Not many people get to sing with Broadway legend Kristin Chenoweth in their spare time.
But Eryn Bates is no ordinary person. Vocalist, pianist, composer, Bates also happens to be development director for the Harriman-Jewell Series.
Bates sang with Chenoweth the first time in 2015. Clayborne Elder was helping Chenoweth’s music director find performers who could learn music quickly for a local concert. The first person he called was Bates, an outstanding sight-reader and a very popular accompanist in Kansas City. Bates and Elder had also previously worked together at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
That concert was a great success, so when Chenoweth needed last-minute musicians for a concert at the Lied Center on May 8, Bates once again got the call. This time Bates had to round up several of the other singers herself, calling numbers in her “little black book” of performers.
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“We sang two pieces with her and she made a point to say, ‘You’re not singing backup. You’re singing with me,’ ” Bates, 32, recalls of Chenoweth. “She is the most gracious, the most generous, kind, warm performer. Everyone knows she’s funny, everyone knows she’s sweet and so incredibly talented, but she was so gracious to us.”
Bates has been director of development for the Harriman-Jewell Series since 2014, a job that brought her back to her beloved alma mater, William Jewell College.
She was part of William Jewell’s highly selective Oxbridge Scholar program, which includes a year abroad in England.
Bates spent that time studying topics like the operas of Benjamin Britten. She also was the official piano accompanist for the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Oxford.
Bates says that she often feels like “an old soul” and that spending time among those ancient stones while studying lofty topics was heaven. As a young girl, she was more attracted to classic Broadway shows and classical music than the pop songs of the day. Her mother and aunts probably helped nurture this tendency with their Andrews Sisters-style singing.
“They’re a very lively, vivacious crew,” Bates says.
From the time she was 2 or 3, Bates begged her mother for a piano.
“I saw a pianist somewhere, probably at a church, and I said, ‘Mom, I want to do that.’ She didn’t believe me for years. When I was 6, they put me in lessons, and I’ve been playing ever since.”
Bates also says the many Harriman-Jewell Series concerts she attended for free as a student were a formative experience.
“We still provide seats to Jewell undergraduates,” she said. “That was Richard Harriman’s vision. He wanted to give Jewell students and the Liberty community a chance to experience the kind of fine performances that are available across this nation and across the world. I think my first Harriman-Jewell concert was Rolando Villazón.”
So when the Harriman-Jewell Series needed a new development director, it’s hard to think of anyone who could possibly be a better fit.
“There were a lot of other administrators and professors here who had become big fans of Eryn Bates,” recalled Clark Morris, executive director of the Harriman-Jewell Series. “So we were fortunate to have that connection and realize what a talented and quality person that Eryn is.”
As development director, Bates is responsible for finding funding, grant reporting, major gifts and annual campaigns.
Perhaps the most important thing she does is to maintain and develop relationships with potential donors, whose support of the series is so essential. For Bates, it’s not a sell-job but a process of building relationships. Because Bates is herself a passionate musician, her sincerity helps build meaningful relationships quickly.
“Some of our dear supporters have always wanted to see Renée Fleming, or see Riccardo Muti conduct,” she says. “So they have these earth-shattering experiences with the series.”
Bates, who is also organist and pianist for the Kirk of Kansas City, will continue to do music on the side, but the Harriman-Jewell Series is her “love,” and her first priority is to see it thrive. But she has lots of plans in the works for concerts and collaborations.
“That’s the life of a musician around Kansas City,” Bates says. “It’s piecemeal, but it’s rewarding on all fronts. You teach, you get to perform, you get these crazy, wonderful opportunities. But I’m really fortunate because I also get to work for this incredible series. I feel like I’ve found gold.”
To learn more about the Harriman-Jewell Series, visit hjseries.org.