By Scott MacClelland
EVEN ON THE PHONE, Tom Lehmkuhl, the new conductor of I Cantori di Carmel chorus, projects a deeply sonorous baritone. But unless you’re a chorus member, you’ll have to wait a bit longer to hear it in musical action.
Since 2013 Lehmkuhl has been director of choral music at Carmel High and Middle Schools. Though a native of Walnut Creek, his route to Carmel has been anything but a straight shot. The youngest of six siblings, his early memories are of having relocated to Malibu where his father, a telephone company executive, acquired a residential parcel on Point Dume. Then it was back to the Walnut Creek suburb of Lafayette and graduation from Acalanes High School. “I didn’t really do music in middle school,” Lehmkuhl explains, though he had studied clarinet in elementary school. “I did sports.” However, Acalanes had a strong music program, including five choirs. Soon Tom auditioned for the “select” groups, and found himself in two of them and then began studying voice and piano. His life’s calling found him “suddenly.” That period of his life turned into an “amazing experience,” and including touring, entering and winning competitions, and finally a scholarship to attend Northwestern University.
As an undergrad at Northwestern (1988- ’89), “I focused on a performing career, on becoming an opera soloist and recitalist.” He then went on to DePaul University in Chicago (’89-’92) where he completed a BM in vocal performance. He continued his studies at the New England Conservatory, where he took an MM degree “cum laude,” and stayed on in the development office admin, “to get health insurance while I was auditioning.”
Lehmkuhl worked in orchestra development in Boston and secured a variety of singing opportunities, including two summers at Tanglewood where, in 1994, he won critical praise in the Boston Globe and New York Times for his performance in a world premiere by the Argentina-born composer Mauricio Kagel. During rehearsals with Seiji Ozawa of Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony he filled in for the opera star Sherrill Milnes. During that time he joined Jerry Slavet and Jennifer Hurley-Wales in launching “From the Top,” the popular NPR variety show hosted by concert pianist Christopher O’Riley. Lehmkuhl did everything from finding talent to moving microphones.
Lehmkuhl worked in the PR office at the Metropolitan Opera and began his high school teaching career in New York in 2001, “at a tough, inner-city, upper East Side” school. Then it was off to India for the first of two teaching positions, at the American Embassy School in New Delhi (2004-2008) then the American School of Bombay in Mumbai (2008-2013) that included touring student productions internationally. An unexpected highlight there was being cast as an opera singer in the multi-Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire. “It was ‘right place, right time,’” he says. (Ironically, he is seen lip-synching a tenor aria.)
After teaching choral music and music appreciation for nine years, including having met and married his France-born wife—“She is a tough, interesting woman, a classical Indian dancer and speaks Hindi very well”—and becoming a father, he was ready to return to California. “I did a job search, mostly looking at private schools. My brother urged me to look at public schools in San Luis Obispo. Then I saw a listing for Carmel and somehow made it through the first site interview via Skype, at 1 am here for the time difference,” he says.
With foreknowledge of longtime I Cantori leader Sal Ferrantelli’s plans to retire, Laura Arnow approached Lehmkuhl. “She was very polite, and very persistent,” he recalls. “I was in New York for Christmas.” Then, last spring, he met with John Anderson at Monterey Peninsula College. (I Cantori has long been a class offering at MPC.) Along with three other candidates, Lehmkuhl auditioned for I Cantori by conducting music from Brahms’ German Requiem.
For his first I Cantori concerts, at Carmel Mission, Lehmkuhl will conduct Pergolesi’s Magnificat, Michael Haydn’s “Lauft ihr Hirten allzugleich” and Morten Lauridsen’s Prayer, plus Zikr, a Sufi prayer for peace, and Christmas songs both old and new.
Lehmkuhl calls his arrival here “Serendipity. Carmel was the best offer. And we are near my parents in La Selva Beach.” Apparently, serendipity comes in pairs. Just ask the members of I Cantori.