“They do sound like angels, don’t they?” Jane Brown, Reno Pops Orchestra music director says during a recent collaborative concert between the Pops and Bella Voce.
Singing Gwyneth Walker’s “Women Should Be Pedestals,” their choral refrain soars smoothly with the Pops—ending crisply with the ironic feminist punchline “to men.”
Bella Voce effectively interweaves their vocals with the instrumental, whether accompanied by a single piano or a full orchestra.
Bella Voce began 20 years ago when a group of First United Methodist Church women decided to extend their vocal talents beyond the church choir. Under the guidance of UNR music department chair, Dr. Michael Cleveland, the group focused primarily on classical music—Bach and Mozart.
When Jennifer Tibben-Lembke became artistic director upon Dr. Cleveland’s retirement in 1997, she expanded the ensemble’s spectrum beyond the classics, working with composers throughout the country to design music for Bella Voce. In June 2004, Bella Voce produced a CD encompassing the first five years of their commissioned music.
“A whole different artistic investment,” Tibben-Lembke says, explaining that the collaborative process has brought the group closer together. A year-and-a-half collaboration culminates with the premiere of the new music at their spring concert. “There’s a preconceived idea that women’s choral music doesn’t explore the depth of ideas of a mixed choir,” says Tibben-Lembke. “I’m on a mission to change that.”
The group encourages her to experiment with challenging music. “They’re a group of singers that want me to push them,” she says.
The singers, who include a midwife and a public TV executive, come from many walks of life. Despite only meeting two hours once a week for practice, the group is close-knit.
“Women are like sisters, aunts to each other,” says Tibben-Lembke. This emotional connection enables Bella Voce to extend its boundaries, whether developing a new piece with a composer or collaborating with local talent, such as the Reno Pops or the Mile High Jazz Band.
Bella Voce explores music in a variety of languages, ranging from a simple piano melody encompassing verses from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to the spiritual longing of the Latin American lullaby “Duerme Negrito.” At their “Christmas Around the World” concert, they sang carols in 10 different languages, ranging from Russian to Swahili. Though their programs provide the English text, their musical interpretation aptly translates the emotion behind the lyrics.
Their May “Words of Wisdom” concert will feature writings from Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke College. In 1997, Allen Bonde, Mount Holyoke Music professor and composer, combined the 1866 text with modern tonal language. During rehearsals, the group agreed that Lyon’s practical advice still provides clarity for young people seeking guidance. The May concert will also premiere two commissioned pieces by Rosephanye Powell, a jazzy lullaby and a powerful gospel piece, “It’s a Brand New Day.”
During Walker’s “Songs for Women’s Voices,” Tibben-Lembke conducts the ensemble with fluid motions as they sing the airy refrain of “Love is a Rain of Diamonds,” gradually moving toward the melancholy tones drifting like falling leaves of “In Autumn.”