Sigma Alpha Iota

SAI Pan Pipes Spring13

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GREAT AND SINGING NATION Big Voices in the Big Apple By Teri Duerr O ver the past decade, SAI Patroness Jenny Clarke has brought listening audiences 19 seasons of original, diverse, and rare works for women's voices as the founder and executive director of New York City's premier women's choir, Melodia. Since founding Melodia in 2003, Clarke and artistic director Cynthia Powell have quietly and steadily created opportunities to showcase and celebrate the sound of women's voices, on stage and in the composition of new works, exploring how choral music is defined for a new generation of musicians and audiences. In the past ten years, they've worked with more than 200 singers and more than 50 renowned instrumental musicians, have performed over 150 works (including ten world premieres), and have fostered seven new commissions by women composers. "There's a lot of vibrancy in the women's choral scene right now," Clarke said. Considering that Melodia commissioned and premiered two new works from composers Sally Lamb McCune and Nina Siniakova for its recently wrapped 10th anniversary concert series, while collaborating with two all-female instrumental groups, Flutronix (a minimal-techno-meets-classical flute duo) and Genghis Barbie (a French horn quartet known for bringing down the house with brassy renditions of rock and pop songs), Clarke knows firsthand of what she speaks. It's clear that singing groups are experiencing a sort of pop culture moment and observers are quick to point to the success of shows like Glee or The Voice, or Pitch Perfect, the 2012 film about an all-girls singing group, as signs of the singing zeitgeist. But a close look at the work of choirs like Melodia reveals that the depth of musical engagement and exploration is wondrously even more fun, diverse, and innovative. "There does seem to be a renewed interest in choral music, from a cappella groups to community and professional choirs," McCune said. An SAI Patroness with Ithaca College's Epsilon Chapter, she is the composer of an original work commissioned for Melodia, Questions About Angels, inspired by the poem by Billy Collins and premiered this past winter. "In an era where instrumental ensembles seem to be struggling to stay alive, I am heartened and excited to know that vocal ensembles are thriving – and I'm thrilled to be a part of the music-making. As my artistic voice SAI Patroness Jenny Clarke, left, and Cynthia Powell founded Melodia, the premier women's choir in New York, seen performing at right. has developed, it has found a true home in choral music." McCune isn't the only composer rediscovering choral music, especially by and for women. "There's a real movement now across music ‑— classical, chamber, modern — to seek out women composers, " Taisiya Pushkar said. An award-winning pianist who has performed with Melodia since 2009, she is half of the partnership behind the 2013 album Flavours: Music for cello and piano with cellist Amber Docters van Leeuwen. "There's also something about the sound and the ability to have a group dedicated to women's voices and women's compositions." Clarke agrees. "A lot of composers are recognizing that women's choirs are performing new work in addition to classical repertoire and more work is being created for us by both male and female composers," she said. In addition to new works by and for women, more than ever there is cross-pollination of musical influences from jazz to folk to rock to new sounds, as well as sharing musical traditions from other cultures in choral performances. There's an increase in the incorporation of visual elements, from costuming to projection to dance in recent decades. Composers like Eric Whitacre are even conducting and performing with singers from around the world assembled as virtual choirs over the Internet. The audience of a typical Melodia performance may encounter the 28-voice ensemble singing in Italian, French, Russian, Greek, or any number of languages. They may also find them dancing a medieval rite, accompanying a taiko drum or marimba, and performing a piece by Meredith Monk, Igor Stravinsky, Amy Beach, or even the Dixie Chicks, with a psalm, Russian peasant songs, or Jewish folk tune added in – possibly, all in the same evening. This inclusion reflects the philosophy of Clarke and Powell, who established Melodia with a desire to, as Clarke said, "explore and perform a full range of music composed for women's choir." "We wanted to bring the music out of obscurity and into the concert arena," she said. "We want audiences and musicians to know what a wealth of sophisticated and gorgeous repertoire has been and still is being composed for women's choir and bring it to the world as broadly as we can." And while the danger of such breadth and ambition could be a sort of musical lawlessness, the magic of contemporary choirs is that this sort of heterogeneous approach can work, something that Melodia has consistently proven season after season. The choir has been lauded as a fresh voice on the choral scene since its inception by luminaries such as the composer Monk, has been called "riveting" by the New York Times, and was named one of the city's top choirs by Time Out New York. The proliferation in number and the skilllevel of women's and girls' choirs in the U.S. has been on the rise in recent years. With all of this innovation, growth, and renewed interest, it can seem somewhat startling to realize how far, in so little time, women's choirs in New York have come. Rewind just a decade, and there was literally a dearth of women's voices on the choral scene in one the largest cultural centers in the world. "I looked around and found that there wasn't much out there," Clarke said of the scene in the early 2000s. Inspired by an encounter with a Gustav Holst piece for women's voices while a singer in the New York City Riverside Choral Society, Clarke went in search of a women's VOICES continued on page 24 SPRING 2013 PAN PIPES 19

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