Poetry... and Pets? A preview of the Melodia Women's Choir spring concert, "Mornings With You"
by Rebecca Jones for Vocal Area Network
Posted April 25, 2011

Christina Whitten ThomasWhere would choral music be without poetry? Listeners will be inspired to consider the question of how text and music relate to one another this weekend, at a springtime concert by Melodia Women's Choir, New York City's premiere all-female choir. Melodia will sing a program that starts with the abstract, wordless melodies of Meredith Monk, then moves to the ancient, dramatic text of Psalm 137 adapted by Charles Loeffler, the renowned poetry settings of composer Ned Rorem, and, in a world premiere, Mornings With You, by Christina Whitten Thomas, based on poems by Brooklyn poet Pam McAllister.

Whitten Thomas, a young composer with numerous awards to her name, caught the ear of Melodia's directors when she entered the group's Women Composers Competition. After being commissioned to write a piece for the choir, Whitten Thomas spoke with Artistic Director and Conductor Cynthia Powell, who had an idea; she shared with Whitten Thomas the poems of a Brooklyn-based poet, the feminist activist, author and musician Pam McAllister. Whitten Thomas responded strongly to McAllister's work; she found the poems to be "filled with light," she said, and set to work imagining them for choir, piano, flute, clarinet and French horn.

The resulting work, Mornings With You, takes its place among the best such contemporary collaborations. Four movements filled with intensely intimate lyrics--about daily life with a romantic partner, and about memorable moments with close friends--each take on a different shade in Whitten Thomas' hands: a sensual, lilting first movement gives way to a quirky, energetic piece about that old and much-contested idea, that opposites attract. Next is a movement called "Popovers," in which McAllister's poem tells of a visit with friends, dwelling on the abundance and joy in the simple pleasure of sharing breakfast in a country house. A final movement, "Hunting, Gathering Harmonic Vibrations," revisits the daily life of a couple, this time with surprising lyrics that will appeal to intellectuals as well as romantics.

On a recent visit to a Melodia rehearsal, the singers were visibly immersed in Mornings With You, and many professed a special fondness for the third movement, "Popovers," where Whitten Thomas' lush score seems to expand McAllister's subtle observations to their full emotional power. Thus another composer-poet marriage is made.

In addition to Meredith Monk's meditative Quarry Weave II and Charles M. Loeffler's By the Rivers of Babylon/Psalm 137, Melodia's concert also features composer Ned Rorem's What Is Pink? This cycle of six songs will tickle Rorem fans and surprise the uninitiated as the composer applies his wide-ranging musical imagination to poems on topics as diverse as colors, childhood and cats.

And speaking of cats: in this concert, it's not only Rorem's utterly unique The Mysterious Cat (warning: there may be mewing) that features a furry feline. According to Melodia Executive Director Jenny Clarke, somewhere along the way, while planning the choir's spring season, it became evident that references to cats had crept into more than one piece in the program. While it wasn't intentional, it was music to the ears of Melodia's pet-loving members, and to mark the occasion, the choir created a special blog, Melodia Pets, where members have introduced their favorite four-legged friends and have invited the public to do the same:  http://bit.ly/ftjjdb.

The concert also features an extraordinary roster of instrumentalists including flutists Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull of the duo Flutronix premiering new work; Julia Bruskin on cello, Rachel Drehmann on French horn, Romie de Guise-Langlois on clarinet and Rita Costanzi on harp, as well as the choir's longtime collaborator Taisiya Pushkar on piano.

Melodia Women's Choir performs "Mornings With You" on Saturday, April 30, 8 PM at Church of the Holy Apostles, 296 Ninth Avenue at West 28th Street, New York City, and on Sunday, May 1, 3 PM at West End Collegiate Church, 368 West End Avenue at West 77th Street. A reception follows both concerts. For more information, visit www.melodiawomenschoir.org.

This concert is part of the Sing New York! choral celebration. Visit www.singnewyork.org for details.

Rebecca Jones writes about music.
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