Miriam Davidson: A choral community singing for social justice

Miriam Davidson: A choral community singing for social justice

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Anna Crusis is not the name of the person being featured this week, but rather the name of a women’s choir that has been singing and performing continuously for 40 years. Its mission statement reads: “We are committed to musical excellence and social change. We sing to celebrate the diversity of women’s lives and culture; to find communion; to nurture and sustain; to comfort and to heal; to open hearts and minds; and to struggle together for a just and compassionate world.”

Members believe in performing music that’s empowering, challenging and uplifting for audiences with songs that inspire, provoke, delight and inform — something we definitely need a lot of these days.

Miriam Davidson is the artistic director for the choir. Under her helm, the group has grown to more than 80 members and kept its vision of supporting critical causes including promoting peace, guarding reproductive rights, ending poverty, achieving gender equality, supporting the LGBT community, fighting rape and abuse — anywhere that music can bring a sense of empowerment and hope.

PGN: You’ve lived quite a few places before landing here in Philly. Where did you start out?

MD: I was born in Long Island but I’ve lived here long enough that Philly is now home.

PGN: Where did you grow up primarily?

MD: Cheltenham Township, Elkins Park section. Very suburban, and now I live in the Germantown/Mount Airy area.

PGN: Do you get your musicality from someone in the family?

MD: Oh yes, it’s in my DNA. One of my fondest memories was from when I was a teenager of my grandfather sitting in the dark in the living room picking out melodies on the piano. Mom and Dad were both musicians; my mom was a singer and a music teacher and my dad is retired and a composer of Jewish liturgical music. He’s pretty well-known in his field. I remember going to choir rehearsals with them when I was 5 and singing along. It was very inspirational and it just seeped in.

PGN: Do you have siblings?

MD: Yeah! And they’re all musical. One of my sisters is a soprano soloist, Ilana. She travels around the world singing with orchestras and she’s fabulous. She was a soloist on the album “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” with Leonard Slatkin and the University of Michigan chorus and orchestra, which won four Grammy Awards including Best Classical Album in 2006. She’s quite something. I’m constantly amazed by what she can do. My other sister works at Jenkintown High School as a choral teacher and she does all their shows and everything, and my brother is an artist and musician.

PGN: You all caught the bug! What instruments do you play?

MD: Quite a few. [Laughs] A veritable potpourri: piano, guitar, accordion, hand percussion, banjo … I think that’s most of them.

PGN: Steve Martin says you can’t be sad on a banjo.

MD: [Laughs] I think he’s right!

PGN: Have you ever tried to scare anyone by playing the song from “Deliverance”?

MD: Maybe once or twice … It’s hard to stay away from the cliché banjo/accordion jokes.

PGN: Tell me an accordion joke.

MD: What happens when you leave an accordion in the back of a car? You come back to find five more. As in, no one wants them … Get it?

PGN: [Face palm] Where did you go to school?

MD: I got a BFA in fine art at the Tyler School of Art at Temple. I don’t know, I think I was running away from the whole musical heritage of my family. I think a part of me was afraid that if I had to go to school for it, I’d end up hating it. But of course I ended up doing music anyway and eventually went back to school to finish a music degree.

PGN: How did you end up in Kentucky?

MD: My partner at the time got a job at the university there in the women’s studies department. So we moved to Kentucky. I stayed there for almost 25 years and I loved it. Lexington was a very hip, progressive college town — a lot of great music there and a great community and also very close to Cincinnati, another wonderful city.

PGN: When did you come out?

MD: Right after college. It was one of those surprising things. Hanging out with your best friend and then, whoops, what’s this all about? I initially had a bit of a traumatic time with it; my parents were both freaked out and I was unsure of how to talk to them about it. I was still figuring it out for myself so it was hard to guide them through it. But over time, they grew to understand it and have been wonderfully supportive over the years. My mom passed about 10 years ago but she really evolved. She loved my partner from Kentucky, though it was funny: One time my partner asked her, “Does it bother you that I’m not Jewish?” And my mom responded, “Well, I’d rather your name was George, but it’s fine.”

PGN: What was Wishing Chair?

MD: We were a singer-songwriter folk duo that toured the country for about 15 years. That’s where I picked up most of my extraneous instruments, except for the piano, which I grew up playing. It was a great experience. I learned that if you have a good sense of home within yourself, anywhere you go can be home. There’s a beauty in being able to belong almost anywhere.

PGN: How did you form the group?

MD: I was working at a guitar summer camp that my cousin started in Connecticut. Kiya Heartwood was hired as a songwriting and guitar teacher and we became friends. She asked me to sing on a record she was making and we just fell into it. Next thing you know, we started performing as Wishing Chair and toured all over the country. Being in the group gave me the backbone and foundation for what I’m doing now.

PGN: You’re the artistic director at Anna Crusis. What does that entail?

MD: Everything! When I started, we had a small group, about 35 people. I was the rehearsal pianist: I helped pick out the music, I designed the set list and designed the graphics for the programs. The artistic director holds the vision of what the group is going to carry forward. Now we have over 80 singers and a much more-involved administrative body. We have an accompanist now so I’m off that duty!

PGN: You’ve said that Anna Crusis was a spiritual experience.

MD: Yeah, I joined Anna at about the time I came out. I’d grown up singing in choirs but being in an all-women’s choir that was mostly lesbian and was dedicated to social justice was a very different experience. It was my first immersion into the culture. When I moved back to Philadelphia with my wife Kim, who sang with a women’s choir in Cincinnati where she grew up, I told her she should look into Anna. Since I grew up here, I wanted her to find a sense of foundation of her own. She started singing with them and of course I got sucked in. “Do you want to play persuasion on this song?” Sure. “We need someone to accompany us on keyboard.” OK.

