Postcard from Justin Montigne.
This week’s postcard comes from SFGC’s Director of Voice Studies and Chorus School Pedagogy, Dr. Justin Montigne. Justin joined SFGC’s music faculty in 2008, and has bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in vocal performance. In addition to his work with SFGC, Justin is a professional countertenor and master voice teacher at the high school, collegiate, and professional level through numerous Bay Area affiliations.
Hello Dear SFGC Community—
Questions: When you think of our Premier Ensemble, what comes to mind?
I suspect its multiple Grammy awards; Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center; world premieres by Philip Glass and Aaron Jay Kernis; fierce musicianship; confidence; and international tours might come to the top of your mind.
When you think of the Chorus School, what comes to mind?
Perhaps you imagine all the Levels and promotions between them; music theory and ear training; repertoire evaluations; rehearsal uniforms; and of course Davies and the Spring Concert and Graduation. And it’s true that these are all features of the Chorus School (except repertoire evaluations--more on that later). They don’t, however, give a full picture of the busy and richly rewarding musical lives our choristers lead before they reach the Premier Ensemble. The Chorus School comprises nearly 300 singers, so no wonder it is difficult for single choristers and their families to get a bird’s eye view. That’s my job, so let me tell you about some of the things that make me so excited about the Chorus School in the 2018-19 season. Let’s wander through the year, and by the time we’re done, you may have a fuller picture of the Chorus School.
We began the fall with choristers from Level II and III performing in San Francisco Opera’s production of Pagliacci. They did lots of singing alongside the professionals, and even more acting since they were on stage for the majority of Act II. One bonus was performing with SFGC alumna and Soloist Intensive voice instructor, Silvie Jensen (pictured), who sings regularly with SF Opera and elsewhere as a professional mezzo soprano soloist. The SF Opera partnership is the Chorus School’s (and SFGC’s) longest running artistic collaboration, and mustering a chorus of girls for a 1978 production of La Bohême was founder Elizabeth Appling’s first reason for forming an ensemble that later became SFGC. Our choristers have performed with the opera continuously in the decades throughout, and the will do so again in the near future.
The Chorus School has another important operatic relationship with Opera Parallèle, the daring contemporary opera company in the Bay Area with which they have sung Golijov’s Ainadamar, Poulenc’s Les Mammeles des Tiresias, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and most recently, two co-productions of Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince. SFGC choristers Sophia Stolte (pictured) and Erin Enriquez played The Prince, while singers from Level IV played the large chorus role, acting as stars, birds, and small non-singing roles. Sophia and Erin also were featured this August in West Edge Opera’s beautiful production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, in the musically difficult and dramatically intense role of Yniold. Our Chorus School singers learn a great deal about stage presence, professionalism, stamina, and dramatic commitment from these operatic collaborations, and they are prepared to carry these skills and the accompanying confidence with them throughout their lives.
Also last fall, Level IV performed for the second time at the World Wide Women festival at Santa Clara University. They sang a beautiful and skilled set of repertoire alongside motivational speakers, dance troupes, pop and rap music performances, and for an audience of hundreds of festival attendees from women’s and girls’ organizations around the Bay Area. Level I traveled to Laguna Honda hospital in San Francisco and Age Song retirement home in the East Bay to sing its yearly Intergenerational Concerts. Director Monica Covitt and Chorus Counselor Yolonda Young-Adisa had the opportunity to frame these performances for the choristers with discussions about aging and service, and the performances were a successful exchange of music and communication across the generations. Level II had a busy fall, performing as a part of the SF Opera education department’s ARIA outreach, visiting a school and performing and collaborating with public school children in San Francisco. They also sang an outreach performance for Crowden Music Day, which brings numerous East Bay visitors in touch with our East Bay program. These outreach activities allow the Chorus School to be present in the communities we serve, but also for our singers to meet, hear, and collaborate with organizations and peers outside their ensembles, and often outside of music. The ability of performers to reach across divides of geography and circumstance is a great strength that many of our alumnae value in their later lives.
Of course, Davies is a huge part of the Chorus year and our choristers’ love of performing. Members of Prep Chorus, after giving a standing room only concert at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center the day before, joined Valérie Sainte-Agathe and the collected Levels, Premier Ensemble, Musae, instrumentalists, and SFGC Alumnae on stage for Silent Night. This was the second year at Davies for Prep Chorus, but the first for our newly formed Training Chorus. Training Chorus sang a solo piece during the concert, and also joined Levels I-IV, the Premier Ensemble, and Kronos Quartet for Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Missa Supratext. They added a dimension of innocence and joy to the final moments of the piece, streaming down the aisles of Davies ringing bells and meeting a giant audience up close and personal for the first time. Throughout, and in all their rehearsals leading up to Davies, Training Chorus set the standard for behavior and professionalism in the Chorus School.
Last weekend, Level IV premiered somehow this relates to love--a new work they have prepared over the past few weeks. Visual artist, Lynn Kirby, has created an installation for the Manresa Gallery at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco. Composer Jennifer Wilsey and poet Denise Newman created music and text with and for the choristers that will be performed in the space as a living, musical accompaniment to viewers of the artwork. To immerse themselves in this project in the short amount of time since returning from winter break has been a rich and formative experience for Level IV, and the performances will be beautiful.
