Harmonizing for a higher purpose
With a rising young director, the singing ensemble RSVP hopes to raise thousands more for local nonprofits
On a stuffy spring evening, 16 singers await the start of their weekly rehearsal. In the corner sit a baby grand piano and a small floor fan, though the room only gets warmer as the final members of the vocal ensemble RSVP settle into place. The conversations among old friends swell up until Jennifer Reason, the group’s dynamic, young artistic director, rushes through the door.
After arriving home from a bucket-list getaway to Alaska, she’s had just enough time to take a shower and grab an extra-large coffee on the way to rehearsal. No, she hasn’t slept in 30 hours, but yes, she’s feeling fine. Reason smiles broadly to confirm her good humor and loses no time stepping into the role she plays so well, wrapping up the chatter with a few tinkling notes on the piano before leading the group in vigorous vocal warmups, her coffee forgotten on the windowsill.
The idea for Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace, or RSVP as they’re necessarily known, came to the group’s founder Julie Adams in a dream. The concept of a “food choir,” dedicated to feeding people both spiritually and literally, was appealing, but when Adams woke up she wasn’t sure how she would achieve such an abstract goal.
Nevertheless, the dream seeded an idea that slowly came to fruition over several years. With her firm belief that music could break down cultural barriers of any kind, Adams was committed to founding a choir that would build community in any way it could.
Many musicians have shared that goal with Adams since RSVP launched in 2000. Over years of competitive auditions, the group has grown into an elite, 20-member vocal ensemble volunteering its talents for charity concerts that aren’t throwaway efforts—the performances are stunning. Now in its 17th season, RSVP has continued to perform two programs a year in a range of musical styles, exclusively as a way of supporting local humanitarian nonprofits such as 916 Ink, Mustard Seed School and Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. Its May program is slated to support St. John’s Program for Real Change, a local organization that provides job training and aid to women in need.
When Adams retired as RSVP’s artistic director, Reason was her obvious replacement for the 2014 season. The 33-year-old musician had already been singing with the group for several years after studying under Adams at Sacramento State, where she graduated with a degree in piano performance.
Several years before, in 2005, misfortune struck when Reason broke her fingers right before a solo piano recital to complete her degree, putting a temporary stop to her music career. Five years later, she was ready to return to the music world.
“It took a lot of ramen and mom filling up my gas tank,” Reason says of the difficult transition back to music.
Since then, she has built up an impressive curriculum vitae, performing as a soloist and as part of ensembles all across Europe, Canada and the United States, as well as founding an instrumental ensemble in Sacramento called Citywater for which she is also the artistic director.
This past November, Reason’s tenacious work in the arts got a shoutout in the Sacramento Business Journal’s 40 Under 40—she was the only artist to make it onto that list. Though she was irked by the underrepresentation of the arts, the recognition felt like a major relief after years of working what Reason calls the “freeway philharmonic”—the relentless commute from city to city to make ends meet as a full-time musician. Though her plate is full, she seems to have taken on her role in RSVP with wholehearted commitment and hopes to expand the group’s community presence in the seasons to come.
While Reason has worked with dozens of ensembles both locally and internationally, she speaks of RSVP with special affection. “They come to make art together and leave their egos at the door every single time,” she says.
The members themselves differ politically and religiously, but Reason says they are unified in their shared mission of community service.
“Everyone respects and loves each other. … It awes me,” Reason says. “It has not been the case in any other group I’ve ever been in.”
RSVP performances are always free to the public, with 100 percent of collected donations going directly to the cause they’re supporting, and the organizations themselves must go through a stringent vetting process: They must be local, financially transparent, humanitarian and preferably operating on a shoestring budget. (That way, RSVP’s donations can make a bigger impact.)
RSVP connects its audience with each charity’s cause by crafting a program of songs to match the mission. This season, in support for St. John’s Program for Real Change, the theme is “women and women’s songs,” including pieces by jazz vocalist Rosana Eckert, a classical piece by Z. Randall Stroope and even an original avant-garde collaboration that the group will debut at its May series.
Primarily, the choir sings a cappella, though Reason prides the group on its ability to perform in any style, with or without instruments. “Probably the most out-there thing we’ve done is a piece called ’Forgotten Peoples,’ which is a massively large work sung in Livonian—a basically dead language that was nearly impossible to learn, let alone sing,” Reason says. “The group still talks about that one year later.”
Music is a universal language and a powerful tool in exposing diverse audiences to pressing social issues, Reason believes. The proof is in the numbers. RSVP’s average total donations contributed per series is in the ballpark of $8,000.
Last year, the group selected charity Blessings in a Backpack, a group that gives food-insecure students a backpack full of meals to get them through the weekend. The nonprofit was visibly overwhelmed by the support it received.
“We handed them the check and they were expecting a couple thousand dollars and when they saw the amount they just immediately sobbed,” Reason says, and rightly so. The donation funded the program for a full year and allowed them to add an extra school to their program, extending their outreach to an addtional 200 or more children.
When asked what she hopes the future of RSVP will bring, Reason is as driven as she is optimistic.
“My hope and dream is to grow the reach of this ensemble exponentially. I want to double, triple, quadruple our audiences. The more people who hear us, the more money we can raise for causes that permanently change people’s lives for the better,” Reason says. “It’s exciting to see it and be a part of something so powerful.”