The Vassar College Women’s Chorus, affectionately called WoCo, held their biannual performance this past Saturday, April 1, in the Martel Recital Hall in Skinner Hall. From as far back as the inception of the Women’s Chorus at Vassar, the group has had a concert every semester since 1876.
With Associate Professor and Chair of Music and Director of Choral Activities Christine Howlett as the conductor, this particular show was performed in two parts: the first involved three contemporary pieces by American composers, while the second part of the program was the performance of Mozart’s “Sparrow Mass in C Major” with the orchestra.
As Howlett explained, “We often do a lot of contemporary work, but we don’t always have that much work from the past because it isn’t always arranged for a women’s chorus. Earlier this year we performed a mass by Haydn, and we’re ending the year with Mozart, so there have been a few new experiences for WoCo.”
Two of the contemporary pieces selected, namely “Patito” (2015) by Gabriela Lena Frank and “Rise Up!” (2016) by Jake Runestad, were written as part of the Women’s Choir Commission Consortium of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), and the performances by the Vassar Women’s Chorus marked their regional premier. The third contemporary piece, “Song of Perfect Propriety” (2006) by Carol Barnett, was commissioned as part of a project by the Cornell University Chorus in conjunction with their “No Whining, No Flowers” project.
All the composers chosen have particularly interesting perspectives: Identity has always been at the center of Frank’s music, for example, which tends to reflect her travels throughout South America and her studies of Latin American folklore. According to the program notes, “[H]er pieces incorporate poetry, mythology, and native musical styles into a western classical framework that is uniquely her own.” In the VC chorus’s rendition of “Patito,” which translates to “little duck,” was performed a cappella, with the chorus hitting strikingly high notes each time they sang the word “patito.”
An award-winning composer, Runestad’s “Rise Up!” was adapted from speeches and writings by U.S. suffragette Susan B. Anthony. The chorus performed this song with piano accompaniment, mastering voice control and overlapping their chanting of “rise up” to create an overwhelming and omnipresent echo of the inspiring phrase.
The next song was just as empowering: the sarcastically titled “Song of Perfect Propriety” written by Dorothy Parker and composed by Barnett. As the program stated, “Parker was known for her caustic dry wit and…wrote realistically about poverty and sexism.” A humorist, writer, critic and defender of human rights, Parker and her witty essence was reflected in this piece. Melanie Donnelly ’17, a member of the Women’s Chorus for the past four years, explained, “My favorite piece we did was called ‘Song of Perfect Propriety,’ written as a commission for a women’s chorus piece that was about something other than birds and love—which are basically all the repertoire you can find for women’s chorus[es], because of course women can only sing about pretty things and love.”
As mentioned, all of the composers selected were contemporary, and some of them were quite recent pieces. While working on new music is an exciting prospect, Howlett explained some of the distinct challenges they faced: “With new composers who have not been premiered before, you have no recordings to go off of, and you don’t really know what the piece will sound like until you go through the entire thing. In fact, many a times you don’t even know if you really love a piece until you’re on stage performing it, so it’s a really rewarding and wonderful feeling to then see how it all fits together and to know that not only did we accomplish something, but it was worth our time.”
The second part of the performance centered around Mozart’s “Sparrow Mass in C Major,” which was an arrangement for the Women’s Chorus by Heribert Breuer. According to the program notes, “[This mass] is believed to have been written in Salzburg in 1775. It owes its nickname ‘Sparrow Mass’ to the twittering, bird-like violin figure which appears in the Sanctus and Benedictus.”
The orchestra stepped in as an accompaniment during this part of the program. Allison Breeze ’19, a member of the group, explained how the orchestra beautifully complemented the vocals of the Women’s Chorus. “We usually work a cappella or with piano, but collaborating with the orchestra is always refreshing because it allows older, richer sounds to come through,” she related.
Regarding how she felt about the mass, Breeze continued, “The Mozart mass is in Germanic Latin instead of Church Latin, so it has different pronunciations than what we’re used to. While that was challenging, it was really nice to have some older works since we usually do more modern ones.” In the same vein, Donnelly also elucidated, “The Mozart mass was written originally for SATB [soprano, alto, tenor, bass] but rearranged for a women’s chorus, so it was kind of like reclaiming this male-dominated tradition.”
The chorus, as well as the orchestra, put on a beautiful performance. Before commencing the mass, however, the group did a poignant send-off for their seniors, who have been with the group for four years. Howlett called the three women in question forward, all of whom were donning corsages, and gave a short but touching speech about how inspirational they have been for the incoming members of the group over the course of the past few years. Breeze summed up this collective sentiment amongst the group, stating, “[I was] particularly excited for this concert because it’s the last one with our seniors. I think we all want[ed] to do a good job for them, so that they have a nice memory of their last performance with WoCo.”