Patricia Farris Hennings, 51, died peacefully in her home in Palo Alto, California on December 20 after a life made rich by music. She had battled breast cancer for nearly four years. Hennings, best known as conductor of the Peninsula Women’s Chorus since 1975, touched many lives through her work as a conductor, educator, and performer. As Director of Choral Activities at Skyline College, Hennings gathered students from diverse backgrounds into a musical community, performing standard choral works as well as new works by living composers.
Under Hennings’ direction, the Peninsula Women’s Chorus (PWC) issued four CDs, toured internationally, and performed three times at national conferences of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA). In 1999, the PWC won the prestigious American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) Award for Adventurous Programming. In 2000, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of her tenure as Artistic Director of the PWC, Hennings gathered a panel of composers who had written works for the chorus; the panel members demonstrate the quality and variety of composers Hennings had engaged during her career: Libby Larsen, Kirke Mechem, Michael Cleveland, David Conte, Joan Szymko, Brian Holmes, David Meckler, and Ron Jeffers. Larsen was present for the premier of her work, Psalm 121, which combined texts of John Muir and Hennings herself to supplement the Psalm, "I will lift my eyes to the hills."
Hennings’ Poetry and Music Project, in collaboration with California Poets in the Schools, gathered poems from elementary school children and commissioned composers to set some of them for women’s chorus. Hennings wrote about the project in an article, "A Young Poet Sings," that appeared in Pan Pipes, a publication of Sigma Alpha Iota, the international music fraternity, which had honored her with their Rose of Honor and Sword of Honor. Hennings wrote, "Not only do many elementary school children now believe that they can write something truly worthwhile, but women’s choral literature is richer now by nine new compositions." During the past year, Hennings set in motion a similar project at Skyline College, which will culminate with performances this spring.
When Hennings began teaching at Skyline College, few students were interested in singing. Hennings built the program year by year and in 1991 the Skyline College Choir traveled to New York to perform in Carnegie Hall. In recent years, those attending her concerts have seen a stage crowded with student singers performing sophisticated major choral works. Hennings articulated her feelings about choral music in a recent article, saying that "the heart of the matter is the process by which music becomes spirit. It is the process of creating and communicating through music…. It is the process of becoming one with the music and one with each other. It is not something any of us can accomplish alone."
Hennings’ treatments for breast cancer did not stop her from an active performing schedule with her choirs. She traveled with the PWC to San Antonio last March, where they performed as the only post-college women’s choir selected by blind audition to sing at an ACDA National Convention in the past fifteen years. In July, the PWC was selected to perform as one of five international choirs at the first Americafest World Festival of Women's Singing in Seattle; Hennings was able to coordinate her treatments to lead the group as scheduled. It was only in the most recent round of performances that Hennings had to pass the baton to assistants, although she was able to attend the ambitious concerts she had programmed and rehearsed.
Patricia Hennings was a third-generation Californian, the great-granddaughter of James Rumsey Alexander, a successful gold miner, who came to California in 1852. She was born in Santa Monica. After completing her B.A. at Pomona College, Hennings came to Stanford, where she earned both M.A. and D.M.A. degrees in choral conducting. While a graduate student, she met her husband-to-be, Barry Alan Hennings, in the choir at Memorial Church. They married and together raised two children, Kristin and Nathan, who currently live in the Bay Area. In addition to her husband and children, Hennings leaves her parents, Ragene and Marjorie Farris of Escondido, a sister, Carol Farris of Bethesda, Maryland, and two brothers, R. Lloyd Farris of Yorba Linda and Frank Farris of San Jose.
Hennings led an energetic family life. Backpacking and spending time at the family cabin in the Sierra Nevada were favorite activities. She recently enjoyed visiting the ridge above Downieville where her great-grandfather had mined gold and raised four daughters before moving with them to San Jose. Hennings and her family were long-time members of Grace Lutheran Church.
Hennings’ remains have been interred in the grave of her great-grandfather, James Rumsey Alexander, in Oak Hill Memorial Park, San Jose. The family and Hennings’ large community of singers plans to celebrate her life at a service on January 19, 2002 at 2 PM at the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto. In lieu of flowers, tax-deductible contributions may be sent to the Patricia Hennings Memorial Fund, Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, 1222 Preservation Parkway, Oakland, CA 94612-1201. This fund will promote women’s choral music and continue Hennings’ work to build community through music.
-- written by Frank Farris