Postcards From The Chorus

Postcard from SFGC Alumna Leah Fitschen Schloss

This week’s postcard comes from SFGC alumna Leah Fitschen Schloss, laureated in 1985 after playing the role of Aeneas in the Chorus’s production of Dido & Aeneas. She now lives in NY with her husband, cantor Randy Schloss, and two teenage daughters, and is Director of Marketing at a large law firm in Manhattan.
Hello SF Girls Chorus, from a long-lost friend!

My first real exposure to music was when I started playing the flute at 9 years old, although I dabbled at the piano before that. I was actually pretty good and I had a teacher who used to make me sing my phrases so that I knew how to phrase, and I realized as I was doing it that I was kind of enjoying the singing part more than the playing-the-flute part. And also my sister joined the SFGC first and she was really into it – I went to a few concerts and I was just amazed by the sound that the chorus made, and I wanted to be part of it!

My sophomore year in high school I sang the role of Aeneas [in SFGC’s own fully-staged production of Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas]– at first I thought it was really strange, I must admit. I didn’t know that it was a sort of tradition in opera to have treble voices singing male roles, so I was surprised that I was cast as the male lead! But we all heard the reason, which was that we were doing it as it was originally premiered – at a girls school (Josias Priest’s girls’ school in London 1689) – so that made sense to me. Once I started to sink my teeth into the role, with amazing coaching along the way, I started to really really love being a man in the opera! I was taught how to sing and comport myself in this very regal, prince-like way that I had never even pretended to be in my life, so it was really fun! It was the first time I had ever really put on a totally different foreign character and tried to embody it, both musically and physically.

Leah Fitschen, age 15, in the role of Aeneas.

Elizabeth Appling was doing most if not all of the vocal coaching but we did have some early music and theater experts come in and help us. We got really good movement training – we learned how to do period dance, and a lot of the stage movements were very formal and dramatic. We staged it in the same kind of way that the girls’ school did, and that was really fun to learn about.

Aeneas was my first opera role and the SFGC was my first exposure to opera and classical singing. I did go on to get a Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance at University of Michigan and I also have a Masters of Music in Voice. The SFGC definitely encouraged me to take music seriously – I don’t know that I would have thought that I had the voice to do it but I got a lot of positive encouragement from Elizabeth and the chorus in general, and I also learned how disciplined you have to be to be a musician. SFGC was a rigorous training that prepared me well for music school, and it was also inspiring – I really grew to love music in a way that I had never imagined.

I loved being in music school with others who were focusing on music 24/7. I found a lot of like-minded people, and it was an interesting and stimulating training. While I’m not singing professionally today, I do still sing a lot with my husband who’s a cantor – I sing in services with him, and we do concerts sometimes. I still love performing.

There are a few things that you get in a musical training that apply to anything, really. The discipline is huge – think about the amount of discipline it takes to learn an opera role: memorize all the music, learn about the character, do all the translations, rehearse and coach every line of the score. It’s very self-motivated – you have to sit down and make it happen yourself, there’s not someone necessarily checking in on you all the time to make sure you’ve learned it. I also think that learning to perform is something that’s important for more corporate jobs. You have to get up in front of people all the time, make presentations and talk about something very complex and analytical, and hopefully you can be composed and persuasive. When you perform a lot, you learn not to be scared of it. There’s a whole bunch of other things too: in opera you’re studying text, so you’re interpreting it, thinking about words – that applies to so many different fields. As a society we don’t value this enough these days. We’re so technical about everything – but it’s still very important to be able to write, read, understand and analyze.

Leah Fitschen Schloss today, in the role of adult person.

Music is a very difficult field. It is scary when I think about what I went through – there is struggle involved, if you want to be a performer. But if you have the drive to become a musician – if it’s what you really love and really want – then you should do it. It isn’t a loss even if it doesn’t work out, because there are so many things you can do with the training and experience. I also think it’s really important, when you love something, to do it and not deprive yourself of that. Music is such a worthwhile thing to learn from and immerse yourself in, regardless of the outcome. Maintaining or growing that skill set and your love of music is something you carry with you your whole life, whether you are professional or not. You can sing in solo recitals, or chamber music – there are so many options for using it, even if it’s not to make a living. Learning about it enriches the experience so much – if you dabble in it, it’s not quite the same. I don’t regret it at all!

