Elvera Voth and the East Hill Singers

Elvera Voth was reared near Newton, Kan., received a bachelors degree from Bethel College in 1946, and a masters degree in Music Education from Northwestern University in 1948. She moved to Alaska in 1961 with the Robert Shaw Choral for the Alaska Festival of Music, and remained to teach music and conduct choruses. She was the conductor of various music groups including the Anchorage Community Chorus, the Anchorage Boys Choir, the Alaska Methodist University Choral, the University of Alaska, Anchorage Choral, and the University Singers; and the director of the Sunday Afternoon Concert series at the Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Museum.She returned to Kansas and 13 years ago founded the East Hill Singers, consisting of inmates from Lansing Correctional Facility and community volunteers who drive to LCF for rehearsals. KC

Olive Branch talked to Voth about her upcoming concerts on June 17 and June 24 and how East Hill Singers (which eventually sparked Arts in Prison) got started. For a longer, audio interview, click on these links: Voth in Alaska | The East Hill Singers | The Upcoming Concerts.

KCOB: I would like to hear the story about coming back from Alaska, deciding to move back to your home state of Kansas, all the way up to the founding of Arts in Prison.

Voth: Briefly, I grew up on a poor central Kansas farm and it really was tough for me in those days. I am now 83 years old, for women there was no point for them to go to college they were going to get married and that was it. Well, I fought my way through college and became a teacher and all I ever wanted to do was conduct choruses. Where that came from was I grew up as a Mennonite kid in a rural country German community and the one great joy of every one’s life there (the rest was work, believe me hard farm work) was singing and we would sing on Sunday mornings without instruments, in four parts. And then gradually they got in an instrument but nobody knew how to play it. I had perfect pitch so I played by ear for many years and that was a great lesson.

I could never get good jobs because, guess what, women didn’t conduct and today how many are there, name them? And why that is I’m not sure anymore. I don’t think it was the same thing as it was then. I taught in small high schools this and that, but never was really able to do what I thought I could do. So I picked up without work or without anything and went to Alaska. I went at just the right time in my life. Things hadn’t really blossomed in the arts there yet.

I had the Anchorage Community Chorus for a year which was the backbone of the Festival of Music, where we did all these works with (Conductor Robert) Shaw. I started the Alaska Chamber Singers. I think I am a beginner, not a maintainer because I’ve started four major organizations that are doing great today. And 10 years later I would do something else. I was up there forty years. I think the Alaska Chamber Singers was the most satisfying thing I did musically. I had 18 to 20 really fabulous singers.

KCOB: You never started a prison choir in Alaska?

Voth: You know I think I have been so lucky I really was able to live a professional’s dream by doing the things I wanted to do and my biggest regret here, and it sounds egotistical but I do think it is true, I will never be able to demonstrate whatever musical ability I have with these choruses I have here

We have so little rehearsal with the volunteers, we throw it all together. When I came back I went to a church reunion in central Kansas, where I had all these choruses. A little church with 1200 Mennonites and I had wonderful choruses, and man could they sing. We were sitting there talking about the choruses I had had and someone asked, “Aren’t you ever going to start a chorus again.” I said I had been thinking about starting a men’s chorus (because I had a wonderful men’s chorus at the Mennonite church) but the only place I could do that was at a prison and I wouldn’t know how to get it started Well, one person said, “We have somebody here that needs to talk to you .” So they brought over a deputy warden at Lansing and I told him what I had been thinking and he said I am going to talk to the warden. The next day the warden called me and he said I have a deputy that says I have to let you do this. So that is how the whole thing happened. Just fell in to it. Absolutely, absolutely I have had so many wonderful things happen. I’m not really one that thinks to myself that someone up there is watching and waiting every morning to see what he can do for Elvira. I can’t imagine that, but so many nice things have happened sometimes I think, well maybe. Who knows? Maybe somebody is helping.

There is no way I could have done this all on my own steam. For instance, Robert Shaw (who by that time had gone his own way and we talked about once a year) called me and said, “Is it true that you are conducting a prison chorus?” I said, “Yeah it is.” And in typical Robert fashion he cleared his throat and said, “Well, Mother Theresa, how may I help?”

KCOB: So he called you? There was a famous singing along in Newton that he did for your chorus.

Voth: Yes that is how he helped. We got to thinking about it and I said, “You know, you are loved everywhere but not any more than you are here.” And that was true, he conducted many Mennonite choruses, especially in Canada. And I said, “Come to Newton. We will sock those farmers for lots of money.” And we made about 25 to 30 thousand dollars in one afternoon and that was the money that allowed me to start Arts in Prison. Not only the chorus but classes in things from African American studies to yoga. Lots of stuff. Good stuff. Isn’t it a shame they aren’t more chances to help them? They are so helpless. It’s unthinkable to me.

KCOB: You had a segment of the Catholic Church that didn’t want you to come into a church last year, for reasons you wouldn’t expect. Can you talk about that experience.

Voth: This man who was a lifer, he killed a 15-year-old boy, wrote a rap. I called it a Rap of Redemption. It had all of the rhythmic cadence of a rap. “I wish I never hurt you. I wish I never made you cry.” And then he went on to tell about what he had done and how it just destroyed his parents and the parents of the 15-year-old boy. And if that one day had been taken away.

We got to the church, Blessed Sacrament in Kansas City, Kan., the most beautiful place to sing in Kansas City. We got there and there were protestors who didn’t want to let us in. … I’ve never been protested before for anything. It was because there was a certain membership, I don’t think they were even from Blessed Sacrament, they simply thought it was a sacrilege to do rap in a Catholic Church. And in some ways, I could understand it. I personally wish for my own aesthetic pleasure Catholics still had the Latin Mass.

KCOB: I believe the primary protest came from a group that still practices the Latin Mass who meet in that church.

Voth: I didn’t know that. Well, there we were on the same side.

KCOB: Do you think it was just the rap or that you blended this Latin Kyrie chant?

Voth: I’ll bet that’s true. We played that recording and in the background and we would sing Gregorian chant, Kyrie Elaison. You are absolutely right.

KCOB: It worked our fairly well, that people got a sense of who you were?

Voth: I wish the people who had protested got a sense of who we were. But I don’t think that happened. We decided they probably thought, “That had terrible words in it.” We said come and read this, but they refused.

KCOB: Tell me about your upcoming program.

Voth: The concert is going to be called What A Wonderful World. As you see on the poster, there has been so much discussion about nature, global warming and all the storms we’re having this, that and the other. I decided this would be appropriate at this time and the church that is hosting (Church of the Resurrection), most of their music is what I think is loosely called praise with lots of percussion, lots of guitars, and rhythmic stuff. I thought, well I really can’t do that, it isn’t who we are. So I made an arrangement to start the concert. This is after the invocation. We have this marvelous young man who does such a great job by introducing the program. He says, “Never in my life did I expect to have a chance to sing in a place as large and as grand as this sanctuary. Never! But we’ve been here for a few hours and it didn’t take long to realize the hearts of the congregation is as big as the space they worship in.” And we come immediately after. “It is almost an unbelievable change to our daily lives. It is truly a great day.” And we sing, “Great day! Great day!”

KCOB: Both concerts this year are really looking at the world in a topical way, a relevant way. Is that what you are trying to do?

Voth: I just keep thinking about the world. You know, I don’t have children, I think I would go crazy if I did. What are we leaving them? A debt that can’t be repaid monetarily and a mess. The world is no longer looking toward us as being the moral leaders. We torture people. I can’t keep from thinking about it. It just hits you.

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