New Orleans has a host of experienced jazz musicians. Nashville has a bevy of country stars. And next week, Alexandria will have a conch shell bugle band.
The members of this band will be children in the audience at the EcoVoce concert, part of the Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature Center’s open house April 22. This will be the first in a series of outreach programs geared towards elementary-school-aged children, according to Denise Freeland, founder and artistic director of EcoVoce. The interactive nature of the performance “connects us with our audience,” Freeland said. But she’s hoping to connect on more levels than that of the music. The ensemble — which takes it name (pronounced eeko-VO-cheh) from combining "ecology" with the Italian word for "voice," into a term that could be understood as "the voice of the earth" — is informed by a passion for nature. “The name reflects our commitment to being a musical voice for ecology,” Freeland said. “It’s all very meaningful. The music reinforces the message.”
THE MESSAGE IS easier to communicate with EcoVoce’s recent repertoire. “We’re actually having some music commissioned for us,” Freeland said. “We’ve had a few pieces arranged for us.”
Maryland folk duo Magpie has given the group permission to use a song of theirs called “We Belong to the Earth,” which has been arranged into a sing-a-long, which Freeland expects the audience will enjoy. “It’s the perfect song to do that with,” she said.
They will also be performing two pieces by Richmond composer Jamie Sims. “She’s an excellent composer,” Freeland said. “She finds that she’s inspired by many things in nature.” Sims’s compositions are also “great audience-pleasers,” Freeland added.
But much of EcoVoce’s repertoire comes from pieces already in existence that they choose. At its core, the ensemble is comprised of Freeland as soprano, Susan Hayes on the flute, and Narciso Solero playing piano. Freeland and Hayes are from Alexandria; Solero lives in Arlington. “My colleagues are first-rate, top-quality artistic level and wonderful people to work with,” Freeland said. For some performances, the group includes more instruments — a violin here, a Native American flute there.
Saturday’s performance will help celebrate the group’s eighth birthday. Freeland said it’s “the perfect time of year — not only have we turned eight, but it’s also Earth Day.”
Earth Day represents much of what led Freeland to form EcoVoce. “Personally I really have a passion for music and I really have a passion for environmental concerns,” she said. “I’m a music professional and I kept thinking there’s got to be a way … to raise ecological awareness using music.”
Entertaining and educating about the environment — especially with groups as receptive as children — was the way that Freeland found. “We fill a niche,” she said. “No one else is doing exactly what we’re doing.”
THE TIMING isn’t the only part of the performance that works out well for EcoVoce — the venue is also a bonus. Being a component of the Ford Nature Center’s open house will allow the group to highlight the educational element included in their outreach programs. Freeland said EcoVoce is happy to return to the nature center. “They are known for their programming for children and families,” she said. “They’ve included us several times over the years … it’s a good collaboration.”
She called the ensemble’s approach “interactive narration,” which allows for feedback from the audience in the midst of the program. While the outreach programs are targeted for the kindergarten through fifth-grade age range, Freeland said that older children would still be able to enjoy it.
“We do a song about a butterfly, and after the first verse I pick up a puppet of a monarch butterfly,” she explained. “We talk a little bit about what butterflies do, and then we talk about what monarchs do that other butterflies don’t.” (Hint: while other butterflies don’t do this, many types of birds do.) And EcoVoce has a song about seashells before inviting children up to learn to play the conch shell, Freeland said. “A lot of kids have no idea how a conch lives in the ocean.”
“It really is a lot of fun,” she said. “Hopefully it helps everyone think about nature a different way.”
The nature center’s open house will run from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday, April 22, and has an admission fee of $5 for adults and $2.50 for youth. In addition to EcoVoce’s performance, there will be bluegrass music, guest speakers, heritage walks to explore the history of Dora Kelley Nature Park, and other family events. The Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature Center is located at 5750 Sanger Ave. Call 703-838-4829 for more information.