One other thing about musical training that is really valuable that very few people get in their university life is one-on-one study. You learn so much from your teacher about your craft but also about life, when you are that close to a teacher – especially if you have a good teacher! There’s so much to the relationship, it’s almost an apprenticeship.

I think it’s hard in our society for us to believe in having musical aspirations. Hopefully parents can open their minds to it, because it is such a rich experience for their kids – and for them! As a parent of musical girls, I have learned that watching a child grow through music is a huge pleasure, very rewarding. We all need support – the parents need support for putting so many hours in, driving them places and believing in something that they think may not result in a job someday. I remember how hard it was for my own mom, driving us to rehearsals all the time – it’s not easy! It’s a real commitment, but it’s really worth it. It’s hard in this day and age to see that. You have to keep up the fight – parents are the keepers of this flame that we need to keep lit for the next generation. It’s up to us. I truly believe that it’s good work.

Hoping to meet some of you in the months to come,

Leah Fitschen Schloss, ’85


Postcard from the Artistic Director: Troop 6000

This week’s postcard from AD Lisa Bielawa considers the role of music and community in some of the most challenged societies.

Dear SFGC Friends,

The program from the world premiere of Messiaen’s masterpiece, at the Görlitz prison camp in 1941

It has been wonderful to hear from our colleagues, the girls, audience members, parents and alumnae over the past couple of weeks, following up on their experiences of our whirlwind trip to NYC and Washington, DC. For those of you who reached out – thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us! And extra thanks to our tour Postcard writers, Gabby Vulakh and Elizabeth Easton, who did so much to help you all feel like you were really on the road with us!

Back in NYC now, I am writing a piece for instrumental trio – piano, French horn and flute – and wondering how I ever got myself into that absurd situation in the first place. Piano, horn and flute? What was I thinking???

But then I had the humbling and very moving experience of hearing another piece written for an unusual assemblage of instruments: attending a “house concert” in a historic Chelsea brownstone, a special presentation of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” which was written while he was a prisoner at a German internment camp in 1941 – for clarinet, piano, violin and cello, i.e., the instruments played by whatever fellow musical prisoners he encountered there. It’s an amazing story – a prison guard smuggled paper and ink into his cell, even one of the instruments had to be borrowed from citizen of the nearby town.

You can read a fuller account here:
And also here, in a review of a performance that featured Rebecca Rischin, a clarinetist with whom I went to high school in SF. (At Lowell, by the way!)

Our friend Joshua Roman was the one who assembled the musicians I heard – and they included pianist Conor Hanick, who had just played with The Knights and SFGC a couple of weeks earlier! So – some common friends. Here’s the short first movement of the piece:

Does this sound like something written in a prison? Why or why not? The clarinet and violin play short little phrases over and over again – do these remind you of a sound in nature? What is the mood of this music? Do these four instruments sound like they belong together?

As I listened to the piece (which is around 50 minutes long, in eight movements), I thought about how the 20 or so of us, sitting comfortably there in this lovely house, were in such different circumstances from the audience at the premiere – prisoners and prison staff – but how the piece seems to address us in our own search for meaning, just as it spoke to that audience in theirs. Transcendent experiences, like the kind one can get from listening to music, can help anyone from any kind of life – whether comfortable or stark, healthy or ailing, tormented or exultant, in her or his search for meaning.

It reminded me of this recent story that circulated the news here in NYC around the same time as the house concert, about the first-ever Girl Scouts troop for homeless girls.

Food, shelter, water, employment – these are basic needs that our society struggles to meet for all of its members. But what about music for prisoners? Art and fellowship for these homeless girls? Are the arts really a “luxury,” as some in our government claim? Why is it that, even when some of the most basic needs are not met within human societies, things like the Quartet for the End of Time, or Girl Scout Troop 6000, still burst forth from the human spirit?

