Fort Street Chorale music director ends 54-year career

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

Fort Street Chorale’s longtime musical director Edward Kingins is getting a career send-off for the ages this weekend. After 54 1/2 years, Kingins will retire following the Fort Street Chorale and Chamber Orchestra’s 38th annual performances of G.F. Handel’s “Messiah” on Saturday and Sunday.

Kingins will leave most of the conducting this weekend to his successor, Marilyn Perkins Biery. He will, however, lead the chorale through the triumphant “hallelujah” movement that concludes Part II of “Messiah.” The movement, with its “forever and ever” chorus, is a fitting coda to his legacy.

Edward Kingins is set  to conduct his last performance of “Messiah” with Fort Street Chorale.

“It’s always been an emotional thing for me,” Kingins, 84, says of the “Hallelujah” chorus, which he has both sang and conducted more than 60 times in his career. “A couple of people will be singing on Saturday and Sunday who sang in the very first performance (at Fort Street Presbyterian Church in 1978).”

Kingins formed the chorale in 1971 with a small group of volunteers. It has since grown into an acclaimed 70-member chorus that performs two pieces annually, typically to sold-out audiences. Each winter, the chorale performs “Messiah,” and in the spring a guest conductor is invited to lead another major work.

“The pastor at Fort Street asked us if we could form a choir,” Kingins recalls. “We had about a dozen people, but the minister told me I could do anything I wanted to. I could bring in people from the outside. They didn’t have to be church members. So it ended up being kind of like a community chorus.”

6The Fort Street Chorale rehearses for its “Messiah” concerts, while preparing for the retirement of its longtime music director.

Kingins, who has also conducted the Detroit Post Office Male Chorus and has appeared as a soloist with the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, will be remembered not only as a singer and conductor, but also as a skilled vocal instructor. Since its inception, the Fort Street Chorale has been a non-audition choir, meaning anyone can join no matter his or her level of skill.

Kingins has delighted in teaching singers with disparate musical backgrounds throughout his years at the church, says Cleo Hamilton, the chorale’s publicity coordinator.

“He says that one’s voice is very personal and does not need to be critiqued, just guided to be the best,” Hamilton says. “Anybody that comes in is welcome.” At a recent rehearsal, the members ranged from music teachers to people who memorize the parts because they don’t read music. “He accepts all, and teaches us to be the best,” she adds.

The Fort Street Chorale practices in preparation for this weekend’s performances of “Messiah.”

Hamilton had been a music major and vocal teacher before she started working with Kingins 16 years ago, but she “learned to sing well” under his guidance, she says. Kingins’ method of uniting singers with diverse levels of experience, she says, is actually simple.

“He concentrates on correct vowel formation,” she says. “He does this in pretty extensive warm-ups, and then he expects that that warm-up experience will translate to the rehearsal of the pieces. If not, then he stops and corrects. He guides us to produce the kind of sound that will not only be beautiful to be heard, but will cause us to use our voices as they’re meant to be used.”

For the first time in his career at Fort Street, Kingins has not been involved with rehearsals for “Messiah.” He hasn’t conducted the piece for the past half decade due to hip and shoulder problems, but he says he wanted to participate in one last performance.

Hamilton says she anticipates a smooth transition, but she also expects it to have a profound emotional impact on the choir.

“We are missing Ed terribly,” Hamilton says. “There’s a certain amount of sadness about his moving on, but we also respect the fact that he knows what he is doing the right thing.”

Windsor native Charlotte Lefranc was first invited by Kingins to sing at Fort Street in 2001 when he was conducting her in the Windsor Community Choir. Lefranc, who will sing alto in “Messiah” this weekend, says Kingins will leave behind a “legacy of excellence,” which has touched audiences as well as the performers.

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

The Fort Street Chorale and Chamber


presents G.F. Handel’s


3 p.m. Sat. and Sun.

Fort Street Presbyterian Church

631 W. Fort, Detroit

Tickets: $20

(313) 961-4533