MUSE choir to premiere Angelou-inspired work

MUSE choir to premiere Angelou-inspired work
Posted at 4:54 PM, Jun 01, 2016

“MUSE, Cincinnati's Women's Choir, is an inclusive feminist choral community that advocates for peace and social justice,” said Rhonda Juliano, the group’s artistic director. “We celebrate women — women composers, women writers and women activists.”

The choir’s spring concert, Phenomenally Woven, scheduled June 4-5 at Walnut Hills High School in Evanston, demonstrates that commitment.

The highlight of the concert will be the world premiere of “Phenomenally,” a newly commissioned choral work inspired by Maya Angelou’s powerful 1978 poem “Phenomenal Woman.” After Dr. Angelou’s death in 2014, Juliano said, “We wanted to set one of her texts.”

Juliano knew that composer Rosephanye Powell, a respected professor of voice at Auburn University in Alabama, loved Angelou’s poetry, “so she was the obvious choice for the composer.”

“She has a special knack for a gospel and jazz feel, a real flair for making a text work," Juliano said. “We were looking for a ‘sassy’ interpretation musically for this poem, and she simply fit the bill.”

Angelou’s 60-line poem is a joyous declaration of self confidence, a recounting of the qualities and features that made her beautiful.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
I say,
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Juliano said the poem was an obvious choice for a song that MUSE would perform. “We felt this poem would present a rare gem of a piece to celebrate women through choral expression.”

This is not the first work that MUSE has commissioned Powell to compose. In 2009 MUSE debuted “Hope Come True,” and in 2011 the choir premiered Powell's arrangement of the American spiritual “Keep Yo’ Lamps.” MUSE has performed several of her compositions, including “Still I Rise,” a setting of another poem by Angelou.

MUSE has a long tradition of commissioning new works for choirs. “We like to highlight important issues of our day, women poets and women composers," Juliano said. "About 90 percent of the music MUSE performs is either commissioned for us or arranged for us or another leading women's choir.”

In addition to Powell’s piece, MUSE will perform “Somos Tejedoras,” an improvisational Spanish song taught by Rhiannon, a singer, performance artist, composer and master teacher with a vision of music as a vehicle for innovation, healing, transformation and social change. “Tejedoras” means “women weaving” or “women woven together.”

MUSE strives to be diverse in age, ethnicity and vocal range, using singers from ages 21-76. Its members are African-American, Appalachian and white. Sign language interpretation is offered at all concerts, and programs are available in English, Spanish and Braille.

“This concert will celebrate phenomenal women in our families, our communities and our world," Juliano said. "Phenomenally Woven illustrates poetically the theme we were striving toward.”

Phenomenally Woven

Where: Walnut Hills High School, 3250 Victory Parkway, Evanston
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, June 4; 3 p.m. Sunday, June 5
Tickets: $13.50-$16.50