Postcards From The Chorus

The Story Behind the NY Phil Biennial

This week’s postcard is from Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa, who shares the story behind the NY Phil Biennial and the Chorus’ closure of the 2015-16 season. Postcards from the Chorus will resume in a few months following a summer break.

Dear SF Girls Chorus Families, Friends, and Colleagues,

Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, Photograph by Liz Linder

Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, Photograph by Liz Linder

On February 13, 2013, Valérie’s and my appointments as Music Director and Artistic Director were announced in the press. That very morning, I sent an email to select colleagues in the music field—composers, performers, venues, potential collaborators. It said, “if you are getting this email, it’s because you are a musician or artist who is special in my world. Just wanted to drop you a note with some really fun news, and a gentle invitation to let it into your imagination…I feel so lucky that it is now my job to begin exploring new partnerships from within this amazing organization. And of course—I wanted to reach out to this handful of you, before the ink is dry on this announcement, to tell you that, in my thinking about future ideas, you and your work came to mind—I hope this can be a catalyst!”

Among those I contacted were composers Philip Glass, Theo Bleckmann, and Aaron Jay Kernis, and the brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen, founders and co-artistic directors of The Knights. Over the following year I kept them in the loop, sending them recordings of Valérie’s very first performances with the premier ensemble. Ideas began to percolate—how about a choral-orchestral piece by Aaron Jay Kernis, for example, for The Knights and SF Girls Chorus to premiere together? By November of that year we were already putting together program ideas. Then, in March of 2014, I got a call from Knights conductor Eric Jacobsen: the New York Philharmonic had invited them to pitch a program idea for the 2016 Biennial Festival at Lincoln Center, a city-wide festival dedicated to new music by living composers, and their VP Ed Yim loved the idea of a big program of premieres featuring orchestra and two youth choruses, SFGC and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, both with a reputation for innovation and excellence. We were on our way!

Composers Gabriel Kahane and Phillip Glass following the NY Phil Biennial Festival concert with SF Girls Chorus, The Knights, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, June 9, 2016. Photo courtesy New York Philharmonic, Chris Lee Photographer.


We began gathering new works written expressly for us last season, including those by Philip Glass and Carla Kihlstedt. We proposed these to the NY Philharmonic, they got more excited—they added a program for the choruses alone, without orchestra.

Commissions are planned way in advance, since of course we composers need time to write them! And this event included multiple commissions: each chorus commissioned one choral-orchestral work and one a cappella work (for SFGC, these were the Aaron Jay Kernis piece Remembering the Sea, reprised for our SF audiences this past Sunday with instrumental sextet), and Theo Bleckmann’s Final Answer. The choruses joined together to co-commission a work for all 80 voices, Gabriel Kahane’s Back of the Choir. And The Knights commissioned me (!!) to compose a large-scale work for Absolutely Everyone. By one year ago, all of us composers were hard at work, emailing Valérie with questions about the girls’ voices (range, balance, agility). I kept sending recordings to the other composers as Valérie’s work with the girls deepened and as our repertoire of new music grew.

February was deadline season for all of us composers. We touched base with each other on the phone—“How is it going?” “How long is your piece?” “How many parts are you using?”

Valérie and the girls began work on the pieces as the scores came in, starting as early as Summer Camp in August 2015 with some of the pieces. Theo Bleckmann visited camp to get the sound of the girls in his ears.

SF Girls Chorus and Music Director and Principal Conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe at San Francisco International Airport before taking off to New York. Photograph by Elaine Robertson.

SF Girls Chorus and Music Director and Principal Conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe at San Francisco International Airport before taking off to New York. Photograph by Elaine Robertson.

Then last week in New York, we all came together for what was a magical week of collaboration. Composers met singers, orchestra players met choral conductors, the choruses met each other! I attended all rehearsals and assisted while Valérie and Brooklyn Youth Chorus conductor Dianne Berkun-Menaker worked together and separately, with composers who tweaked and coached. We put hours of virtuoso music together in four days of intensive rehearsal, punctuated by the gasps of absolutely delighted composers (me included!).

Lisa Bielawa, Valerie Sainte-Agathe, SF Girls Chorus, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus rehearsing Bielawa’s My Outstretched Hand, which made its world premiere at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theatre June 9, 2016. Photo by Elaine Robertson.

It has been a beautiful journey, and watching the composers and our own singers move through the culminating week of this complex collaboration, three years in the making, was fulfilling beyond measure for everyone involved, including the robust and excited audience.

Hear about the entire New York trip from three choristers at each phase of the exhilarating week: Gabby writes us a Poem from NYC, Rachel shares about leading up to Lincoln Center, and Calla recounts the climax of the trip with the performance.

Aaron Jay Kernis and Valerie Sainte-Agathe in rehearsal. Photograph by Lisa Bielawa.

Aaron Jay Kernis and Valerie Sainte-Agathe in rehearsal. Photograph by Lisa Bielawa.

SF Girls Chorus in rehearsal with The Knights. Photograph by Elaine Robertson.

SF Girls Chorus in rehearsal with The Knights. Photograph by Elaine Robertson.

Aaron Jay Kernis (left). Photograph courtesy New York Philharmonic, Chris Lee Photographer.

Aaron Jay Kernis (left) with Eric Jacobsen (right) following the NY Phil Biennial concert. Photograph courtesy New York Philharmonic, Chris Lee Photographer.









In the words of Aaron Jay Kernis, our first-ever choral-orchestral commissionee, “The girls have an absolutely pristine sound, and their silences were complete, unified. Their performance was elegant and commanding, a total experience.”

And from Colin & Eric Jacbosen, “It was one of those rare occasions where everyone in the room enters a similar state.” I couldn’t agree more. Thank you all for supporting this ambitious and deeply meaningful adventure.