Questions best answered, at least for me, by a trio for piano, horn and flute, perhaps…



Postcard from tour: Our Kennedy Center Debut!

Hello SFGC Community, from back home in SF!

Our tour postcard writers, Gabby Vulakh and Elizabeth Easton, with Valerie at the airport in Washington, DC – headed home on Sunday.

Since Gabby wrote you all, our rehearsal process continued in New York and in D.C. It was so wonderful to see Eric Jacobsen again – he is such a wonderful conductor and The Knights’ sound is unique, and the way they conduct rehearsal is so impressive. I loved how they all contributed to their conversations about sound, phrasing, and color – it really paints a picture. Then, they are not only able to describe their vision, but they carry it out in a beautiful and graceful manner.

My favorite song to play with them is definitely Lisa Bielawa’s piece, My Outstretched Hand. The chords are stunning and the words are truly beautiful. The song really comes together when both choirs are singing along with the orchestra.

On Thursday we ate a pizza dinner in New York with the whole group and some alums who are now living nearby. One was a professional singer, and another was an actress. It was really fascinating and inspiring to see girls who had gone through the chorus grow up and have jobs in the arts.




SFGC alumnae Kristin Faith Oei, Michele Kennedy, and Gina Patterson visit with singers.

I didn’t expect Friday’s charter bus ride to Washington, DC to be as short as it felt, so that was a pleasant surprise. As soon as we arrived, we rehearsed Vivaldi’s Gloria with The Knights. We got to sing in a circle around the orchestra, which was great because we could hear the sound (especially of the strings) much more clearly.

A small group of us sang at The Hamilton dinner club with The Knights on Friday night. We listened to the opening act for The Knights, Holly Bowling. She was an amazingly talented pianist, who took songs and arranged them in her own style. She used tools to play the inside of the grand piano, as well as using her muscular forearms to play astoundingly beautiful chords. We performed Panda Chant by Meredith Monk, and then went on to sing several songs with Christina Courtin, who also plays violin in The Knights. She is such a radiant and confident singer with a metallic yet resonant sound, and watching her perform was amazing, let alone singing with her.

Outside the Kennedy Center grand entryway – the SFGC is in great company!

It was a wonderful night full of music, and we headed back to the hotel to get some sleep before our big concert.

Saturday was our performance day! I was so surprised when we arrived at the festival for our rehearsal. Kennedy Center is so grand and beautiful with large pillars, and the outer marble adds to it even more.

The concert started with Lisa Bielawa’s piece, My Outstretched Hand. It’s such a meaningful piece and I love how Lisa used a young woman’s words and turned it into a beautiful song that includes two choirs and an orchestra. Mary MacLane’s writing is actually really relatable as a young woman, and I love to sing a song that we really truly understand.

Then we sang Vivaldi’s Gloria and it felt so strong! Right after, we had a quick intermission and went back on stage for Brahms. The chords are so pleasing to the ear and it went really well.

Standing ovation at the Kennedy Center!

Before we sang our last piece – Remembering the Sea – a fellow chorister, Lola Miller-Henline, talked onstage a little bit about how meaningful the piece is, especially after the attacks on Paris, San Bernadino, Lebanon, and many others. Once we started singing, I was way more touched than I expected. Because of what Lola had said, I was moved by the poet’s words. One of the lines that stood out to me was “The way one sun becomes every color of skin.” A lot of us had tears streaming down our faces at the end of the song, including the conductor.

We ended the concert with a collaborative piece by The Knights. I am so grateful to have had the experience that I had, and working with such talented musicians was a dream come true!

Elizabeth Easton
San Francisco Girls Chorus, Alto I

A dream come true – backstage afterglow, with Valerie, Lisa, Eric, and – on the back right – Deborah Rutter, President of the Kennedy Center. On the far left is Jenny Bilfield, one of the directors of The SHIFT Festival.



Postcard from the Chorus: SFGC takes New York

Hello SFGC Friends, from NYC!

