Syracuse University Magazine


Kola Owolabi

The Music of His Life

When 13-year-old Kola Owolabi entered a prestigious annual songwriting competition in his native Toronto, he drew from the musical era he knew best—16th-century Renaissance. It was an admittedly unconventional choice for a youngster, but the finished work—Hodie, Christus Natus Est—won, heralding Owolabi as a rising star in the contemporary classical music scene. “I think the judges were shocked to find this kid writing in 16th-century style,” says Owolabi, a professor in SU’s Setnor School of Music who also holds the title of University organist. “It sounded like it was written 400 years ago. But that was what I was singing on a daily basis in the cathedral choir at St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto. I didn’t know it was ‘16th-century style’; it was just what was in my ear.”

Two decades later, Owolabi has easily lived up to that early promise, distinguishing himself as a gifted composer and award-winning musical force whose tastes and repertoire today span both centuries and genres. Since that first work—an antiphonal motet for double choir still performed today—he has composed 20 other pieces, from four-part anthems to larger concert works. He won second prize and audience prize in the 2002 American Guild of Organists National Young Artists Competition in Organ Performance, and has performed throughout the United States, and in Canada, Mexico, and Jamaica. 

Owolabi began his music training in his father’s home country of Nigeria, where his family lived from the time he was 5 until he turned 10. “It was a culture where everybody learns music by ear,” he says. At age 7, he began private piano lessons and learned to read music. When the family returned to Toronto, he began studies at St. Michael’s, where he also participated in daily choir rehearsals and piano and violin instruction. At age 12, he added organ lessons, and it soon became clear to him he had found his passion. “My family was devout Catholic,” he says, “so I spent a lot of time in church, where I fell in love with the sound of the organ. I loved its wide variety of ‘colors.’ It’s like a painter choosing a color palette—that ability to choose different sounds and blend them in different ways. I always wanted to explore the whole range and scope of the instrument.” After earning a bachelor’s degree in organ performance from McGill University, he received a master’s in organ performance and choral conducting from Yale, and a doctorate in organ performance from the Eastman School of Music. While at Yale, he also served as organist at the University Chapel and directed the Yale Divinity School chapel choir.

In 2006, he came to SU, where, in addition to teaching, he accompanies the Hendricks Chapel Choir; plays for weddings, convocations, and Sunday morning worship; and coordinates the Malmgren Concert Series. Next year he’ll begin a two-year term as dean of the Syracuse chapter of the American Guild of Organists. He also performs solo recitals with the nationally acclaimed, Grammy-nominated Seraphic Fire and its Firebird Orchestra, which features his work on a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, scheduled for release next summer.

While his whirlwind of commitments and variety of gigs inform his own growth, Owolabi says he also wants to ensure that his students appreciate the full scope of possibilities in organ repertoire today. “There’s a wide range of styles being written today for the organ—styles that are more modern, more accessible,” he says. “And there will always be a need for highly skilled, classically trained organists. As long as we have highly trained organists, they will always have value.” —Carol L. Boll