SF Girls Chorus in concert with The Knights and Brooklyn Youth Chorus at the NY Phil 2016 Biennial Festival. Photograph courtesy New York Philharmonic, Chris Lee Photographer.

SF Girls Chorus in concert with The Knights and Brooklyn Youth Chorus at the NY Phil 2016 Biennial Festival. Photograph courtesy New York Philharmonic, Chris Lee Photographer.


With this note we sign off on the Postcards season. My colleagues and I at the San Francisco Girls Chorus look forward to sending you Postcards again, next season!

Many best wishes,




Performing in NY at Rose Theatre, Lincoln Center

Dear SF Girls Chorus Family and Friends,

Our performance ensemble is now back in San Francisco, and our Chorus year is winding down to a close. I am excited to share some of my favorite moments of our recent New York trip with you.

New York was my first official SF Girls Chorus tour and it was an exciting and new experience. I got to to stay with two different host families, the first with a girl from the Trinity Wall Street Church chorus, and the second with a Brooklyn Youth Chorus board member. They were both very kind and wonderful hosts. My Brooklyn Youth Chorus host took us to the Brooklyn Promenade to see the moon over Manhattan skyline on our first night in Brooklyn. It was an enchanting experience.

Upon arriving in New York, it had taken a while to realize, “Yes, I am in New York City!” It was the same with the concert on June 9. It was really only when we started rehearsals that day that I realized, “I’m doing this. In less than six hours I will be on stage, performing at Lincoln Center!”

Rehearsing Aaron Jay Kernis' work with The Knights at the Rose Theatre, Lincoln Center

Rehearsing Aaron Jay Kernis’ work with The Knights at the Rose Theatre, Lincoln Center. Photograph by Elaine Robertson.

As we ran through all our cues for the last time, and I desperately scrambled for a place in my brain to remember them, I thought about how fortunate I was to be able to be in such an amazing group with such supportive people.

And then, we were done rehearsing. As we walked on stage, I heard the audience of almost 1400 people cheering. The three songs we sang in the first section went by in a blur. But after we performed each piece, the composers cam onstage to thank us and bow. It was wonderful seeing the people whose music we had just performed so happy because of our performance.

One piece that especially stood out to me was by Aaron Kernis, Remembering the Sea. The piece is about terrorism, and it was a very emotional piece for many people, myself included. By the third movement, which is partially in French, I was tearing up. I noted that conductor Eric Jacobsen and The Knights seemed very emotional as well. It was hard for me to believe that just one song could unite a professional orchestra and a girls choir.

SF Girls Chorus in concert with The Knights and Brooklyn Youth Chorus at Rose Theatre, Lincoln Center for the NY Phil Biennial Festival, June 9, 2016. Photographs courtesy New York Philharmonic, Chris Lee Photographer

SF Girls Chorus in concert with The Knights and Brooklyn Youth Chorus at Rose Theatre, Lincoln Center for the NY Phil Biennial Festival, June 9, 2016. Photographs courtesy New York Philharmonic, Chris Lee Photographer.


Two members of the SF Girls Chorus signing the performer’s wall backstage at the Rose Theatre, Lincoln Center. Photograph by Virginia Peden.

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The performer’s wall backstage at the Rose Theatre, Lincoln Center. Photograph by Virginia Peden.

At the end of the performance, after we left the stage and got high-fives from the conductors and other performers, we got to sign the special performer’s wall.







Someday, I can’t wait to come back and show my family and friends my name and remember the exceptional performance I took part in.

Call Kra-Caskey

Leading up to Lincoln Center


My name is Rachel Durney and this is my fourth tour with the San Francisco Girls Chorus. The short week that I’ve spent in New York has definitely been the most whirlwind of the tours. l’m amazed at how much learning and experience we’ve been able to pack into six days.

On Monday evening, after a full day of rehearsals, we got to go and see Something Rotten at the St. James Theatre on Broadway. The musical follows the story of two playwright brothers in their quest to become more famous than William Shakespeare. Filled with allusions to Broadway classics like Phantom of the Opera and Annie, the show kept us laughing all night. In rehearsal the next day, we discussed with Valérie how the performance affected us and what we learned from watching the musical. Many of us agreed that the performers were clearly diligent about taking care if their voices both during and out of rehearsal in order to perform every night for as long as a show runs. This was particularly relevant to us because Valérie would sometimes decide that a certain chorister was too close to losing their voice and would forbid them from talking. This led to high levels of miming and wild gesturing during our free time.

After the first hour of rehearsal on Tuesday, Theo Bleckmann, composer of Final Answer, joined us. He uses a track looper to add intricacy and new levels to the sound of the piece. One of the most amazing parts of this tour is that we are lucky enough to be able to meet with the composers. It is amazing how much composers can explain about their compositions in two minutes. It’s amazing how much you can learn about a piece when the composer is right there to explain it. We worked hard with Theo Bleckmann to find a balance between our sound and the textures he creates with the track looper. The added level of understanding about his work we were able to get from working with him directly helped us create a sound that best delivers his message the way it was envisioned.


Rehearsal with Theo Bleckmann

San Francisco Girls Chorus, Valerie Sainte-Agathe touring New York City. Photo by Rachel Clee.

In the early afternoon on Tuesday we took a quick break from rehearsal to explore Battery Park and grab lunch. From there, we took a ferry around the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It was a great chance to see the amazing city we were preparing to perform in. The skyline was stunning, with glittering skyscrapers strikingly set against a bold blue sky. Seeing such important pieces of history was an amazing reminder of the complexity and longevity of the city.


