Part 1 Warbling 1976-1981
Philomela A Women's Chamber Consort was founded in 1976 as a women's vocal ensemble (12-16 members) in Washington, D.C. to sing mostly English madrigals. Philomela's name comes from the madrigal of the same name by Thomas Morley in the English Renaissance period. According to Greek mythology, Philomela was the daughter of an Athenian King who, for certain transgressions, was transformed into a nightingale who warbled her way through eternity.
We quickly found our voice in an expanded repertoire- from classical to modern, serious to whimsical, motets to Broadway, a cappella to those accompanied, with piano, harpsichord, harp, recorder, or flute. Known for unique programming Philomela's concerts centered on specific historic periods, special themes, and extraordinary women. Philomela introduced narratives with prose and poetry, mostly by women and added new dimensions to presentations with small ensembles, featured solos, and choreography.
In the 1980's, in keeping with our early music ties, Philomela could be found next to Henry VIII or among jousters and noblemen at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Special presentations Elizabeth I and The Wives of Henry VIII included music and poetry of the times to depict scenes from the lives of those notable women. Philomela also performed at the Folger Shakespeare Theater both onstage and from the historic library in celebration of Shakespeare's birthday. In addition, Philomela was filmed at Agecroft Hall, a Tudor mansion on the banks of the James River in Virginia.
From the medieval period, Philomela presented A Musical Book of Hours, music reflecting a woman's private, daily spiritual life throughout the year. In full voice and glorious costume we also serenaded Norman Miller, expert interpreter of the Chatres Cathedral, and his audience, as they uncovered the glories of medieval France.
The Library of Congress saw much of Philomela. We conducted extensive research here and elsewhere, all of which underscored our sincere desire to discover the full range of repertoire for treble voices in its hallowed halls. Thus, we came to embrace English folksongs, French folk Christmas music, the poignant music for women by Brahms, and much more.
Our own history, and our women inspired us in our first fifteen years. We sang at Mount Vernon; Woodlawn, Sully, and Sotterly Plantations; Gadsby's Tavern Museum; the Lyceum; Oxon Hill Manor; and The Anderson House. We sang in honor of Clara Barton and Margaret Brent. Our concert The Words of Women; The Music of Men at The National Portrait Gallery was recorded by Smithsonian Radio. Prose and poetry by notable American women enhanced our musical presentation, and we found ourselves singing at The Kennedy Center and at historic St. John's Church on Lafayette Square. Directors throughout these early years were Patricia Boos, Susan Ames Zierman, Shirley Eckard and Cathy Picard.
Part 2 Sisters on a Journey 1982-2005
Sweet Sixteen, a concert celebrating our anniversary, heralded our next chapter with director Kathy Kessler Price. Kathy has challenged us to further explore women in musical literature – thematically, vocally, and stylistically. Larger works in her tenure have included Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and Missa Brevis, Randall Thompson’s motet The Place of the Blest, and treble voicing of movements of Fauré’s Requiem. Works by local composers Bertha Donahue, Daniel Gawthrop, and Jean Lutterman (with her sister, poet KayWehner) have been featured. Living composers' works have more frequently appeared, including songs by Libby Larson and Eric Whitacre’s Five Hebrew Love Songs with principal second violinist Marissa Regni of The National Symphony Orchestra. Under Kathy’s direction, we have welcomed more soloists within the group who have enriched our sound with various vocal solos and arias, and small ensembles.
Among our cherished themes are birds (as in our namesake) and nature. Of note are the full range of songs for treble voices about nightingales, blackbirds, finches, coucous, swans, and thrushes. Our love of creatures took flight with A Musical Bestiary. Hotaru koi, a Japanese song about fireflies, inspired a set capturing delicate images of Japan, from Sakura (Cherry Blossons) to Tutti fior from Verdi’s Madama Butterfly. Songs of nature inspired Our Secret Garden and For the Beauty of the Earth concerts. Native American songs, The Earth is our Mother, Ancient Mother, and Sure as the Wind, have opened new musical horizons and awareness of the importance of caring for the earth. Sisters on a Journey, another Native American song, inspired a concert by that name to explore who we are, where we have been, and where we are going.
It has given us great joy to reach deeper into the community and bring our music to retirement and nursing homes, and to support important services. Philomela’s music has served The Women’s Shelter, Our Daily Bread, The Barker Foundation (adoption agency), and the David J. Kane Library (at the Eugene Burroughs Middle School), among others. On a more intimate level, Philomela has also presented Musical Soirées in our homes for friends, neighbors, and family. We have cherished these evenings of beautiful music about all that we hold dear, for those we hold dear, with audience participation, libations, and good cheer.
An historic occasion at The White House– the very night when Al Gore conceded his presidential hopes – found Philomela singing with a fervent hope that its messages of love and peace would move the next administration, and continue to inspire those in public service. Philomela’s support of human rights is often heard in our rendition of Bread and Roses, a song whose mantra was coined in support of child labor laws. Other repertoire with such emphases include Ain’t Gonna Study War No More, Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, and How Can I Keep from Singing.
This tight-knit group of women has often found the power of song transforming in our own lives. At no time was this more apparent than after our 25th anniversary, when we rehearsed and presented Quilters by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek. This musical drama offered many new performance opportunities for us with staging and costumes. The story itself is a patchwork of the trials, courage, faith and sisterhood of woman pioneers. As we worked with Quilters over two years, we saw its stories play out in our own lives. Faith and fortitude were tested again and again as we faced serious illness, death, births, job losses and economic uncertainties. Our lives and our art became interwoven. Taking a quote to heart directly from the script: "It’s not the cloth you’re given, it’s what you do with it that counts.” We brought Quilters to The National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Historical Society of Southhampton, NY, and to countless concerts throughout the D.C. area.
Part III Women’s Voices Reflecting Women’s Voices 2006 – Present
The year 2006 marked our 30th anniversary. Embarking on a new era, Philomela continued to explore the range of music for, about, and by women. We traveled to Granby, CT in 2008 to celebrate the life and works of Polly Hall, ninety year old justice of the peace, quilter, teacher, and mother of member Judy Hall Kane.
We welcomed two new works written for Philomela by British composer, Ian Coleman (‘Tis You Who Are the Music, Nightingale) and commissioned a third by Coleman on a poem by member Myra Bridgforth, Change. This 2009 concert – One Voice Can Change the World – honored Edith Childs of Greenwood, South Carolina, a councilwoman and voting rights activist. Edith inspired the Obama campaign with her chant of “Fired up, ready to go!” Her presence at our concert was equally inspiring as she led the audience in a similar chant.
Various accompanists in addition to numerous solo instrumentalists have graced our stage over the years. They include Christine Hagan, Gillian Cookson, and Mary Ann Christian.
We remain at about twelve members (with 3 members from the first year of Philomelan life still participating), committed to musical excellence within an accessible framework, telling a story through music and narration with a variety of styles, a cappella and accompanied, with full ensemble and featured soloists, and embracing audience participation, new works and new horizons.