Rachel DeVore Fogarty, Gwyneth Walker, Sarah Hopkins and Elizabeth Alexander are acclaimed composers whose music you may have never heard. MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir, provides an opportunity to do so Saturday with two concerts titled Here and Aware, featuring the music of female composers at Saint Francis Seraph Church in Over-the-Rhine.
In a 2012 article published online in NewMusicBox, composer Amy Beth Kirsten wrote that there has been “a relatively healthy lack of self-awareness with regard to issues of gender” in composition. Not according to MUSE Artistic Director Rhonda Juliano, who says that many women composers’ works reflect challenges in their lives and beyond.
“Each song we chose raised a social issue,” Juliano says. “Whether it was political or social, the text and the music brought it to the surface.”
Alicia Keys inspired the concert’s title. Last September, she posted her video for “We Are Here” on her Facebook page and it went viral, with more than 4 million views on YouTube.
“She recorded it to heighten awareness of social issues and to raise funds for organizations like Girl Rising and CARE,” Juliano says. “It’s all about starting with one person and building a network of support.”
The concert’s opener puts it right out there with Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species,” a defiant chant about a woman’s place in the world, followed by “Let Us Now Hold Hands,” a piece MUSE commissioned in 1995 from Dr. Jennifer Stasack with a text by Cincinnati poet Pat Mora.
“It’s such a strong message about uniting with women across the world,” Juliano says.
Another powerful piece is Elizabeth Alexander’s “Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery,” a three-part meditation on human complicity in “the price of keeping the prices low.”
Juliano has previously led the Seattle Women’s Chorus in Sarah Hopkins’ “Past Life Melodies,” and she was anxious for MUSE to learn the piece. “I’ve always felt this to be extremely moving,” she says. “First, there’s a haunting melody, followed by another melody based on Australian Aboriginal influence and, finally, harmonic overtone singing over the choir’s sustained pitch.”
“A MUSE member said that what makes it so special is that there are no words,” she continues. “That really hit me — the music can take you anywhere.”
DeVore Fogarty will take the audience to the skies with “Flying,” set to a text by Amelia Earhart. Juliano describes the music as a tone painting. “The accompaniment by a violin, cello and oboe suggest a propeller, and the choral lines shimmer like stars,” she says.
Other songs include “Mountain Song/Kentucky Woman” by activist Holly Near, “I Need to Wake Up” by Melissa Etheridge, “Mother’s Prayer” by Connie Kaldor and “Now I Become Myself” by Gwyneth Walker. The legendary Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” is the concert finale.
Saint Francis Seraph Church ties in with MUSE’s commitment to musical excellence and social change. “Saint Francis was part of an underground tour I took last year,” Juliano says. “Later, I heard they were a welcoming church, they love hosting community groups and they love MUSE.”
MUSE also has a connection through its Assistant Director Lois Shegog, who works with Sarah Center, a ministry based at Saint Francis Seraph offering women a safe place to develop life skills and earn income through hand-crafted quilts, jewelry and other items which will be sold at the concert.
Now in its 32nd season, MUSE is recognized as one of the world’s top women’s ensembles. Interkultur, organizer of the World Choir Games, ranks MUSE as third in the Female Choir Champions category, and the 2012 World Choir Games awarded MUSE a gold medal.
Its 60 members range in age from early-20s to mid-70s, with religious, cultural and racial diversity no other ensemble can claim. And Juliano is deeply committed to social change through music, even as she acknowledges that music alone cannot bring about change.
“MUSE is a small choir based in Cincinnati, but we can have an impact,” she says. “We share our music, our passions and stories through song and we know we influence our families, our friends and our audiences, who share with others in their communities.”
MUSE presents HERE AND AWARE at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday at Saint Francis Seraph Church in Over-the-Rhine. Tickets: musechoir.org.