….where 60 of our young singers are deep in rehearsals for our big Kennedy Center debut this coming Saturday, as a featured artist on the SHIFT Festival of American Orchestras in a program with The Knights Orchestra, with whom we shared the stage in June 2016 as part of the NY PHIL Biennial. We’ll be reprising performances of choral-orchestral works by Aaron Jay Kernis and myself, plus presenting the epic Vivaldi Gloria and the gorgeous Psalm 13 by Brahms. We are so happy to be back with our musical friends, The Knights!

Valerie, our new Executive Director Andrew, our tour staff, the choristers and I all send you warm greetings! Here are a few photos from our first couple of days in Brooklyn – you’ll hear more from us, including some updates from the singers, in the days to come!

Sincerely yours,

Lisa Bielawa

First performance of the trip – at SFO, singing my piece “My Outstretched Hand,” conducted by Valerie Sainte-Agathe, and with Justin Montigne nearby.


SFGC staff and chaperones, hard at work before departure from SFO.


Valerie Sainte-Agathe and Justin Montigne, at SFO


After arrival, one of the first opportunities we had to begin singing was in the breakfast room at the hotel! Here, members of Level IV Ensemble rehearse with Valerie Sainte-Agathe.


On day one, members of Level IV Ensemble at Brooklyn College Center for Computer Music, in the control booth! Choristers participated in a highly interactive workshop on recording contemporary music.


Recording our voices for the workshop at Brooklyn College



In rehearsal with The Knights orchestra, at BRIC, a nonprofit arts and media organization located in Brooklyn, NY.


In rehearsal with The Knights at Brooklyn Law School, working on my piece “My Outstretched Hand.”


Postcard from the Artistic Director: Mexican Baroque

Dear SFGC Community,

While Level IV and the premier ensemble have been busy preparing for two performances with the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus at Mission Dolores, in the heart of San Francisco’s historically Hispanic Mission district, I spent much of my week down in Southern California mixing and editing the epic Episode 11 of my TV opera Vireo, filmed on January 20 with the participation of over a hundred of our singers. It was great to see them all on camera and to bring it all together! Of course we will be in touch as the release date approaches. So many voices in our community!

Valérie Sainte-Agathe in rehearsal with the SFGC for a collaborative concert with the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus


When I work down in LA, I usually stay in Santa Ana, which has (unlike the rest of Orange County) a population that is over 70% Mexican and nearly 80% Latino. I nourish myself alternately on taco-truck fish tacos (superb!) and Mexican-International fusion haut cuisine (also superb!), both thriving food cultures in Santa Ana. Also thriving there: the tradition of the Quinceañera, the 15th birthday celebration for girls that powers a huge local industry of specialty shops that feature dresses like these. Yes, there are more than 30 shops selling these dresses, all within a few blocks of where I was staying! I learned a little more about this phenomenon and its importance in the family life of these girls. Does your family have some kind of a coming-of-age ceremony for girls? For boys? I learned that in the Hispanic cultures that celebrate Quinceañera, its origins are far back enough that 15 was considered the desired marriageable age for girls. What is the history of some other coming-of-age rituals that are celebrated in our communities?

Mission Dolores is not the actual mission church on that site. If you go to the concert this weekend, take a peek at her little brother, San Francisco de Asis, the oldest building in San Francisco:

San Francisco de Asis, to the left of Mission Dolores, was built in 1776!


The history of the 21 Spanish missions on the California coast is an important and complex part of our shared history.

While the stories surrounding the missionaries and the native peoples contain many less beautiful aspects, the mission churches themselves are beautiful both visually and sonically, and they are superb for music that was written at the time of their construction. Look at these beauties in OceansideCarmel, and Santa Barbara!

While we often hear the names of great Baroque like Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, we don’t often hear the names of the Baroque composers writing European-style works in Mexico – composers like Manuel de Zumaya or Ignacio de Jerusalem

Yes, much of the music and the culture of the Baroque made it to the Americas, and the craft of this new style of music was taken up with great skill by native Mexican musicians. Listen to this music by Peruvian composer Jose de Orejon y Aparicio, born in 1706 (performed here by sopranos Nell Snaidas and SFGC alumna Jennifer Ellis Kampani!)