We made our way back to Brooklyn for our afternoon rehearsal with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (BYC) and The Knights, and finally had the chance to hear My Outstretched Hand, by our very own Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa! Lisa talked with us and gave us amazing insight into the piece.

Composer Gabriel Kahane, SF Girls Chorus Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa, SFGC Music Director and Principal Conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus Artistic Director Dianne Berkun-Menaker

Composer Gabriel Kahane, SF Girls Chorus Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa, SFGC Music Director and Principal Conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus Artistic Director Dianne Berkun-Menaker

The text is from Mary MacLane’s autobiographical work The Story of Mary MacLane. The portion which Lisa has set to music is a dialogue between MacLane and her soul. The combination of finally having all of the different parts of the piece together in the same room, with Lisa’s notes, led to a greater understanding of the piece. MacLane’s diction is captivating. One of the best parts of having both choruses present is that we have the opportunity to really discover the dialogue between the SF Girls Chorus and BYC in the context of the work. Finding the character of MacLane and her dynamic towards her soul helped us to discover the immense emotional range of the work.

Another exciting element of the rehearsal was that we were able to hear Comfort Food, by Timo Andres, in its entirety. As this piece is not written for two separate choruses the way that My Outstretched Hand was, we got to familiarize ourselves with the combined sound of BYC and SFGC. More than doubled in size, I was amazed by the combined power of our voices.

On Wednesday, we began the morning rehearsal with Theo Bleckmann and a continued exploration into the complexities of his music. Later, we were joined by composer Gabriel Kahane and got to work on his piece, Back of the Choir. He discussed his love for the work of poet Anne Carson.


Based on a text of Carson’s, Back of the Choir explores the beauty and power of language. After learning about his inspiration for the work, we were able to bring a new sense of understanding to the piece. We also worked to clarify our diction in order to better deliver the inspiring words.

FullSizeRender (6)For lunch, we walked through the lovely Brooklyn Heights neighborhood- but it started pouring rain! Chorister Kathleen Isaza took fabulous pictures of us in front of the Manhattan Skyline for the Chorus Instagram despite the downpour.

We split up into smaller groups for lunch, which gave us the opportunity to explore Brooklyn more independently. I found refuge from the rain in a pizza joint. Over our meal, a group of about six of us discussed the day’s rehearsal and our excitement for the Lincoln Center concert. On our way back to rehearsal, we all got drenched in the downpour. When we arrived, Valérie advised us to rehearse in socks, to prevent our feet from freezing in soaked shoes.

In our afternoon rehearsal, we did run-throughs of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Remembering the Sea, My Outstretched Hand, and Kahane’s piece. Emotionally, Kernis’ work is the most challenging. Inspired by recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the piece tells the story of an explosion on a train. The first movement reminisces memories of a child’s youth and questions the path of the speaker’s future. The soprano text expresses an amazing level of yearning, care, and tenderness. It ends with a stunningly clear and breathtakingly beautiful duet by choristers Emma Mckenzie and Elizabeth Rothenbuler. The second movement is a violent depiction of the bombing itself. The final line, “life will return,” introduces the third movement. Partially in French, the work gives a direct nod to the attack in Paris. As we explore the intense themes and images of the work, we are able to perform with a new level of passion. At many points, we occasionally found ourselves in tears.

As I look forward to the concert, I cannot wait to share the music we have created with an audience. Filled with premieres, this concert looks to be one of the most exciting concerts I have ever been privileged enough to be a part of. This trip will be highly memorable for me. The music we are a part of creating has an amazing level of power and emotion to share with the audience. We’re all excited to share the music with you.

Rachel Durney

Poem from New York

Dear San Francisco Girls Chorus Community,

FullSizeRender (4)Hello from New York!

We have worked so hard to prepare for this tour that it is hard to believe we are finally here. On the flight to New York, while many slept, read, listened to music or occupied themselves to pass the time, I wrote a poem which I would like to share with you.

My Journey to New York

The low rumble of the engine surrounds me,
A constant radio—like static in the background,
As we gradually ascend into the air and fly through the sky.

Clouds scatter like squirming bees,
Behind the glass window sunlight filters into the dark plane,
The low rumble of the engine surrounds me.

Passengers begin to unbuckle their seatbelts,
They shuffle around, pull out their devices, munch on chips,
While we continue to fly over the vast blue sky.

I watch movies flicker on screens,
Taste droplets of orange juice on my tongue,
And listen to the low rumble of the engine.

I imagine the sensation of landing, my first view of New York City, and I sigh.
Lights twinkle across the horizon.
The bustling atmosphere is so different from the calm sky.

I envision meeting my host-family for the first time—what will they think of me?
And what about my first rehearsal—how will that be? But before I can think any further, I am suddenly brought back to reality by the low rumble of the plane’s engine.

The morning after our arrival we participated in a moving service at the enormous Trinity Wall Street Church. It was an incredible experience. We sang beautiful hymns and psalms, along with In Merres Mitten, Duo Seraphim, and Panis Angelicus. Voices of the San Francisco Girls Chorus mixed with those of the Trinity Church Choir and the music reverberated throughout the magnificent church.


Everything about the service was new to me. We learned many of the prayers on that morning. We wore red and white choir robes that were different from our usual black dresses. The audience was enormous and the service was broadcast online. I have never attended mass or participated in any type of Christian service before today. Yet, at the same time, I also felt a familiarity that was frankly unexpected. Although I am Jewish, I felt a strong connection to the service and the music we were singing. The Sunday mass did not seem that much different from a Shabbat service in a synagogue. The sermon reminded me of the weekly Torah portion.

