Voices rose, a piano wailed and applause came down like a
mighty stream of thunder in East Baltimore's Turner Auditorium
June 14 as the Unified Voices of The Johns Hopkins Medical
Institutions performed its second anniversary concert to a
standing-room-only crowd of friends, fans and well-wishers.
The all-volunteer group is a choir consisting of Johns Hopkins employees, staff, faculty, administrators and students as well as members of the East Baltimore community. Its purpose, according to founding member Gregory Branch, is to provide sheer pleasure in music for both participant and audience alike, while acting as a positive and creative link between the medical institutions and the Historic East Baltimore community.
"There is no feeling quite like we get when performing for our Hopkins audience," says Branch, lead physician of internal medicine and medical director of lab services at the Johns Hopkins Medical Services Corporation at the East Baltimore medical institutions. "It's such an exciting feeling."
Currently the Unified Voices numbers 80 members, almost all of them singers with substantial performance backgrounds through their church or community choirs or other musical experience. Ironically, Branch, who organized the group as part of a talent show when he was a Hopkins medical resident, considers his own abilities wanting in this regard. "I've always loved the theater, but I'm not a real musician," he says. "That's why I went to medical school instead."
"When I was a resident I was part of an employee appreciation week committee and worked on the talent show," he recalls. "Well we had over 20 gospel vocalists volunteer to sing. Now you can't have 20 different gospel singers in one show, so we decided to put them together in a choir."
That impromptu group learned one song--"Joy"--which remains to this day the Unified Voices signature trademark. They performed the song at the talent show in September of 1993 and were, in Branch's words, "a hit."
"Right after the talent show we sang again at Sojourner Douglass College [near the East Baltimore campus], where we did some Kwanza and Christmas music and there we were a huge success," he says. "By the time we concluded all the members present wanted to continue."
But what he may claim to lack in musicianship he more than makes up in enthusiasm, as his efforts have transformed an essentially ad hoc one-song performance association into a polished group of talented musicians that have traveled as far north as New York, as far south as North Carolina, and won friends and admirers all along the way.
The group had its official premiere in May of the following year with about 14 songs and a new, more polished presentational style led by music director (and community member) Jimmy Riley. Since then, the Unified Voices have been taking their unique blend of members, backgrounds and voices to just about anywhere they're invited.
"Originally all our members were gospel singers, but this is not a gospel choir," says Branch, who now serves as the group's executive director. "We sing all different types of music, but, we like to think, with our own sense of purpose."
Group member and baritone Dorry Segev agrees. An American-raised Israeli citizen now starting his surgery residency at Hopkins, Segev occasionally plays piano and composes music for the group. "There's a special feeling you get when you sing with this group, it's the spirituality," he says. "You sense that all of these people are very strong in their faith."
Classically trained in piano and voice, Segev studied music theory and composition at Rice University while a pre-med student there. Working with Unified Voices has given a whole new range of colors to his musical palette, he says, as is evidenced in his song "Under the Dome" that the group has performed to considerable acclaim.
"This is a song that needs a choir with a gospel sensibility to perform," he says. "The sonorities I use are based on what I heard the group sing when I first joined." Using the inscription from the pedestal of the statue of Jesus beneath the hospital's historic dome--"Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I shall give thee rest"--Segev creates a multilayered musical text that separates, amplifies and then reconnects the three main ideas in a tapestry of gospel and pop motifs.
"When we practice Wednesday nights in Hurd Hall the singing is so vibrant we just fill the whole room," Segev says. "The music spills out down the halls and people will come in and just start clapping along. I often think I like the rehearsals more than the actual performances."
What is most special about the group, say members of the Unified Voices, is not the music but the membership itself. "The variety of people involved is tremendous," Segev says. "I only wish there were more involvement from School of Medicine and School of Public Health students. I think they have the false sense they're too busy, which is a shame."
Yet if some of the students have proven reluctant, many others have been anxious and eager to join, especially after hearing one of the group's annual concerts. "The Unified Voices is just one way to help bridge the gap between the hospital and the community," says Branch of the movement he seems to have started. "It bridges gaps between departments within Hopkins as well. I mean where else do you hear about Department of Surgery people getting together to do something with Department of Medicine people? Music makes it happen."
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