Does this music sound Mexican? Why or why not? Does it sound American? Or Spanish? Are there artistic traditions and styles today that seem to be from some other part of the world from where they are made? What happens to music and musicians when different cultures collide, commingle or collude?

Back home in NYC, I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of 60 of our young singers here for rehearsals next week, leading up to the SHIFT Festival performance on April 1. We will send postcards home to you of course!

Warm wishes,


Beth Schecter, Interim Executive Director

Dear Parents, Alums, and Members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus,

It has been such a pleasure to work with all the people who make the San Francisco Girls Chorus so successful. I’ve enjoyed meeting the parents, the girls, the Board and of course the wonderful staff.

When the opportunity came to me to be the Interim Executive Director at the SF Girls Chorus, I was quite surprised. I had never run a performing arts organization, although I have always had a resounding interest in all forms of arts. I have served on the board of two theater organizations in San Francisco, Z Space and Counterpulse, for a total of 8 years. I have a son who lives in NYC and is a professional actor, who attended the Tisch graduate acting program and has been in Broadway shows several times.

Beth with her husband and son Ben (in white) in front or War Horse billboard at Lincoln Center in NYC. Ben acted in the show for 1.5 years

I have a mother who is a painter and also performed in community theater when I was a child. I myself started my college years as an art major and dabbled in all sorts of arts and crafts – ceramics, jewelry-making, painting. In my immediate family you will find many creative people who are artists and musicians, including my husband, who plays jazz and salsa keyboard when he isn’t seeing clients as a psychologist.

Beth’s mom Evelyn at age 86, with her newest painting

But I took another path in my career, that of empowering people to make good health decisions in their lives, following a public health approach known as the “health belief model,” still used today to understand people’s motivations for the health decisions they make. My interests were primarily related to youth and how to ensure that young people stay healthy through their choices as well as through the protective mechanisms that surround them in the communities – their schools, families, and service providing organizations. I have written parenting curricula, planned youth delinquency and drug prevention programs, run a rape crisis center and managed mental health and child abuse programs, both nationally and locally. But my skills quickly emerged as a nonprofit executive director, someone able to get things done with the right teams and policy makers, and something I have been doing since 1992.

The SF Girls Chorus was a perfect place for me to land. I understand and feel deeply about the importance of positive role models for youth, opportunities for success and mastery leading to healthy youth development, and the necessity of building strong communities, organizations and families to support our young people. Those are my underpinnings and what drives me toward helping others. For me, there is nothing more exciting than supporting programs that build character and a strong sense of self-worth and efficacy, particularly in young women. The SF Girls Chorus is a jewel in the crown of social and youth services in the Bay Area and I have been proud to be part of it for short while. Hopefully the knowledge I have contributed about organizational health will help to propel the chorus forward on its next leg of a successful and creative journey. It has been a joyful experience working with so many dedicated and talented adults and children while serving as the Interim Executive Director. I am sincerely grateful for this opportunity.

Best Wishes,

Beth Schecter
Interim Executive Director

Postcard from David Harrington

To my young colleagues of the SF Girls Chorus, and your community and families,

Over the years there have been moments in our work when it seemed like the very best thing we could possibly do is to work with young singers and musicians, and I would say that this feeling has increased as time has gone on. Right now not only do we have our friend composer Sabha Aminikia here in SF but we also have our relationship with your amazing group of young musicians and your fabulous conductor Valerie Sainte-Agathe.

Kronos Quartet and the SFGC in rehearsal at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana for episode 1 of Lisa Bielawa’s TV opera Vireo, February 2015 (David Harrington is in the green plaid shirt, center)

It seems like one of our roles in life and in music is to be involved in learning new musical vocabularies together, and new sociological meanings too. At tonight’s concert one of the things I’m very excited about is for all of the SF Girls Chorus to hear Mahsa Vahdat, this incredible singer from Iran:

I think you are going to notice right away that there’s something about the way she sings and uses her voice that is beyond the notes, beyond the musical things. When you learn more about what she’s experienced in her life, you will discover that’s in part what informs her voice and the way she makes music. I want everyone to hear Mahsa!

