Roberta Kirn
At last year's winter concert, Roberta Kirn leads a group of enthusiastic singers. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Singing a different tune

By Julian Wise - December 14, 2006

Choral director Roberta Kirn will offer a unique musical treat as she unveils "Winter Concert - Songs of Peace, Hope and Light" at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center this Saturday evening. A far cry from the musty chestnuts that make up most winter concerts, the songs in Ms. Kirn's event will present a cross-cultural blend that ranges from African chants and gospel spirituals to Hebrew songs.

The 2006 concert is the fifth event Ms. Kirn has directed. As an outgrowth of her role as the music teacher at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, Ms. Kirn has formed the chorus from members of the Charter School community and the Island community at large. The event typically involves 30 to 40 people ranging in age, from 5 to 70. The concerts have a loose, organic feel with audience participation during certain songs. The a cappella songs often include chants and rounds with lovely multi-part harmonies.

Chandrika Carl-Jones, Zana VanRooyen, and Teo Azzollini
(From left) Chandrika Carl-Jones, Zana VanRooyen, and Teo Azzollini join in song.

Ms. Kirn's projects with community-oriented singing have grown out of her studies with Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey on the Rock, the Grammy award-winning African American female a cappella ensemble. Over the past decade Ms. Kirn has participated in Ms. Barnwell's "Building a Vocal Community" workshops.

"It's really about how music functions in traditional African and African American societies, where music is more than just decoration," Ms. Kirn says. "It serves to bring people together. It's involved in every aspect of life."

Often whole families will participate in Ms. Kirn's choruses, providing an opportunity for a shared artistic experience. Ms. Kirn's own daughters sing with her in the chorus. She believes the deeper meaning in chorus music lies in its ability to heal divisions and create unity.

"My feeling about why I do this is I feel it's important for us to be in harmony with each other. It's my way of contributing to the peace movement. I feel when people sing together, they can't be mad at each other. There's something magical that happens when people sing in harmony together. It's like a connection happens.

"It's lovely the way people can come together and make a beautiful sound," she adds. "There's nothing like voices."

Winter concert, Songs of Peace, Hope and Light will be performed Saturday, December 16, 5:30 pm, at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, Center Street, Vineyard Haven.

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.