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Anna Crusis Women's Choir still singing with a sting

Jacqueline Coren never scoffs when people ask who Anna Crusis was and why a nationally known feminist, lesbian-friendly Philadelphia women's choir bears her name.

Jacqueline Coren never scoffs when people ask who Anna Crusis was and why a nationally known feminist, lesbian-friendly Philadelphia women's choir bears her name.

If nothing else, Coren says, the question at least indicates that Anna Crusis is on people's radar.

But anacrusis is a classical-music term describing the unaccented - or "feminine" - upbeat that sets the stage for a downbeat.

And Anna Crusis is a pun, an apt name for a choir of diverse women who give voice to the need for social change.

The Annas, as members call themselves, are women of all ages and occupations who volunteer their time and talent to perform politically pointed songs of both sorrow and satire.

They've sung at the United Nations and in Carnegie Hall, performed compositions by k.d. lang and Holly Near. They've expanded the body of music for, by, and about women by commissioning nearly 20 works - among them a piece by Jennifer Higdon in the 1990s, long before the Philadelphia resident won this year's Pulitzer Prize in music composition.

And this weekend the choir will mark its 35th anniversary with a concert Saturday evening in Center City and another Sunday afternoon in Germantown.

Its 35 members will sing in Bulgarian and Spanish as well as English, in harmony and hip-hop style, a cappella and accompanied by piano.

The wide-ranging program will feature a quartet singing "37 Bumper Stickers," by Judith Palmer, who has been an off-and-on Anna since the choir's inception in 1975. Sage Bleakney, the 23-year-old son of choir member Tracy Bleakney, got special dispensation, by virtue of his mother's involvement, to provide the beatboxing (vocal percussion) behind the hip-hop number "What's Up With That?"

American Sign Language interpretation of the entire program will be done by James Rowe, an Abington native and University of the Arts grad who learned sign language to have a role with the choir. Rowe, 46, commutes from New York City to volunteer with Anna Crusis. As a gay man, he says, "I never dreamed they'd let me participate unless I went trans."

(He's joking. But one Anna did become a man after leaving the group.)

To conclude the program, a hundred or more former Annas will join the choir in "Bread and Roses," a 1911 poem that became the theme of the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Mass., and was set to music in 1976 by Mimi Fariña.

"Once an Anna, always an Anna," says Coren, who directs vocal music at the George School in Bucks County.

After the program, audience members will be enticed to support the group further by buying CDs and hand-painted silk scarves that the Annas make to raise money.

In keeping with its mission, Anna Crusis will give its second annual Themis (THEE-mus) Award at Sunday's concert to a pair of pioneering local businesswomen: Doris Polsky and her twin sister, the late Shirley Melvin.

When the sisters were 19, in 1943, theirs was among the first Jewish families to move to Mount Airy. And as the neighborhood became increasingly diverse, the sisters fought to make it a racially integrated community. They helped start the Allens Lane Art Center in 1953. Later they became real estate brokers and, as Twin Realty, worked successfully to prevent the "white flight" that threatened Mount Airy's stability.

"They are exactly the kind of women we want to honor," Coren says.

As with all women, there are some things the Annas just won't do - show tunes and patriotic songs, for example. Religious numbers are balanced, with songs from a range of faiths.

"We used to sing more madrigals," Coren says, somewhat wistfully.

That was when feminism was young and lesbians had almost no voice. Back then, the idea of bringing gay and straight women together for the common cause was a radical idea. Now gender identity is a nonstarter, says Helen Sherman, an original Anna who is still singing.

Coren thinks feminist was always something of an epithet. "Probably still is," she says, while lesbians have gained greater acceptance. "At least the conversation about gender differences is more open."

Some of the women's voices have changed, too, with the passage of time. In high school, Sherman was a second soprano. When she joined Anna Crusis she was a first alto, and now, at 66, she's a second alto.

"I don't remember when I was asked to switch to second alto," Sherman says, "but, yes, voices do change."

Admission to the choir is through auditions, slated for Wednesday and next Thursday.

Despite the frequent need to stand on risers, the group is wheelchair accessible. Maria Bottiglieri, 47, parks her chair next to the other first sopranos and will travel with the choir to Chicago this year to sing.

"I have cerebral palsy, and I thought that would stand in my way," Bottiglieri says, "but I was befriended immediately and felt right at home."

She loves that the Annas memorize their music, "so you can see our faces when we're singing and the music becomes part of us."

Linda Donnelly, 59, joined the choir 1995. "I went to my first Anna Crusis concert in late 1980s, and as soon as I heard them sing, I knew I wanted to do that someday."

"Singing with a purpose is special," she says. "I don't see myself stopping any time soon."

Palmer, who has been singing since childhood, echoes that sentiment:

"You can sing in a church choir, or a community choir, but if you have a core of political bent in you, this is that much more satisfying."

Anna Crusis Women's Choir

The Anna Crusis Women's Choir performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at Arch Street United Methodist Church, Broad and Arch Streets, and at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, 6511 Lincoln Drive.

Tickets: $20-$25 at or 215-864-5991.