Following the mass, we ate a hearty meal and walked around the Financial District. Since many choristers love the Broadway musical Hamilton, a Trinity Wall Street chorister offered to give a tour of Alexander Hamilton’s grave. After another round of rehearsal, we had the privilege to partake in an improvisation workshop, learning how to sing on the spot while being confined to certain modes and pitches to prepare us for our performance at St. Paul’s later that evening. St. Paul’s is a church right down the street from Trinity. It is full of memorials and photos of 9/11 because many people sought refuge there after the twin towers fell.


While walking to St. Paul’s, we were caught in a major downpour and found ourselves soaked by the time we reached the church! Umbrellas flipped inside out and upside down, shoes were filled with water, and clothes were drenched. But luckily we had our performance uniforms and could change.

The lights dimmed and candles were lit all around the church sanctuary. As people walked in, they were handed a candle, and soon the entire room was aglow. We performed our music by candlelight and improvised practically the entire performance. It was frightening at first to hear pitches we had never rehearsed. Eventually, we began to feel when the person next to us changed notes and were able to harmonize and create lovely music together. The experience felt magical and exhilarating. Candles flickered, and voices mingled and bounced off the walls. If only the service could go on forever! Sadly, it came to an end. We were reunited with our awesome homestay families.

Tomorrow will be another exciting day filled with rehearsals for Lincoln Center. We will rehearse with The Knights and Eric Jacobsen. We will also finally meet the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and hear the missing parts to Back of the Choir by Gabriel Kahane and My Outstretched Hand by our very own, Lisa Bielawa.

Our New York tour has been so exciting and rewarding already in just the first few days. I cannot wait to see how the rest of the week plays out!

Gabriella (Gabby) Vulakh
San Francisco Girls Chorus, Alto I

NY Phil Biennial

This week’s postcard is from Eric Jacobsen, conductor and co-artistic director (with his brother Colin) of The Knights, with whom the SF Girls Chorus will present a whole evening of premieres at the NY Phil Biennial next Thursday, June 9, 2016.


Hello new friends in the San Francisco Girls Chorus community,

As The Knights and the SF Girls Chorus begin our week of rehearsing and performing together here in NYC, I wanted to greet you all and reflect on my San Francisco rehearsals in May with Valérie and the Chorus.

The Knights Conductor Eric Jacobsen with Valérie Sainte-Agathe, Lisa Bielawa, and the SFGC premier ensemble, on May 16, 2016.

The Knights Conductor Eric Jacobsen with Valérie Sainte-Agathe, Lisa Bielawa, and the SFGC premier ensemble, on May 16, 2016.

My first impressions… Well, first of all, I must say that it was astounding how Good it sounded. That’s just a truth and it’s almost not worth talking about it because—WOW, it’s so good. And I thought about the idea of attempting personal uncharted territory. So, a world premiere that’s never been done—how do we accomplish that, how do we build on something that we don’t even know the first thing about because someone just created it? No one’s done it before! It’s the feeling of accomplishment in a true way, not the accomplishment of cleaning a kitchen or cooking a great meal, but the accomplishment of a trek, of climbing a mountain—artistically.

That sticks with you—I feel like the times I look back on projects that made me say ‘Oh I wanna do that kind of thing Again,’ which is impossible – you can’t recreate any moment—but you can certainly see what made you excited, and therefore you try to do similar things in your future, really hard challenges that lead to really satisfying results. It’s as simple as taking a piece of repertoire that everyone knows and you just worked on it and got it to a really special place. Or it could be that you’re working so hard because it’s a world premiere—something no one’s heard before. Or it’s just that a piece is technically challenging and being able to rise to the occasion is just so beautiful.

I would say that there’s nothing greater than having a life than incorporates music into your bloodstream. I feel very lucky that I get to make music as my profession because I can spend time doing work which really does feel like playing and having fun. When I was in pre-college at Juilliard, or School for Strings when I was in high school, I got to play chamber music and in orchestra, and so it was very nostalgic to get to be with the SFGC and work on some very hard pieces because I remember the times when I was that age and REALLY pushing the boundaries. I remember thinking, “OMG I don’t know if I can do this, if we can do this” but then we actually attempted and surmounted it to whatever degree possible—it burns a hole through your brain in a way, such a sense of accomplishment!

And from those people that I made music with in high school, there are a few that I still make music with on a professional level, some of whom I get together and read chamber music with just for the joy of playing music even though they have different professions, some people who don’t play music at all but they are in my community because I see them when I go to different cities where they live. I feel like those bonds that you form at that time in your life, especially when you’re all dedicated to an artistic endeavor, are totally priceless. That’s why I think I had such an emotional take-away from working with the girls.

Choristers, to you all—in some ways this is the time to have multiple interests because at some point you might have to make a decision about what you have to really devote so much time to that other things fall to the side. In some ways our lives lead us in different directions and we end up knowing we have to make decisions—and of course one of the biggest human challenges is making a decision!

Making Decisions: Eric Jacobsen plays his final NYC performance as cellist of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider tonight, making way for a fast-growing conducting career.

So for those of you who are pulled in different directions—you have to follow what you want to do—I went down the rabbit hole of really wanting to be an excellent cellist and I spent so much time devoting myself to that thing. I’m not the person in the world who’s spent the most time, and I’m not the best. However, I feel that when you spend so much time that you become good at something, once again—it’s that accomplishment.

Do I regret not being able to sit down at the piano and play, or play guitar, or do I regret not continuing to play tennis after the age of 17? Yes—these are all things that went to the side—that was my path, I decided on the cello and that led me to music-making as a conductor. One should follow what they want to do and, yes, make some decisions along the way. Decide what you CAN be best at, and decide if that’s the thing that you want to be best at, or good at. Attempting to achieve that is very satisfying.

