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Get Carried Away This Holiday Season
by the Sound of Beautiful Voices

By Lyn Taylor Hale, Vermont Woman Magazine, December 2006
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are walking from a wet, wind-swept street into a darkened cathedral. Let’s say you are somewhere in Europe. It is cold outside. You are weary from the day and looking only for a bit of respite. But the music you hear upon entering is far beyond anything you were expecting. Its depth and beauty and warmth are overwhelming.

That feeling, of being in the presence of something exquisite, is how I felt, not in Europe but in a high school chorus room in Essex Junction, at a mere rehearsal. The group? Bella Voce, a women’s choral group whose name means “beautiful voice.” They rehearse like this every Monday night – intensely but with palpable joy. The women in this room love what they are doing.

As does Dr. Dawn Willis, founder and director of Bella Voce. Her love of what she does is apparent from the way she relates both to these women and to the works she is conducting. Her movements embody the music. Her direction and her words are energy. At one point she has the choir members close their eyes so that they can feel the notes, saying, “Don’t think that that low note lands. Think: it is about to bloom. It is going somewhere – it is not an end.”

Originally from Texas, Willis came to Vermont from South Dakota in 2003. Her musical resume is lengthy. It includes earning a Doctor of Musical Arts in Choral Music from Arizona State University and masters in Sacred Music and Choral Conducting from Southern Methodist University, as well as a number of jobs teaching and conducting at McMurry University (Abilene, Texas), Iowa Wesleyan College and Arizona State University. She has directed community and church ensembles in each state where she has lived and has been involved with musical theater, youth choirs, and hand bell ensembles. In 1999, she conducted the McMurry Choirs and Alumni Singers in a performance of Mozart’s Solemn Vespers at Carnegie Hall.

Once settled here, Willis joined the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus where she continues to serve as the assistant choral director. She began auditioning members, something she still does each year in June, and by March of 2004 Bella Voce was formed. Their first performance was in May of that year.

Their repertoire includes Schubert, Mozart, Randall Thompson and myriad others, both classical and contemporary. One name recurs frequently on their programs: Dr. Gwyneth Walker, a graduate of Brown University and the Hartt School of Music, who left her faculty position at Oberlin College Conservatory in 1982 and now lives on a dairy farm in Braintree, Vermont.

The creator of more than 140 commissioned works to date, Walker is among the most sought after choral music composers in the country. Bella Voce has performed a number of her works and this year has commissioned her, with financial assistance from a grant by the Vermont Arts Endowment Fund of the Vermont Community Foundation, to write a cantata for them based on Anna Morrow Lindbergh’s book Gifts from the Sea. The book begins:

“One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach, waiting for a gift from the sea. The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith.”

Willis seems to model that call for patience and faith. At one point she stops rehearsal to perfect just one note and to encourage the sopranos as they sustained that note. Patience in the process, faith that they can do it.

Amy Hamlin is a member of Bella Voce who hadn’t sung since high school and who says she was longing to use her voice once again. “I auditioned and was thrilled when Dawn accepted me.”

Hamlin explains that to her, “choral singing is like a soul food favorite. Those two or three hours a week singing some of the finest and most beautiful music ever composed, with such a talented group of women, and under the direction of the incredible Dawn Willis is the best part of my week.” Hamlin continues, “I sometimes arrive with a tension headache from work and in a matter of minutes I am transported, detached from my day singing into the night. Don’t get me wrong; Dawn works us like dogs!”

Beginning in the spring of 2005, Bella Voce formed a partnership with the Essex High School women’s choir, Kaleidoscope. Glory Douglass, the choral director at Essex High, serves as the assistant director for Bella Voce. Bella Voce invited Kaleidoscope to perform with them in their second spring concert. The group sang two pieces jointly and the collaboration was so successful that they brainstormed for additional performing ideas. What emerged was a proposal to present a session at the American Choral Directors Association/Eastern Division Convention in New York City, that would demonstrate the musical experiences these two choirs have shared.

In February 2006, 40 members of Bella Voce and 32 members of Kaleidoscope traveled to the convention to present their session entitled “Discovering Common Ground Through Common Sound.” The combined choirs performed works that included Gwyneth Walker’s “Let Evening Come” as well as the premier of a new piece by Robert DeCormier (Bella Voce’s first commission) – a piece for double women’s choirs called “Hold On!”

Bella Voce has also started a Young Conductors Mentoring program. Currently, there are three students participating in the program. Two are music education majors. The third, Jennifer Carpenter, is a young teacher at Colchester High School and currently the conducting intern with Bella Voce. Another student, Xiudan Lin, a freshman piano performance major, is the assistant accompanist. Xiudan’s talent in both composition and performance is stunning.

Cyndy Couch, a teacher, musician, and conductor who was formerly Texas’ Teacher of the Year in choral music, was at rehearsal this night as well. At about the mid-point of the second piece, Couch leaned over and whispered to me, “These women could stand toe to toe with some of the finest ensembles in the United States.”