Before Tour 2015

These ‘postcards’ are from some of our singers, reporting from their 2015 tour to Sweden, Finland, and Estonia by our three correspondents Evie Hidysmith (age 15), Leah Ofman (age 17), and Juliana Iluminata Wilczynski (age 18). postcard2

Dear SFGC Family,

Hello everyone, and welcome to the first tour blog post, wherein I won’t be talking about the tour just yet! We recently had our last concert of the year (and for some of us, our last as members of the chorus!) in San Francisco. We were so busy practicing and rehearsing, it hadn’t fully hit us until that night. The program for American Vanguard was chock-full of groundbreaking American pieces like Lou Harrison’s Gregorian chant-like Mass for St. Cecilia’s Day, Meredith Monk’s Panda Chant ululations, and John Cage’s experimental Story from Living Room Music.

It struck me that this program had an incredible amount of diversity and variety within its fourteen-piece set. Each piece had a starkly different energy. We sang in four languages; we had solos, small groups, and trios; we got to play instruments and sing a cappella; and we even got to shout once or twice!

This melange of styles and languages is representative both of our chorus, and of America herself. The San Francisco Girls Chorus is made up of individual girls who come to the Chorus Hall from all over—in and around the city—after our classes in advanced chemistry, or visual art, or algebra, or literature, or world history. We congregate in one room, twice a week, and we sing. We sing all these languages and styles as a unit.

America works similarly. People whose families came on the Mayflower live next to families who just moved here from halfway across the world. Everywhere you go in this country, you can hear different languages and accents and see different customs. America is still young, and our unifying factor in this country is our differences. It was exciting to represent our “tossed salad” nature through song.

Helping us do just that was the indomitable Carla Kihlstedt. She’s written and performed everything from experimental rock to classical. We performed two of her songs on closing night, Herring Run and Hold My Own.

Herring Run is about, well, herring! It’s sung from the point of view of the herring in Cape Cod on their trip back to their birthplace. They must swim against the current, using smells to guide them home. Then, they give birth themselves. While the herring have to struggle for days to reach their destination, Carla wrote the body of the song in two and a half hours! She said that this was the fastest she’d ever written a song, and added that she continued to work with it for weeks after. By the time we received the score, it was a complex piece in many parts filled with glissandos and dissonance. “I’ve always been drawn to dissonance,” she explains. Because she believes “the most important thing [about composing] is to write what you want to hear,” it’s important for her to use dissonance in her pieces. When I asked Carla about the glissandos, she said they were due in part to her being a violinist (the violin, like the voice, has the ability to slide elegantly between notes), but also to her friendship and collaboration with Lisa Bielawa! She noticed the big slides Lisa often uses in her pieces. Every time she writes a slide like that she said she’s “winking to Lisa in [her] mind.”

While Herring Run is a playful piece, Hold My Own takes a more somber turn. Beginning with the watery, impossibly fast notes of a specially-strung violin then adding two solo voices (Carla and Lisa) and a choir, this haunting piece is a meditation on the death of one of Carla’s friends in a white-water rafting accident. The liquid quality of the violin echoes the sound of the water. The song reflects her friend’s nature; Carla says she was “very complicated.” While Carla wrote Herring Run quickly, this piece took time. She wrote it during the weeks that her friend’s body was being recovered. Originally, it was incredibly difficult for her to perform the piece, and she still thinks of her friend when she plays it.

Clearly, Carla is an emotive musician. When asked if she had any advice for us as young performers, she said “the most important thing is to fully embody what you’re expressing.” This year in our rehearsals, we talked a lot about being expressive and telling the story of what we’re singing not just with our voices, but with our faces as well. Watching Carla perform with her voice, instrument, face and body allowed us to see the importance of this expressive storytelling in action.

This concert was a beautiful ending to our year in San Francisco. Two days after, we had our end-of-year ceremonies, and then we all had to pack for tour! I know at the beginning of this post I said I wouldn’t be talking about the tour, and I’ll admit that was a wee lie. The American Vanguard concert and ceremonies got us incredibly excited for Europe as we realized that the next time we’d be together would be on the plane today! Now we’re all in the airport preparing to board and the excitement is palpable. We’re all thrilled to share our music with other musicians around the world, and to learn about their cultures. We get to meet people, perform in historic buildings, and connect with other people in a language that transcends linguistic boundaries. I know we’ll take Carla’s advice to heart and let it guide us on our trip: “approach each performance as an act of generosity.”

I look forward to reporting to you from tour!

Leah Ofman