As Sonoro choir rehearses Vaughan Williams’ “Magnificat” in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Lakewood, there’s something even more powerful than the ethereal English tonality. This is a unique female story — a young woman impregnated by a deity, taking up her role with the support of her female cousin — and it’s being sung by a chorus of women. Even the flutist, playing the role of the Holy Spirit, is a woman.
That powerful, graceful sound of women’s voices makes Sonoro’s December concert different from so many other choral holiday shows, and it’s what keeps the singers coming back.
The way the voices sound together gives me chills.”
Krystal Hames, alto
“The way the voices sound together gives me chills,” says Krystal Hames, a three-year Sonoro member, of one of the pieces in the program that will be performed Friday at St. Mary’s and Saturday at Christ Episcopal Church in Tacoma. “You know that moment where we all blend together — that’s why I like (a women’s choir).”
But Sonoro didn’t start off like that. It began life in 2007 as a regular soprano, alto, tenor and bass choir. But finding enough men was a struggle.
“It’s a nationwide problem,” says Jeremy Shilley, who is the only man onstage, along with accompanist Jeff Andersen and guest pianist Norman Seidel.
In fact, says Shilley, there are so many choirs in that position that more and more composers are writing music for women’s voices — a subset of the choral literature that Shilley, a trained singer and vocal teacher, had to learn about from scratch when Sonoro went all-female in 2011.
But that’s not a problem for the music. Women’s voices are capable of many timbres, and Shilley aims for a rich sound with Sonoro — although many moments capture the purity of a boys’ choir, others a more operatic sound. As Shilley points out, there are pockets of classical music literature during which writing for women’s voices was common, including Brahms and British composers.
The choir has also improved its skill level, upping audition requirements and focusing on classical literature. Singers mostly come from the local area: Lakewood, Tacoma, University Place. Many, including Hames and fellow alto Susan Smith, have little or no vocal training or background.
“We’re a very tight-knit group,” says Smith, a Sonoro member since 2008. “We’re all supportive.”
That bond is audible. Spread loosely on stage, each of the 26 singers has her own space, but the sound is tight and focused. In the “Magnificat,” the choir takes on the role of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, pronouncing “Blessed art thou among women” with hushed chromatic chords and summoning the Holy Spirit (a cadenza-like flute part played by Roxane Hreha) before an alto soloist sings Mary’s words in an almost Middle Eastern melisma.
In a contemporary version of “O Come all Ye Faithful,” the four-part sound is rich and golden, layering words and harmonies over a bouncing four-hand piano part. Other pieces on the December program include “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” by Michael John Trotta (“The descant is just gorgeous,” says Smith), Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” other carols and an audience carol singalong.
The Sonoro Scandinavian Children’s Choir, a small group of local children that started out singing for King Harold of Norway’s visit in 2014, will sing a set of carols: half in Swedish, half in English, and all from memory. Kira Pryor, as the oldest girl, wears the traditional Sankta Lucia crown of candles.
But aside from the sheer joy of blending your voice with other women in song, for Krystal Hames there’s a bigger reason for singing in Sonoro.
“It’s an exciting thing to be part of something just a little magical,” Hames says. “Every year I get better because of the women in the choir. We help each other out. I got even more from the choir than just the music — I got family.”
From the Realms of Glory
Who: Sonoro Choral Society, directed by Jeremy Shilley.
When and where: 8 p.m. Friday (Dec. 9) at St. Mary’s Episcopal, 10630 Gravelly Lake Dr. SW, Lakewood; 7 p.m. Saturday at Christ Episcopal, 310 N. K St., Tacoma.
Other Tacoma choral holiday concerts
Seattle Men’s Chorus
When: 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma.
Information: 253-591-5894, broadwaycenter.org.
Northwest Repertory Singers
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17, 3 p.m. Dec. 18.
Where: Mason United Methodist Church, 2710 N. Madison St., Tacoma.
Tickets: $20 general; $17 senior, student, military; free for 11 and younger.
Christ Episcopal Lessons and Carols
When: 5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Christ Episcopal Church, 310 N. K St., Tacoma.
Information: 253-383-1569, ccptacoma.org.