Postcards From The Chorus

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

In this week’s Postcard, Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa writes ‘home’ from Florida

Greetings SFGC Friends from Orlando, Florida!

And no, I am not riding rollercoasters here, as tempting as that is. I am here with conductor Eric Jacobsen, who will share the stage with many of our own singers in Washington D.C. at the Kennedy Center in April with his Brooklyn-based orchestra, The Knights. But this weekend he is leading his “other” orchestra – yes, Eric is the conductor of two orchestras in two totally separate parts of the country! – the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.

I’m here because I get to hear Eric conduct the world premiere of a new piece I wrote called “Drama/Self-Pity,” on a concert that otherwise has piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, played by the inimitable pianist Emanuel Ax.

SFGC AD Lisa Bielawa meets Conductor and SFGC Collaborator Eric Jacobsen’s “other” orchestra, the Orlando Philharmonic, in rehearsal last night.

SFGC AD Lisa Bielawa meets Conductor and SFGC Collaborator Eric Jacobsen’s “other” orchestra, the Orlando Philharmonic, in rehearsal last night.


You may be wondering, “What’s a brand-new piece with a goofy title doing on a concert with two great Classical piano concertos?” It’s a good question, on the face of it – but it turns out that Eric’s new artistic leadership here (this is his second season as Music Director) is built around these kinds of mash-ups. Listen to him talk about his philosophy of artistic programming in this video the OPO made to introduce their audience to their new Director:

Which of these four ‘pillars’ of inspiration – Classics; Intimacy; Living Composers; and Heroes – do you feel most passionate about as a listener? Does his speech make you want to come hear this orchestra, and watch him conduct? Who are your “Heroes”? His invitation to bring me and my new piece there is part of the third pillar, of course, and I can feel the excitement among the entire OPO community around the fact that they are helping bring a new piece into the world. Eric’s vision of creating new works in Orlando that can go on into the world fills the community here with pride – in their orchestra but also in their city. What role does a cultural institution play in the life of a city? Is it similar to the role that a sports team plays, for example?

For my part, it’s the life of cities that gave rise to my piece, “Drama/Self-Pity,” in the first place. And I also had my own philosophy about how my piece could cohabit with Mozart and Beethoven on this concert – you can read more about that here in this fun article from Orlando Weekly. Centuries may come between these iconic composers’ music and mine, but things like humor, drama and, yes, self-pity, are timeless. Can you think of any Classical music that could bear this same title? Do you hear Self-Pity in, say, this aria of Mozart’s?

And would you say that Beethoven has a tendency to be a little Dramatic at times too? Listen to Emanuel Ax talk to this young pianist about a passage in one of Beethoven’s piano concertos that he feels is actually meant to be funny – not taken quite so seriously, “…so it sounds really weird!”

Let’s hope we make some really weird sounds together this weekend! It’s been great fun so far, and now I can’t wait to hear it all unfold.

See you all soon!


Lisa Bielawa

Samantha Rowell Postcard

Dear SFGC Colleagues and Friends,

As Development Director for the SF Girls Chorus, I handle all of the efforts made to raise the necessary funding for us to do what we do so well. But I am also a lifelong artist, with two degrees in music and theatre, and a certificate in acting from ACT. Like many of our choristers, I grew up performing as a child – I sang, conducted choirs, and wrote a few plays with original music. These days, poetry is my primary form of artistic expression. I sometimes experience a little “writer’s block” and by happy coincidence, the SF Girls Chorus shook loose a major case of it for me recently.

Rewinding a bit…in September, I had the opportunity to fly to Istanbul, Turkey for an amazing collaborative project. I wrote some poems and composer Pieter Snapper set them to music. Peter recently won a 2016 Donizetti Classical Music Award for Best Recording (see picture), and founded various robust programs in Turkey for music composition and sound engineering. Pieter was the first person I felt truly “got” my style and tone, even my most raw, eviscerating work. When we found each other and decided to collaborate, I felt truly heard and understood.


