By Keysha Drexel
During the last half century, the members of the Junior League of Birmingham Choral Group have performed at prestigious venues around the world, including the International Haydn Festival in Vienna, Austria, and several appearances at Carnegie Hall in New York.
But ask any member of the group where her favorite place to perform is, and she will most likely tell you that it is right here in her own community.
“It makes you feel good to be able to bring the joy of music to people in your community that might not otherwise have a chance to experience it,” said Cornelia LaRussa of Mountain Brook just before the group’s performance at the Lovelady Center in Birmingham last week.
LaRussa, who has been a member of the choral group for 21 years, is a relative newcomer considering that several founding members are still active and perform for thousands in the community each year.
“We have several founding members who are in their 80s and who are still very active,” LaRussa said. “There’s so much to learn from these ladies, so many life lessons they can teach us. I’ve met wonderful friends through this group.”
The Junior League of Birmingham Choral Group is one of the longest-running Junior League-affiliated choral groups in the nation, said director Amy Murphy of Mountain Brook.
“This group is spectacular. I think people would be surprised at the amount of talent in this group and at the quality and intricacy of the music that they perform,” she said.
And Murphy knows a thing or two about talent and quality performances.
A Juilliard-trained opera singer, Murphy has performed and taught professionally for 25 years. She has performed at Radio City Music Hall, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and has toured with opera companies both in the U.S. and in Europe.
The New York native owns Amy Murphy Studio in Mountain Brook Village where she teaches voice lessons and recently patented a vocal technique to help people become better singers. Murphy is also an adjunct professor at the University of Montevallo.
Murphy said when she first moved to the Over the Mountain area in 2001, she looked for a way to use her professional experience in music to enrich the lives of others.
“In New York, I was involved with the Blue Hill Troupe, a group that raises money for a different charity each year,” Murphy said. “The troupe put on these really amazing shows, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, really high-quality stuff, so I was glad to find that kind of outreach opportunity when I moved here.”
The choral group is one of the Junior League of Birmingham’s community placements. The placements focus on four areas–education, financial stability, health and safety and crisis intervention–and each Junior League member must be active in one of the placements for 10 years before they reach the “sustainer” designation.
The singers in the Junior League Choral Group include those with active and sustainer designations along with community volunteers who dedicate nearly 100 hours a year to rehearsals alone, Murphy said.
“We try to keep the rehearsal schedule pretty tight because we appreciate the time our singers give us each week,” she said.
The Junior League Choral Group has about 65-70 members on the roster with at least 40 regularly turning out for rehearsals and performances, Murphy said.
The group rehearses every week in the auditorium at the Junior League Building on 20th Avenue South in Birmingham and performs about 40 times a year for the sick, elderly, at-risk children and women recently released from jail.
“We do a Christmas program in the fall and then we also do a spring program every year,” Murphy said. “The performance schedule can get pretty hectic during the holiday season, and it really speaks to their commitment that our members make this a priority in their busy lives. We have members from all walks of life–doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs and yes, a drummer.”
The drummer is Dana Davis of Mountain Brook, who has been keeping the beat for the Junior League of Birmingham Choral Group for three decades.
“I think we might be one of the only Junior League choral groups with a drummer,” Murphy said. “We call Dana the Peroxide Princess of Percussion.”
Davis first picked up the drumsticks as a child growing up on a farm in Odenville in St. Clair County.
“There was nothing else to do, so I taught myself to drum,” Davis said. “There was nobody around to tell me it was weird for a farm girl to be a drummer, so I just kept at it.”
Davis was a member of the Junior League of Birmingham for a couple of years before the former choral group director asked her to lend her talents to the ensemble.
And Davis said she instantly took to the group’s mission to brighten lives through music.
“I feel like we go into a lot of places that are forgotten, and we have the opportunity to reach people who may feel like they’ve been forgotten,” Davis said. “When you see the emotions on the faces of the people in the audience, it touches your heart.”
Like Davis, LaRussa said she enjoys watching the change that can come over audience members when they hear the group sing.
“The most rewarding part is when you see someone in the audience who you thought you wouldn’t be able to reach start tapping their toes along to the music, and then you see a little glimmer of a smile and you remember why you love to do this,” LaRussa said.
Amy Roberts of Mountain Brook, the group’s pianist, said that in the last two years she’s been a member, she has seen firsthand the impact music can have on people who are struggling with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
“They may be losing their memories, but you will see their eyes light up when they recognize the lyrics from a Gershwin tune,” Roberts said. “It warms your heart.”
Murphy said at the group’s performances she has witnessed countless meaningful moments–from watching an Alzheimer’s patient who hadn’t communicated in months sing words to a Christmas carol to singing with the young people at the Exceptional Foundation in Homewood.
“We definitely get as much out of the performances as we give,” Murphy said. “You leave each performance exhilarated and exhausted.”
The choral group members weren’t the only ones who were exhilarated by the performance at the Lovelady Center last week.
The group’s performance of “Strike Up the Band” by the Gershwin brothers on March 11 had the audience members–young and old–on their feet.
“There’s usually some type of very singular moment when you connect with the audience during a performance, and when that happens, when we’re making quality music and touching people’s lives, well, that’s what it’s all about,” Murphy said.
For more information on the Junior League of Birmingham Choral Group or the Junior League of Birmingham, visit www.jlbonline.com.