As we look toward the spring, all our Levels are preparing for important concerts--the culmination of their learning throughout the year. But first, we have Theory Week. In the past, rehearsals were canceled during the week of Parent Conferences (have you signed up for next week?), but now for the second year, we will hold rehearsals during this week, which is now Theory Week. While Directors and individual families are meeting, Levels I-IV will work on theory, sight singing, musical form and analysis, listening and aural skills, IPA, bass clef (!), and many other gloriously nerdy elements of musicianship. I and the piano and music theory faculty, along with pianists and special guests will lead these sessions. Our choristers love theory and thoroughly enjoyed last year’s Theory Week, so we plan to continue this new tradition of celebrating and diving deep into the academic side of singing. We aim to graduate choristers from Level IV who are fluent in the important language of Music Theory, and Theory Week helps boost us toward that goal.
Later in the spring, Level II will make more outreach visits to public schools and Level III will be presented in a solo concert on the Sunset Music and Arts series, in partnership with the Soloist Intensive. In April, Level IV will perform its own full-length solo concert, comprising the majority of its repertoire for the year, in a fundraising concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland. This beautiful venue sits right across from Lake Merritt, and houses an acoustic that allows Level IV’s mature artistry to shine. Also in the East Bay this April, Levels I, II, and III will perform their own fundraising concert at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland. This concert allows the Levels to sing the majority of their spring repertoire in a vaulted acoustic that is truly special. Spaces like these important East Bay churches were designed to enhance the sound of choral music, and affording our choristers and East Bay families the opportunity to experience them outside of San Francisco broadens SFGC’s community and the horizons of our singers.
Some of our singers will volunteer for free weekly voice lessons taught by vocal pedagogy students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, while others will continue to study and take the AP Music Theory exam, for which SFGC is in the process of becoming an accredited institution able to proctor the test. Singers from Levels I-IV who aspire to promotion/graduation, or who want an extra opportunity to step forward as a soloist or in a small ensemble, will prepare pieces for our May Performance Juries. The juries replace the Repertoire Evaluations of past years and are a supportive, performance-based opportunity for singers who may be ready to move on in their Chorus School journey to show their skill and love of performing to an audience of their peers, Directors, and families. We hope to see you in the audience for these new and intimate performances.
Of course, this all leads to the main event--our Chorus School Spring Concert and Graduation, in which all the Levels of the Chorus School (including Prep Chorus, if they wish) perform in a showcase of the breadth of learning, diverse languages and musical styles, and top-notch performing prowess built throughout the year. This concert is a special commemoration as many choristers in each Level will move on through promotion, and as many of our Level IV choristers graduate from the Chorus School, knowing that they are on par with the best singers, musicians, and communicators anywhere in the world. This concert is made extra special by the yearly premiere of a work by the Chorus School Composer in Residence, who this year is Danny Clay. As is usual, Danny joined the choristers and faculty at summer camp to improvise, play, and create the seeds for his piece, Campfire Chants. What is slightly unusual is that this piece incorporates numerous elements of games, improvisation, and movement that are sure to surprise and delight the audience at our Spring Concert. Danny will visit us many times this spring to work on the piece with each Level, and you won’t want to miss the resulting creation. The Chorus School Spring Concert is not just a showcase of the excellence of the SFGC Chorus School program, but it is an artistically integrated, inventive, and joyful musical experience for performers and audience alike. If you want to show a family member, friend, or someone outside SFGC or the music world what it is that makes Chorus so special and so meaningful to the choristers, this concert will be a great place to start.
As our Level IV choristers approach the Spring Concert and Graduation and their transition out of the Chorus School, I asked a few of them to reflect on what it has meant to their lives.
Sami Kingsbury, a Level IV Graduate Member who aspires to join the Premier Ensemble and will audition this spring says: “Being in chorus has really broadened my view and has shown me why community matters. Being in chorus, we choristers, are all working toward the same goal, great music. We have to work as a team to get there. We each have to put in hard work and together with that hard work, we reach our goal.”
Sasha Peregudova, who hopes to graduate this spring and audition for the Premier Ensemble, says: “I am very proud to be a part of SFGC. I feel like we are treated very well and I learn so so much. We have many opportunities to not only learn and explore different genres of music (choral, opera, abstract, etc.) but we also have a lot of unforgettable social experiences where we develop relationships that will last you a while. A perfect example of one of these experiences would be camp. When I went to camp my first year in level three I met who is now one of my best friends. SFGC is a huge dedication but it is also a huge part of my life that I wouldn’t give up for anything.”
As I read the words of these strong, insightful middle schoolers, I am struck by how well they are able to communicate. They provided these statements in writing, but are equally able to converse and express themselves verbally--a skill that is held in diminishing regard and is not commonly found in our society today. The dizzying and busy array of activities enumerated in this postcard are birthed of a desire by our faculty and staff to provide a platform for such thoughtful and effective communication, through music, and by our choristers hungry pursuit of new experiences and excellence. The Chorus School imbues confidence, excellence, and inspiration in young women, and their work here inspires me every day.
I look forward to connecting with many of you at concerts, rehearsals, and throughout the journey this spring.
Director of Voice Studies and Chorus School Pedagogy