Pieter Snapper (sound design) and Emine Serdaroğlu (piano), winning a Donizetti Classical Music Award for their piano and cello album.

Creating poems to be set to music was a different way of working – I had to write FOR something, and with some basic parameters like length and tone. I was a little stuck, frankly, when I began this project. And a little intimidated. Writing for me has always been about expressing something very personal, just for myself. I often try to distill images down into their most elemental form.

Pieter asked me to express a kind of creative desperation arising from inner turmoil and conflict, in the first person. We were also writing for a particular singer – the incredible soprano Juliana Snapper, who happens to be a Girls Chorus Alumna! I couldn’t believe it! Juliana and I grew up and sang together, and she would be recording the songs that my poems would inspire!


Samantha Rowell (poet) and Juliana Snapper (soprano)

I sat down to write at my computer in the morning after receiving my first directives from the composer, but felt powerless to respond. I sat staring at a blinking cursor and leaned on the space bar, creating sheaves of blank pages.

That evening, as I dreaded returning home to sit in front of a blank screen some more, I attended an open rehearsal of the Girls Chorus. The premiere ensemble sang one of the pieces they were preparing for their trip to perform for the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial. The piece, Theo Bleckmann’s “Final Answer” sounded like thousands of pecking birds…all of the voices overlapping in such richness and cacophony. It was a beautiful asynchronous conversation in song. Standing there and listening, I was suddenly struck by how similar their voices sounded to my own voice during many conversations and arguments as a child when I sang with (and sometimes disagreed with) my dear friend Juliana Snapper.

And that did it. I was free of my writer’s block. I went home after rehearsal and wrote in a frenzy – a flood of words spilling out on the page.

And it got me thinking about the creative process, and how elusive and fickle the creative impulse can be. What do you do when you are feeling as if you can’t rise to an occasion in your own life? When you are unsure that you can push ahead, and complete a project in front of you, what is your method for relaxing into the work at hand? Are there specific things that you do to get yourself unstuck? And, like I found in my collaboration with Pieter, what does it take for you to feel truly heard and understood?



Samantha Rowell

A Message From Lisa Bielawa

Greetings SF Girls Chorus Friends!

I’m looking forward to being among you next week, but in a sense I am also among some of you already, because I am currently spending long days writing music for our choristers, for future episodes of my hybrid opera/TV show created expressly for episodic broadcast and streaming media, Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser. And yes indeed, that is Laurie Rubin there on the TV station’s web page, who joins us in SF next Saturday October 29 at the Herbst Theatre. We are all excited to have her with us!

Various members of the SFGC have participated in the Vireo project already, all twelve episodes of which will be released on KCET’s website at once for streaming this coming spring. Just a few days after the SFGC season closed in June, Valérie, long-time SFGC member Emma MacKenzie and I boarded a ferry to Alcatraz with 50 other people to shoot Episode 9!

Last spring, Emma won the role of Caroline, the title character Vireo’s mysterious twin sister, and she will be appearing as a principal character in all of the remaining episodes. The audition process was intense, and included girls from all over the state, not just the SFGC. The director Charlie Otte came with an HD camera – it was a combination audition/screen test! Emma started in the SFGC when she was only eight years old, in Level I. She has done so much growing and learning in our community.

Valérie was along on Alcatraz too. Can you spot us in this motley group?  Hint: Valérie and I are just to the left and the right of the sign! Photo by David Soderlund.

Groups of SFGC choristers from 5 to 32 have made appearances in three previous episodes, and Valérie’s presence on the set as a second conductor (sometimes we need 3 at the same time!) has become an integral part of the whole process. At Alcatraz we got the chance to work with six superb singers from our colleague Ragnar Bohlin’s professional ensemble Cappella SF.

Taking a break from the piano in order to say hello to you all, I find myself thinking about how much music has come out of learning communities similar to ours. TheGloria that appears on our June concert, for example, was penned in Venice in the 18th Century by the violin teacher at an orphanage for girls – Antonio Vivaldi. Does being around young people and learning make you feel creative? Inspired? When we are learning something new, do we inspire others around us? If learning inspires creativity, does creativity also inspire learning?

