Growing old on the wings of songs

Just months before he died at age 32 in 1982, the great Oakland Symphony conductor Calvin Simmons said abouthis work, “I am here because of Madi.”

Simmons was among the many protégés of Madi Bacon, the music teacher and choral director who founded the San Francisco Boys Chorus in 1948 along with Gaetano Merola, founder-director of the San Francisco Opera.

The chorus, now directed by Ian Robertson, is celebrating its 60th anniversary with a gala concert at the War Memorial Opera House Sunday and a summer tour of southern France with stops in Marseilles, Monaco and Aix-en-Provence.

As 225 youngsters from 48 Bay Area cities continue in the steps of Simmons (who joined at age 9 and conducted at 11), the founders’ emphasis on including underprivileged singers persists; scholarships provide tuition, uniforms and transportation to more than 25 young singers from underserved neighborhoods in San Francisco.

Alumni loyalty has served the organization well over the years. Dr. Peter Libby, an alumnus from the 1960s, has provided the lead gift for the chorus’ Madi Bacon Endowment Fund for Music Education Scholarships. He’ll present the first endowment award to a choir member at Sunday’s performance, which features Éric Marty’s “C. elegans,” Jeremy Faust’s “Parvus sum,” Léo Delibes’ rarely performed “Messe breve” and Franz Schubert’s Mass in C Major.

Well-known alumni include author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), actor Joshua Jackson, singer Christopheren Nomura, a cappella director Deke Sharon, Fort Worth Opera Artistic Director Joe Illick, Charlotte (North Carolina) Symphony resident conductor Alan Yamamoto and Seattle Opera Chorus Director Philipp Kelsey.

Faust, with twin careers in medicine and music, remembers his SFBC days with great affection:

“The chorus was a big part of who I was as a kid. At some point I chose it over school sports and I remember that being a turning point. For me, singing complicated harmonies gave me a rush that other kids might have gotten from things like skateboarding or even getting into trouble. About the worst thing I ever did was unsuccessfully trying to make a bootleg recording of a San Francisco Opera [production] I was performing in, for my personal enjoyment.”

When Bacon, a student of the great conductor Serge Koussevitzky, was asked to recruit and train boys to perform in San Francisco Opera’s 1948 “Carmen” and “La Bohème,” she formed what at that time was the country’s only boys’ opera repertory chorus. Bacon remained SFBC director until her retirement in 1972.

During decades of affiliation with the opera, chorus members have participated in 164 productions, performing in “Tannhäuser,” “Macbeth” and “The Magic Flute” in the last season alone.

The chorus continues to enrich young lives. Robertson, in charge of the San Francisco Opera’s grown-up chorus, added SFBC in 1996 because he was “fascinated by the quality of sound that boys could produce. … I agreed to be interim director until they sought a new leader. It’s 2008, and I’m still exploring the depths of this genre.”

IF YOU GO

S.F. Boys Chorus

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $15 to $60

Contact: (415) 392-4400 or www.cityboxoffice.com.

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