News, Wit & Commentary for Lesbians
JIC Post: By Cecily BurtInside Bay Area There were more than a few empty chairs in the semi-circle when members of the Voices Lesbian Choral Ensemble filtered into a rehearsal room at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church. Cheri Toney, an alto, had to dig deep to sing fully enough to cover the rest of her missing section.Not to worry. As soon as the women opened their mouths, pure, rich harmonies filled the room. And it didn't seem to matter whether they were humming or singing a protest song or a Balkan folk melody. The glorious tones sent chills — the most pleasurable kind, mind you — up and down the spine.The a cappella ensemble was formed in 1988 to promote lesbian visibility and highlight lesbian diversity. The group is committed to fighting oppression and supporting human and social rights through choral music.The group's musical choices are filled with songs calling for peace, love and understanding. (In a recent concert, they performed "Imagine" by John Lennon and "Political Science" by Randy Newman.) Many selections reflect personal struggles and journeys, not unlike those experienced by some members seeking to further express their own lesbian identity.Shoshana Dembitz, 65, of Berkeley, a member for eight years, decided to audition after somebody handed her a flier at a Dyke March in San Francisco. She said Voices has helped her lighten up."My friend said I was way too serious about Jewish things. This has really helped me develop another side of myself with my lesbian identity," Dembitz said.Voices consists of 11 members and a musical directorwho bring a range of ages, backgrounds and life experiences. They released the CD "Everything Possible" in 2002.Yulia Ronskaya, an opera singer, vocal coach, recording star and conductor, has been the group's musical director the past six years. She was a soloist for the Moscow State Symphony and has continued to perform in concerts and recital series in the United States, Europe, Russia and Thailand.If that sounds imposing, note she's also a warm, animated redhead with rosy cheeks and bright eyes, who just happens to be a technical perfectionist who stops rehearsals time and again to point out tiny flaws most human ears would never catch.She will make chorus members do it over and over to get the phrasing or timing or sound or breathing just right. When she critiques their performance, whether it's her Russian accent or the way she seems to be asking their opinion, there's never any friction. Some Ronskaya gems: "What if we stopped chopping these words like celery?" Or, "I would like to get to the point where I don't have to remind you who the soloist is. Who's your daddy?"She said her role is to help them focus on their singing, although she also respects their political leanings."Their political agenda is important, but we also need to pay attention to the singing," she said. "We're a singing group."It appears to be a perfect match. All the women say they were lucky to get Ronskaya, but she says she was lucky to get them. She had come out as a lesbian the year before and found immediate acceptance with Voices."The bottom line was, I was getting a divorce and needed a job," she said. "I had no expectations. I saw an ad in the Express. I basically just jumped off a cliff and tried it. I was curious how we could shape it. I love it."Voices' membership swells and falls as peoples' lives change. The "ebb and flow" of life, Julie Dobkin, one of the original members, calls it.The group's small size brings both advantages and disadvantages. Mistakes or miscues are more recognizable with one voice singing a part rather than two or more, Ronskaya says. But the intimacy brings the women closer and promotes friendship.Ronskaya arranges most of the music — the pieces are chosen by consensus — and continues to fine tune it based on how it sounds during rehearsals."I'm very proud of our repertoire. We've really grown in our diversity," said Dobkin, who came in late and warmed up by singing in the car. "I always wanted to break into harmony (when I sing), and now I can."Voices is a nonprofit organization with a tiny budget to cover Ronskaya's salary. The members pay modest dues and do all the marketing, advertising, booking and record-keeping themselves.Voices' annual concert will be held at 8 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St., Berkeley, $10 advance, $15 at the door. Call 486-8984 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is seeking new members. To learn more and set up an audition, use the same contact information.
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