And a special note to you parents—this coming week is a huge accomplishment for you, too. You see your kids grow up, and in the process you deal with so much stuff when you are a parent. To get to the point where your daughter is able to fly on a plane, stay in New York with a group of friends and perform at one of the most important music centers in the world—you gotta get chills! Thank yourself, thank your parents, thank their parents for somehow giving you the tools to raise someone who is contributing to society at such a young age.

And to those of you making the trip here tomorrow, I’m so excited to welcome you here in NYC!
Until very soon,

Eric Jacobsen

Queen of Norway

Hello SFGC Friends from way up north, in Bergen Norway…

Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, Photograph by Liz Linder

Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, Photograph by Liz Linder

…where daylight lingers until after these days, then retires briefly only to emerge again just a few hours later. Some people stereotype Norwegians and other Scandinavians as somewhat humorless, and attribute their severe manner to the severe sun and moon cycles up here—with winter nights just as long as the summer days are now. But I have enjoyed discovering that the Norwegians’ sense of humor is very much intact. Check out this sign outside the Mexican restaurant around the corner from our hotel!

Photo of a sign outside a restaurant in Norway that reads "Mexican food so authentic Donald Trump would build a wall around it"

The Philip Glass Ensemble is here in Bergen to present three concerts, one of which was the opening event of the annual Bergen International Arts Festival, a live performance/screening of Philip’s score to Godfrey Reggio’s gorgeous filmPowaqqatsi with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bergen Girls and Boys Choirs. Here I am with the kids, on a break at rehearsal on Wednesday:

Lisa Bielawa with the Bergen Girls and Boys Choirs and choirmaster Håkon Matti Skrede

Lisa Bielawa with the Bergen Girls and Boys Choirs and choirmaster Håkon Matti Skrede

That’s their choirmaster Håkon Matti Skrede, who explained to me that the two choruses are part of a big pyramid structure organization, the Edvard Grieg Choirs, that has a large adult amateur choir, a smaller professional chorus, a youth chorus of mixed voices, and these two choruses of boys and girls, respectively. The organization is a centralized, streamlined macro-chorus that provides roles for the opera, choruses of any age or specification for the symphony and special events. It’s very organized!

Also very organized is what happens when The Queen of Norway comes to the opening concert, as she does every year. We had very specific instructions on Wednesday evening, the fulfillment of which made for a unique and somewhat strange concert experience: at 6:45pm all performers except the conductor had to be in place, and the audience was seated as well—no latecomers allowed in the building. Then we all waited in awkward silence until we got the sign that the Queen herself was about to walk in, at which point we all stood as she entered and stayed standing until Her Highness was seated in her favorite seat in row six. At the end of the concert, after the curtain calls, the orchestra also all remained standing in place on stage, audience standing too, so that the Queen could make her exit.

As it turns out, Queen Sonja started life as a commoner, and dated the King in secret for nine years before she married him and thus became royal. Like most hip royals, they have a fab website. An accomplished photographer herself, she is a huge advocate for the arts—and she is passionate about music. In fact, she sponsors an annual international music competition just for singers! It felt especially gratifying to know that I was singing for a dignitary who believes so strongly in the importance of vocal music.

And then I thought, if my experience was slightly different because of her presence, what about the audience? How do you imagine that the presence of Queen Sonja changed the audience’s experience of our performance? And for that matter— what exactly was contained within that performance? Was her entrance a performance too? Were all of the audience members performing? When did the ‘show’ begin, and when did it end? Usually the most celebrated people in a musical performance are the ones on stage, and the audience trains their attention on the performers because of the remarkable things they are doing—singing beautifully perhaps, or interpreting great music with deep humanity. Queen Sonja seems to be a woman of deep humanity too—and certainly great celebrity. But the way she ‘performs’ is very different from the way we make music on stage. What if you were a queen—how would you ‘wear’ your celebrity in your own community?

The feeling of ritual seemed important to this proud local audience, and I noticed a similar love of ritual and pomp last week in Elsinore, Denmark—our last stop. Imagine my surprise when the Elsinore Girls Marching Band marched right up to the café where I was having my morning coffee!

A strong tradition of military bands in Denmark, combined with a healthy amount of Girl Power, has resulted in a powerful organization with infectious energy. They even made it to Hollywood!

What do rituals do for us? What about pomp (defined as “stately or splendid display”)? Why do people seek these kinds of experiences in their communities? Why do they so often include music? Is a stately ritual a kind of artistic experience? Or is it something else? What rituals do you have?

One of my favorite rituals, of course, is writing ‘home’ to you all. I look forward to seeing many of you in NYC in just a couple of weeks!

Yours truly,


Skiing and Skating

This week’s Postcards from the Chorus features Michael Grade, Director of Finance & Operations at the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

It was still dark. But by the soft gold light emanating from the street lamps, I could see the town had been blanketed in fresh snow. Giddy with anticipation, I bused over to the trailhead with my brand new Rossignols. OMG! My luck couldn’t have been any better!

The snow cat was warming up. Heaven!

It was January of 1986. The cold war was drawing to a close, but I was just beginning a plum three-year assignment as a desk-bound warrior at a listening post in Bavaria, then West Germany, after learning Russian (both standard and military usage) for almost two and a half years. Language ran deep in my family–multiple cases of total immersion in German, multiple graduate degrees in French, professorships in Spanish and Portuguese.

The bread-and-butter work of a transcriber was practice artillery fire missions, essentially a minutes-long rapid fire blast of 2- or 3-digit numbers. Occasionally, we got lucky and intercepted the Russians as they drove the former East German countryside. They’d shout into their radios, “Why aren’t you in Dubistdieruhburg?” or “We passed through Pandachantenfurt two hours ago.” (Well, I could have sworn that’s what I heard. They didn’t enunciate as beautifully as the Girls do.)

