New York will soon hear the beautiful sounds of women singing and women accompanying them in pieces written solely for women.
The newly established Melodia Orchestra, consisting of only women instrumentalists, will premiere at New York City's St. Ignatius Loyola Church at Park Avenue on May 16. They accompany the Melodia Women's Choir, also women-only, as they celebrate the brilliance of French choral music. Their concert "Visions of Eternity" will showcase rare works by Olivier Messiaen, André Caplet, Gustav Holst and Reza Vali, specially composed for women’s voices.
A Rare Program
In an online interview, Artistic Director Cynthia Powell, who will conduct the all-women ensemble, expressed that she is excited about the upcoming concert. She has dreamed about performing Messiaen’s “Trois petites liturgies” ever since she first heard it as a college student. As an organist, Powell is familiar with Messiaen’s work—the composer was primarily an organist himself—because his compositions are the most original organs pieces specifically written for the instrument since Bach. She has performed a number of his works for organ at various recitals and considers Messiaen one of the giants of 20th century music.
Ever Since Powell started to work with Melodia Women’s Choir, she had this piece in mind. It is also one of the major pieces in the repertoire of the chorus and orchestra. Since last year was the anniversary of Messiaen’s birth, Powell felt that as now is the perfect time to celebrate his life with the “Trois petites liturgies.”
“I love Messiaen’s harmonic language; I love his view on melody as a paramount. I love the fact that he incorporates birdsong into his music. He often quoted composer Paul Dukas who said, ‘Listen to the birds…they are our masters’. I also admire and respect his spiritual ardor. He was a devout Catholic and though that is not my own religious background, his exploration of the ecstatic and mystical states of being through his music, resonates for me in my own spiritual journey. As human beings we all strive for heightened consciousness that leads us into the feeling of being at one with the universe, with God, or however one defines that phenomenon. Messiaen’s mysticism can speak to all of us in a pan-religious sense.”
Another instrumental piece on the program is an adaptation of a piece originally written for six ondes Martenot. The instrument is an early electronic musical instrument invented in France in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. According to the tradition, they were played by six women in white gowns, and huge water jets spewed forth when they played.
Powell was lucky to find a piece for solo ondes Martenot by Messiaen, adapted for strings, flute, and piano by the French musician and Messiaen devotee Claude-Samuel Levine. The piece has an interesting background. It was originally written as “L’eau à son maximum de hauteur” (“High Tide”) from a set of pieces called “Fête des belles eaux” (“Festival of the beautiful waters”) by Messiaen for six ondes Martenot for the Paris Exposition of 1937. Messiaen later adapted this into his “Quartet for the End of Time,” which he wrote in 1941, while he was a prisoner of war held by the Nazis. He gave the instrument solo to the violin and titled it “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus” (“Praise to the immortality of Jesus”).
The other pieces on the program are unique as well. Because the choir will be singing for the “Sacred Music in a Sacred Space” series at the prestigious St. Ignatius Loyola Church, the music has to be sacred. So Powell chose a little-known Mass setting, again written for women’s voices, by André Caplet. Caplet is a contemporary of Debussy, who orchestrated many of his works.
The ensemble will also perform Gustav Holst’s gorgeous setting of “Ave Maria” for eight-part women’s chorus. Powell confessed the choir’s love for Holst and added that the singers have sung a lot of his works. Lastly, they will be singing an arrangement for women’s voices of Gabriel Fauré’s exquisite “Cantique de Jean Racine,” a classic choral piece beloved by all.
Apart from the French composers presented, there will be an unusual piece by Iranian-American composer Reza Vali. “Lament, in Memoriam Olivier Messiaen” was written the year of Messiaen’s death (1992) and is part of a larger work for voices and orchestra, Folk Songs (Set No. 10). In this work, Vali pays homage to Messiaen’s love of birds and birdsong. The text is in Farsi by Vali, and uses the bird as metaphor for Messiaen himself.
A special touch in the program will be a piece sung by a very gifted soloist from Azerbaijan, Naila Aziz, who is able to sing in a Middle Eastern style, i.e., using trills, glissandos, and vocal techniques that most Westerners don’t know.
“We thought it was very fitting to program this piece, both because of its homage to Messiaen, and because of the current tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Any opportunity to expand our cultural horizons and to break down barriers through music is of interest to us!”
Women’s Voices are Associated with Heavenly Realms
Cynthia Powell esteems the uniqueness of women’s voices and relishes the search for a dynamic unison and harmony in the choir sound.
