Sharing the Voices of Women at Old Whalers’ Church
By Joan Baum
Thirty years ago, almost to the day, when Congress inaugurated Women History Month, Sag Harbor’s unique chamber music concert series Bach, Before and Beyond will present “The Voice of Women,” a program of a cappella choral pieces from various cultures and time periods as performed by the critically acclaimed Accord Treble Choir, based at St. Ignatius of Antioch Church in Manhattan. The singers will be at the Old Whalers’ Church on Sunday, March 5 where they will be welcomed by Walter Klauss, the church’s Artistic Director, who created Bach, Before and Beyond two years ago. Before that, Maestro Klauss had been Director of Music at All Souls Unitarian Church in the city where he met some of the women who will perform this weekend.
“The Voice of Women” will largely honor composers “beyond” Bach, but the group will also be going “beyond” the usual geographical borders. Though medieval chant and Renaissance madrigals have always been a part of Accord performances, as well as music from the Christian tradition, the program this Sunday includes a piece by a Latvian composer as well as African American spirituals and African folk song arrangements. In the past, programs have sometimes included music “beyond” the usual expectations, as when Accord performed an arrangement of a song by Neko Richelle Case, an American singer-songwriter who is a member of the Canadian indie rock group, The New Pornographers. On another occasion the group shared the stage with “tuned water glasses.” As the group’s director Liz Geisewite says of Accord’s eight-year history, “we’ve grown and stretched.” The women particularly enjoy performing works not often heard in this country where adult treble choirs are not as extensive, challenging or sophisticated as they are in Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, not to mention the American Midwest, which, according to Ms. Geisewite, is the center of choral culture in The United States.
Formed in 2009 by Ms. Geisewite, a soprano who teaches music in Brooklyn and by a Japanese friend (who has since moved away), Accord was established to realize their vision of a “collective, consensus-driven ensemble” that would be intellectually challenging, emotionally rewarding and democratic, with individual singers assuming different contributing roles. Since its inception, Accord has drawn on everyone in the group, with the result that each singer “contributes equally to the process of making the music,” as Ms. Geisewite points out, though she herself is often conducting.
Typically, each member has an opportunity to shine “as soloist, arranger, conductor, rehearsal leader, instrumentalist.” When the group sings, says Ms. Geisewite, the experience is “transformational . . . a sound and a feeling that I could never create on my own . . . a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” Audiences intuit the group’s “genuine joy, openness and passion,” she said. Ms. Geisewite also notes that the group is called a “treble” and not a “women’s” choir, because it is open to all identities, including transgender.
The group, whose number can vary from six to nine, are all singers with solid musical training and choral experience. Jennifer O’Neill, a mezzo-soprano and an early member, notes that although members and their friends and followers typically come from a classical background, the group deliberately takes on diverse works in many languages. “It is not uncommon for us to sing in Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish, Basque, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Goergian, in addition to the more common English, Latin, German and French languages,” she says. Some of these languages will be represented in Sunday’s program which includes works by or arranged by Drew Collins, Orlando di Lasso, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Erik Esenvalds, Rene Clausen, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Andre Thomas, H.T. Burleight, Halloran & Bolks, and Antonin Dvorak.
Alto Jaquetta Bustion, a music teacher in Brooklyn, joined Accord in 2010, “after having sung in different mixed voice groups for many years.” What she found in Accord was a small, highly accomplished, intimate group that would allow her to connect musically and socially. As just about every choral singer will attest, music soothes and excites. “The start of the week can sometimes bring many surprises, but on Monday [rehearsal] evenings with this group of women,” Ms. Bustion says, “we make a space for attention, for connection, for beauty. In the midst of the music, everything else can fall away.”
Bach, Before and Beyond: “The Voice of Women” will be performed at the Old Whalers’ Church, 44 Union Street in Sag Harbor, on Sunday, March 5 at 3 p.m. For more information, visit BachBeforeAndBeyond.com.