It takes more than a love of expression and music to be able to be a musician. And it takes more than a lot of practice. You also need a lot of support from your community. Some people don’t get that support and they still are able to thrive, but most of us need as much support from our significant others, our parents, or whoever is part of our community – and those people need support as well. That’s one of the things I’m noticing right now: how important it is for our community to be together and to help each other any moment we can.

I started playing violin at age 9 as part of a public school program in Seattle. I had grown up hearing Dick Kesner and his Magic Stradivarius every Saturday on the Lawrence Welk Show:

…and I just loved the sound of the instrument! So my parents rented me a violin and it wasn’t too long before I was playing in the Seattle “Little” Symphony, then the “Junior” Symphony, and then the Youth Symphony, of which I was a member until I was 17 years old. We had been living in a suburb but in order to be able to play quartets three or four times a week, in high school, my parents moved to the University District, which meant that I could go to Roosevelt High School there too, which had a really amazing music program. Every kid in the world needs a Ronald Taylor – that’s the name of my high school music teacher. He just got it. He knew how hard it was for me to be in high school, studying English and Geometry when what I really wanted to do was play string quartet music all day and all night. This was during the American war in Viet Nam era –my PE teacher was a sort of frustrated drill sergeant (that guy was impossible…); but Mr. Taylor established a chamber orchestra and I got credit for playing quartets and gave me cut slips to get out of PE class. That’s how I got through high school.

The first string quartet I ever heard when I was twelve years old. I had become a member of the Columbia Record Club, and I was reading a biography of Beethoven, and I was right up to the part about the late quartets when the Budapest Quartet released their recording of the E-flat major quartet, Op. 127. That was the first string quartet I ever heard in my life, and I LOVED that sound! The opening chords are inscribed in my heart even now.

So I went down to the public library and checked out the music, and I called up three friends from the Seattle Youth Symphony, we got into a practice room, and I’ll never forget that opening chord – for maybe two seconds it sounded like the record! So ever since I was 12 years old, I’ve believed in the power of that two seconds. That’s all it takes.

Trying to provide that kind of experience for my own family, my friends and our audiences – that’s what it is that we all try to do with every note we get to make.

One last word to the young singers of the SFGC: Don’t be afraid to ask any question of your elders. When you’re around other musicians, if there’s something you think they know that you might be interested in learning, don’t be afraid to ask them! There are no barriers in music. Age and experience don’t matter. I would welcome any question from anyone in the SF Girls Chorus, and I know everyone in Kronos – and Sabha – feel the same way. If there’s any way we can help, we will do it. Just don’t be afraid. All of the people we work with are musicians for life. We know how tough it can be to be a musician. All over the world there’s a very beautiful, generous community of people who are trying to further the role of music in our society. For us in the Kronos Quartet, to be in the company of such wonderfully dedicated young musicians is a privilege and we look forward to it every time.

SFGC and Kronos in rehearsal for 2016 Kronos Festival, with Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov


Until tonight,
David Harrington
Violinist, Founding Member, Kronos Quartet

An Opera About Women, a postcard from Lisa Bielawa 1.21.17

The SFGC, directed by Lisa Bielawa at the historic 16th Street Oakland Train Station, in rehearsal for the filming of Episode 11: Circus.


Greetings SFGC Community,

As you read this, over 100 of our singers will be at the historic 16th Street Oakland Train Station, which we have taken over and transformed in order to shoot an episode of my opera Vireo. We are having an amazing and inspiring week together!

This is not just an opera that has roles for young women. It is an opera about them. When I was in college, majoring in literature, I became interested in studying the behaviors of teenage girls, particularly those who demonstrated some kind of strange visionary experiences, and how they were written about by the groups of men surrounding them throughout Western history – neurologists in Vienna, Surrealist poets in Paris, town councils in Salem, priests in Italy, the list goes on.

