The last time we left off, the Philadelphia-based PhilHarmonia Chamber Choir planned to premiere a brand-new, historically significant piece called Remember the Ladies by composer Dr. Melissa Dunphy in November 2020. This commission was in collaboration with the Museum of the American Revolution and all were excited. Unfortunately, just as plans were underway, COVID struck.
For more background, here is the link to Part 1:
In March 2020, both the choir and Dr. Mitos Andaya Hart, the Artistic Director, were facing unchartered territory. Like many choral organizations, they tried to meet and rehearse online. Challenges abounded. Rehearsing online was much less satisfying than singing in person. Some singers had limited wifi and technical capabilities. As a result, the ensemble took a pause for several months during the summer. There were also some lingering questions. Going forward, what kind of presence was PhilHarmonia going to have? How were they going to make a positive difference in the community with all of the challenges?
Towards the end of summer 2020, Dr. Andaya Hart started to thinking about 2020 – 21. In a typical year, the choir would present a December concert called Winter Spirits, which involved seasonal choral music, dinner and drinks for the audience, and a sing along of familiar carols at the end of the evening. While PhilHarmonia could not provide a full Winter Spirits program in person, they decided to create a virtual carol collage that would uplift people’s spirits.
Buoyed by that success, Dr. Andaya Hart revisited Remember the Ladies in December 2020. She thought the commission was so important and knew PhilHarmonia could overcome any hurdles. This project would provide a sense of hope and positive change in challenging times.
In January 2021, Dr. Andaya Hart met with Dr. Dunphy and Museum curators to see how a virtual premiere might be possible. After the meeting, they knew this was a collaboration that needed to happen. Adjustments were made to the commission. First, the choir would only provide a mastered audio recording and the museum would be responsible for the video portion. Second, the difficulty level of the piece was adjusted for a Virtual Choir context. What had been originally a multi-movement work was now one piece. Instead of lots of divisi, there was only divisi in the soprano part.
Once those parameters were established, Dr. Andaya Hart met with Sara Harris Brown, the Executive Director, and created a game plan. First, they wanted to see if the choir would be on board. They met on Zoom with choir members and one of the curators of the museum exhibit. Luckily since this was a Virtual project, I was able to participate, even though I live in Jacksonville, FL. From that initial Zoom meeting, the response was overwhelmingly positive from the choir. We had a virtual commission on our hands!
Dr. Dunphy initially provided MIDI tracks of the piece so we could practice at home and rehearse on Zoom on Sunday evenings as a group. Early on in the rehearsal process, rehearsal tracks were created from a combination of Dr. Andaya Hart and singers from the choir. She also strongly urged that we setup one on one meetings with her so we could get individual feedback. Some of the singers had not sung in 10 months, so this feedback was invaluable. Once singers started submitting their final recordings in March 2021, Dr. Andaya Hart was confident that the product would be good due to the skill of the singers and the audio engineer. As this was a premiere, there was an expectation to have an excellent recording. On March 25, 2021, PhilHarmonia premiered Remember the Ladies. Here is the final product:
The premiere was part of an hour-long discussion on the museum exhibit and the piece. That discussion can be found here:
The choir, composer, and museum were thrilled with the final product! Happily, this is not the end of the story!
The last week in May, I knew I would be on vacation in New Jersey and Philadelphia while visiting friends and family. I approached Dr. Andaya Hart if PhilHarmonia could have an informal gathering where we would sing Remember the Ladies. On May 27, 2021, members of PhilHarmonia met outside at a park in Philadelphia to hang out and sing. This was the first time the choir had seen each other in over a year! There was a sense of excitement and joy. Dr. Andaya Hart loved the surround sound from singing in a circle and saw people connecting with each other visually. She remarked that “You can’t duplicate standing next to someone and breathing/tuning together.” We spent several hours eating, singing, and hanging out. It was a joyous occasion.
When I asked Dr. Andaya Hart how she was approaching the 2021 – 22 season, she remarked that she was using an abundance of caution and asking current singers who will be comfortable coming back in person. A primary goal would include rebuilding the heart of the organization and adding new personnel to replace singers who won’t be back due to life changes or feeling uncomfortable about returning due to health concerns.
As a singer in the project, I was overjoyed to be a part of creation of a new piece of art, even during the pandemic. From a conductor’s standpoint, I have a few observations/questions that I’m wrestling with going forward.
- What non-musical elements can I use to enhance choral pieces?
- What individuals/organizations are in my community or church I can collaborate or co-create with?
- A sense of community is vital to every choral organization. What are new ways I can apply to help building community?
You can check out PhilHarmonia and Dr. Melissa Dunphy at the following links:
Do you have any questions about this commission? Were there any projects you had started before the pandemic that you needed to change during the pandemic? If so, what were they? Comment below!