Arts News: Kansas City Women’s Chorus Combines Music and Social Justice

Cancellation notice: The Kansas City Women’s Chorus concert, “Reach Out, Reach Up,” April 17 and 18, is one of many performances throughout the city that have been cancelled because of the coronavirus threat.

With hearts inspired by a love of music and driven with a mission for social justice, the Kansas City Women’s Chorus celebrates 20 years of song and community this season.

The group was founded in 1999. “They started out with 25 women, all volunteer, and now we’ve grown to 100+ members with two part-time staff,” said Emily Marrin, executive director of the chorus.

Marrin joined the group as a singer in 2013. “I realized the second I walked through the door with these women, that we were like-minded in that there was a passion for life and for service and volunteer work as well as the music.” She became interim executive director in 2016, executive director five months later, and continues to sing with the ensemble.

Dr. Cynthia Sheppard became the artistic director in 2015. “There is something very powerful about walking into the midst of the community that not only loves the music but loves having a mission and voice behind the music that says, ‘we are concerned, and we want to support and amplify and encourage all women and all people,’” she said.

Today, members range from 19 to 85 years old. Though some have college or professional music experience, it’s not a requirement; most join because the chorus offers something beyond just the opportunity to sing.

“We have a really focused mission and vision of not just singing, but singing with purpose, and putting our hands to work to amplify other social justice organizations’ messages and the things that are important to the world right now, especially when it comes to women’s issues and children.”

This season, they partnered with the Kansas City Girls Choir and Veronica’s Voice.

Their April concert is “Reach Out, Reach Up: Lifting As We Climb,” honoring the ratification of the 19th Amendment, a milestone in the fight for equality and women’s empowerment. It features the Kansas City premiere of “Lifting As We Climb,” written by Joan Szymko. The three-movement work does not just focus on the events of 100 years ago, but considers what factors currently affect voting rights and what people can do to create and ensure an equitable future.

Sheppard designed the program of “Reach Out, Reach Up” to support this message, examining the role of women’s empowerment. The program includes Rosephanye Powell’s “Still I Rise” and an arrangement of Mae Erlewine’s “Never One Thing,” which describes the many different identities women have. “We have many, often contradictory, characteristics,” said Sheppard, “and need to learn to embrace all that we are.”

“The music itself is a variety,” said Marrin. “It’s not necessarily 100 percent serious, so much as it is education meets entertainment, in a way that is still fun.” They will also perform the work for local middle schools.

The Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses organized the co-commission by 17 choruses of “Lifting As We Climb.” Each group performs the piece for their home community. Then this summer, at the GALA Festival in Minneapolis, they all come together for the program “Nevertheless, We Persist!”

KCWC, an allied chorus, has attended the festival twice before (the festival occurs every four years), but this is the first time the group has been selected to perform its own concert, one of only eight choruses out of the 120 member ensembles. They will perform Eric Lane Barnes’ “Unsung,” which they premiered last spring. This seven-song suite highlights significant women in history whose stories are not as well-known as those of their male counterparts.

“Everything we do now is an opportunity to educate young women about what they can do in the world,” said Marrin.

Kansas City Women’s Chorus performs at 7:30 p.m. April 17 and 2:30 p.m. April 18 at the Folly Theater. For more information and tickets, kcwomenschorus.org.

Above: Kansas City Women’s Chorus celebrates 20 years with a concert at the Folly Theater April 17 and 18. (photo by R. Scott Anderson)

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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