The snow cat pulled away, chugging, belching smoke, and a minute or two later, the calm returned, a small meadow, nestled among the trees, with a fresh trail arcing across it, disappearing around a beckoning bend. Not a sound, everything muffled by several days’ accumulation of wintery pillow-y whiteness.

I snapped into the bindings, settled the straps on my wrists, and started off.

1986, just three years before Reagan proclaimed “Tear down this wall” and 27 years before the Girls would join Tempelhof Broadcast. Now, 30 years later, some are contemplating building a new wall. Hello? Once in Germany, I wasted no time in getting off the Kaserne (post). Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a pair of towns inauspiciously joined in 1936 for an Olympic bid, but stunningly situated at the foot of the Alps, was a logical destination for this outdoor enthusiast. Check out this actual postcard sent home in the spring of 1986:

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I bought a pair of cross-country skis, “on the economy” as the G.I.s used to say, for 90 Deutsche Marks, the equivalent of about forty dollars. I found out about a trail that wound its way up a valley east of town toward Klais and onward to Mittenwald (Germany’s violin-making capital).

In the “kick zone,” underneath the bindings, the skis had fish scales, to grip the snow. In the tracks, parallel grooves just inches apart, you put your weight on one ski to push off and glide on the other. Classic. Simple. Pure.

On up I went, freshly groomed snow, brand new skis, fresh air, a classic gurgling brook below and steep canyon walls above, beautifully caked spruce everywhere. Striding and gliding around corners, pushing up the inclines and occasionally gliding down again, chest heaving. Peaceful. Clean. Silent. The kind of “Ruhe” to which one longs to escape, from a hectic world of deadlines, meetings, piles of homework, and AP tests.

A new job, drought, ultra-running, El Nino, lovely partner, daughter, new job, countless travels, new job, passing of a father (allow me to throw in a quick thank you here to Ginsberg, Glass, and the Girls for those “Blues”), teenage daughter, separation, new job…Change!

It’s late December 2015, the west coast of Canada (Vancouver) is experiencing an epic winter. Familiar, as I was, from a gnarly trail running escape to “North Van” in 2012, I knew it was an easy trip. I cleared the calendar, packed up the gear, and headed north for a week of skiing on heaps of snow at the Whistler Olympic Park. Priceless.

Between ’86 and ’16, I had switched over to the originally controversial, but now widely accepted style, of cross-country skiing called skating. Imagine the graceful lines of ice-skating on snow. Bengt Herman Nilsson, chairman of the FIS Cross-Country Committee in the ‘80s, noted “…when three to four skiers in a row race with forceful skating steps, they remind me of exotic butterflies fluttering in the wind.” Let’s be clear, I’m nowhere near THAT graceful! But feel free to check out some clips of skating here:

During this trip, I tried something new, night skiing. The winds of the day had calmed, the crowds of day skiers were heading home in long lines snaking out of the parking lots of the Whistler/Blackcomb resort, no doubt reminiscing about daring maneuvers in the half pipe. The staff at the Passiv Haus (a super eco-friendly structure purpose built as the headquarters for the 2010 Austrian Olympic team and recently converted into the cross country center) was tidying up for the night. The temperature was dropping. The lights on the all but empty loop around Lost Lake were flickering on.

Again, I snapped in. This time, no fish scales, just smooth bottoms waxed tip to tail. Off I skated, left, right, left, on firm snow, picking up speed with little effort, knees bending to maintain balance as weight shifted side to side. The trail dipped into and out of pools of off-white glow every hundred yards or so, each one drawing you in from the darkness. Power and peace. Rise and fall. Heaving chest. Embracing the moment fully.

These utterly immersive experiences, separated by time, but similar in so many ways, remind me of how much I enjoy our concerts. The long hours of preparation slip away. A sense of pop-up, organic urgency takes over. Pace, tone, movement, and expression thoroughly, convincingly, confidently convey the serenity or the drama of emotional torment. Whether a classic or unconventional work, the Girls convey their understanding and their joy in taking on the responsibility of dealing with it professionally. They look, unflinching at their audience, asking us to ask ourselves if we get it, if we’re ready to embrace the questions asked, as they have.

What is the same for you, and what is different? What will be the same 30 years from now? What will be different? Will more walls come down? What role will you play? How will your passion get the exercise it needs?

A few words of thanks in closing. I’m grateful for having had the chance to work with Melanie for the past 4+ years. Together with the board, artistic leadership, staff, and faculty, Melanie has created a “strength in numbers” that rivals that of the Warriors and a behind the scenes production/staging that rivals Otte’s. My colleagues, who are all committed to a vibrant and thriving program, work with a sense of urgency, juggling many responsibilities. It’s a pleasure to be in their presence. Melanie, you’ll be missed.

With echoes of Finlandia still reverberating off the walls of our beautiful renovated hall, I’m looking forward to winter again. After all, the cross country world championships are in Lahti next year. How do you say “homestay” in Finnish?


Michael Grade
Director of Finance & Operations
San Francisco Girls Chorus


Dear Friends,


Melanie Smith, Executive Director

This weekend the San Francisco Girls Chorus School will perform its final concert of the 2015-2016 academic year. The concert will conclude with a graduation ceremony for many members of Level IV, who will have passed a qualifying exam and demonstrated that their musical abilities in theory, sight singing and vocal technique have earned them a certificate of achievement from the Chorus School. For some, this may mark the end of their time with the Girls Chorus. For others, it will signify a new beginning.

In that sense, our gathering on May 14 will also be a commencement—a time to reflect on past achievements and celebrate what is yet to come. This year, as I hand out certificates or pins to our Level IV graduates, I will be marking my own graduation/commencement as well. This will be the last time I participate in a Chorus School graduation ceremony, as I prepare to move on from the Girls Chorus this summer, to become the new President of San Francisco Performances in early August. So for me too, this ceremony will mark an end, and a beginning.

