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Elvera Voth

Photo of Elvera Voth
1923
Categories: 2015 Alumnae, Activist, Music

Biography

Voth was a female pioneer in musical artistry in Alaska. Throughout her 33 years in the young state, she founded new musical organizations and strengthened existing ones, teaching and inspiring singers and the orchestra to meet her high standards of musicianship.

In 1960 Voth received a contract to teach at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The university received another application from a male and hired him instead. They said, “I’m sure you will understand.” Being a woman in a male-dominated profession was an obstacle. Voth persevered and her determination paid off when, in 1961, she was hired to conduct the Anchorage Community Chorus as well as to rehearse and prepare the Alaska Festival of Music Chorus for its conductor Robert Shaw. During the 1960s and 1970s the Anchorage Community Chorus concerts and the Alaska Festival of Music became two of the most important cultural events in the city. Her leadership during this time and the great success of these organizations cemented Voth in history as a driving force in expanding musical artistry in Alaska.

Voth’s talents were taken to Washington, D.C. in 1976 when states were invited to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration and Voth was chosen to lead Alaska’s presentation. Her success in Alaska made her an excellent pick for this prestigious honor. She chose 22 Anchorage singers, the Kodiak Russian Dancers and Point Hope Eskimo dancers and singers to represent Alaska. In our nation’s capital she conducted the Alaska ensemble of singers and orchestra in the premier of a new contemporary musical composition “Susitna” by Gary Smart based on the bitter-sweet legend of “The Sleeping Lady” and her Indian sweetheart. Magnificent photographs of the seasons of Alaska by Steve McCutcheon were projected onto a large screen behind the singers. For many in the Washington, D.C., audience it was a dramatic introduction to Alaska’s contemporary and traditional arts along with Alaska’s majestic landscapes.

Later she was the conductor for a 1992 cultural exchange to Magadan, Russia for a week of performances and workshops culminating in a joint gala concert of singers and musicians from Alaska and Magadan. Her leadership was met with some resistance by her Russian counterparts who were not used to having a woman conductor in charge. Her experiences in Alaska as a pioneer prepared her well for the leadership necessary to successfully conduct the orchestra. She would need to demonstrate strength if they were to take her seriously. At the first rehearsal of Russian and Alaska musicians for the main concert at the end of the week, Evgeny, the conductor of the Magadan orchestra, assumed he would be the conductor and tried to take over. Voth informed him she was the conductor. Outraged, he and his male musicians sitting in the first chairs in front of the orchestra walked out of the rehearsal. Without losing a beat, Voth beckoned to all the female Russian musicians, who had been put in the back of the orchestra sitting in the third chairs, to move up to the front where the men had sat. Stunned by Voth’s brash response, they had to be encouraged to accept their promotions. Voth quickly began the rehearsal. Within minutes Evgeny and the men, hearing the music, sheepishly returned. The women had to move back so the men could regain their first chairs in front. Evgeny tried to make amends with Voth. She graciously allowed him to conduct a couple of the Russian pieces in the concert.

The night of the concert, the Russian audience heard Voth lead the Anchorage Chamber Singers and orchestra through a history of American music, ending with the combined voices of Russian and Americans in Schubertʼs Mass in G Major. At the conclusion the audience exploded into applause. The results far exceeded her expectations. She later commented “I just wasn’t prepared for those opening chords from the combined forces of the Magadan chorus and orchestra and the Alaska Chamber Singers. That wave of musical intensity hit me like a wall of water. She remembers her thought at the time was to “just get out of the way and let it happen.”

In 1995 Voth, now in her 70s, retired and moved back to her home state of Kansas. She volunteered to start a prison chorus at Lansing Correctional Facility called “The East Hill Singers.” She later founded the Arts in Prisons, Inc. offering arts programs to correctional facilities across Kansas. They benefited from Voth’s vast experience of working with singers in Alaska. Recognizing she and the prisoners needed the camaraderie of experienced male singers, she brought singers from the Kansas City Opera chorus and the Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City to join the prison chorus. The East Hill Singers were allowed to perform outside the prison and quickly became hugely popular and respected performers.

