Genia Simpson, one of the founding members of what eventually became WomenSing, comes by her musical talent honestly. Both of her parents were singers; her father sang both with the Met and with the San Francisco Opera. Genia grew up in Porterville, in the central valley of California, on a 600-acre orange ranch. She and her sisters belonged to the Canterbelles, an equestrian group that appeared at county fairs, Genia riding her pinto pony, Paint. Genia married Bill, her high school sweetheart-it's been a "love match for 58 years." Bill served four years in the Air Force, which allowed the couple to spend their first married year together in Germany, before moving to Orinda.
Genia met Orinda Women's Chorale's first director, Marge Donaldson, at the ...Find Out More...Orinda Newcomers Club. At that time there wasn't much going on for young mothers and the club was their social outlet. It was 1965, the era of the hippie, and the "summer of love" was in full swing in San Francisco. Genia and Marge decided to go into Berkeley to take guitar lessons and sing folk songs.
Marge had been a music major studying choral directing and violin at Oberlin, and Genia had sung in the Pomona College Choir. They both missed singing, so the idea occurred to them: "Why don't we start a Newcomers choral group?" And thus began what is now WomenSing. The group met in Marge's living room, with kids crawling around under the chairs. Marge's taste was eclectic, covering everything from Bach to the Beatles-truly "the traditional and the unexpected." Not only did the women love singing together, but they just loved being together. "It was our therapy and perhaps our first realization of the power and comfort of a women's group."
Genia's favorite memories revolve around the group's collaboration with other artists. "It was so exhilarating and rewarding. These collaborations created such camaraderie, full of 'sol y sombre' moments of laughter and singing through tears-not to mention the long-lasting friendships."
One of Genia's special memories of collaboration is the Faure Requiemwith the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, directed by current WomenSing Artist Director Martín Benvenuto. "It was transporting-the spiritual beauty created in that collaboration is one of my very cherished memories." She also remembers with fondness Karl Jenkins' Adiemus, directed by former Artistic Director David Morales, with augmented choir, the Fifth Dimension Dance Company, and a nine-piece, all-women percussion orchestra. Genia participated in one tour with WomenSing, to Argentina. "To be in Martín's homeland with the honor of singing in the Golden Salon at the Opera House in Buenos Aires was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Martín selected a beautiful program with a variety of choral music-American folk songs and spirituals, classics, and English and Scottish ballads."
Although Genia has retired from WomenSing, she's still a vital component of our performances. Just before we take the risers, she leads us through a series of gentle dance movements to prepare us to sing. "I try to bring a flowing but focused energy and calm centeredness to everyone. Body awareness, being present, helps us breathe as one and gather our spirits in the power of community-one voice."
In fact, creating dances has been Genia's life passion. She studied with Bella Lewitsky, Merce Cunningham, Eugene Loring, and also studied and taught at Shawl Anderson Modern Dance Center in Berkeley, dancing with the latter's first performing company. She loves all aspects of the creative process-the individual dancer's expressive movement, the surprise and delight of improv, the spirit of collaboration. "The weaving together, the phrase and flow of final production are all so exhilarating."
In 1974, Genia and cofounder Gini Sungar created the Dancers Circle. This group's long-standing commitment to education continues to this day as they create interfaith worship services, concerts and workshops throughout the Bay Area. For the past 38 years the Dancers Circle has been affiliated with the Orinda Community Church. The group has performed its signature work, the Misa Criolla, an Argentinian folk mass, over 100 times throughout the Bay Area. The first performance of this work took place with David Morales when he was the music director at the First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.
The Dancers Circle has collaborated with many WomenSing artistic directors on works such as The Irish Cabin and Faure's Sanctus (Gladys Burke, director); Peace Invocation, arranged by Alice Parker (Kathy Smith, director); Chichester Psalms, Pinkham's Christmas Cantata,Misa Criolla (David Morales, director), and Gaudete and Orban'sSanctus (Martín Benvenuto, director).
While it hardly seems that she'd have time for other interests, Genia also does crafts, hikes, paints, and enjoys a good book. She's proud of her husband Bill, an architect, who won the first Orinda Architect of the Year Award and also served on the Orinda Planning Committee. Genia and Bill have two children, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
WomenSing is richer today for the start Genia helped give it, and for the freedom and joy she encourages in us to this day.