Postcards From The Chorus


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.

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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!

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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?

Yours,

 

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!

Yours,

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,

Lisa

 

 

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.

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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

Hi,

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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