Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2009


Tri-captain Thomas Giblin ´10 elevates for a header in a Fall Weekend win against Colby on the Artificial Turf at Silfen Field, while Nick Maghenzani ´13 closes in on the play. Head coach Kenny Murphy´s Camels finished 8-6-1 in the program´s best record in more than a decade.

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In Tune

In Tune

Three alumni find their life´s work in music

By Amy Rogers Nazarov ´90

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

Watch "How High the Mountain" by Andrew McKnight ´89 on YouTube

Driving home to Virginia´s Shenandoah Valley from a gig in Asheville, N.C., Andrew McKnight ´89 found himself contemplating the links between his major at Connecticut College and his compulsion to write songs about the Earth.

“I didn´t major in chemistry to become a chemist,” McKnight says. “I knew I wanted to be an environmental engineer and saw chemistry as a springboard to that.”

While working at an environmental consulting engineering firm, McKnight began building a following, one listener at a time, for his Appalachian-flavored folk. Affecting listeners with his songs — about love, fatherhood, the future of the planet — proved to be so satisfying that McKnight decided to make a go of a full-time music career in 1996.

Organizations like the Charlotte Folk Society praise his “ability to mix history, traditional themes and environmental concerns in an evocative, rootsy musical blend.”

McKnight is speaking out — or singing out — against mountaintop removal coal mining, in part through “Made by Hand,” written by McKnight and band mate Les Thompson, a founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The song is featured on “Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home,” a compilation CD released this year to publicize the devastating environmental effects of mountaintop removal.

McKnight, who released his latest CD, “Something Worth Standing For,” in 2008, relishes an intimate house concert performing for two dozen attentive listeners as much as a standing-room-only gig before hundreds at the Kennedy Center´s Millennium Stage.

“I am a pretty lucky guy who writes songs about the crazy times we live in,” he says.

Professor of music, saxophonist, conductor

Watch Chris Vadala MA´73 with the Stereo
NMSU in Jazz Band on YouTube

Chris Vadala MA´73 found himself on tour with jazz musician Chuck Mangione shortly after his graduation. He stayed on for 13 years of international touring, garnering two Grammy awards, an Emmy and even a Golden Globe with the band.

Traveling the globe with Mangione, whose 1978 hit “Feels So Good” introduced legions of listeners to contemporary jazz, and sharing the stage with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Aretha Franklin and Placido Domingo, Vadala played everything from piccolo to baritone saxophone.

“I had a teacher who thought it was important for saxophone players to also play the clarinet and the flute because of the performance opportunities (those skills) would open up,” Vadala says. As a music professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he also conducts three big bands, Vadala requires the same of his students.

Teaching and performing have always been complementary and essential components of Vadala´s art. “I teach sax and woodwind lessons, conduct, oversee the jazz studies program and take part in faculty meetings,” he says, describing a typical week. From Thursday night through Sunday he performs with groups such as the Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra and the Syracuse Symphony.

Vadala, whose wife is Kathleen Cooper Vadala ´72, seeks to ground his students in the music business as well as foster their understanding of the jazz genre. Fielding requests from across the university and beyond for musicians to play at various functions, he farms out these gigs to students, who value the chance to perform.

“Sure, you hear that the economy has nailed the arts as hard as anything else, but I have students who are working (gigs) all weekend,” he says.


Watch Mary Foster Conklin ´79 at
Renegade Cabaret on YouTube

I was a lazy actor, but I´m a pretty happy singer,” says jazz singer Mary Foster Conklin ´79, who majored in theater and minored in English.

Other than a stint performing with a student punk band called Vacant Lot, Conklin was more apt to be found during her years in New London in a dramaturgy class with Linda Herr than singing behind a microphone. Later, “I realized I preferred singing standards to punk, because you could hear the lyrics,” she says with a chuckle.

These days, Conklin — a New York-based performer whom The New York Times describes as “a highly creative singer whose style blends cabaret and jazz so thoroughly as to defy any easy categorization” — studies the Great American Songbook, whose composers range from George Gershwin to Matt Dennis.

“I had a lot of stage fright in acting, but none (while singing) in clubs,” says Conklin, a Tenafly, N.J., native whose mother and grandmother are alumnae. Still, there´s no small amount of theater in Conklin´s shows as she interprets the songs of decades past.

Conklin relishes the search for old material almost as much as she enjoys performing. Her most recent CD, “Blues for Breakfast: Remembering Matt Dennis,” is a tribute to a songwriter whose body of work threatens to be lost forever as publishers overlook his little-known gems in favor of hits like 1953´s “Angel Eyes.”

“I went to the Library of Congress and found a box of Dennis´s material,” she says, recalling the discovery as a Christmas morning-like rush. “Making that recording was such a joy.”

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