In his first full year directing the Trenton-based Capital Singers choir, Vinroy D. Brown Jr., is eager to continue to offer Trenton a high quality of vocal performance. “We want to bring the highest quality of music to Trenton — to create the same musical experiences as Philadelphia and New York, right in our backyard,” he says as he prepares for the annual Trenton “Winter Songs XII — Songs of the Season,” on Sunday, December 2, at Sacred Heart Church.
Brown can be found most Sundays rehearsing the Capital Singers in the imposing Church of the Sacred Heart in Trenton, where Brown not only brings forth an awe-inspiring resonance, but “problem-solves proactively,” as he puts it. Gently, but with authority, he explains how to produce a better sound, such as paying attention to ending line consonants, where to maintain the volume, how to emphasize the word “hosanna.”
“Sing the text,” Brown reminds the tenor and bass sections.
The Capital Singers started in 2005 and was based in Washington Crossing and Ewing before finding a home base in Church of the Sacred Heart on the edge of the Mill Hill neighborhood. In 2017 the Capital Singers’ founder and current executive director, Richard Loatman, announced his retirement, and Brown’s voice teacher, Rochelle Ellis, also on the Westminster faculty, encouraged him to apply.
Brown debuted with Capital Singers last spring as the new conductor. Soprano Ellis, one of his mentors, was among several guest artists for the opening.
Brown calls it a “true community chorus,” from professional singers, to people who just always wanted to sing.” Singers hail from Trenton, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in New Jersey. There are no dues or fees, and the group depends on donations from individuals, sponsors, and corporate partners.
The 70 to 80-member Capital Singers is open to everyone. The smaller chorale is auditioned. Both groups rehearse in Sacred Heart Church, which was built in 1889 and where the acoustics are “glorious,” Brown says. “It’s a luxury to rehearse and work on musical issues there,” he adds. And, because of the larger size of the chorus, he says, they can perform major works. “It gives people an added community. It gives people the chance to do extraordinary things.”
A singer himself, a bass, he has been seen on PBS specials and made his debut last season with the New York Lyric Opera Theatre, performing scenes from Massenet’s “Manon” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” at Carnegie Hall.
Currently Brown is studying for a master’s degree in practical theology (concentration in worship and media) at Regent University. He received bachelor’s degrees in sacred music and music education in 2015 from Westminster Choir College.
His musical talent and strong faith come from his eclectic family. Born to Jamaican immigrants and a family of musicians and singers, Brown says his father was a politician in Jamaica — the youngest-serving representative in Jamaican history. Brown’s mother worked at a bank and also with children. His uncle, Glenford Brown, is bishop at the New Creation of the Apostolic Faith in Somerset, where his cousins play guitar and keyboard, and Vinroy himself is director of choir and worship ministries.
While his family was hesitant to send him to Westminster, they were sold when they heard the choir. Brown, from North Brunswick, recalls he turned to his father and both agreed that Westminster is where he should be.
Brown came to Westminster as an undergraduate education major, and during orientation decided to add the major of sacred music, with the idea of helping at his church. Having been raised in a Pentecostal background, which is more non-liturgical and more spontaneous, he explains, learning the liturgy was “eye-opening.”
He considers his uncle a mentor, and many others, including an “outstanding” choir teacher at North Brunswick High School, the late Peggy Sica, a Westminster alumna, and the faculty in the Westminster Sacred Music department. He also thanks as a mentor the pastor at Elmwood United Presbyterian Church in East Orange, where Brown is director of music and worship arts, and the director of Elmwood Concert Singers.
“I grew up in a family that appreciated all kinds of music,” he says. “In my home Saturday was cleaning day, and I can vividly remember hearing Motown in the background. My love of sacred music was birthed in my church life, and I was exposed to classical music while being a student under Peggy Sica.”
The music he enjoys listening to reflects his diverse musical background. “I listen to a lot of different kinds of music,” he says. “I like gospel primarily, but also love Nina Simone, J.S. Bach, and any ’90s rap and R&B.”
The 25-year-old already has many career highlights, but one stands out: conducting the final portion of the R. Nathaniel Dett oratorio “The Ordering of Moses” last fall in his debut conducting the Jubilee Singers at Westminster. “It was a highlight for me, as Dett is a composer I learned of through singing in Jubilee as an undergraduate.” Dett, a composer, organist, pianist, and music professor, is known for his use of African American folk songs and spirituals as the basis for choral and classical compositions.
Brown’s programs are varied too. Announced for different concerts he is conducting this year are Handel’s 1741 oratorio, “Messiah,” Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Music Concerts” (both with the Elmwood Concert Singers); traditional Christmas season songs, Dan Forrest’s “Requiem for the Living” (both with the Capital Singers); coupled with gospel, folk, musical theater, and opera. Brown also will headline the Harlem Classical Music Festival in New York in February, and he just completed participating in David Lang’s “The Mile-Long Opera,” performed on the High Line raised walkway in New York City.
In addition to his community choral responsibilities, Brown is a full-time high school choir director at Morristown High School and will conduct the school holiday season concerts as well.
This season with the Capital Singers Brown is looking forward to including the Trenton Children’s Chorus in concerts. “I have guest-conducted the Children’s Chorus,” he says, “and I have a soft spot for them.”
The Capital Singers performs its annual Capital Singers Winter Songs 12 concert in Trenton on Sunday, December 2, the audience can expect holiday songs, traditional songs, and, as Brown says, “a familiar feel.”
Brown also looks forward to the Capital Singers’ spring concert, which will feature Forrest’s “Requiem for the Living” and its June concert, which will include musical theater songs and selections from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land,” and the opera “Cavalleria Rusticana.”
“I’m fortunate to make music my fulltime gig,” says Brown. “I am abundantly blessed.”
The Capital Singers, Winter Songs XII — Songs of the Season, Sunday, December 2, 4 p.m., Sacred Heart Church, 343 South Broad Street. Also Friday, January 11, 7:30 p.m., St. Paul Church, 214 Nassau Street, Princeton; and Sunday, March 31, Sacred Heart Church, Trenton. 609-434-2781 or www.capitalsingers.org
This article was originally published in the December 2018 Trenton Downtowner.