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Giving Voice to Women: New Hampshire Master Chorale Weaves a Rich Choral Tapestry from Female Perspe

The opening program of the New Hampshire Master Chorale’s 14th season is all about women. There are choral settings of poems written from a woman’s point of view; songs about mythical, fictional and historical women; and pieces by female composers.

The program is called “Eve, Absinthe, Alice” after its centerpiece – a new choral work commissioned by the Master Chorale that will receive its world premiere on November 19 at 8 p.m. at the Eagle Square Atrium in Concord and November 20 at 4 p.m. at the Plymouth Congregational Church.

“Eve, Absinthe, Alice” by Boston-based composer Oliver Caplan sets three poems by Ruth Kessler – part of a suite of 17 poems that give voice to women known to us from myth, visual arts and fiction who have customarily been depicted from a male point of view.

Eve, from the Bible, tastes a forbidden fruit, awakening a world of knowledge and earning her eternal blame for all humankind’s woes. “Would I do it again?” she asks. “Would I?”

The Absinthe Drinker is inspired by a painting by Edgar Degas of a Parisian woman who escapes from despair over lost opportunities by imbibing the infamous green hallucinogenic.

Alice, from the beloved fantasy story by Lewis Carroll, falls through a rabbit hole into the nonsensical realm of Wonderland. On her quizzical journey she encounters people turned into beasts, “inane, self-appointed judges” and hookah-smoking hypocrites who would rob life of wonder.

These radically disparate females, in Caplan’s and Kessler’s imaginings, tell us something beneath appearances about beauty, curiosity, loss, and the transforming power of Art.

Caplan explores both the differences and unities among these outwardly dissimilar women. Eve and Alice, he says, represent an “ultimate celebration of curiosity,” a desire “to reach further,” which is both “a very human trait” and a fundamental wellspring of art. The absinthe drinker, like the others, also seeks an alternate existence, Caplan says, but in her case “it’s an escape from a dreary reality.”

Ruth Kessler says her poems are “meant to give voice to women” but she doesn’t consider herself a feminist poet.

“I consider myself as a female poet writing from the female point of view, definitely,” she says. “But I’m more concerned with the human part, certainly more than the political part. So there is no agenda beyond giving women their due – on a human level.”

Master Chorale Music Director Dan Perkins says the Caplan commission – proposed last spring by the composer -- was the starting point for the unusual program. “When I program concerts, I try to have some type of connective tissue,” he says.

“I was excited about Ruth Kessler’s poetry and the concept of comparing these three, wildly disparate women,” Perkins says. Inspired by Caplan’s treatment, Perkins says, he then set about “finding other music celebrating the poetry of women or music by women.”

Perkins and Caplan have a 15-year friendship, and Perkins has previously performed Caplan’s chamber music.

The other works on the program also weave together diverse poetry and recently composed music into a tapestry of female sensibility with universal messages.

For instance, there’s a lyrical setting of Ruth’s immortal testament of loyalty and commitment from the Bible: “Entreat me not to leave you…Where you go, I will go,” composed in 2012 by Dan Forrest.

Six Emily Dickenson poems are newly realized in a 2007 suite of songs for chorus and soloists by Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker. Her title, “A Heart in Hiding,” alludes to the passionate but reclusive Belle of Amherst.

The great American lyric poet Sara Teasdale is represented by two poems full of longing for purity and peace – “There Will Be Rest,” set in 1999 by Frank Ticheli and “To See the Sky,” a 2014 piece by Jocelyn Hagen.

And Alice appears again in a new piece called “Wonders Unfold” by Andrew Morrissey, a Master Chorale baritone who’s working on a musical that imagines Alice and Lewis Carroll collaborating on the construction – or reconstruction – of Wonderland.

“Alice in this version grows up in Wonderland and decides that she wants to make changes,” Morrissey says. “She’s twisted all the characters to make them wrong in Lewis’s eyes, so when he shows up he has no choice but to try to fix things. She tries to convince him that she’ll be a partner in making it the way it was and making it better.”

The New Hampshire Master Chorale, led by Dr. Dan Perkins, is a non-profit choir established in the spring of 2003. This premier chamber ensemble is dedicated to excellence in the art of choral music performance. Members of the group are trained singers, auditioned from throughout New England, who have performed as soloists and in choral ensembles throughout the world. You can get a taste of the NHMC on our SoundCloud page or find us on Facebook and Twitter.

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