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Cantigas Women’s Choir Brings Voices to Global Music and Harmony to Local Communty

by Sally Deering
Once a week, gathered inside the music room of an elementary school in Hoboken, women of varying ages and walks of life harmonize together as members of the Cantigas Women’s Choir. This all-girl community glee club performs the music of many nations and during the course of its 8-year history has become a “family of women” bringing harmony to its community both on and off the stage.

If you’ve never heard 50 women singing in harmony, you might want to check out “Sounds of Harp & Hope,” Cantigas Women’s Choir’s ninth annual winter concert to be held on Sat, Dec. 11 at St. Matthew Trinity Church in Hoboken. This holiday concert promises to be a step above a couple of rounds of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.” Cantigas Women’s Choir is known for its outstanding renditions of world music and the choir sings in many languages and harmonies that can move the soul and warm even Scrooge’s cold, cold heart. Offstage, Cantigas Women’s Choir lends its voice to incarcerated women in a New Jersey correctional facility, to convalescent homes and senior centers; and often gleefully gathers after a rehearsal to sing “Happy Birthday” in four-part harmony to a group member’s mom.

A mix of high school students, stay-at-home moms, career women and senior citizens from a diversity of cultures and locales, Cantigas was founded by Joan Isaacs Litman of Hoboken,
a native of Los Angeles who has been a choral director in the New York metropolitan area for 30 years . In 2009, Litman was awarded the prestigious “Educator of the Year Award” by the Organization of American Kodaly Educators in Washington D.C. and she received the first “Excellence in Teaching” award from Westminster Choir College. She’s a member of the music faculty of the United Nations International School in Manhattan and the summer faculty at the Kodály Institute at Capital University.

Cantigas Women’s Choir is not just a chorus of women it’s a community of women. Under Litman’s artistic direction, the choir brings women of the community together to explore the rich tradition of women’s singing and performs a broad spectrum of global music, both ancient and contemporary. The Cantigas Women’s Choir also advocates through song for those whose hearts need to be uplifted and whose voices need to be heard. The Choir performs at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey and at community events like the Cancer Survivors Support Network in Bayonne and the Empty Bowls hunger relief benefit in Hoboken.

“The social justice strand of our mission is one that is at the root of who we are,” Litman says.

The upcoming holiday concert will feature music from around the world sung in French, German, Russian, and English. Highlights include Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols,” Johannes Brahms’ “Four Songs,” Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Angel” and “Now the Waves are Sleeping,” Claude Debussy’s “Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons,” Léo Delibes’ “DômeÉpais,” Paul Siskind’s “Bright Morning Stars are Rising,” and Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.”

Wait. Dolly Parton shares the program with Rachmaninoff?

Christopher Green, who holds a Master’s Degree in Music from Temple University and serves as music director for St. Paul’s Lutheran church in Jersey City, has temporarily taken over the role of musical director and conductor while Litman is on sabbatical in the Middle-East (she returns to the podium in Spring 2011.) It was Green’s idea to do Rachmaninoff and Parton on the same bill.

“Dolly’s song is a great song and a great arrangement for choir. It’s quite a meditative and hopeful piece,” Green says. “The concert captures the way different cultures at different times deal with the experience of hope. And we hope the audience will leave with a sense of beauty and wonder.”

Cantigas Women’s Choir takes choral singing to new heights Green says. “This particular group has a cohesion that’s pretty extraordinary.”

One original member of the choir, Meera Jaffrey is Music and Movement Specialist for the Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City and sing soprano in the Choir. As a member, she has sung at Memorial Services for members’ spouses who passed away and when she had to undergo surgery a while back, Jaffrey, 50, says fellow choir members brought her home-cooked meals. The group is also a “cushion of support” for members of the local community. When the group sang for the American Cancer Society in Bayonne, Jaffrey says the music was “healing” for both the audience and choir members. Jaffrey credits Litman for the way the group bonds in song and in life.
“Joan has this way of bringing the best out of us,” Jaffrey says. “Even though we’re not a group of polished singers, we have this very rich tone which has taken many years to develop. And the music is extremely challenging. We sing in many languages. Farci, Arabic, Russian, Romanian, Greek, French – and sometimes I practice in the car. I never thought I’d be singing Russian to and from work, but I think all of us are humming the music constantly. It makes our lives so much richer. As I’m learning it, I feel the genius in the music.”

Cantigas choir members raise their voices to empower women incarcerated at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, where they will give a concert on Dec. 14th. Frances Marsh, 49, of Weehawken, is a stay-at-home mom and a mezzo-soprano in Cantigas and one of her favorite things about being a member, she says, is singing at the correctional facility.

“When people go to jail they get forgotten, their families write and visit, but they’re sort of invisible,” Marsh says. “It’s great to go in there and share music with them. Their choir sings for us and we sing for them. It’s very fulfilling and Joan is always so great, She’ll ask the women questions like ‘where are you from,’ and it makes a personal connection. When we come back from our concerts there, we share our experiences. It’s interesting to hear everybody’s reflections.”

Member Andrea Gunden, 28, joined the choir halfway through its 2008-2009 season. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from Westchester University in Pennsylvania and five years ago, she started A Sound Start music school for babies and toddlers in Jersey City.

“Cantigas is fabulous, exactly wbat I’d been looking for,” Gunden says. “I’m the director of this early-childhood center and most of my daily music experiences are singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ and ‘Old MacDonald.’ I was hungry for a slightly more intellectual experience in a high-level professional ensemble. Cantigas is a serious a group and the age difference makes the community of the choir so rich. There’s a strong feeling of camaraderie and it can be a very moving group to sing with because everybody is emotionally invested. It’s not because we all happen to be women. It’s because all the energy and effort and soul that every member is bringing into the group makes it what it is.”

Cantigas Women’s Choir
Sounds of Harp & Hope
Sat, Dec. 11, 7:30 pm
St. Matthew Trinity Church
57 Eighth Street, Hoboken
Tickets: $15; $5 for seniors and students

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