HERE a Dr. Charcot (Freud’s teacher) demonstrates the behaviors of an hysterical patient to his students and colleagues in the 19th century.
And HERE are the Surrealists, celebrating his work 50 years later, as “The 50th Birthday of Hysteria”

These girls seemed to see the ‘other side,’ and their accounts of what they saw caused chaos and confusion in their communities. This was a kind of power that young women did not otherwise often have in their communities, and it often unleashed dangerous consequences for them and for others. They were put in special hospitals, or sent to prison, or put on trial, or even displayed like circus curiosities. They were asked to name witches in their towns. If you want to learn more about this extensive research behind the libretto, there is an in-depth interview HERE.

I shared these young women’s stories with my cherished colleague, playwright and librettist Erik Ehn, and over many years, we created an opera around ‘her’ and named her Vireo. The opera Vireo is now reaching its culmination – it has evolved into the first-ever opera created for episodic TV and streaming media. And as you may imagine, it features many, many young women. Singers from the SF Girls Chorus premier ensemble participated in Episodes 1, 4, and 5. Premier ensemble member Emma MacKenzie plays one of the principal roles, as Vireo’s twin Caroline, born in Episode 6. And today, 110 members of the SF Girls Chorus School are spending their day – inauguration day, as it turns out – with the Vireo team in Oakland, shooting the climactic penultimate Episode 11: Circus.

One of our many talented design crew members told me that she was so excited to be spending this particular day with so many gifted young women. She said, “these girls will remember this day as one that was all about visionary women, making art together.” It’s true – I am feeling this way too.

SFGC Parents, there is no place I would rather be than among your daughters today, demonstrating and celebrating the fact that we now have more constructive avenues for feeling, reaching and exercising our power than these historical girls did.

Vireo’s story is difficult and even frightening, but in the end, this opera is – for me – a gift to all of the young women whose terrifying experiences paved the way for more and more avenues of expression for the generations that followed them. Vireo is a love letter, a paean, to the indomitable spirit of young women with visionary power. History can deal tragic blows to young women’s spirits. We still see this today. It is our job to inspire them, to be inspired by them, to help them raise their voices, in spite of and in the face of it all. I am deeply grateful to you all – this community that is committed to these very voices – and especially grateful to you families whose daughters join me and the Vireo cast, crew and production team for our day at the Circus.

Sincerely yours,
Lisa Bielawa

Postcard from Matthew Welch, 12.16.16

Dear SFGC Community,

I’m really excited to be in SF with you all – I arrive today straight from the airport to rehearsal! It’s great to reach out here through this postcard in anticipation of my visit.

When Lisa Bielawa approached me to write for the SFGC, I hadn’t written much yet for chorus. I do write for voice, and co-founded a group called Experiments in Opera in NYC, and we try to concoct innovative themes for concerts. We find various ways of putting opera through different lenses: operas in the form of a 3-minute film trailer, for example, or opera expressly for radio consumption so that all visual information is translated into traditional Foley techniques.

My new piece that the SFGC is premiering on Monday at Davies Symphony Hall came out of work I did at Chorus Camp this past summer. I brought materials from Highland piping pedogogy and from Balinese gamelan music and kecak.

Both of these two music traditions are strong backgrounds for me, and the materials I presented were the rhythms, melodic structures, and phonemes/syllables that comprise the music. At camp, I was able to present these building blocks to the singers in a very loose & improvisatory way in which I could interact directly with them – I would sing something to them and they picked it up very quickly. The girls were able to spontaneously layer the musical motifs over each other. Through the camp workshop, I got a really firm grip of their amazing singing skills – very inspiring for a composer! We had a lot of fun too! The rhythms of Balinese music involve a lot of social interaction within an ensemble – a remarkably different way of listening to each other that they also picked up immediately.

My piece for SFGC is a joyful piece – I was inspired by the surprise arrival of my son this year! He just turned a month old! The theme of the work lined his birth up with the theme of Nativity. In my nerdy way I made an association with Handel’s Messiah in which there’s a sinfonia in the middle called the “Pifa” which is traditionally thought of as the Nativity scene within the larger piece.

The types of sonorities evoked in that piece are very much imitative of bagpipes – which comes from the idea of the shepherd and the bagpipes as indicative of a rural setting, and also of the historic/biblical moment of Jesus’ birth. That I was going to be working with children was really inspiring to me and made me think about the initial joys of childhood music-making.