Yours truly,
Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director

Greetings From The Annual Melbourne Festival

G’day Mates!

Yes, I’ve been down under, this past week, enjoying perfect flat whites every morning. I was performing at the annual Melbourne Festival, which brings together diverse arts programming from all over the world. The major Australian cities all have these festivals, usually lasting 2-3 weeks. The Melbourne Festival is highly respected as an informed and innovative overview of the world in arts. They bring in a new Artistic Director every 3-4 years to keep the breadth of different visions and networks of relationships, and this year’s festival, British director Jonathan Holloway’s first, shows his dynamism as a major curator. This guy’s finger is on the pulse!

Although I was busy onstage most of my time there, I did get a chance to check out a couple of things that I thought might be interesting to us, the SFGC Community! Intrigued by the “show” they brought to the festival, I met up with Eva Verity, one of the Artistic Directors of the Mammalian Diving Reflex Theatre in Toronto, which describes its offerings as “ideal entertainment for the end of the world.”

Melbourne marked the 35th city for the touring project “Haircuts by Children.”

Click on the image above and watch this short video of the “Haircuts by Children” project in London!

Although I myself was not able to sign up for a haircut (the actual haircuts start tomorrow, and I’m already back in the US), I was able to grab a meal with Eva to talk about the workshop process she does with the kids, who are usually 9-10 years old and selected for socioeconomic and ethnic diversity, as defined by the region of the performance. Eva and I shared thoughts about what it really means to empower children, and how to inspire new thinking among adults (who make the laws and rules that govern children’s lives) about what role power plays, should play, or might not need to play, in our interactions with kids.

Click on the image above and hear Eva outline the workshop process that she is in the thick of right now, as you read this (Eva’s on the right, on the sofa)

Would you like to get your hair cut by a child? Would you like your child to cut a stranger’s hair? How does this “show” shed unique light on the particular predicament of children in the world of adults? Does it provide any answers? Does it pose new unanswerable questions? Do you like the hairstyles you see? Does it matter?

Interestingly enough, another offering at the festival explored the issues of power, maturity and youth from a whole other angle: the touring production of “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour,” from the National Theatre of Scotland.

Click on the image to view a clip from “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.”

I caught the last half of this riotously funny and shockingly bawdy show, and mused on how the premise – six choir girls from a Catholic school in Western Scotland travel to Edinburgh to participate in a choir competition but end up going completely off-track, partying and spinning out of control instead – asks the audience another set of questions: what are the forces at play in the ‘coming of age’ of teenage girls today? How does it feel as an audience member to see young girls, dressed so primly in their uniforms, show this other rowdy, rude side? How would it feel if they were boys instead of girls?

Because of the mature subject matter, these roles were played by young adults, of course (the youngest among them is 23, I learned from Festival staff). So while in Haircuts by Children I saw 9-10 year olds functioning like adults, in “Our Ladies” I saw adults playing the roles of teenagers. I spent the long flight back musing on how we view our youngest citizens, in our society at large, and how that affects the way they view themselves. How would you describe most adults’ views of children as a social unit? Do you agree or disagree with them?

Cheerio mates,

Lisa Bielawa

Music, Mindfulness and Matriarchs

This week’s Postcard is from our Dean, Virginia Peden, MA in Counseling Psychology and Expressive Arts Therapy from the California Institute of Integral Studies, Registered Yoga Teacher and Mindfulness Educator .

virginiaDear SF Girls Chorus Community,

Well, here we are at the beginning of another year. For me, this time of year always seems to bring with it a sense of excitement, optimism, and hope for what another year of living and learning together may have in store.

The SF Girls Chorus has been through a number of changes throughout its lifetime of thirty something years. It, like all of us, continues to grow and evolve in its own organic manner. It has been many things to many people. I appreciate that one of the cornerstones of its evolution has always been the support and empowerment of girls and young women. My role is to aid in empowering our choristers in all areas of their lives, and I approach this through integrating mindfulness into their education.

