From the Camden Waterfront to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, budding Philadelphia vocalists are partnering in song and spirit with singers around the Mid-Atlantic.
Whether seizing the stage of Carnegie Hall or staircases at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the harmonious union of more than 300 young ladies has been resonating around the region and beyond since 2012.
Founded by vocalist and arts education advocate Alysia Lee, Sister Cities Girlchoir works in Philadelphia, Camden and Baltimore to empower elementary to high school girls through extensive choral training.
While over the years the choirs have landed alongside esteemed musicians, such as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel, the program’s mission truly rests in cultivating young women’s cultural, emotional and intellectual strengths.
“Our goal here is to empower girls to recognize their own leadership abilities and ability to transform the world,” Lee said. “At Sister Cities Girlchoir, we believe in the power of young women to be transformative in our world. We believe that the world needs change and that the people can do it are these people here…We believe that all the power that these girls need lie within them. We’re not giving them anything that they don’t already have, but we’re offering them a platform for them to be their best selves and to see that reflected in other people.”
Lee, a former Philadelphia resident who currently lives in Baltimore, was recently recognized by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a 2019-2020 Citizen Artist Fellow among only seven other artistic difference makers from around the United States.
Through the yearlong partnership, Lee hopes the three city choirs, which each perform solo and also intermingle, will build internal administrative capacities, increase funding and reach a goal of 500 participants through all three cities.
“As happy as I am for myself, and it’s so exciting to be at the Kennedy Center, every time I’ve stepped in the building, I carry all of these people with me,” Lee said. “I carry hundreds of girls with me. It’s such an honor, and it’s such a validation for us and the work we’ve been doing.”
The classically trained mezzo-soprano studied at the Peabody Conservatory before being selected for the Sistema Fellowship with the New England Conservatory in 2012. The opportunity allowed Lee to travel through Venezuela in 2012, when she was exposed to El Sistema, a youth-empowering music education program, which sparked the idea for Sister Cities Girlchoir.
Relocating to Philadelphia sometime after, Lee established the early stages of the organization through a Saturday program at the First Presbyterian Church in Kensington.
Gradually, girls from across the city joined the weekend rehearsals, and now, the ensemble encompasses the voices of more than 20 Philadelphia ZIP codes, including a handful living and attending school in South Philly.
“I would always just find myself singing,” added Da’Shona Leigh, a junior at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. “And so, when I found out about an opportunity that I could actually go somewhere and sing without getting on people’s nerves, I just took the opportunity. And singing turned out to be everything to me…They really impacted me to the point that they really impacted my future and they mean so much to me. I don’t see them as friends. I see them as family, because they help me and push me and strive for me to do my greatest things.”
Several girls from the Philadelphia program, which includes 75 students dispersed among a kindergarten-to-fourth grade and fifth-to-12th-grade ensemble, echo Leigh’s thoughts, as they attribute the program to nourishing not only their musicianship but their character.
“This really has changed me,” said North Philly high school student Ruth Ortega. “If I wasn’t in this choir, I wouldn’t have known who I’ve become now. I was a very shy person. I was very quiet to talk to people or even do things. But, this choir showed me not to be afraid. It showed me to stand out. It showed me to not care what others think. And, I thank this choir for everything it has given me and everything it has blessed me with.”
Last year, the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation selected Sister Cities Girlchoir as the winner of the 2018 George Bartol Arts Education Award, which is given to an organization that provides “sustained, meaningful exposure and participation in the arts” yet also “demonstrates an active engagement in the lives of its students and community.”
The diversity of the choir is also evident in its comprehensive array of songs ranging from showtunes to gospel, as currently, the girls are working on a repertoire featuring Alicia Keys, Charles Jenkins and the musical “Spring Awakening.”
Last week, the ensemble performed this repertoire at the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation Conference at the Hilton Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing, where they partnered with former Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta, who was a 2018 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant.
“Not everybody speaks the same language,” Leigh said. “Not everybody is on the same intellectual level, but if you think about it…when you come together, it’s beautiful, it’s harmony, because you’re all learning the same thing. It doesn’t matter what language it’s in. Music is universal. That’s what brings people together. That’s the most exciting part when you’re performing with other people.”
Info: Registration for the fall season is now open. Registration costs $50 per year. Register at sistercitiesgc.org/saturday-girlchoir-academy-1.