His impressive vocal talent was known about him from an early age much more so than it was known by him. The Keene Chorale Music Director Cailin Marcel Manson is a 2021 Ewing Arts Award honoree in the Performing Arts category. Manson is an internationally recognized Black classical vocalist and conductor.
His father, an environmental chemist, and his mother, a certified professional accountant, sang but not professionally. Music was all around him growing up in what he calls the diverse urban area of Philadelphia, but it wasn’t classical. His mother took him to the symphony, but jazz and hip-hop were bigger influences back then and church was the biggest inspiration, a place where he was exposed to Bach in German and gospel.
He sang his first full opera role at age 11, but although he loved to sing and participated in young singers’ programs, he wasn’t completely convinced that his path would lead to being a vocalist until high school when he started truly studying voice.
Manson went on to pursue studies in voice performance at Temple University, as well as opera performance and orchestral conducting at the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg in Austria.
But in his 20s, he had a moment of reinvention. He had done all the right things — studied, taken great roles, done concert work. “Why am I not feeling fulfilled?” he says he wondered at the time. “What now?”
It was in that questioning when he became fully aware of his always-present calling to teach.
“I realized I was teaching the whole time,” he said. “Helping friends with homework. Helping younger students be more confident. … It was realizing more fully who I was and being willing to say yes to that. There’s no divide between being a pro and being an educator. I let go of false expectations and let the educator side of me grow. They could both exist.”
He decided to step away from performing and went back to Philly where he began singing with a very classical volunteer choir. He focused on creating something that would give people the opportunity to learn deeply about what they love. At the age of 26, he founded the Germantown Institute for the Vocal Arts, a place where community members could learn intensely for free.
“My job is to cultivate my gift and use it in service to others,” he said. “Music is only part of the gift. … music is how it is channeled.”
Now, at only age 38, Manson’s international career as an operatic/concert soloist, conductor, and master teacher has encompassed many impressive organizations: Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, SWR Sinfonieorchester, Taipei Philharmonic, Bayerische Staatsoper - Münchner Opernfestspiele, Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Teatro La Fenice, Teatro San Carlo, Konservatorium Oslo, and the Conservatoire de Luxembourg.
He has also been a guest cantor and soloist at some of the world’s most famous churches and cathedrals, including Notre Dame, Sacré-Coeur, and La Madeleine in Paris, San Marco in Venice, Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, San Salvatore in Montalcino, Santa Maria Maggiore and San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, and Wieskirche in Steingaden.
He has held positions as Music Director of the Vorarlberger Musikfest, Music Director and Conductor Laureate of the Chamber Symphony of Atlantic City, Artistic Director and Conductor of the Montgomery County Youth Orchestra, and Chair of Vocal Studies at the Hazleton Conservatory for the Performing Arts.
He has also served as a member of the faculty of the Vermont Governor's Institute on the Arts and the Performing Arts Institute of Wyoming Seminary. He serves on the boards of Choral Arts New England, the Wagner in Vermont Festival, and the Gift Passion Purpose Project.
He moved to New England in 2013 to serve as Director of Music at The Putney School in Vermont where he remained for six years. Currently, he is Associate Professor of Practice in Music and Director of Music Performance at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where he resides with his husband, Willie, and their two dogs. “I’m just hitting my stride at Clark,” he said of the position he’s only held since fall of 2019.
In addition to being Music Director of The Keene Chorale, he’s also Music Director of the Bennington County Choral Society and Music Director of Barn Opera in Vermont.
“I love the communities I’ve been part of and in touch with,” he said. “I love the work in the artistic community of Keene. There’s always more going on. To constantly help give a voice and collaborate is something I’m excited about.”
COVID-19 didn’t stop the music for Manson. He continued to teach classes and lead performances at Clark, albeit some virtually depending on space constraints. He was extremely impressed by Clark University’s handing of the pandemic, which was able to keep its ensembles and many other music groups going through the stressful time.
Manson is a leading advocate for diversity in the classical music industry. During the pandemic, he was frequently invited to participate in panel discussions by national organizations. This place of advocacy, he says, is “how making my art and living out my form of activism meet.” He’s a member of the Black Opera Alliance and says the international music community has been brought together throughout this time to think about making the field more equitable.
His music community is vast. He is also a member of the International Society of Black Musicians, the International Conductors’ Guild, the League of American Orchestras, Opera America, the American Choral Directors Association, and the National Association of Negro Musicians.
During COVID, he created a series of monthly lectures so The Keene Chorale could continue to rehearse and prepare for the eventual return of traditional performances. His Keene Chorale nominators wrote: “Cailin consistently chooses repertoire that will challenge both our abilities as a chorus but also assumptions the wider industry has about what community choruses can do. He helps us rise to meet the occasion every time, and the experience has been transformative.”
He taught an online course for the Springfield Symphony Youth Orchestra and provided a backyard space last June where professional orchestral musicians from all over New England could play music together.
“We just had fun and were able to make music with one another,” he recalled.
Keeping musicians connected was the primary goal. He says in some way the pandemic was a “hidden blessing” in that it allowed everyone the time to attend each other’s virtual events from home.
“We were all thinking on our feet to make sure the arts stayed alive,” he said. “Music is one thing, but we realized pretty starkly how much our love for the arts connected all of us on a consistent basis. We were maintaining that connection that making music facilitated for us. We prioritized the connection as the primary value and mission.”
The Keene Chorale will perform Handel’s full “Messiah” in December at Saint Bernard Catholic Church in Keene. In spring 2022, it will present “The Ordering of Moses,” a major choral-orchestral work by Black Canadian-American composer R. Nathaniel Dett that reimagines Negro spirituals to tell the narrative of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Manson will be facilitating remote presentations to accompany the performance and plans to continue to off local master classes that the audience can watch virtually.
“It’s about blooming where you’re planted,” he said his choices through the years. “If I’m constantly looking for other things, I would have missed the connections. [The lessons of the pandemic] will only make the arts in this region richer. We could be awash in cultural riches in this area. We already are, but it could be more. I see myself as an active catalyst for that in the coming years.”