Pacific Edge Voices’ new director aims to diversify repertoire
By Lou Fancher
Conductor and choir director Ash Walker’s odyssey to become the Pacific Edge Voices’ third music director in its 40-year history began in a breezeway.
Following coronavirus guidelines prohibiting crowds and music-making indoors, Oakland-based Walker’s audition to succeed Dr. Lynne Morrow, who retired this season after 15 years leading the Grammy-nominated choir, was an outdoor affair.
“Our group of eight singers and an accompanist at the Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley were all masked,” choir member and alto Kim Keeton writes in an email. “We chose this spot because it balanced our need to be outside for airflow with our ability to hear each other, as the overhang and the wall of the chapel provided enough hard surfaces to focus our sound.”
The one-hour outdoor audition had the singers — after confirmation that all were without fevers and hadn’t been exposed to the virus in 14 days — spaced 8 feet apart. It was an unusual configuration for the close-knit Berkeley-based choir founded by Richard Grant in 1980 as the Pacific Mozart Ensemble. Reaching the 40th anniversary season cut short in March by the pandemic, the choir has been recognized over the years for distinguished collaborations with leading composers and musicians, including John Adams, Dave Brubeck, Bobby McFerrin, Meredith Monk, Sweet Honey in the Rock, American Bach Soloists, the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Coro Nacional de Cuba, Oakland Symphony and others.
Morrow joined the choir in 1989 to coach the choir’s annual jazz and pop concerts. Stepping up to become assistant director in 2005, she expanded the repertoire to include more works by young composers and African-American spirituals. In an interview, Morrow says the ensemble’s name change and her initiatives reflect a mission to impact the community through music.
Ending her tenure after 30 years’ participation, she says, “It seemed like the perfect time.” Asked if she was involved with the selection of Walker and in what way she might continue to participate, Morrow suggests she is part of the ensemble’s past so influencing the choir’s choice wouldn’t have been appropriate.
“The new director will work with the ensemble to create a new path forward. If they desire a continued connection, I’m available,” says Morrow.
Walker’s “new path” will be carved by casting the choir backward into personal and professional history and then, in leaps and bounds, propelling it forward in a progressive evolution. During his childhood growing up in a family with nine children in Pennsylvania, Walker joined the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Chorale. While completing a bachelor of arts degree in music at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, he founded a men’s choir and was a drum major in Millersville’s Marauder Marching Band.
After graduating, he served as director of curriculum for the Music Preparatory Program in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s El Redentor United Methodist Church and as director of choirs for the Pennsylvania Academy of Music. Walker holds a masters degree in choral conducting from California State University East Bay. He is a Las Positas College professor and cantor and associate director of choirs at the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Invited to select one choral piece for the audition, Walker chose Vienna Teng’s “The Hymn of Acxiom” from 2013, a work with lyrics related to marketing data that tech companies collect.
“Being a singer for many years, I’ve sung all types of repertoire, but usually it’s by old white men. I wanted to showcase new music by composers less heard of; that tends to be people of color and women. We as directors should challenge our audiences to do more digging after they hear us. I hope to be part of that inspiration so all types of people can feel welcome into this world of choral music. Once you dig into Teng’s music, you realize this piece is about technology and how we have to maneuver to have that in our lives. It’s such a part of living in the Bay Area.”
Reflecting on his experiences as a child and now as a Black man, Walker says singing in a 100-member boys choir in which 93 singers were white never caused internal wrestling — until college encounters and moving to Oakland led him to perceive imbalance.
“I realized the racial divide in music exists here too. We can use our repertoire to echo the community. One of the principle hallmarks of choral signing is listening louder than you sing, and our repertoire should reflect that. I’d love to see more people of color join choirs, join and use their brains and participate in the future.”
Walker names composers Adolphus Hailstork and James Furman as favorites. With educational experiences similar to Walker’s and primarily working as choral composers, the two African-American musicians respectively layer classical choral music with Bach-like polyphonic melodies or with African-American spiritual influences that connect to past history while creating fast-driving, contemporary choral works.
“I never want to repeat music too often,” Walker says. “We should be aiming to showcase new styles and finding ways to make our audiences discover why a piece is connected to a program theme. What is the choir doing physically to augment the theme? What lighting effects are used?”
A fondness for musical theater, marching bands, “Star Trek” and taking calculated risks, he suggests, are likely to influence the choir’s future activities.