PGN: Lesbians recruiting!

MD: Yes. Then when the director at the time was going to retire, they needed to hire an interim person and Kim suggested I try for it. I said, “I’m not really a choir director,” and she said, “Yes, of course you are.” And I have to say it truly feels like I’ve found my musical home, that everything I’ve done in music has led up to this. It’s been an incredible full-circle journey.

PGN: Tell me about “The Body of Anna.”

MD: Well, we wanted a system that wasn’t top-down or hierarchical, something more even across the board when it came to process and the way we run things. So we created “The Body of Anna.” Each working committee is named after a body part. The Breath members assist in the execution of auditions, and meet throughout the year to discuss concert themes, etc. The Face members help promote Anna’s mission and do our marketing and publicity. The Hands work at helping out our members, doing everything from providing snacks to child care, and organize our volunteers; they are the nurturers. Our Head provides the history and helps us maintain Anna’s social-justice mission, and the Heart belongs to our board of directors. All parts combine, making up the whole of Anna Crusis, a community of people who came together to sing but have become family. It’s pretty remarkable with such a large group.

PGN: That’s lovely! The choir has performed so many great collaborations. Give me a favorite artist or group pairing.

MD: We just did a collaboration with Holly Near, which was just … well, she’s Holly Near. What more can you want?

PGN: I just saw her at SisterSpace and she was amazing.

MD: Yes, she came and did a fundraiser for us in April. As a performer, for me, Holly embodies everything. She’s got guts, she’s got wisdom and smarts, she’s got the chops. She’s a musical preacher. She was my idol growing up and I remember thinking, Wouldn’t it be great to play for her someday? Over the years, I got to meet her on the women’s music circuit and we got to be friends and at some point she said, “Hey, you’re a piano player, would you like to play for me?” So now when she comes east, she’ll call me and I’ll come perform with her if needed. It was another one of those wild full-circle things, like woah! The choir has also collaborated with Dr. Ysaye Bardwell from Sweet Honey in the Rock and Sharon Katz, another great performer with an incredible sense of social consciousness. We also try to pair up with the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus at least twice a year. Oh, and we did a GALA [LGBT choral organization] show with the Frequent Flyers, who were aerial-dance performers. That was pretty cool.

PGN: Does Anna identify as lesbian?

MD: Anna was started when safe spaces for women were few and far between. It became a haven for lesbians who wanted a creative outlet and sense of community. Now we have quite the cross-section: We have gay women, straight women, gender-fluid, gender-neutral, you name it.

PGN: Most choirs are gearing up for a holiday concert this time of year. Why not Anna?

MD: Good question. We never have. I think it has to do with the idea that a lot of religious music is patriarchal, and a lot of it is Christian when we are a lot of people who have felt downtrodden by organized religion. In the past, there has never been a desire to do it and I think it has carried over, over the years. But we haven’t talked about it in a while, so maybe it’s time to revisit it. I could be carrying a torch for something that doesn’t need to be carried anymore.

PGN: Tell me about your upcoming show, “Song is a Traveler.”

MD: Part of what brings us together is the need to bring information and truth to audiences through music, to raise people’s awareness and to inspire. For “Traveler,” the theme is that we’re all immigrants; unless you’re Native American, we all came from someplace else. It also references the spiritual journey that we’re all on. If you’re LGBT, how do you fit into society? Are we white or African-American or Asian or people of color? How do you find and define a sense of self? And whatever you do, you bring the songs of your community. Music is a traveler too, right? It can help us tell our stories. So with the contentious atmosphere in our country of who really belongs here, we felt it was time to address it.

PGN: What made you invite Moira Smiley for this upcoming performance, other than her great name?

MD: We’ve known about Moira for years; she has a group she sings with called Voco and also with an Irish band called Solace. We were doing an arrangement of one of her songs when I noticed that she was going to be in town at World Cafe Live. I wrote to her and she came and did a workshop for us. She was great and I decided that if she was in town again and it worked with our schedule that we’d try to snag her for one of our shows. She does lots and lots of arranging for choirs that are interesting with a little edge to them. I’m excited about it.

PGN: OK, random time. Pick an alto, soprano and bass for your ultimate choir.

MD: Wow, OK. Gloria Estefan, Ysaye Barnwell and Judy Garland.

PGN: Three sounds you hate?

MD: Dentist drill, honking and the incessant chatter of TV talk shows.

PGN: Three sounds you love?

MD: My dogs, Bella and Henry, playing; percussion; and the ocean.

PGN: Do you have any other pets?

MD: Yes, Sam and Simon. Thanks, I wouldn’t want them to feel left out.

PGN: A talent you’d like to have?

MD: I’d love to play a saxophone.

PGN: Best cold remedy?

MD: Yin Chiao. It’s a Chinese mixture of herbs. I swear by it. And when you have 80 people together that need to sing, it’s a wonder.

PGN: Craziest gig?

MD: [Laughs] When I was with Wishing Chair, we performed in Arkansas at a biker bar behind a chain-link fence on bales of hay.

PGN: What’s on your wish list for the future?

MD: I had a really interesting experience last year. A women’s choir in Bucks County decided to hold a women’s choral festival. It was very small, just a few choirs, but it was clear that our repertoire was very different from the rest. Ours had guts and depth and really spoke to issues and people and a social awareness not found with most other choirs. Everyone kept coming up to us and asking, “Where do you get this music? How can we find it and learn it?” and I had a lightbulb moment. We need to find a way to help people — whether they be high-school choirs, women’s or community choirs — to find music that has relevance and depth. I’d love to help spread our mission far and wide!

“Song is a Traveler” runs Dec. 2-3 at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion, 2110 Chestnut St. For more information or tickets, visit http://www.annacrusis.org.


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