“Being in the Moment”: Stults Retires, Killey Becomes New SMC Accompanist
When the principal accompanist for the Seattle Men’s Chorus left to go to nursing school in 1986, a young public health worker and baritone named Evan Stults stepped in to replace him. Over the next three-and-a-half decades, Stults became a beloved teacher and collaborator who continually sought out new ways to help singers learn their parts, to interpret the music, and to create moments of pure joy.
After 34 years at the piano (and 36 years overall with the organization), Stults’ retirement as SMC’s accompanist has given a doctor and baritone named Benjamin Killey the opportunity to step up and create some moments of his own. Killey joined the chorus in 2008 as a singer after seeing an SMC show, but has always viewed the piano as a better way to express himself. And in many ways, he says, Stults has inspired him with his artistry and talent. “I don’t think people realize just how good he is as an accompanist,” Killey says. “I felt like things would get thrown at him and he would just pivot and adjust, like it was nothing.”
Playing for guest artists, Stults admits, has often required some spontaneous sight-reading and interpretation on the fly. “Boom, here’s the material. Go!” he says, laughing. “You have to be able to live in the moment. And I got to do that over and over again.” But for him, it was always about much more than just notes on a page. “It was never about getting the piano part right,” he says. “It was about being in the moment.”
His first decade in SMC, Stults recalls, was a “wild ride” of memorable moments. He met his now-husband, Joe Farmer, in the chorus, and they recently celebrated 30 years together. “I made my best friends in the chorus: we traveled together, we celebrated together,” he says. The chorus also mourned together, including the loss of Stults’ two best friends to AIDS within the same year. The chorus, he remembers, gave voice to the collective grief with pieces like “Hidden Legacies” by composer Roger Bourland.
“My role in the chorus gave me a front row seat to what was happening, to gay people in particular,” Stults says. He was able to experience and process the painful moments but also help advance the mission of the chorus and sometimes just play a piece softly and simply, when it was needed, or create moments of sheer happiness. “I love challenging material, and one of the truths about playing for a gay chorus is that you have to be able to do a little bit of everything,” Stults says. Classical music may be his natural preference, but he’s loved dipping his toes in a wide variety of other genres: showtunes, rock, opera, country, and pop. And the ABBA show? “Two hours of joy!”
Killey, who has played the piano since he was seven, now gets to take a front row seat of his own. Ten years ago, the emergency room physician fulfilled one dream by opening an aesthetic medicine spa in Seattle, which he has since expanded to two locations. Becoming SMC’s accompanist, he says, has fulfilled another dream. Despite his initial trepidation, Killey knew he couldn’t turn down the opportunity when SMC Artistic Director Paul Caldwell asked him.
“Evan Stults is one of those extraordinary people who leaves every situation better than he found it,” Caldwell says. “Much of the success of Seattle Men’s Chorus has been built squarely on his shoulders. I’m honored to have experienced the richness of his gifts, musical and non-musical. We wish him the very best as he takes time for himself and his husband. And now there’s Ben Killey. It’s such an organic progression. Evan, Ben, and I know each other. We adore each other. The three of us have even rehearsed and performed together. We’re all lucky to have someone as skilled and giving as Ben on hand to take over.”
Like Stults, Killey sees himself as more of a classical pianist. “But I will say that with some pop and gospel or jazz songs, sometimes you’ll find that one that really speaks to you and it’s just so fun to play. So I like those too,” he says. One of his favorite recent moments was joining Stults onstage to play the four-hand, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” piano score for SMC’s 2017 Holiday Show. “I would look forward to that all week: just that five minutes of getting to play with Evan at rehearsal,” Killey recalls. “So I think I’ll really enjoy the rehearsals. I like the whole process of learning new music and drilling it until it’s correct, and then that gratification of finally performing it for an audience. That’s always been fun for me.”
Although Stults is stepping back from one role, being the chief of staff for a national public health nonprofit will keep him busy. As part of the King County Medical Reserve Corps, he helped staff the front end of a drive-through Covid-19 vaccine clinic near his home on Vashon Island. And as the founding music director of Vashon Opera, Stults still serves as its principal accompanist; he’s working on a musical theater project as well. With one less obligation, he will have more time to enjoy holidays with his husband. But Stults says he’s looking forward to seeing how Killey puts his own personal touch on the role of SMC accompanist. “I’m excited for Ben to step up and do things differently,” he says. “I’m also grateful that he’s stepping into a role in an organization that can provide a lot of love and support.”
Author: Bryn Nelson