Welcome to this summer series on questions and possibilities for a new era in our personal lives, professional lives, the choral landscape, and in society! I’m so glad you’re here for the journey.
Despite the seemingly impossible circumstances during the pandemic, I’ve been amazed at how choirs have adapted to provide meaningful art. Even before vaccines were readily available, there were inspiring concerts online. The ACDA national conference was a resounding success and opened up new ways of thinking about choral performances. In a matter of weeks, Dr. Jason Max Ferdinand pulled together a spectacular online premier performance of the Jason Max Ferdinand Singers that had me glued to my seat the whole time. Even though there have been countless challenges and hard times, I hope that you have also seen some incredible and inspiring innovative moments in the past 15 – 16 months.
However, even before we had heard the word COVID, a variety of choral organizations were already on the front edge of giving a glimpse into this new world. In addition to asking questions this summer, I plan to highlight some organizations and people who, in my opinion, have pointed a new way forward. One such choir is the PhilHarmonia Chamber Choir, an auditioned mixed community chamber choir of 30 singers based in Philadelphia, PA.
PhilHarmonia is led by an innovative and creative team of all women. At the helm is Dr. Mitos Andaya Hart, the Artistic Director, who is also Associate Professor of Choral Music at Temple University in Philadelphia. As a bit of context, part of its mission is to bring choral music all over the city of Philadelphia. One performance may be in a church. Another may be at a train station or in the lobby of a public library. One of the highlights of the season is PhilHarmonia with Love, a concert around Valentine’s Day where music is interspersed with audience members drinking wine and eating dessert. In addition to choral works, a few choir members sing a solo or duet of their choosing. For a minimal fee, audience members dedicate a specific song to loved ones. As a singer in the choir, it was exciting to be in an ensemble that re-imagined the concert experience for the audience.
This flexibility in concert experience happens in part due to PhilHarmonia’s entirely a cappella repertoire. Almost any genre or era is fair game. For example, one concert contained three motets by Palestrina, an arrangement of a Venezuelan folk song, an arrangement of a Sufi song, and much more. Each concert includes a variety of cultural and historical perspectives. Dr. Andaya Hart also commissions works on a regular basis, including many by Dr. Melissa Dunphy, a Philadelphia-based composer. Below is a movement from American DREAMers, a multi-movement choral cycle using texts from those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, also known as DACA recipients. Here is a movement from the premiere performance in June 2018.
Having repertoire that is historically minded or with a social justice lens is not uncommon in PhilHarmonia’s repertoire. With this context, the genesis of the next piece wasn’t out of the ordinary. In late 2019, another commission by Dr. Dunphy, entitled Remember the Ladies, was in the works. In 2020, this piece would be part of an exhibit, entitled “When Women Lost the Vote”, at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, PA.
According to the website of the museum, “The exhibit would explore the period of history in New Jersey how after the American Revolution in New Jersey, “The 1776 New Jersey State Constitution referred to voters as “they,” and statutes passed in 1790 and 1797 defined voters as “he or she.” This opened the electorate to free property owners, Black and white, male and female, in New Jersey. This lasted until 1807, when a new state law said only white men could vote.” For more information, click on the following link:
A feature of the exhibit included a letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams where she implored him to remember women during the Constitutional Convention. For over 200 years, the letter was at a museum in Boston and was going to be in Philadelphia as part of the exhibit.
Remember the Ladies was originally planned to be a multi-movement piece based on the letter that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband. As with much of Dr. Dunphy’s works, Remember the Ladies would contain a lot of dissonances and divisi. Dr. Andaya Hart and Dr. Dunphy looked at different spaces in the museum where the performance would take place and include multi-media elements. As of February 2020, a possible November 2020 performance was planned at the museum. This was proving to be an exciting musical, collaborative, and historical endeavor. Then COVID struck and countless organizations shut down for a length of time that was undetermined at that point. Tune in for next week’s post when I chronicle how this originally conceived in-person premiere morphed into a digital premiere and what it was like to sing the piece in-person for the first time.
What choirs, conductors, or other musicians have you seen point the way to a new era? Comment below!