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Women's Chorus Brings Christmas to Arlington

It is just after dinner and Martha Dodge's singing voice is resonating off the walls of her North Arlington home.

"When we had a dog, he used to bark," she said laughing. "Now I just close the door so I don't bother my husband."

Dodge is preparing for her role in the upcoming Washington Women's Chorus Christmas concert. It is a performance she has rehearsed for weeks. As she hits each note, she also taps them out on a piano to make sure she is still in key. With the concert only two days away, the remaining time she has to practice is crucial.

"I love being in the chorus," she said. "I try not to miss any rehearsals because you have to keep up with the group. The music is always wonderful. In some ways, it is a spiritual experience."

And it's the music that draws many to the chorus, a group that mostly sings pieces penned by female composers. This year's Christmas concert, set for 5th at St. Patrick's Episcopal Church, 4000 Lorcom Lane, will be a mixture of styles ranging from early Renaissance music to contemporary works, according to chorus spokeswoman Kathleen Holmay. The concert will also feature readings of poetry including one selection, a letter home, written by a soldier during the Vietnam War.

"It's a Christmas show," Holmay said. "That's something important to note. It is not about the holiday season. It is Christmas music."

The theme for the musical selections is advent and solstice stories. Directed by Donald Paul Richardson, a vocal coach, the chorus — which includes many women from Arlington — is one of few in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area that requires its singers to audition.

"It was an interesting audition process," said singer Gwen Blakeman, who has performed in choral groups since age 12. "They sent or e-mailed us a sheet of music and then asked us to sight read it [singing by reading music off the page] in front of them. The idea was to see if you can take a sheet of music home and learn it yourself."

Dodge had a similar experience.

"It was a low-key but carefully done audition," she said. "I had to do vocal exercises, sight reading and then my voice checked for its tone and pitch."

Singing music written for women and by women, Blakeman said, is an added benefit to working with the chorus.

"It's written for a woman's voice and it is somewhat nice to know that you're singing something that maybe not too many people have heard."

The chorus rehearses each week in a local Arlington church but last weekend, the members went through a marathon rehearsal in preparation for the show.

Trying new things is part of how the chorus has flourished. Members recently returned from a goodwill journey to China, where the chorus sang along with a Chinese choral group and several others from the United States.

"It was difficult for the director to get us all singing on the same page," Blakeman said. "But I was impressed with the Chinese singers who were there. After about two or three rehearsals, everyone was singing together and it was beautiful."

The chorus is celebrating its tenth anniversary next year. The upcoming Christmas concert will also feature hand-bell players form the Stone Ridge Academy Girl's Chorus. The chorus holds auditions in September and early January, but Holmay said many women audition during season.