Here’s something to remember about Chris Vasquez, the Graduate School of Education student and winner of the Buffalo Philharmonic’s recent “Buffalo Sings” competition.
The fact he won really makes sense. Vasquez has compiled an impressive and diverse portfolio of singing accomplishments for decades, ranging from films, television and theater, as well as international recognition for his interpretation of tango songs.
Then, there’s the impression he makes. He has this resonant, rich, speaking voice that sounds as if he’s on his way to a song at any moment. And he blends a comfort with talking about himself with this great listening ability. It’s a confidence he says combines two of his passions — singing and teaching — both of which plug into similar qualities Vasquez has cultivated in his 49 years.
So this is no “Hey, you’re not going to believe this” story about a UB student. If there were odds on who would win this Buffalo Sings competition and its accompanying invitation to sing with the BPO, Vasquez might have been the favorite.
“What a great honor to sing with the Philharmonic,” he says. “The conductor, John Morris Russell, is just a great man. He has such great energy.”
Russell, the principal BPO pops conductor, was on hand in the Mary Seaton Room when Vasquez competed against eight other finalists for the chance to be the Buffalo Sings champion. Russell will conduct the BPO when Vasquez performs on April 14.
“He’s so positive. I walked in there and said, ‘I’m Chris Vasquez,” and he was like, ‘Chris Vasquez, I know you.’ He was so energetic, and he talked to everyone before they auditioned.
“I was very nervous when I was waiting to go on stage to audition,” he says. “I was confident with what I was going to do, but the moment was making me feel very humbled.
“I grew up and was raised in Williamsville, but my parents took us downtown to see shows at Kleinhans, Shea’s and the old Studio Arena all the time,” he says. “They loved the music and performances, so now for me to be able to stand on the stage of Kleinhans with the BPO is a wonderful honor, privilege and truly a joy.”
Despite Vasquez’s pedigree and experience — among his credits is an almost two-hour show of tango music, Latin songs and American standards he wrote and produced at the Montante Cultural Center at Canisius College — the path to his first appearance with the BPO was a challenge.
A friend told him about the orchestra’s plan to hold a competition to find performers to celebrate Buffalo music for concerts on April 14 and 15. Vasquez checked it out and found the BPO was looking for an adult and young person to sing “Over the Rainbow,” the song made famous in the film “The Wizard of Oz.” It was written by the renowned Harold Arlen, who grew up in Buffalo before moving on to a career in New York and Hollywood.
Everyone had to audition with “Over the Rainbow” because that’s what they would sing with the BPO.
“I saw ‘Over the Rainbow’ and I thought they just want a nice young girl to come in and sing it and be a star in Buffalo for a while,” Vasquez says. “So I almost didn’t send a video in. But then I went online and saw the version with Frank Sinatra and Vic Damone and some other people singing it, and I went ‘OK. There is something here.’
“So I was a little skeptical,” he admits, “but then I started looking at the lyrics and putting myself into it, and then things began to change a little. So I sent in the video very happily, and I said we’ll see what happens.”
Vasquez got an email telling him to be at Kleinhans on March 1, where he could compete against eight other finalists for the adult part of “Buffalo Sings.” Everyone would sing “Over the Rainbow” and could choose another song for the audition. Vasquez chose “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” — both songs were from the same time period and written by Yip Harburg. So Vasquez went to Kleinhans with a small entourage of friends and family, all of whom braced themselves to hear multiple versions of “Over the Rainbow.” And Vasquez told himself, ‘OK, let’s just enjoy the moment.’
“And it went great,” he says.
It’s a big evening, says Vasquez, who will appear in the April 14 concert. A chorus will perform, as well as a barbershop quartet and other professional singers with Buffalo connections. A sing-along also is planned. Vasquez will sing “Over the Rainbow” with the orchestra, and then give up the stage for other performers.
For Vasquez, his singing performances remind him of the classroom experience. He’s an English-as-a-second-language instructor in the Buffalo Public Schools’ adult education division at the Belle Center on Buffalo’s West Side. He plans to graduate this May from the Graduate School of Education with a master’s degree in TESOL — Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
“I love it,” he says. ‘I love my time here at UB.”
Part of that, he admits, is the intersection of teaching and singing. They’re not the same, but they share a lot of what he loves.
A friend who was also a teacher and a performer once told him, “I don’t think I have ever had a better performance than when I am teaching.”
“That’s a lot of it,” Vasquez says. “There is a lot of performance involved in teaching. It’s getting people involved. That’s what I do with my music and songs. So to me, teaching is an extension of what I do.”
Then there’s what the GSE calls “dialogic teaching and learning,” an educational technique that uses dialogue to build meaning and understanding.
“It’s not just all coming in one direction, like the teacher,” Vasquez says. “There is a building of knowledge among people, which I love.
“You’re accumulating this knowledge when, in fact, it comes out of a connection with students,” he says. “And that’s one of the things I always love about music. There is a connection to the song [and the connection I make with the audience].
“And that’s what I do with teaching. Why don’t some students get it? What is this person missing? And I really try to get at what this person needs. And I think the teachers at UB really work at this.”
Vasquez doesn’t hesitate when asked if, deep down, he is a singer or teacher.
“At heart, oh God, I’ll always be a singer. I love teaching. Teaching has been a beautiful part of my life,” he says. “But I think I’ll always be a singer at heart. I walk around and sing all the time. There is music in my head. There is the excitement you get when you think of a new song. That will always be a part of you.”
Constantly finding a balance between his teaching and singing, Vasquez has a few shows lined up after the “Buffalo Sings” pops concert on April 14. He will perform his cabaret show — an evening of tango songs, American standards, Spanish boleros and French songs — on May 31 at Pausa Art House. And he’ll also sing with the Buffalo Tango Orkestra at Artpark as part of the Music in the Woods series.