In 1997 after learning about her programs, her former colleague and Kennedy Center honoree Robert Shaw, now in his 80s, called and asked how he could help support her work. She told him about the potential for using arts experiences to help rehabilitate inmates. She wanted to start a new organization that would help prisoners but she needed money to do it. She suggested that Shaw conduct a benefit sing-along program to raise the money. The benefit sing-along with Robert Shaw raised funds to start a fund for Voth’s dream of a new organization called Arts in Prisons, Inc. that would offer arts programs to other correctional facilities across Kansas. This program expanded to include Missouri and has inspired other states and organizations to start similar programs in their prisons. The mission of Arts in Prisons, Inc. reads:

“Arts in Prison provides life changing programs, using art as a medium, in prisons and detention centers in Kansas and Missouri so that our participants are better equipped to be successful when they re-enter our communities.”

The joy of singing and the applause and acceptance from the audiences also helped many of the inmates change their lives. Voth learned to recognize the power of the arts to rehabilitate prisoners. Again, Voth is in the spotlight for being a leader and trailblazer; this time creating opportunity for those incarcerated to learn about art and music and again using music to work towards social justice.

Her academic background shows an impressive foundation. She began her career by receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from Bethel College in 1946 and a Masterʼs degree in Music Education from Northwestern University in 1948.

In addition to her other work, Voth has held numerous positions throughout her long and distinguished career including founder and director of the Anchorage Boys Choir, founder and director of the University of Alaska Singers, conductor of the Alaska Methodist University AMU Chorale (APU, Mid 1960s), director of Anchorage Lyric Opera (1972 – 1975), director of Sunday Afternoon Concert Series at the Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Museum (1961 – 1973).

Her decades of accomplishments have earned her many awards including, Newton’s Woman of the Year (1956), Artist of the Year by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce (1979), Governorʼs Award for Artist of the Year (1983); an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Alaska (1987). In the late 1990s and early 2000s Voth received honors and awards from the governor of Kansas and the Kansas Music Educators Assn. To commemorate a lifetime of achievements, the Elvera Voth Rehearsal Hall in the Performing Arts Center in Anchorage was dedicated in 2003.

Voth ignored the gender barriers of her generation and so overcame them. She was a mentor, role model and inspiration for musicians to reach for roles in major choral, opera companies, orchestras, and ultimately, the highest position, conductors. She mentored, nurtured and developed young singers, discovering talents and abilities in them they didn’t know they had. She actively recruited young men from the army and air force bases in Anchorage at a time when Anchorage was a location that was defined as hardship tour of duty. Men and women sang in her chorus and often discovered a love of and sometimes a future profession in music. She gave them confidence and support to reach way beyond what they thought they were capable of. Many went into professional choral groups and opera companies, became music teachers, found other music-related jobs in the business and administration of the music industry, or just kept singing for as long as they could. Choral music and all its forms in the various musical organizations Voth founded built community.

Her pioneering efforts are mentioned in the International Journal of Research in Choral Singing and underscore her influence in the use of the sing-along format and highlight the important work she and Robert Shaw accomplished together. The article describes a particularly successful event. In 1968 during the 13th annual Alaska Festival of Music, Voth persuaded an unwilling Robert Shaw to lead a sing-along at the Fort Richardson Army Base chapel near Anchorage. Shaw assumed no one would attend and remarked, “I hope you will be pleased to see me fall on my face.”

When they arrived at the hall an over-capacity crowd rose with a roar and the event was a huge success. The article goes on to say “ this initial sing-along format in Alaska was the humble precursor of what thirty (sic) years hence would stand as perhaps Shaw’s greatest public testimony to his passionate beliefs about choral music and social justice: …The 1998 Benefit Sing-Along (Arts in Prison Inc.) raised both money and awareness for a prison-based choir begun by Voth. It also created opportunities for other art experiences for incarcerated human beings.” 

Voth was a brilliant, inspiring teacher, conductor-musician; innovative and creative in her concerts and performances; a witty and engaging speaker for music the arts and women. She believed and proved that choral singing could be an instrument of social justice, healing and empowering the disenfranchised.

Resources

“International Journal of Research in Choral Singing”

http://www.choralresearch.org/volumethree/ijrcs3_1_cohen.pdf