I was first given an old reed organ and eventually developed a totally nerdy small collection of accordions, which led me to bagpipes – I loved all these bold, bright, reedy sounds that could sustain tones endlessly. My first music-making moments were really improvisatory. As soon as I got my accordion I started figuring out how to create my own music with it. Whether or not it was technically advanced or spoke to anybody beyond me was irrelevant – music was about the joy of making sound.

It takes a long time to develop as a musician, and I think that if you have serious passion about it, it’s going to teach you how to meet all of its challenges along the way. Music somehow taught me organizational skills that helped me in other aspects of life. I became used to coordinating with people through music, which led to management skills for working with groups of people. I discovered that I could be good at music, but I that I’d have to work really, really hard at it. As a young person who loves music, a lot of people along the way are going to encourage you and many are going to discourage you. For me, music was about discovering myself, but along the way it introduced me to so many new people. Art is a grand social dialogue, and we’ve been having a great one together. I can’t wait to continue the dialogue with all of you, on Monday night!

From 35,000 feet in the air,

Matthew Welch

Postcard from Katrina Turman, 12.11.16

Katrina Turman at The Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany

Hello to all San Francisco Girls Chorus Families and to the community,

It has been only a few months since I began working for SFGC and it has been such a wonderful experience getting to know my students and their families. To help you all get to know me a little better, I was invited to write this postcard. I love the idea of doing a community outreach to connect the SFGC staff and faculty to the families and children we work with every day. I hope you enjoy!

I love to travel. I love being pushed outside my comfort zone, trying new foods, meeting people completely different from me and then realizing that we have a lot in common. I love traveling alone or with companions; there is something to be learned in either scenario. Traveling, even locally, is something that I believe is necessary for my general well-being. As a child, I traveled nationally and internationally with a children’s choir every year. These trips instilled in me a sense of fascination and respect for the world around us. A knowledge that there is much more outside of my immediate world. I have been so very lucky to have lived abroad a few times now, first in Germany and then in Hungary. While I improved as a musician while residing in both countries, I truly feel that I improved even more as a human being. In Germany, I learned patience while intensively studying a new language, independence while traveling around solo for the first time, and I learned that more than one place can feel like home.

These experiences absolutely led me to feel capable enough to apply to the intensive Kodály program in Kecskemét, Hungary one year later. If you’re interested in learning more about Zoltán Kodály and his teachings, please go HERE.

In Kecskemét, I was a full-time music student, so my musical abilities naturally improved. Yet, again, I feel that what I learned about the world around me during my time there is arguably more important than my expanded knowledge of harmony. Living in Hungary was an extreme experience for me. If you think learning Spanish or French is difficult, you should try Hungarian some time! Test your Hungarian skills HERE!

I was often stuck relying on sign language and the kindness of others while trying to communicate in our small town. Hungary is a very traditional country with an interesting mix of East and West. Part of continental Europe, its ancestors originally hail from Mongolia. My music teachers at the Kodály Institute, while incredibly caring individuals, were also very hard and straightforward. It is their belief that a student needs to be torn apart to be reconstructed in the proper way. While I grew to appreciate and even like their honesty and teaching style, it was an incredibly difficult transition for me (a somewhat pampered American) to overcome in those initial months. Yes, I learned to read music faster and minimize mistakes, to give a clear upbeat, and what the best pedagogical method was to teach a class to sing in multiple part harmony. Yet, from those same lessons, I also learned to take criticism, to push myself further than I thought possible, to support my classmates, and to accept my imperfections.

I have found that exploration and travel can give back so much more than what the traveler puts into it. There are countless beautiful moments I have locked away in my memory that never would have been possible if I stayed stationary. I have gotten to perform with 100,000 singers in Estonia, experienced the horrors of visiting World War II concentration camps at Dachau in Munich, climbed the Dolomite mountains, gotten lost in downtown Hong Kong. I will have these memories forever.

Thank you for reading a little about me. Whether you are traveling this holiday season or staying close by, I wish you a pleasant holiday break and I hope to see you all on December 19th at Davies Symphony Hall!

Katrina Turman

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