This tremendous organization that Ruth Felt, the Founder of SF Performances, has built over the past 37 years is truly a phenomenon in the performing arts world, and I am honored to return to that organization in this new role. For decades, Ruth and SF Performances have led the field in innovative programs, presenting established artists in intimate venues, introducing emerging artists and in creating meaningful and lasting relationships between community and performers through residencies and long-term initiatives that have enriched the Bay Area arts scene. I look forward to building on these successes and working with the incredibly talented and dedicated SF Performances team as we move forward.

But I will also miss all of you, and the work we have done together in the past decade to make the Girls Chorus so strong and vibrant. I believe that the Chorus has never been stronger—with a steady Chorus School enrollment, the financial and organizational advantages we enjoy thanks to owning our own building, the Kanbar Center for the Performing Arts, and most especially because of our exciting, visionary artistic growth and international profile, such as our trip next month to the NY Phil Biennial Festival! I am honored and pleased to have been involved in all of the growth and development that have made this strength and artistic flowering possible. And I also know that I’m leaving the Chorus in great hands—from our visionary and supportive Board of Directors, to our vibrant artistic and educational team, to our highly professional administrative staff, to all of you, our dedicated Chorus family and friends.

I’m sure there will continue to be many new beginnings for the Chorus in the months and years ahead, as we have celebrated the beginnings of so many exciting initiatives in recent years. And as our Chorus School graduates continue to develop their talents and pursue their passions, perhaps by continuing to sing here at SFGC, or perhaps by moving on to other interests, I know they will take with them a deep love and knowledge of music, and the confidence and joy that come from doing something to the best of one’s ability.

While I’ve been in the process of moving on to my next professional and musical adventure, for some reason I’ve had the score of Mozart’s beloved opera, The Magic Flute, playing in my head. The story is about the protagonists’ journey, and the trials and challenges along the way. It’s also about the friends and companions who share that journey, and help to make it easier, and even possible. It’s life, really, and the serious pursuit of any worthy endeavor. So here’s our current Level IV, including this year’s graduates, rehearsing the overture to The Magic Flute, singing it in solfege syllables.

And as a kind of SFGC yearbook, here’s my recap of some of the highlights and exceptional debuts and premieres from this 2015-2016 Chorus year:

Collaboration with TENET, Fall 2016:

Virgina Warnken, Jolle Greenleaf, and Molly Quinn of Tenet. Photograph by Dana Davis.

Virgina Warnken, Jolle Greenleaf, and Molly Quinn of Tenet. Photograph by Dana Davis.


Photo by Dana Davies


Photo by Dana Davies








Collaboration with Deborah Voigt at Davies Symphony Hall, December 2015:

SF Girls Chorus and Chorus School in concert with Deborah Voigt, December 7, 2016. Photograph by

SF Girls Chorus and Chorus School in concert with Deborah Voigt, December 7, 2016. Photograph by

Performance at Kronos Festival, February 2016:

San Francisco Girls Chorus rehearse with the Kronos Quartet, conducted by Valèrie Sainte-Agathe

San Francisco Girls Chorus rehearse with the Kronos Quartet, conducted by Valèrie Sainte-Agathe


Standing ovation following the West Coast Premiere of composer Sahba Aminikia's work Sound, Only Sound Remains performed by the Kronos Quartet and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, conducted by SFGC's Valérie Sainte-Agathe.

Standing ovation following the West Coast Premiere of composer Sahba Aminikia’s work Sound, Only Sound Remains performed by the Kronos Quartet and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, conducted by SFGC’s Valérie Sainte-Agathe.

This is only the beginning of the next adventure, for all of us!

Wishing you a bon voyage, or buen camino,


New Ensemble SHE and Upcoming Performances

Hello SFGC Friends!

Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, Photograph by Liz Linder

Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, Photograph by Liz Linder

Wonderful to see so many of you this week around Kanbar, as multiple groups and levels prepared for a broad variety of performances in the upcoming weeks. Last night kicked off this very busy stretch, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where our girls helped celebrate the life of Bill Graham on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) with their Sold Out performance.

I was especially proud of our newest ensemble, SHE (SFGC School Honors Ensemble), conducted by our own Valérie Sainte-Agathe. This serious-minded group of 31 younger singers, from Levels II-IV, debuted last night in a performance of Charles Davidson’s “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” which I remember performing countless times as a member of the SFGC back in the 1980’s, at synagogues all over the Bay Area. This powerful piece is a setting of children’s poems from the Terezin concentration camp, and I remember feeling a mysterious and powerful connection to those young writers as we rehearsed and performed their words, written 40 years earlier. It was a multi-layered experience for me to see our own choristers, now another 30 years later, enter that fold in time and bring these words to life again.

We also had some visitors to SFGC rehearsals this week! One guest included mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, who knows many of the girls from our premiere ensemble through her work with them on several episodes of my TV opera Vireo. One of my very first postcards, over two years ago, was about Laurie and her story of courage in the face of several kinds of discrimination. The short film Laurie Rubin: A Different Kind of Diva tells her story beautifully, and that story has continued to unfold, with more and more speaking appearances and book tours and anti-bullying workshops for girls. For those of you who missed meeting her on Tuesday, don’t worry, you will have more opportunities next season (spoiler alert!).

