The signature sound of Sweet Honey

by Kristina Latino

Of course there's hope / It's over there in that well / There's an endless supply / Bend over the rim, you'll see.

These were some of the words sung by the Radcliffe Choral Society last weekend in Sanders Theatre during the Harvard Women's Choral Festival. The festival, held once every four years, brings together women's choruses from around the globe for a celebration of female choral music. This year, the festival featured a performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock, the African American a cappella group that has been growing in international renown since its founding in 1973.

The group is also the recipient of Harvard's 2013 Luise Vosgerchian Teaching Award, named after the late music professor at Harvard and administered by the Office for the Arts. The award recognizes artists and artist groups for selfless commitment, artistic conscience, constant renewal of approach to subject matter, ability to motivate in a positive and creative way, sincere interest in the development of the whole person and the ability to present musical knowledge in a way that is applicable to other disciplines.

"Professor Vosgerchian's teaching and, to a very large extent, her life spoke to the transforming power of music and its capacity to express our fundamental joys, sorrow, hopes and passions," said Jack Megan, OFA director. "Sweet Honey's music transforms our thinking, addressing critical issues of education, domestic violence, the proliferation of guns, discrimination and economic empowerment of those who have less. Their performances demand not only our emotional engagement but critical thinking around issues of justice. Professor Vosgerchian knew the power of this type of teaching and would be thrilled to see the group honored in this way."

Ysaye Barnwell, a longtime member of Sweet Honey, spoke with me about the festival, her singing and what the weekend meant to the group.

"Coming to Harvard is special. We're very glad to be invited and that there is room for a small ensemble in the festival," she said.

Sweet Honey presents a diverse repertoire in its performances, singing about a wide range of topics and creating a signature sound.

"It's the sound - very tight, very perfect - that people are used to but Sweet Honey has existed for 39 years out of an African American choral tradition. Our sound is a little more fluid. We use a different approach. We mix a lot of different styles," Barnwell said.

Before the performance, Sweet Honey gave a workshop through the Office For the Arts' Learning From Performers Series, sharing that unique sound and style to the student performers on campus.

RCS president Amy Lifland '13 emphasized that the festival fulfills the important goal of celebrating women's choral music as a strong artform, equal in value to the often more popularly celebrated men's a cappella groups. Performances by 15 national choirs reinforced her position.

The Radcliffe Choral Society Foundation commissioned a piece of music to be sung by RCS and the Lorelei Ensemble, a small professional chamber group from Boston. MIT professor of music Elena Ruehr set the poem They Used to Ask Me by award-winning author Margaret Atwood to music for the two groups, creating a haunting call-and-response piece for the festival.

Hosted by the Radcliffe Choral Society, artistically directed by RCS Associate Conductor Beth Willer, and co-directed by Kaat De Corte '14 and Rachel Johnston '14, the festival was a tour de force of women's music on campus.

[Caption: Sweet Honey in the Rock, recipient of the 2013 Luise Vosgerchian Teaching Award at Harvard. PHOTOS: Jacob Belcher/OFA]

[Caption: With nearly four decades of experience, Sweet Honey had much to teach the young artists at Harvard. ]

[Caption: Sweet Honey shared its signature sound in a Learning From Performers talk with students. ]