Peninsula Women’s Chorus (PWC), one of the SF Bay Area’s prominent and pioneering vocal ensembles, returns to live concerts for the first time in two years, with holiday concerts on Dec. 11 in St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto and on Dec. 17 in Mission Santa Clara.
The concerts are titled “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal: a Ceremony to Celebrate Being Together.” The organization’s new artistic director, Anne Hege, says of her debut leading the chorus: “It is an honor, especially now, when we are all assessing how we spend our time, what risks we are willing to take, and what strengthens our communities amidst the impact of the Covid pandemic.”
Working as a choral conductor since 1999, Hege has founded and directed Folk3000 (1999-2001), Albany Community Chorus (2000-2004), Cuatro Vientos (2004-2006), and Celestial Mechanics (2007-2010). She was the conductor of the Holy Names University Chorus (2013-2016) and artistic director of Voci Women’s Vocal Ensemble (2013-2017). She is also a composer specializing in multimedia and electroacoustic music. Hege is on the voice faculty of Mills College and directs Level IV of the San Francisco Girls Chorus.
In putting together the program, Hege says she started with the questions, “If I were an audience member, what would I come back into the concert hall to hear, and if I were a singer, what would I come back to the rehearsal room to sing?” The answer, Hege says, was simple: “We come back for beautifully composed pieces, so I programmed my favorites. Life is too short to program pieces I don’t love, and every piece in this concert is a treasure to me.”
Starting with Alice Parker’s arrangement of “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal,” the concerts continue with one of Brahms’s earliest works, “Ave Maria,” which Hege says “has long been a favorite of mine because it fits women’s voices so beautifully, allowing for dynamic range and full sound that anticipates what Brahms will do with his marvelous Requiem.”
“Ma Navu,” arranged by Kitka’s Shira Cion, is a prayer for peace, including a trio of soloists — Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Sara Asher, and Martha Morgan — followed by Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, which Hege first sang at age 9, as a chorister with the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. She first conducted sections of it in 2019 in Davies Hall, leading the San Francisco Girls Chorus School.
Hege’s memory of the Britten as a child is still inspiring her: “I remember the processional, singing “Hodie [Christus natus est]” while walking down a long church aisle and noticing with delight the magical changes in sound when bodies move in space. This interest in using movement as a choral director to engage my audience has guided my projects over the last two decades. With the support of choreographer MaryStarr Hope, PWC will use simple movements to reinforce and augment Britten’s vision.
“Coming back to the Ceremony of Carols this past summer, I was immediately reminded of how cinematic Britten’s vision is and how he creates movement and space through dynamics and motivic line that are ripe for accentuation through movement. I love everything about this piece: how it sounds, the arch of the pieces together, the ceremony of these works together, and how Britten’s vision is so beautifully captured in his score.”
The second half of the concerts includes “a further exploration of what it means to gather through music and movement,” with Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” Guillaume de Machaut’s “Rose, Liz, Printemps, Verdure,” Karin Rehnqvist’s “I Himmelen,” and “Dirait-On,” by Morten Lauridsen. Ending the shows are seasonal favorites “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” arranged by Eric Tuan, and “Silent Night.”
Founded in 1966, PWC has become recognized as one of the leading treble choruses in the U.S. and beyond, dedicated to commissioning new works, discovering rarely performed works, and keeping classical choral masterpieces alive. The Chorus has commissioned 35 new compositions and released seven CD recordings in the last decade.
Chorus member Deanne Tucker, active in the technology of the pandemic’s streaming activity, says she is “thrilled to return to performing live concerts after our year of virtual concerts. The virtual concerts were fulfilling in their own way, especially for me as I was able to develop video production skills, but nothing can replace the joy of performing live in front of an audience. Our first in-person concert with our new director is filled with singer and audience favorites and the addition of choreography by MaryStarr Hope will be a delight for all of us. Dr. Hege has a terrific vision for us and I am so excited to see where she will take our venerable Chorus in the years to come.”
Another singer in the Chorus, Susan Rooke, says: “It’s not about my own voice: it’s all about the harmonies, and hearing the voices around me, so returning to in-person rehearsals was nothing short of thrilling. Working under Anne’s direction in the room has been a further thrill. Last fall, as one of our two top picks for artistic director, she’d delivered exhilarating virtual rehearsals, but now there’s the added satisfaction of her feedback, and of the group’s response, musically and otherwise. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in doing a lot of smiling under my singer mask: It’s downright joyful.”