Women’s Chorus prepares unique, fem-positive program

On Nov. 3, Vassar’s Women’s Choir, nicknamed WoCo, will present an eclectic and profound collection of songs primarily by composers who identify as female. Courtesy of the Vassar College Music Department.

Highlighting a diverse selection of songs that is at once thought-provoking and emotional, the Vassar College Women’s Chorus will present their annual fall concert on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m., in the Mary Anna Fox Martel Recital Hall. The group, nicknamed WoCo, focuses on pieces written for treble voices and places an emphasis on works by composers who identify as female. Since September, WoCo has been rehearsing a variety of pieces, ranging from settings of centuries-old texts to avant-garde contemporary compositions to songs in the American folk tradition.

Associate Professor and Chair of Music and Director of Choral Activities Christine Howlett crafted this semester’s concert. Howlett explained, “The program is a collection of pieces that are pretty different, but they have similar themes that run through them. There are these ideas of youth, hope and strength.” Much of the thematic cohesion stems from the three initial pieces that sparked Howlett’s interest, around which she subsequently built the program. The first of these pieces was “Breathe in Hope,” a heavy and musically challenging piece that reflects on the way we respond to tragedies. It was the text, which originally took the form of an emotive Facebook post by Maya Jackson in response to recent shootings, that most intrigued Howlett: “I thought it was absolutely timely … To be able to visit this piece regularly for seven or eight weeks and not forget, which is what the text is talking about…‘I hope the pain lasts’…that really stuck with me.” The piece, composed by Dale Trumbore, also fit Howlett’s goal of performing serious works by female composers; historically, women’s choral repertoire has been limited to lighter topics due to gender stereotypes. Howlett continued, “For a women’s chorus, I want meaty things. This is a small form, but it’s not a two-minute piece. It’s a heavy topic, and it’s by a female composer.”

Howlett was so impressed by Trumbore’s work that she decided to add another one of her compositions to the program titled “Flare,” a colorful piece that invokes images of youth and child-like wonder. It’s hard to guess it, but the piece that is filled with motion and glimmering chords was created by the same composer as “Breathe in Hope.” This juxtaposition is exactly why Howlett picked it. “I love that ‘Breathe in Hope’ and ‘Flare’ sound totally different,” says Howlett.

Continuing on the theme of youth, Howlett chose “On Children,” a gospel-influenced tune by acclaimed composer Ysaye Barnwell, whose work draws influence from traditional African American music. Especially drawn to the piece, Howlett said, “Ysaye Barnwell is so accomplished…we need more choral music by women of color!” The text asserts the independent-mindedness of children and advises parents to remember that children are the future of the world. This message is fitting for college students to sing to an audience that will likely include some of their families. Howlett commented on the relevance of the piece: “I love ‘On Children’…it’s beautiful to sing, and I think the text of it is timely for the choir.”

The character of “On Children” inspired Howlett to add more folk–influenced music to the program, including a round, an Appalachian shape-note tune and an arrangement of the blues tune “Bring Me Little Water, Silvy” that includes lively body percussion. Composer Moira Smiley arranged the latter of these pieces. “We might not know of this music if Moira hadn’t arranged it for our voices,” says Howlett, who is especially fond of “Silvy.” She continued, “[I]t’s beautiful to watch, and beautiful to listen to.”

The third piece that shaped Howlett’s vision of the program was “Moon Goddess,” a rhythmically intricate piece by Jocelyn Hagan. The text is a translation of a praise to the Sumerian goddess Inanna, written by Enheduanna, who is the earliest known poet in history and whose name and work have been preserved (her works are dated to c. 2300 BCE). “I love how Josselyn chose this unreal text,” commented Howlett. “[I]t’s all about strength.” The piece, which will close Saturday’s program, impresses a clear message of feminine strength.

The singers share Howlett’s enthusiasm about the program. Rachel Walker ’21 commented, “Over the course of my time in WoCo, we have sung a wide variety of music. I am particularly excited about this upcoming concert of modern music! We will be singing a lot of music which represents hope and unity…I hope that it speaks to our audience in a powerful way.” Walker is especially excited about “i live in pain,” a particularly challenging piece on the program written by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Lang: “It is a rhythmically complicated song whose lyrics are inspired by words written by Contessa de Dia in 1175. Lang brings these timeless 12th-century words into the 21st century and creates a striking work.”

Allison Breeze ’19 echoed Walker’s sentiment: “The songs are about strength and community, and the emphasis on homophony in the repertoire reflects our group unity. The concert features music from mostly female composers and poets, which I think is really important.” Breeze has had a long relationship with WoCo and is especially excited for this concert: “[WoCo] is such a tight-knit, inclusive community of lovely people that I love singing with. This concert is going to really showcase our strengths as a group and our love for each other.”

Exploring these profound works, the group anticipates a challenging yet fun concert. “Doing a program like this is difficult because you’re constantly flipping between different compositional approaches,” acknowledged Howlett. “I’m really thrilled that we dug in, and I think we have a great group!”

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