Survival and Hope: Melodia Women's Choir’s Autumn Rhapsody concerts
by Teri Duerr and Jenny Clarke for Vocal Area Network
Posted November 8, 2016

Melodia: Autumn RhapsodyMelodia Women’s Choir of NYC’s "Autumn Rhapsody" concerts on November 19 and 20 highlight a wonderful New York collaboration with the New York Philharmonic and an even more fascinating backstory. The program includes a version of an all-female "Largo" from Antonín Dvořák’s (1841-1904) New World Symphony. Melodia is performing and videotaping it in conjunction with the New York Philharmonic’s New World Initiative. The Philharmonic is celebrating its 175th year by connecting with select members of the music community in New York City. "Largo" from Dvořák’s New World Symphony was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1893. As a way of recognizing the breadth of music-making in New York today, selected groups were asked to participate by posting an online a recording of their performance of "Largo."

Melodia responded to the invitation with what it hopes is a unique and inspiring perspective contribution to the New World Initiative. "Largo" is one of pieces that is part of a historic collection of arrangements created by Margaret Dryburgh (1890-1945) and Norah Chambers (1905-1989). The two were imprisoned in an internment camp in Sumatra in the East Indies during the Second World War, along with hundreds of other women. Held together in horrific conditions, the women prisoners raised their spirits by performing songs in a “vocal orchestra.” Known as their “songs of survival,” the music became a means of reinforcing their sense of dignity and determination to survive. "Largo" was performed by 30 singers of the vocal orchestra in the camp.

After the prisoners were released in September 1945, surviving Vocal Orchestra (1943-1944) members scattered, and the scores were largely forgotten. But, fortunately, one of the surviving singers donated her manuscripts to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in 1982. This act eventually led to their publication by Universal Songs Holland in 1986. Read more about the Vocal Orchestra and the Song of Survival Collection here.

Melodia is presenting our choral version of "Largo" for the Philharmonic 175 as a tribute to the women who sang to survive displacement and imprisonment in 1942 and to those who sing to create a better world everywhere. Our performance will be posted on a special website created by the Philharmonic for "Largo" interpretations by invited New York musicians. See Melodia’s New World Initiative Artists Page.

In addition to "Largo," our Autumn Rhapsody concerts include a unique selection of other wonderful repertoire, including Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Magnificat, a classical favorite performed in the way it was originally written for female choir and orchestra by the 18th-century Baroque composer while stationed at the Venetian girls’ orphanage Pio Ospedale della Pietà. “A neighbor had given me an exemplary treble recording by Taverner Consort of Vivaldi works when he was converting his music collection from CD to digital,” said Melodia Founder and Executive Director Jenny Clarke, recounting the serendipitous way Melodia found this rare version of the well-known work. “Among the works on the CD was this version of Magnificat, which immediately rose to the top for our fall 2016 concert. After an extensive search to find out if the score was available, we programmed the work.”

Audiences will have the opportunity to hear two U.S. premieres of new works: Seven Blake Songs by Flemish composer Rudi Tas (born 1957), and Ütle Sina (Tell Me) by Estonian Tõnu Kõrvits (born 1969). “Rudi Tas's Seven Blake Songs are brand new and brilliantly written,” said the choir’s Artistic Director Cynthia Powell, “while Tõnu Kõrvits's piece uses a exotic Estonian folk scale that gives it a moody, northern Baltic flavor.”

Also on the program are two hauntingly gorgeous pieces from contemporary Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo (born 1978), and a series of a cappella carols based on medieval texts that promise to be perfect for the holiday season from Canadian composer Eleanor Daley (born 1955). "This is such interesting music -- pieces you won't hear anywhere else,” said Powell. “Melodia has some fantastic voices in the choir this season, and we're headed for an exceptionally high level of artistry."

Autumn Rhapsody concert details:
Saturday, November 19 at 7:30 PM, Holy Apostles Church, 296 9th Avenue (at 28th Street), New York City.
Sunday, November 20 at 3:00 PM, West End Collegiate Church, 245 West 77th Street (at West End Avenue), New York City.
Performers: Melodia Women's Choir conducted by Cynthia Powell; Taisiya Pushkar, piano; Keats Dieffenbach, violin; Rachell Wong, violin; Katherine Cherbas, cello; Rebekah Griffin Greene, bass.
Tickets and information at melodiawomenschoir.org/in-concert.

Teri Duerr is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Jenny Clarke is the executive director of Melodia.