Walking around Wilmington from LOMA to the Creative Arts District you see will old institutions coming to life in a new way. CoroAllegro, one of Wilmington’s several choral ensembles, is an example of the transformational energy happening in our city. Choral ensembles? Like the concerts grandma used to attend in a church on Sunday afternoon to get her fill of Handel or Bach? CoroAllegro may have fit that description at one time, but these days they are taking aim at the Saturday night crowd—and they are a worthy challenger in Wilmington’s competitive weekend cultural scene. Becky Hamilton, a soprano and president of CoroAllegro says, “I always knew I liked singing in choral ensembles, but I never thought I’d enjoy being an audience member until I heard this group. I was just. . .wow.”
CoroAllegro began in 1986. Thirty dedicated singers, ranging from serious amateurs to professional, undergo the audition process each year. None of the singers are paid for their participation; they are here to collaborate and challenge each other. For 27 of those years, Jack Warren Burnham directed CoroAllegro, earning the group its reputation as Delaware’s premier chamber choir.
When the time came to search for new leadership, CoroAllegro decided it was an opportunity for creative evolution. Enter Jeffrey Sean Dokken. His resume is lit. In addition to landing the job as CoroAllegro’s artistic director and conductor, Maestro Dokken is the Music Director and Conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia and Artistic Director and Conductor of The Rome Symphony Orchestra. He cops to being busy—as well as being young and handsome. (I’ll pause here while you Google him.) But sitting down with Dokken to discuss CoroAllegro’s evolutuion, I found it was his enthusiasm for this chorus and its music that made me want to say, “Hey Siri, put Choral Concert on my calendar.” Siri has never heard me say that before.
Along with smaller events, CoroAllegro performs two major concerts a year. During the ten weeks of preparation, Dokken journeys from Washington D.C., once a week, to lead rehearsals. In planning for this season’s concert, Dokken knew he wanted to include an evocative, concept piece about the elements by under-40 composer Abbie Betinis. He was frustrated that her work was not more widely known and performed. From there, he considered the work of other female composers whose pieces had likewise been ignored. Gender became the parameter for CoroAllegro’s fall show, Music, She wrote.
“I hate that I have to do this concert,” Dokken said, and by that he means he hates having to provide special circumstances to showcase the brilliant diversity of female composers. Indeed.
Music, She Wrote has a dynamic lineup of music that features early Christian composers Hildegard von Bingen and Vittoria Aleotti, pioneers such as Alice Parker and Lili Boulanger through to contemporary artists Jenni Brandon and Ysaye Barnwell. Far from a scolding her-story lesson, this program is full of whimsy, innovation and surprises (one of the songs is performed in a made-up language). Dokken is jazzed. He speaks in a fast flurry and waves his hands when he talks about the roster—which is something you expect a conductor to do.
Becky Hamilton, is excited, too. She has reached out to all the living composers to tell them about this concert, and each one has written back. In mutual wonder, we question whether male composers would have been so quick to respond. I asked Hamilton and Dokken if female composers are bringing something different to audiences. While Dokken said that women are bringing their unique experiences to their music, he doesn’t think that the average listener would be able to pinpoint gender. Hamilton laughed. She thinks the soprano parts written by women are easier to perform. Times are changing in the music world. Since the 80’s, orchestras have been conducting blind auditions, thus eliminating gender bias among performers. Major paradigm shifts are slower for composers. Handel and Bach still have power to draw crowds, but CoroAllegro is doing its part to transcend expectation and attract new fans.
CoroAllegro and Fund for Women will present Music, She Wrote on Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 7:30 PM at The Music School of Delaware; 4101 Washington; Wilmington, DE 19802. Tickets are $18.
Editor's Note: The Delaware Art Museum is hosting an event IN collaboration with the University of Delaware's Music Department on November 25th entitled Taking Center Stage—Women Composers, Then and Now. We think this will be a perfect extension of discovery following CoroAllegro's performance!