Melodia Women's Choir celebrates 10 years with "Questions About Angels"
by Matthew Schlecht for Vocal Area Network
Posted November 12, 2012

Sally Lamb McCuneIt all started with Gustav Holst. Well, sort of. Fans of Melodia Women's Choir, which opens its 10th anniversary season in November, can thank the English composer for providing some inspiration, at least. In 2003, director Jenny Clarke was singing with New York City's Riverside Choral Society, a mixed choir, when the director, Patrick Gardner, decided to program two sets of songs: one for the men and one for the women. "We performed a piece by Gustav Holst," she says, "and I just loved the sound and style of the music. I looked around to see if there was a choir I could join to explore this music and found that there wasn't much out there on the women's choral scene in New York."

That spirit of exploration has defined Melodia since its inception. Clarke and Artistic Director Cynthia Powell began with a desire to "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 in New York," says Clarke. "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."

Indeed, recent programs have ranged from rarely performed work by the first great female American composer Amy Beach to the new music of Meredith Monk, along with popular favorites from composers such as Estonian legend Veljo Tormis, Eric Whitacre and Christina Whitten Thomas. Heading into their 10th anniversary season, Melodia, currently 25 members strong, has performed 17 concerts at venues like Symphony Space and Merkin Concert Hall, has been featured on radio and TV, and boasts over 30,000 views on their YouTube page.

Going forward, Clarke notes, "the goal hasn't changed. We want to continue performing regularly in New York City, searching out repertoire, working with the best women instrumental musicians, taking opportunities to sing at events and services that bring the music to even broader audiences."

Melodia not only performs choral music, they are intimately involved in its creation through their Women Composers Commission Competition. The commission competition has become an integral part of Melodia's mission. "Soon after we started, Cynthia Powell thought it would be important for Melodia to commission composers to create works for the ensemble. In 2007, we decided to launch the [competition] as a way to reach out to composers beyond our circle."

An example of the vitality that Melodia has spotlighted and sustained can be found in the season's opening concert program (November 17 and 18), which features a world premiere, Questions About Angels, from composer Sally Lamb McCune. McCune is one of two winners of the 2012 Melodia's Women Composers Commission Competition. For Questions About Angels, she chose to base its three songs for women's chorus and accompaniment (marimba, double bass, and piano) on texts that reference the spiritual beings, including the centerpiece, Billy Collins's poem "Questions About Angels."

"I fell in love with [the poem] right away," says McCune, who complements the Collins text with verse from Bianco da Sienna ("Discendi Amor Santo"), Christina Rosetti ("The Shepherds Had an Angel"), and structures the third portion of the piece around preexisting Shaker hymns and an African-American spiritual, combining their harmonic structures to form a "partner song," McCune explains, "sung in a lively fashion described in early Shaker meetings, where participants expressed themselves freely through dancing, whirling, and shaking in addition to singing. As the piece concludes, the number of musicians decreases--a musical metaphor for the decline of a fervent religious movement that could not sustain itself given its extreme principles." According to Powell, "[McCune's] piece is glorious and it's going to be a lot of fun."

In addition to the commissioned work, the November concerts also bring together and set up conversation between various other musical styles, like 12th- and 13th-century medieval songs, arranged by The Mediaeval Baebes; 19th-century sacred songs, arranged by renowned women's a cappella group Anonymous 4; and an instrumental marimba and piano work by Allison Sniffin. Powell notes that the program "covers the centuries. It's going to have a great appeal to audiences who love classical music, but also to those who aren't classical music fans, per se."

And it's not too early to look forward to the second half of the 10th anniversary season in 2013, which will feature another winning commission (From the Four Winds) by composer Nina Siniakova, who says of her work, "The general idea of the piece can be described with the words light, universe, resurrection." That doesn't sound like a bad way to celebrate ten years.

Melodia Women's Choir performs "Questions About Angels" on Saturday, November 17, 7:30 PM at Church of the Holy Apostles, 296 Ninth Avenue at West 28th Street, New York City, and Sunday, November 18, 4 PM at West End Collegiate Church, 368 West End Avenue at 77th Street, New York City. A reception follows both concerts. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door, and $15 for students and seniors. For more information, visit www.melodiawomenschoir.org.

Matthew Schlecht is a writer and editor in New York City.
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