San Francisco Girls Chorus Artistic Director Valerie Sainte-Agathe, at right with singers, says the organization has adapted well to life during the pandemic. Courtesy photo

S.F. Girls Chorus concludes virtual season with Carnegie Hall concert re-broadcast

With a dedicated corps of youthful talent, the San Francisco Girls Chorus has been weathering the challenging COVID-19 storm.

It has presented outstanding programs of innovative works during a successful 2020 Virtual Festival, which concludes June 26 with a rebroadcast of a Feb. 16, 2018 performance at Carnegie Hall of Philip Glass’ minimalist masterwork “Music With Changing Parts.”

SFGC, the Philip Glass Ensemble and San Francisco Conservatory of Music student musicians reprised the pulsating, multilayered composition at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on Feb. 20. 2018. The 1970 work, from the prolific composer’s early period, has a fluid structure that affords conductors and performers much flexibility. With a revised score adding the chorus and brass ensemble to keyboards, the performance at Carnegie Hall ran just under 90 minutes.

“It’s exciting, extremely intense to be performing with the Philip Glass Ensemble. We’re talking about the monster of music — and just to have the opportunity to be next to Philip Glass, (conductor) Michael Riesmann and all those amazing performers,” says SFGC artistic director Valerie Sainte-Agathe, calling the event “such a wonderful opportunity for young singers, many teenagers, who were invited for a sold-out performance at Carnegie.”

Working with Glass’ first composition to feature vocalists, Sainte-Agathe guides the chorus through a procession of wordless tones, vocalized at her cues, which, in tandem with adaptively repetitive patterns of the brass ensemble and keyboards, result in a notably improvisational piece.

“I developed a code with the singers, so with different signs I could tell them when to speak, when to stop, when to repeat, which vowels to use,” Sainte-Agathe says. “And the piece is interesting because you can sense the color of each pattern, and it’s never the same.”

SFGC’s Virtual Festival — online due to the pandemic that has forced cancellations or postponements throughout the performing arts world — has proved a successful vessel for helping keep the organization float, and even prosper.

But none of that success would be possible without the talent developed through the San Francisco Girls Chorus School.

“One of the advantages that we have is that we have the entire educational part that an orchestra does not necessarily have, and so we are not relying only on the performances,” Sainte-Agathe says.

Additional pluses include the fact that there has been no attrition among current choristers, despite their training’s shift to an online-only format.

There has also been strong interest from families for securing auditions for their daughters to get into SFGC fall semester programs, which include master classes, private voice classes and theory. That sustained enthusiasm will be key to nurturing an adequate, healthy talent pool for the chorus.

“What was important for me was to keep a structure, and I have an amazing faculty who adapted their thoughts to an online system, which has been working very well, Sainte-Agathe says. “And to keep the girls committed, involved and singing, for them to understand that chorus is not only about being together in the same room.”

Other factors that have contributed to sustainability include a much-better-than-anticipated online fundraising campaign and collaborative efforts with other organizations such as the Kronos Quartet. Though SFGC expects to announce additional plans for its fall season, the online formula will be foundational.

“We plan to stay online during the fall,” Sainte-Agathe says. “If at one point it’s safe to sing together, even outdoors, we’ll do that, but it was really important for me to develop a program and a season that we could handle online, keeping the flexibility to adapt it if that’s possible.”

The virtual concert is free at 7 a.m. Friday at https://www.medici.tv/en/.

Classical Music

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