Happy New Year

Hi all, and a Happy SF Girls Chorus New Year to you! Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, Photograph by Liz Linder

And Thank You to so many of you parents and families for sharing some of your holiday times with us. It was indeed a very lively holiday season for our choristers, with multiple appearances with the New Century Chamber Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony; holiday concerts for our Chorus School; and our own big Davies Symphony Hall celebratory sing-along to kick it all off. And our singers are back at it already. Valerie and five Chorus members are joining me in LA today for the shoot of Episode 5 of my serial episodic TV-internet opera Vireo and on Sunday our premier ensemble will help Representative Nancy Pelosi ring in the New Year at her annual celebration.

Holiday music is known to evoke deep feelings of nostalgia, rich in memories of family traditions. How fortuitous then, for me, that our Davies concert included “O Little Town of Hackensack” and a few other “best forgotten” seasonal songs by the elusive PDQ Bach, purported by “musicologist” Peter Schickele to be the 20th and purposely mostly unknown son of J.S. Bach. My own family often listened together, sides splitting with laughter, to the recordings of PDQ Bach’s works, “found” by Peter Schickele (a wonderful composer under his own name as well, of the same generation as my father—and with a family somewhat like mine). His son Matthew Schickele is a terrific composer and a great colleague. Here is Professor Schickele explaining the legacy of this strange figure:


Back in NYC a few days after Christmas, I was delighted to be able to join Peter Schickele and his terrific team of musicians (including “semi-conductor” Jorge Mester and “Off-Coloratura Soprano” Michele Eaton, also one of my gifted colleagues from the Einstein on the Beach tour) in celebrating the Golden Anniversary of the discovery of PDQ Bach, at Town Hall. I was able to hear the “New York Pick-Up Ensemble” (“…specializing in playing concerts that other orchestras wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole”) do this splendid performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, with commentators Peter Schickele and Elliott Forrest:


Why is this funny? Is the music itself funny? When you have heard this piece before (which I suspect you have), have you laughed at how its themes get passed around, or at how the violin section or oboe hold a note longer than everyone else? Does the commentary help you hear musical elements in a new way? Do you like that new way? (Or, do you regret it?) My favorite moment is at 5 minutes or so, when the oboist gets called out for embarking on a cadenza that, it turns out, is indeed in the score but in conflict with the conductor’s wishes. Have you ever thought of instrumentalists or singers as antagonistic rivals of their own conductors, like competing sports teams? If not, how would you characterize that relationship instead? In this oboe moment the composer is actually antagonistic towards the composer as well. Are there sometimes tensions (if not outright antagonism) between composers and performers in the act of performing?

One of my brother’s and my favorite PDQ Bach moments, growing up, was this absurd selection, Iphegenia in Brooklyn:


Those of you who heard the SF Girls Chorus/TENET collaboration concert this past October have heard music from the Baroque period rather recently, with early instruments, so you will recognize some of the stylistic qualities at play in this cantata. It explores the experiences of Iphigenia on her heretofore completely undocumented visit to a market in Brooklyn, where she muses that while the fish there are dead, their smell lingers on, giving them a kind of life after death (this lament starts at around 5 minutes.)

Those of you singers who have studied solo arias from this time period may be reminded of another Lament. If so, which one? And why? What musical elements are similar? And again—what elements are different? In short, why is this aria funny while the similar ones from other historic pieces are not? Is it just because of the absurd fish words? Or is there more to it? (Okay, there are also kazoos, which we heard our singers play in “Good King Kong” at Davies—those just sound funny.) Finally, at around 7:50, the cantata kicks into its final coloratura stretch, using running vocal lines to represent—what, exactly? And finally, what actual ‘serious’ compositional skills does the composer use to achieve comedic results?

These were great family memories for me—it was wonderful to spend some of the Season in shared laughter, both at Davies and at Town Hall a few weeks later. Thank you Peter Schickele!

And a special thank you to those of you who have reached out to me personally these past few weeks with your thoughts for me and my family. Looking forward to a beautiful year of making music together!

Lisa Bielawa Artistic Director, San Francisco Girls Chorus