Thirty years ago, as the 1970s were coming to a close, a young pianist named Cynthia Powell had an impulse not so common among accompanists. “I started to look into women composers, women’s music — I wasn’t yet sure why,” Powell told WFC last week.

That impulse, then sort of perpendicular to most of Powell’s gigs accompanying church choirs and opera companies, feels prescient now to Powell, the founding music director of the Melodia Women’s Choir in Manhattan, a 32-voice ensemble that has performed repertory from Bach to Meredith Monk, from Merkin Concert Hall and Symphony Space to Citicorp Center and St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea.

Now, Powell and the five-year-old chorus, brainchild of arts management consultant Jennifer Clarke, are rehearsing for a milestone concert: the November 14 premiere of a new work commissioned specially for Melodia, based on text by U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan. Overall, Powell told WVFC, she feels blessed every time she shows up for rehearsal. (Below, watch Melodia sing Allison Sniffon’s “Hear Me With Your Eyes,” Melodia’s first commissioned work,  at Merkin Concert Hall in November 2006.)

Cynthia Powell’s career feels inevitable to her now, but the build was slow. Joining the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, she spent more than 10 years working with her colleague and fellow alum Meredith Monk, traveling with Monk’s multidisciplinary ensembles, helping Monk take her titanic opera “Atlas”  on tour around the world. That collaboration has never ended; when she spoke to WVFC last week, she had just performed with Monk at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, leading Monk’s vocal ensemble and 40 other singers in “Songs of Ascension” (a collaboration with the video artist Lee-Ann Hamilton),  which The New York Times tagged as “bending melodies on the way to an otherworldly quest.”

Such a quest is not for amateurs, and Monk did not deploy them. In addition to Monk’s own ensembles, Powell led a carefully chosen group of 40 singers drawn from her own Stonewall Chorale, which welcomed Powell as music director in 2002. By then, Powell had left Sarah Lawrence and become both Organist/Choirmaster of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, N.J., and Music Director of West End Collegiate on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The latter is the closest Powell has to a “day job,” complete with a small set of professional singers used to demanding repertoire. At Stonewall, Powell found something different: the voice of a sometimes-beleaguered community.

Founded in 1977, Stonewall had weathered “many of the ups and downs of the gay rights movement,” Powell said. “During the 1980s, and the AIDS crisis, they were losing people all the time — so many funerals. But we also sang at the 1987  March on Washington,” and many similar events since. Powell said she loves the chorale for its “real community feeling,” adding quickly that this has not compromised quality: “I expect excellence from all my ensembles.”

As Powell’s career moved from the keyboards to the podium, she never forgot about the folder of women’s names, ideas and sheet music by women. And as she kept conducting vocal ensembles, she kept noticing why: There was something about the vocal register in which the women sang, something she really loved.

Asked to describe the quality that compels her, Powell pauses. “There’s a … a purity of sound that women’s voices can have, a clarity sort of dwelling in that treble world. A bit more ethereal, perhaps.”

Her love for that sound made her answer easy when Jennifer Clarke, after a 2003 performance of Mozart’s Requiem, came up to Powell and asked, “What would you think about starting a women’s chorus?”

“Well,” Powell said, “I don’t know much about women’s choral music, but I do have a box of scores….”

Melodia Women’s Choir premiered the following year, with 18 carefully recruited singers, Clarke as president of the board of directors, and an advisory board that included Monk and Kathleen Chalfant (lauded at WVFC last spring for her star turn in Duplicity). It was soon a hit with audiences: After their Merkin Hall concert “Visions of Eternity, one audience member called it “sublime,” writing to Clarke: “I felt like I traveled from the sky with the birds to the depths of the human hearts and its mysteries in this triad of work.”

While gaining note for their excellence singing Bach and Messaien, Melodia under Powell and Clarke has tried to include as many women composers as possible, with one barrier: a shortage of women composers. “It’s kind of stunning,” said Melodia board member Cynthia Cooper, who has worked with Powell and Clarke on commissioning new works.

Clarke pointed out that “in 2006-’07, only 2 percent of repertoire performed by 300 orchestras was by women composers.  The League of American Orchestra members reported that out of 160 works presented that year that were composed during the past 25 years, only 19 were by women composers,” she lamented. “Of 562 Guggenheim Fellowships awarded in music since 1925, only 59 were awarded to women, 30 of those since 1994. Only three Pulitzer Prizes have ever been awarded to women composers — none in the last decade. And Contemporary Music Festivals, featuring music for the 20th and 21st centuries, has included little or no music by women composers.”

Lacking a deep well of work by women, Melodia began to commission them, starting with the Snifflin work above. But last year they took the search for new works national, with the first-ever Women Composers Commissioning Competition. “We had 65 submissions from all over the United States,” Powell said. “We even got a few major women composers sending in their most recent work — and tons of students, all ages.” One submission even came from an 8-year-old girl. “It was quite good, actually, and very sweet.” A three -judge panel, including Clarke and two other composers, listened to the recordings that had been sent along with the scores, and “we came to a consensus pretty quickly…. The winner was a young woman from Albany who had had some work with New York City Opera, but this was a big boost for her.”

That “young woman” was Chris Lastovicka, 36. A graduate of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, her music was described by Powell on program notes for her chamber music CD, Hypnotically Repetitious, as “dealing primarily with psychological and metaphysical subjects.” When Powell called her to tell her the news, Kay Ryan had just been appointed poet laureate, and Melodia contacted her to ask if she’d contribute some verses they could set to music.

“That came back affirmative,” Powell grinned.

Ryan’s poems for the piece are short, she added, and Lastovicka’s settings “have a kind of minimal quality to them.” The resulting piece, Notes on a Breeze, combines Melodia’s 32 voices with string quintet (a  string quartet + piano), which will be entrusted to Stephanie Griffin and the Transfiguration String Quartet at the  November 14 concert at St. Peter’s Church in the Citigroup Center.

Thinking about the concert at St. Peter’s — a recently renovated 1970s modernist building that feels bigger inside than it appears from the street — Powell was also excited about the program that will surround Lastovicka’s work. “We made Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater more of a choral and soloist work, and we have  a fantastic work for strings and treble voices by Canadian composer Imant Raminsch, using  Native American texts, with one of our Melodians, Lyndsey Haughton, on the glockenspiel. And finally we have The Princess, by Gustav Holst. Boy does he know how to write for women’s voices!”

When the lights go down on November 14, the ensembles will disperse and Powell will move on, going back to  juggling among her four choral commitments while making time to take care of her mother, who lives alone in the family house in Westchester County. Not a bad life, she said, her voice suddenly as air-filled as the ones she loves to conduct.

“My life couldnt be more blessed — 
there’s nothing better,” Powell said. “

Every concert is like going to heaven.”

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  • Carol Arrucci November 29, 2019 at 6:10 pm

    Below, watch Melodia sing Allison Sniffon’s “Hear Me With Your Eyes,” – I don’t see the link. Would love to hear it. I am the conductor of Westchester Women’s CHoir. Thanks so much.