“One could say that women’s voices, because of where they lie, are perhaps ‘sweeter’ than men’s voices; but that’s hard to say, because men’s voices can be very sweet, too. But women’s voices are associated with more heavenly realms because they can sing in the upper registers and reach ethereally high tones.”
All voices have ‘registers’ that center around either the chest or the head, so one needs to be aware of where one ends and the other begins. It’s different for every voice part; sopranos have a ‘break’ or register shift in a different area of the scale than do altos. Men have this, too.
“Women’s voices can be compared to the violin and flute, as their ranges and timbres are similar. There are so many instruments that sound well with women’s voices. We’ve used a lot of different configurations, from four French horns and harp, to string quartet, to jazz combo and even conch shell and Aztec drums! Women’s voices are wonderfully versatile, as they can ‘carry’ [be heard] over large instrumental ensembles by virtue of their range.”
But what appears to be the most challenging part of the conductor’s work is choosing the music as well as constructing a program that best combines the voices at hand. At the same time, one must keep in mind the variety of styles and moods. It is also very important to consider the difficulty level of the piece and how much time it will take to prepare it.
“Harmony and unison, from a musical standpoint, are achieved through constant refining of the vowel sounds we make. There are so many different ways to pronounce a word, and unless everyone is doing it the same exact way, it won’t sound right. Interestingly, there is a lot of unison singing in the Messiaen work–plus it’s in French, making it an extra challenge, as French is the most difficult language to sing in!”
“Achieving harmony is another story. One has to have a basic knowledge of the intervals and how chords are constructed. There are tricks of that one has to know. For instance, if you are singing the third of a major chord, you must think high to really ‘lock in’ the pitch. Listening is as important as singing when you are in a choir!”
Powell shares that the most important thing a conductor has to do is prepare the pieces so thoroughly that everyone knows them inside and out. For her making music with a group of people who come for the joy of singing is one of the most rewarding experiences in life. The conductor has to always be aware that people are there for fun, for the love of music, and for the sense of accomplishment that comes from making an artistic statement together as a community. Honoring and nurturing those things, while teaching the music and getting the job done, takes patience, timing, and creativity. Besides, one needs to have a good sense of humor and passion for music–that counts most in good conducting.
A Unique Ensemble
Jenny Clarke, Melodia’s Executive Director, had the idea of starting the Choir in 2003. She soon discovered that while there is a great resurgence in the performance and popularity of women’s choral music throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe, there are very few choirs performing such a repertoire in New York City.
Clarke met Cynthia Powell soon after she started laying the foundation for Melodia, and they quickly turned the idea of Melodia into a reality. In spring 2004, Melodia had its first concert, conducted by Cynthia Powell.
“Melodia’s uniqueness lies in the range of music that we perform, our commitment to working with women musicians for all our concerts, and our commitment to supporting women composers through our commissioning program. Very few women’s choirs work with instrumental musicians. Most present concerts with piano only or a cappella. Our concert on May 16 is our first concert with an orchestra. We have created the Melodia Women’s Orchestra specifically for this concert. Our 24 professional women instrumental players are among the best in New York.”
Kyung-A Yoo, known as one of the finest collaborative pianists in the United States, will play the highly difficult piano parts at the May 16 event. Miranda Cuckson is establishing herself as a champion of new music for the violin and will play the violin solo. The string orchestra has been assembled by Stephanie Griffin, one of the premier violists in the U.S. The percussion section is all women; and Francoise Murail, the onde Martenot player, is one of the few female players in the world of this unique and rare instrument.
The Choir consists of 38 singers, aged between 22 and 53. Most are in their 20s. Many singers are not originally from New York but have come to pursue their careers. Singers join through auditions, which are held twice each year, in August/September and December/January. The Choir presents concerts in the fall and spring each year and performs at other events throughout the season. The choir includes singers from Russia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Hong Kong, South Korea, Czech Republic, England, Canada, and throughout the U.S.
“We have also organized our first Women Composer’s Commissioning Competition in 2008. We received 65 submissions from women composers in 24 states in the USA. The women jury selected Chris Lastovicka as the winner. She is currently composing a work for us that will be premiered in New York in November 2009.”
The female ensemble has received significant recognition by the New York City community and has been heard on WNYC radio and seen on NBC TV.
For more information please visit: http://www.melodiawomenschoir.org/