So what is mindfulness?

Somewhere in the middle of what was and what will be is this moment. Right here. The present. Watch out, it’s easy to miss. But if we are able to take the time to practice presence, we may find ourselves becoming aware of new depths of ourselves, our experiences, and our capacity for developing a greater sense of self-regulation, resilience and creativity. As a staff member of the SFGC, I often get the question: do you sing? My frequent response is “no, not really, only in the shower.” This is not entirely true. I sing all over the house, in the kitchen while I cook, on the sidewalk with my daughter, in the car with the windows down if a good song comes on the radio. While all of the SFGC choristers could easily school me in music theory, music has always been a part of my life in one way or another.

I grew up in a city whose very soul is rooted in its musical identity: New Orleans. As a city that does not shy away from any excuse to “laissez les bon temps rouler,” there are constant opportunities to gather, be present, and enjoy the love of music and song. Music is an integral part of the landscape, whether it’s being played by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, a funk band in a dimly-lit club in the French Quarter, or a pop-up brass band in the streets. I cannot remember a time when music was not part of my world.

A love of singing has run in my family for generations. My grandmother and namesake, Virginia “Jeanne” Burke was in a singing group with her sisters during the 1930’s. The Burke Sisters traveled the country with big bands playing for all sorts of audiences – listen here to one of their recordings.




Here is a vintage poster of my grandmother’s singing group.They sang and tap danced together, in the style of song-and-dance girls like the Andrew Sisters, and developing tight harmonies like the Boswell Sisters (they all performed a lot of the same jazz numbers.)

Up until right before her passing, my grandmother was still performing, bringing song, dance and joy to people at senior living centers, despite the fact that she was the same age as many of her audience members.






The Boswell sisters were a similar well-known trio. Click the image above to play the video.

So, how does this music, mindfulness and matriarchal lineage all tie together for me?

It might have something to do with when and how I became interested in mindfulness. I had recently relocated to Austin, Texas to finish my undergraduate degree when Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath uprooted everything and everyone in the place I called home. It was a surreal time, to say the least. You know the look of the shore at low tide -all the debris of the sea washed ashore, haphazardly dispersed and laid bare at the same time? After Katrina, that’s what life looked like to me, and many of us were unsure about how to make any sort of sense of it.

When I discovered mindfulness practice, it was like jumping into cold water; it shocked me awake and back into the world. I started singing with friends again. As I learned more about mindfulness and meditation, I developed some tools to manage these challenging feelings I was struggling to understand, and skills to handle the lessons life would continue to teach me. The practice also helped me put my experience in perspective, helping me uncover new levels of awareness, compassion and gratitude. It opened me up to community, to the world, to living.

As a grad student, working as a school-based counselor in under-resourced schools, I became more interested in how the kids I was working with could develop their own sense of ownership and autonomy when managing challenges in their lives, rather than having to regularly rely on any sort of outside providers. It is my belief that children are resilient and innately wise and creative, but they are also attempting to manage a growing barrage of stressors and responsibilities. A couple of self-care tools in the back pocket never hurt anyone. Since working in that school-based program, I’ve gone on to do more training in mindfulness and education.

For me, there is a very natural connection that exists between the practice of mindfulness and music making. There are a number of studies about group singing that point out the physical and psychological benefits of singing in community.

Singing in a choir has also been demonstrated to decrease stress and encourage connection. In fact, a Swedish study found that our heart beats can synchronize when we sing together. Kids always think the above clip (click to play) is pretty cool when I share it with them.

It is pretty special to be able to continue in my grandmother’s footsteps–in my own way–by supporting young people in their love of music and song. I feel so grateful to be a part of providing a space where girls and young women can practice being present, confident and brave; brave enough to be curious about something as innately personal as finding their own voice within a group setting. We’ve all seen it when they stand up and perform for an audience after putting in hours of preparation: these kids are courageous.

