CHAPEL HILL -- The Women's Voices Chorus, now in its 15th season, may be the area's best kept secret that ought to be shared. This Sunday's 3 p.m. Winter Concert in Duke Chapel is doubly special: It's the first under Allan Friedman's baton, and it premieres Eleanor Daley's "Herself A Rose," commissioned to honor founding director Mary Lycan who retired in 2007.
Friedman, assistant conductor and administrative coordinator of Duke Chapel Music, chose his program to fit the chapel's marvelous acoustics as well as to reflect the theme of Daley's piece, which sets to music a Christina Rossetti poem about the Virgin Mary and the rose she bore. Highlights include Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" and three settings of the Magnificat. Anita Burroughs-Price plays harp for the Britten, and the chorus' own Deborah Coclanis accompanies on harpsichord, piano and organ when she isn't singing a cappella.
Canadian composer Daley said she was honored to write something for Lycan, whose "passion and commitment to the treble repertoire and female composers is a vision to be celebrated." Daley tried to incorporate the strengths and preferences of the chorus, which include "singing a cappella, close harmonies, homophonic rhythms, changing textures, unison passages and a good melody."
"Eleanor found the perfect text to honor Mary Lycan," said WVC President Susan Gidwitz, who described the music as "at times lush, other times prickly, but always gorgeous."
Current director Friedman, who already has garnered high praise from his singers, said he had been looking for a secular outlet. "I love conducting at Duke, but it's nice to get out in the community once a week." He was also intrigued by the idea of working with a group of women, "a much different ambience than a mixed choir."
For his first concert with Women's Voices, Friedman drew from a wide range of musical periods, places and styles, including music by female composers and by modern composers to reflect the theme of Daley's piece.
Britten's 1942 "Ceremony of Carols" gives modern harmonies and settings to Middle English carols. An opening processional chant, said harpist Burroughs-Price, "becomes the exuberant 'Welcome Christmas.' " Her favorite is the carol "This Little Babe" for its fast, driving rhythm and moving text. She described the solo movement for harp as "a beautiful, ethereal interlude that begins with a spare, bell-like effect in the left hand and then builds and builds."
And while Burroughs-Price has heard the piece many times, with different combinations of voices, she finds each performance different.
The tightly-themed program also includes classical and modern settings of the Magnificat by Dufay, Porpora and the contemporary composer Lana Walter. While she doesn't sing the Dufay, Gidwitz loves singing the Porpora and Walter settings, which are "completely different, and each more beautiful than the other -- each in its own way."
Gidwitz pointed to Thomas Morley's "April is in My Mistress' Face," as another favorite for its "rhythmic intricacies and tone painting." And on the opposite end of the spectrum, she enjoys Margaret Bonds' "Oh, Sing of the King Who Was Tall and Brown," with words by Langston Hughes.
"It's a jazzy Christmas song, but not a tired, oversung carol," said Gidwitz.
When she isn't accompanying, Coclanis will sing with the chorus in the numerous a cappella works which include Walter's "Magnificat" and Daley's commissioned piece. "You can liken a cappella singing to walking a tightrope without a net," said Coclanis. "What I love about it is the purity of the sound. I think it requires more intense listening -- or a different kind of musical mindfulness than accompanied singing."
The women coming together this Sunday range from graduate students to young mothers to grandmothers, said chorus member Janet Buehler, "including the lovely Betty Bergstrand, Soprano I, who is 81."
Most of the members are from Chapel Hill and Durham, but several drive in from Raleigh and Wake Forest. Buehler called the group "a wonderful community of women that support each other."
"I'm really excited about this concert," added Gidwitz. "The energy of the chorus is just wonderful."
What: Women's Voices Chorus -- Winter Concert
When: Sunday, 3 p.m.
Where: Duke Chapel, Chapel Drive, West Campus of Duke University
Tickets: At the door; $10 adult, $5 student
For more information, call 684-3855