“One more time,” says Artistic Director Leora Zimmer, motioning to accompanist Soohee Moon. Moon strikes one of the piano’s ivory keys, and the note echoes off the stone walls and high ceiling of First Church Boston.
“And this time, don’t force it through your chest. You want to get on top of those notes,” Zimmer instructs the singers. “Again.”
It’s 6:30 on a Tuesday evening, and the alto section of the Voices Rising chorus is scattered across the pews of the Back Bay church, hard at work rehearsing for their quickly approaching June 1 concert, titled “The B Sides.” The concert, which will take place at First Church Cambridge, will be a celebration of the chorus’s history, a 15-year span featuring performances throughout Cambridge and Greater Boston at local dyke marches, women’s marches, and once, a Demi Lovato concert.
“We were on the Jumbotron,” Jennifer Wry, one of the founding members of the chorus, remembers proudly.
In February 2004, Wry and a group of chorus mates discussed the management problems they saw in the chorus they sang in at the time. Then and there, they decided to strike out on their own and form a new group (“We’re kind of scrappy,” Wry notes).
But this one had a twist: It was a women’s chorus, founded upon feminist principles, designed to honor the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and women’s communities.
While Voices Rising was not the first chorus to cater specifically to the LGBTQ community (Coro Allegro—a gay and lesbian choir—and the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus both existed at the time), it was the only one to be women-only.
“At the time, there was a certain amount of courage that it required just to stand up and say, ‘I am in this chorus,’” Wry remembers.
Only three weeks after that initial meeting, Voices Rising performed its first gig: singing at an interfaith service in support of marriage equality, which was not yet legal in the state or federally. “Singing is the way that I express my political activism,” Wry explains.
Much has changed for the LGBTQ community and for Voices Rising in the past 15 years. As acceptance of queer identities and support for LGBTQ rights has grown, Voices Rising has expanded and gained traction. There are now about 70 chorus members, and each member was selected through an audition process. Voices Rising is also an official 501(c)3 organization, complete with a leadership board. The chorus performs about two 10-15 song concerts a year, and they make additional, smaller appearances at LGBTQ spaces and events.
A simple look back at the chorus’s past concert themes—”Welcome Out,” “In Her Own Words,” “Take Up the Song,” “The Spirit Moves Her”—shows that Voices Rising’s repertoire is directly reflective of their mission statement. And every event the chorus attends, from a hospice service to a benefit for homeless women, aligns with Voices Rising’s mission of social justice.
One of the choir’s most-anticipated appearances of the year is at the Boston Dyke March, an annual event that serves as “a non-commercial, intersectional, and fundamentally grassroots alternative to Boston’s Pride celebration,” according to its website. That’s where chorus member Mia Concordia found the group two-and-a-half years ago. New to Boston, she was eager to find a group of people with whom she shared interests and experiences.
“Boston has a lot of issues with diversity,” she says. “So having something here that’s even a small enclave of diversity definitely made it feel a bit warmer.”
The singers of Voices Rising range from 20 to 65 years old. They come from different hometowns, educational backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses. Yet, as they file into First Church for rehearsal—dressed in everything from sweatpants to corporate-esque pencil skirts—they all greet each other, and not with surface-level small talk. They check in on how their weeks went, talk about their jobs, mention each others’ partners and kids by name, and make plans to attend queer dancing nights together. Concordia even recently returned from a New Orleans vacation with several other members of the chorus.
“There’s something about coming here and being in this group together that sustains people and holds people,” says Julie Regner, who joined Voices Rising 11 years ago.
Over those years, Regner has relied on her friends in the chorus for support, especially when her father passed away a few years ago.
“I didn’t talk about it a lot,” she remembers. “But I so looked forward to coming into rehearsal every Tuesday to just be with people.”
The Voices Rising singers have lost family members, battled illnesses, and welcomed babies during their tenure with the chorus. Milestones like these, happy or sad, never go unnoticed.
“If you’re talking about something in your life that’s changing, you might find the next week at rehearsal, a book pops up, or toys, or something that you had no idea that you probably need in your life,” says Maggie McIntosh, the president of Voices Rising’s leadership team. “People will really pay attention to what you’re talking about and react to it and remember it.”
So, the power of Voices Rising is twofold: As a chorus, it allows its members to safely retreat into a community, to forget their individual lives for three hours and become a part of one unified voice. But as a community, it celebrates the uniqueness of each singer, valuing diversity and providing a space to be oneself.
“We have gay people, straight people, nonbinary people, lesbians, trans, and asexual people,” Regner says. “I mean, you name it, we’ve probably got it.”
As the group strives to sing as one collective voice, to follow Zimmer’s instructions and get “on top” of their notes, they try to eliminate any tones that might make their voices stand out. This is how a chorus operates. But at the same time, the song they’re learning today, “Now I Become Myself,” feels like the perfect fit for this room, where white-haired women whisper inside jokes with 20-somethings, hedge fund managers pass lozenges to social workers, and new mothers cradle their babies in one arm and hold their sheet music with the other.
“Now there is time and time is young,” they sing together. “In this single hour I live all of myself.”
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