singing in its famed choir.”
During his time at Interlochen, singing began to play a bigger role in Bynum’s music making.
“The male voice takes so long to mature, and unlike pianists who can study major repertoire at an early age, singers have to be very patient,” he explained.
When he enrolled at The University of Michigan, he did so as a singer. “I still took organ lessons, but singing had become my focus,” Bynum said.
Bynum’s singing teacher was the great English soprano Lorna Haywood.
“I remember seeing her name on the Robert Shaw recording of the Britten War Requiem,” Bynum said. “I was star-struck!”
Haywood overhauled Bynum’s technique and guided his promising career with care.
Eventually, Bynum made his professional singing debut with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and was a young artist at The Detroit Opera House.
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Bynum was offered a place in the Juilliard Opera Center at The Juilliard School in New York City.
“My dad had told one of his friends that I was going to go to Juilliard,” Bynum recalled. “The friend went home and told his wife that I was going to Jolliet (a correctional facility outside of Chicago).”
Bynum studied singing with Beverley Peck Johnson who was 97 at the time.
“She had been my teacher’s teacher,” Bynum said. “We all adored her, but she was not to be trifled with. I left her apartment in tears more than once.”
Bynum’s singing career took off during his years in New York City where he made debuts at the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, singing with choirs and orchestras around the country.
During this time he also sang with the choir of Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue with Gerre Hancock. Church music, which had been such a huge part of his life, began calling him back. In addition to singing daily services, the choir toured extensively and performed major concerts with orchestra.
“Sometimes at Saint Thomas I was a soloist, but usually I was in the choir,” he said. “It made no difference to me. I was having the time of my life.”
In 2006, Woody learned of an opening for a Director of Music at the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, New York. He applied, and after a lengthy interview and audition process, was selected.
The Cathedral of All Saints was the first cathedral built on a European scale in the United States. Its choir, the oldest continuously singing of its kind was started in 1872. The all-professional choir is made up of highly trained boy trebles ranging in ages from eight to 15, and 12 professional male singers who sing the alto, tenor, and bass parts.
When Bynum took over the choir in 2007, it had fallen on difficult times. “We only had four boys singing at the first service I conducted,” he said. “I had a crash course in recruiting.”
Now, eight years later, the choir is among the best of its kind, singing weekly services and a number of special concerts each year. The choir has toured to England, singing at Gloucester and Hereford cathedrals, and plan to return there in 2015.
Bynum now balances his duties at the cathedral with a full schedule of singing engagements. He performs regularly as a member of The Handel & Haydn Society of Boston, which is currently celebrating its 200th year, and continues to do solo work with orchestras and choruses. He serves on the voice faculty of The College of Saint Rose in Albany and sings recital programs such as the one he will perform in Monticello.