Preparing for innovative concert, St. Louis Women’s Chorale finds harmony onstage and off
Female composers of orchestral and choral music have long struggled for opportunities in a field historically dominated by men. That has changed in recent years, but the St. Louis Women’s Chorale has always sung a different tune.
In a typical season, about half to three-quarters of the all-female ensemble’s repertoire comes from women composers.
“We’re trying to help to raise the voice for all the females that have huge talent and give them possibilities. Possibilities to appear, possibilities to express themselves and just come here and share their voice with us,” said Benedetta Orsi, the ensemble’s principal alto and a member of its board of directors.
St. Louis Women’s Chorale is tuning up for a particularly ambitious performance Friday at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts in Creve Coeur: the St. Louis premiere of Jocelyn Hagen’s “Brushstrokes: The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.”
The concert is a collaboration with the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Music Director Darwin Aquino. The concert’s first half will feature the Philharmonic performing three pieces without the choir.
The Chorale includes about 40 singers, composing a mix of professional vocalists and committed amateurs.
“Sometimes the people who are the least well-trained seem to work the hardest, and they bring their whole selves to the performance,” said Leanne Latuda, artistic and executive director, “and that's what I think makes them sing so well: They sing with their hearts.”
Latuda joined the group as a singer in 1996, the year after founding Artistic Director Dr. Susan McMane, Susan White, Mary Ann Shaw and Dick Shaw started the ensemble. She took the reins as its guest director in 2012 before securing the job permanently.
“Brushstrokes: The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” is a multimedia piece, including animations of images from the great artist’s notebook, where he diagrammed ideas for mechanical inventions, sketched out ideas for works of art and drew images of the human body.
The production will utilize Muséik, digital sync software that allows an operator to cue the animations in real-time, in response to the music. It’s a more flexible system than the typical technique of musicians playing along to a click track, or metronome, heard through an earpiece.
Another unusual element for the St. Louis Women’s Chorale is that the piece calls for male and female voices; this may be the first time the ensemble has performed with male guests among the ranks.
The change provides a timely opportunity for the Shaws. For the first time, the couple will sing together in a performance by the organization they helped found. They recently stepped away from its board of directors after decades helping lead the Chorale.
“Sometimes nonprofits don’t make it, or the mission passes on to something else. But all the people who have come to work here have had the same vision, and they’ve kept it going. It’s just a wonderful thing,” said Mary Ann Shaw.
During the earlier days of the Chorale, it was more difficult to find choral music written expressly for female singers, she said. Recent years have seen an increase in such work.
During a recent rehearsal in a chapel at Maryville University, where the Chorale is the ensemble-in-residence, Latuda led the singers through some tricky parts of the score, frequently welcomed questions and coached the singers more broadly about their approach. One of her frequent instructions was that the performers should “tell a story” with their singing.
The group was focused on its work, but the mood was light. Before rehearsal and during a break, laughter and the sound of friendly conversation amounted to a dull roar. The members of the St. Louis Women’s Chorale appeared to take as much pleasure in each other’s company as they did in performing the piece.
Sustaining that atmosphere is part of the point.
“It’s not just that we come together and do music every Tuesday night. Of course, we do that,” Latuda said, “but there are friendships and really a support system. We really get to know each other. It goes so far beyond music. It’s a wonderful community of women.”