Laurie Rubin: A Different Kind of Diva

Here is a photo of the girls, with Laurie and her partner Jenny and another new friend of the chorus who traipsed around from room to room with us this Tuesday, Minna Choi. Minna is the founder and director of a unique musical organization here in the Bay Area called Magik*Magik Orchestra. Like The Knights, with whom our premiere ensemble will be performing at the New York Philharmonic Biennial Festival next month in New York, Magik*Magik is a “pop-up orchestra,” a group of young people who decide that, rather than auditioning for an orchestra after they finish conservatory training, they will start their own orchestra instead.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus with Laurie Rubin, her partner Jenny, Minna Choi, and Lisa Bielawa.

Watch this video about how Minna and her Magik*Magik colleagues worked together with the experimental alternative rock musician, Hauschka. We hear a lot about how modern-day classical composers sometimes bring elements of popular styles into their music. This has been going on for centuries of course, from as early as the Renaissance era and also, notably in the early 20th century, when composers like Stravinsky and Poulenc celebrated the influence of American jazz. Minna is bridging the gap in a different way, by putting her musicians at the service of creative musicians who don’t compose music in the classical, conservatory way, but who wish to reach towards classical sounds and influences. She provides musicians who are classical by training but bring a readiness to collaborate, re-work and try new methods and means. She herself can provide them with arranging assistance, teaching them about the instruments of the orchestra and crafting their ideas to fit the forces at hand.

Last night we heard our own choristers sing some well-crafted arrangements of Grateful Dead songs by Joyce McBride. These also brought music created in the pop milieu into the realm of classical performance. What do you think when you hear a popular song you know well, arranged and performed in the classical concert milieu? What does this cross-stylistic reaching do for the music itself? Does it expand the original message of the song? Does it dilute it? Are there some styles of music that you would rather hear only in their original stylistic ‘voice’? Why? What about Bach? What does this Swingle Singers recording of a Bach Fugue do to your experience of this piece?Is it funny? Beautiful? Ridiculous? Easier, or harder to listen to than, say, this version?

Thank you, so many of you, for a great week together!


School Choristers Perspective, April 2016

This week’s Postcards from the Chorus features two of SF Girls Chorus School students reflecting on their experience at the recent April 10 concert, performing with cellist Joshua Roman and the SF Girls Chorus.

During my four years in the SF Girls Chorus School, I have had many opportunities to work with professional musicians. I want to share with you my experience rehearsing and performing with cellist Joshua Roman and conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe for Echoes of the Classics. We sang several beautiful and interesting pieces at the Herbst Theatre that day. The most notable piece for me was Our Voice, an original piece composed for us by Joshua Roman that I really enjoyed learning. Our Voice is about singers and how we have the power to become anything we choose. When we first received the music, everyone was excited to hear the intricate chords of the opening section. At first it wasn’t clicking. But, once it finally came together, we sounded like a united army of angels. During rehearsal we did many exercises to get into character. One exercise that really helped me was thinking of adjectives to describe these angels. In the end we came up with pretty, brave, magical, and disciplined. I feel that each of these describes one section of the piece. For example, during the intro we are pretty angels singing celestial chords. In the second section, we are brave angels. One of my favorite lines of the whole song is the following: “Sure we’re angelic but were so much more than that. We are strong, we are bold.” We are magical when we describe ourselves as “kaleidoscopes of harmony.” And as Valérie would say, we are disciplined throughout the whole song when we are focused and alert. This was an inspiring composition and I’m so honored to have sung it for Joshua.

Members of the SF Girls Chorus School, Levels III and IV, with guest artist Joshua Roman, cello prior to the April 10, 2016 concert. Photo by Rachel Clee.

Q: Where did you get the inspiration for Our Voice?

Joshua Roman: I was actually inspired by the words of Malala Yousafzai, and I was originally going to put the song to her words. I had go through several official privacy procedures and waited months and months for the rights. In the end, I couldn’t wait any longer and I probably wouldn’t have gotten the OK. So instead, I used the words that you hear now. The driving inspiration I used in the piece was girl power and feminism. Feminism specifically in younger girls, about the age of all the choristers performing today. Something like, we may sound beautiful and heartwarming, but we are also strong and can be anything we want or choose.

The SF Girls Chorus, conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe, with guest artist Joshua Roman, cello, prior to concert April 10, 2016 at the San Francisco War Memorial Performing Arts Center. Photo by Rachel Clee.

Working with Joshua as a person was also immensely enjoyable. During our long rehearsals, he lightened the mood and lifted our spirits. It’s difficult to comprehend how someone so focused and disciplined in his music can be so humorous in person. Working with him was a great example of what a professional musician’s life can be like. Hearing Joshua play was also so inspiring. I remember how emotional and engaged he looked when he started one of our songs, Snow by Alan Vincent. All year our Director, Dr. Anne Hege, has been working to get us to sing the song with matching emotion. By watching Joshua, I finally understood what she meant.

We also sang Haydn canons with Joshua. Canons are very special to me. They signify a never-ending story of song. Many canons have an important message. For example, in my favorite canon, Death and Sleep, Haydn does an incredible job of describing how sleep soothes the soul. The text is: “Death is a long, long sleep. Sleep is a little, little death that softens grief and turns our pain to rest and peace.” As you can see, Haydn poetically describes the relationship between death, sleep, pain, and peace. Canons are incredible pieces that ebb, flow, and come together like puzzles. It was enlightening to perform them with Joshua because it helped my hear the music from a different perspective.

Q: I loved the sound of the cello alongside our voices, especially because you sometimes play as if your cello is your voice. Do you have any singing experience?

Joshua Roman: I sang in a choir with my Dad for a lot of my life and sang in a rock band for a time, it was great fun! I also used to play the piano, but I had to quit everything to focus on the cello. It was a difficult decision, but it seems to have worked for me.

It was amazing working with Joshua Roman. I hope I will have many more opportunities like this one in the future.

Thoughts from Eva Jackson, Interview by Eva Melin-Gompper
Members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus School, Level IV

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