Vocal Heroes & Sophisticated Ladies

One of the gigs I had during this past holiday season was a reunion of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Female Ensemble. The current ensemble, now called The Sophisticated Ladies of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, were performing their holiday concert to benefit their upcoming concert tour to Austria. Their current director is fellow Ellington alumnus, Sylvia Twine, who combined their annual holiday concert with a tribute to the ensemble’s founder & director, Dorothy Dash, and invite ensemble alumni to come and sing with the current ensemble as part of the tribute.

The female ensemble was first organized in 1978 when the Concert Choir that year was “top heavy” – there were too many high voices to balance the tenors and basses. So, all of the underclassman girls were taken out of Concert Choir and sent down the hall of Ellington’s third floor music department to the voice studio of then-Chair of the Vocal Music Department, Dorothy Dash, where they were taught theory and sight-singing.

As Mrs. Dash started incorporating SSA choral pieces into the curriculum, she liked the sound she was getting from the girls, and so the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Female Ensemble was formed.

I came to Ellington in the Fall of the following year and was assigned to Dorothy Dash’s voice studio. Mrs. Dash had also auditioned me for the school the previous Spring, so I had the double blessing of studying voice with her privately as well as singing under her direction in the Female Ensemble.

At the holiday concert at Ellington this past December 9, the ensemble alums sang two pieces with The Sophisticated Ladies: the anthem Praise Ye the Lord by Mendolson, and a light gospel number, Light Shine by Theodore Thomas, Jr. Then, Mrs. Dash was introduced and brought onstage. She made really poignant remarks about the importance of music, and music education, in these turbulent times and then, each of us alumni walked to the center stage microphone, announced our name and Ellington graduation year, then presented a rose to Mrs. Dash. I was really glad that I was able to participate in this tribute to her.

What was even more enjoyable than the actual concert was reuniting with Ellington vocal alums for the rehearsals leading up to the concert, and then, another more relaxed reunion at Sylvia’s home after the holidays. During the rehearsals, especially the first one, I was struck by how well our voices instantly blended after 30-plus years of not singing together.

Most of us had not stopped singing during those 30-plus years. Some of us only sing now in choral settings at our respective churches. A few of us teach/coach vocal students privately or in DC-area schools. A few of us are professional soloists. The thing that was so cool about our most recent gathering was observing how those who were upperclassmen when I arrived at Ellington, whom I had looked up to (like Sylvia) and whose voices I revered, had the same reaction toward the earlier alums. Hearing one of my vocal heroes from Ellington class of ‘81 tell an alum from the very first graduating class about how her performance at Ellington precursor, Workshops for Careers in the Arts, inspired her to audition for the school, and then, to hear that alum suddenly break into the solo she had sung that day, was an awesome moment.

Sylvia Twine’s current ensemble, The Sophisticated Ladies, which consists of 30 young singers, are working very hard toward a concert tour in Austria from June 16-24, 2019. I am including a link to their donation page: https://sltoaustria.flipcause.com/secure/cause_pdetails/NDQ4ODQ=

because, as Sylvia told us, “We want to leave no girl behind.”

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