Aria ‘Stronger Together’

By Dana Abbott

ARIA, the women’s chorus now in its seventh season, was conducted by Michelle Boulware with 33 listed members on Sunday at Compass Church in Salinas. As Aria’s regular conductor Sean Boulware was apparently indisposed, Michelle, also a professional choral director, ably lead the unusual program with Boulware son Isaiah assisting capably on percussion in several numbers. Michelle Galindo provided piano support for some of the material.

The focused theme of the concert reflected its title, “Stronger Together.” Most of the material chosen centered on women standing united. Seven of the 12 pieces were composed or arranged by women musicians. 

The concert opened with a winning arrangement of an African work song, Bring me Little Water, Silvy, with choreographed clapping support from the choir. This song is almost a single exception to the above theme with a seductive hint.  Gwyneth Walker provided the next number which clearly related to its feminine declaration, I Will Be Earth, starting with florid choral writing and growing more focused as it progressed. Zachary Moore provided Always Keep this Close, a longish but intense piece, which raised the unifying power of artistic endeavor, especially singing. Diane Goldman was an effective alto soloist in the next piece, It takes a Village by Joan Szymko. 

Stephen Hatfield’s Ripple Effect began with harmonic diffuseness, increasing in pointed message as it progressed. Still I Rise, in black Gospel style by Rosephanye Powell, and well supported by Galindo, closed the first half of the concert with a crowd-pleasing joy. In it Michelle Boulware gave a winning solo.

The second half opened with If You Want To Go by Philip E. Silvey. Boulware said it was based on an African saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” The idea and the piece were effective and made use of a small ensemble within the chorus. Warrior by Kim Baryluk was a pointed sermonette advising women to accept the demands and opportunity of unified action. 

Sydney Guillaume’s Chapo PouFanm, in Haitian Creole, proclaims the positive power of female cohesiveness. The soloist was Jenna DeDominici, especially effective in the closing measures. I Am in Need of Music by David Brunner repeated the unifying potential of coming together in the discipline of preparation and performance of song. 

Prayer of the Children, by Kurt Bestor, arr. Andrea Klouse, seemed to ramble a bit; it did not quite capture the potential impact of the theme—children praying for peace. This song, written in response to mass shootings in schools, may have been victim to this particular SSAA choral arrangement for it seems more effective in other settings by the same arranger. Stronger Together by Sarah Jaysmith ended the program. The lyric, built on common put-downs of women, embodies their maturing determination to overcome. The piece did not have the ebullience of the Still I Rise; its ending was anticlimactic. Yet it provided another summation of the concert’s theme.

The energy of the singers and their commitment to the program was plain to hear. It seemed a long program without much letup in that the choral demands were consistently high throughout each piece. Much of the program was a cappella. The singing was consistently high in quality. Pianist Galindo was perhaps underutilized. One wonders if her capable contributions would be more effective with the piano lid partially open. 

The lack of printed words in the program reduces the appreciation of the composers’ choices and intent. A simple lyric sheet with two-sided printing would be appropriate and welcome.

Much material has been written for women’s chorus. The medium has limitations in variety of vocal sound; the spectrum is constricted in frequency range and vocal color compared to what is available in mixed SATB choral writing. This limitation tempts the arranger to complicate and embellish vocal line at the expense of clarity and sharp focus.   

The singular focus of the program cannot be denied. Each number was chosen in support of “Stronger Together.” This focus certainly enabled singers to take possession of the material and project it with conviction. Yet narrow programming can have an overbearing aspect. It would have been nice to hear these dedicated singers present a few moments of sheer beauty without belaboring the message on which this concert was intently constructed.