So, I ask you, how do you think being present in the moment could affect your practice?

Want to give this mindfulness thing a try yourself? Click on the image above and try a short bit of practice with mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg.

See you around the Chorus!


Virginia Peden,

Dean of Choristers, SF Girls Chorus

A Welcome Message from Artistic Director, Lisa Bielawa

A special welcome message from Artistic Director, Lisa Bielawa and an introduction to celebrated artists, Laurie Rubin and Jennifer Taira, who will share the stage with The SF Girls Chorus on October 29 in the anticipated season opening performance, Love’s Journey.

Greetings SF Girls Chorus Community, and a special welcome to our new parents!

Now that we are back in full swing, I’m delighted to kick off this season’s Postcards from the Chorus. For those of you who are receiving your first Postcard today: these are a series of weekly notes from various people within our community. They are an opportunity for us – staff, faculty, the girls themselves, to learn about the various guest artists who come to work with us – to share our thoughts and experiences with you all, thereby bringing the whole community closer to the work we do, and the people who make it all happen.

Laurie Rubin and Jennifer Taira on the red carpet at the West Coast premiere of “Peace On Your Wings.”


In NYC the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to catch up with our upcoming guest artist on our October 29 concert, celebrated mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin. Based in Hawaii, Laurie was in town for the NY debut of the musical that she has co-created with her partner, Jennifer Taira, “Peace on Your Wings.” – four years in the making, and finally touring the US!

I was thrilled to be able to see it, especially since it featured an all-youth cast of kids trained in the program that Laurie and Jenny started, Ohana Arts Performing Arts Festival and School.  After watching them work so diligently to build this organization (founded in 2010), I was very moved to see these young people take the stage with such polish and assurance. Through Ohana Arts, they are trained in voice, dance and theater, and they have the opportunity to be part of a professional-grade musical theater production each year.






The musical itself is inspired by the short life of Sadako Sasaki, who died of leukemia at the age of 12 as a result of the Hiroshima bombing, after folding more than 1000 cranes for peace.

Click on the image above and see 14-year-old Shayna Yasanuga in the title role, leading her all-youth ensemble (including 6-year-old Maya Nakamoto) in the title song.

Are you aware that there are no adults on stage? How do you think you would feel about this scene if there were? What kinds of relationships do you see between the young characters in this all-youth society of the children’s hospital? When young people appear as a chorus in operas and musicals in other productions you’ve seen, what are their relationships with each other? With adults? How does it change our perception of young people when we see them onstage on their own, without adults? What do you think this experience is like for them?

The stated mission of Ohana Arts is “to promote peace and world friendship through the universal language of the arts.” Alongside the musical and dramatic training they receive, the kids in this program enter into a community that shares a common ethic. This more elusive aspect of their educational experience comes through beautifully in this poignant clip where the young performers talk about the subject matter.

The Hawaiian cast is mostly Asian-Hawaiian, and the co-creators do see it as one of their auxiliary missions to address the paucity of good roles (i.e., not stereotyped) for Asian singing actors in musical theater. What other kinds of stereotypes exist in the performing arts? What kinds of roles are there for women (and girls) in traditional opera? What other racial stereotypes do we see in musical theater? On TV?

What about the disabled? How are they represented in the stories told on opera stages? Laurie herself has been blind since birth, and it is no wonder that this theme of overcoming stereotyped ‘otherness’ has been a central theme in many of her artistic endeavors. In fact, she has many speaking engagements about these issues, and even leads anti-bullying workshops for girls.

Click the image above to watch the 2014 video of “The Girl I am” which she wrote with Jenny, and went viral.

I can’t wait to welcome Laurie into our SFGC community next month, and have her in our rehearsals and onstage with our singers! And…a little bird (a folded crane, perhaps?) told me that “Peace on Your Wings” will tour to SF in 2017!

Here’s to a wonderful year ahead, thank you for being a part of it!

Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director

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,




« Previous PageNext Page »