A new ensemble

Three Roanoke area classical musicians, flutist Sarah Wardle Jones, clarinetist Michelle Smith Johnson and pianist Erica Sipes, have formed a new chamber music trio, Alma Ensemble. The trio will emphasize works by female composers.

Three women who wanted more opportunities to play chamber music chose to create those opportunities themselves.

Flutist Sarah Wardle Jones, 33, works as the education director for Roanoke Symphony Orchestra. Pianist Erica Sipes, 46, spent the last four years managing Imagination Station, the recently closed toy store on Grandin Road. Clarinet player Michelle Smith Johnson, 35, teaches elementary and middle school music in Roanoke City Public Schools and Roanoke Youth Symphony String Ensemble and Chamber Orchestra.

Johnson, Jones and Sipes have founded the Alma Ensemble, a Roanoke Valley-based chamber music trio that emphasizes works by woman composers. The trio’s namesake, Alma Mahler, was a talented composer whose budding career was suppressed by her first husband, the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. The word “alma” also carries meanings of “nourishment” and “soul.”

“We all had a mutual interest in music of women composers and also using music as a vehicle for connection with people. As we perform, we want to create a connection with our audiences and give them a gift,” Jones said.

In 2017, Jones gave a free recital in Martinsville. “I had not given a recital since my graduate school days. I missed playing.” She put together a program of woman composers and asked Sipes to accompany her. Johnson attended the recital. “That kind of got us talking,” Jones said.

Though she loves her job, “my performing musician self needed something more,” Johnson said. “When Sarah did her recital, it really inspired me to get my clarinet back out.”

“On the side, I’ve always done accompanying,” either with children or college faculty members, Sipes said. “It’s different to form a chamber music group, to have colleagues that you’re performing with, growing as an ensemble.”

As the trio rehearsed in Sipes’ Roanoke County home, Sipes’ dog Churro added commentary from another room. Sipes, who has more than 6,000 followers on Twitter, sometimes posts videos of her rehearsals in which Churro sits beside her and “sings” as she plays.

The trio doesn’t limit the genres they’ll play. During a concert, they’re more interested in talking about why a piece appeals them then lecturing drily about its history. “We’re sharing,” Jones said.

Formed in January, the Alma Ensemble officially performed for the first time in February in collaboration with members of Sound Impact, a Washington, D.C. based chamber music collective. Sound Impact will team with the trio again in one of two concerts that Alma Ensemble will play over the next seven days.

On Sunday at Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church in Vinton, the trio will perform a concert titled “From Darkness to Light” with Voices of Appalachia, a community choir comprised of singers from the Roanoke and New River valleys, led by Thrasher Memorial Minister of Music Josh O’Dell.

On Thursday at Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Alma Ensemble will play “Boundless: Music by Women,” joined by Sound Impact and the Roanoke Youth Symphony Chamber Ensemble. The program features a full slate of woman composers.

“We’ve been really lucky to be able to collaborate with some local groups,” Johnson said.

For more about Alma Ensemble, visit almaensemble.org. For more about Voices of Appalachia, visit voicesofappalachia.org. For more about Sound Impact, visit soundimpact.org.

Carilion call

The Dr. Robert L. A. Keeley Healing Arts Program at Carilion Clinic has put out a call for entries for its upcoming 2019 Patient Art , which will take place Dec. 5- March 24, 2020 at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. The show is open to artists of all ages and backgrounds who have visited a Carilion provider within the past two years. The show will be judged and cash prizes will be awarded. Those wishing to participate must register at NationalArtsProgram.org/CarilionPatient by Oct. 31. For more information, email healingarts@carilionclinic.org.

Writer by Bus reading

Lucy Marcus, a graduate of the Hollins University MFA in Creative Writing program, was chosen for the 2019 Writer by Bus program, in which she rode Valley Metro buses in the spring and wrote a chapbook of short stories, “Dandelion Wishes,” based on the experience. On Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., she will read selections from her chapbook in the Richard Wetherill Visual Arts Center at Hollins University. Previous Writer by Bus recipients Melanie Almeder, Meighan Sharp, Shari Dragovich and Tim Thornton will also read. Admission is free. For more information visit ridesolutions.org/artbybus.

Mike Allen covers government happenings in Franklin County and Botetourt County for The Roanoke Times and also writes the weekly Arts & Extras column.

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