Hello from Joshua Roman

Dear San Francisco Girls Chorus Community,

It is wonderful to be here in SF among you all. I came to know more about this organization through my dear friend Lisa Bielawa, and of course I had already heard about the Girls Chorus, but hadn’t known in a deep way what they were capable of until I worked with Lisa and some of them on the TV opera Vireo last August. Working with these very skilled young musicians in a very complex setting left me really impressed not only by their vocal capabilities but by the way that they were able to fit into what was going on. This was not just “stand on stage, sing and bow,” it was much more complicated than that!

Episode 4 of Vireo, with Vijay Gupta on violin, Joshua Roman on cello, Ryan Glover center stage as Raphael, and members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Photo by Ralph Nelson.

Now that I am here in rehearsal with a much larger group of these young SFGC singers, all I can say is—Wow! I am astonished by the sheer power of their sound and the incredible virtuosity I’ve heard in rehearsals.

When I work with young performers, I am always reminded of the wonder of the discovery of listening. Listening is something we practice (hopefully!) when we’re in an ensemble and by ourselves, but I also think it can have meaning in a broader context: through making music, we learn to listen to what’s going on around us: what do people care about? Think about? What do they need? What do they want? What moves them?—and we can only really know these things if we are listening. Not just with our ears but with our minds, hearts and eyes. Listening helps us find our place in the world. It also opens the door for collaborations that stretch us. If you only do what you do, then opportunity for growth is not as powerful as it is when you open that door and listen to someone else. You let them transform you—it can help you find some new things and it can also help you decide that something is not useful. It’s like the religious idea of “testing your faith.” Our biggest job as musicians is listening and that takes place on your own when you’re singing, practicing, rehearsing, performing and in your everyday life, as you are an active person in your community.

Painting by Pablo Picasso on display at the Guggenheim

I’m especially enjoying preparing for this particular performance because I think canons are fascinating. I find programs are best when there is a consistent message throughout the program. One of my favorite artistic examples of that in visual art is a recent exhibit at the Guggenheim where they had a Picasso exhibit that was just black and white paintings throughout the totality of his career, so you had breadth, but you also had focus that let you experience the journey without getting lost.

What’s powerful about this program is that you have the concept of the canon that carries you through history. You get to see all of these styles and different approaches through the lens of this common element throughout the program. Canons themselves are fun because they have to be by nature, at the core, simple, but they become instantly more complicated in action. The way different composers deal with that—keeping them short, creating moments when people come together, by giving them different roles—there’s a lot of room for self-expression and for each of these composers’ voices to come through.

When I was invited to write a work of my own for this concert, I was initially very inspired by having heard the girls sing and the purity of their voices. Thinking about that, though, I wanted to fight the temptation to just go for beautiful purity. It is tempting because it’s such a powerful aspect of their sound, but I thought about how artists often get pigeonholed—I wanted to compose something that gives the girls themselves a voice, that lets them say, “Sure we can be beautiful angels, but we are a lot more than that, we are capable—there’s a lot of potential in here and some of it’s already being realized but a lot of it is yet to come, so—don’t try to put us in a box!”

I personally am encouraged by what the SFGC is doing to stay current. You are listening. I see it on the organizational level and I’m sure that inspires this same energy on the individual level. I hope more organizations follow this example and don’t just rest on their laurels and sound beautiful, but go out there and be part of the creative process also. Being creative is so important and you all are doing that—so thank you!

Looking forward to joining you all this Sunday!

Sincerely yours, Joshua Roman