Leading up to Lincoln Center

Hi, My name is Rachel Durney and this is my fourth tour with the San Francisco Girls Chorus. The short week that I've spent in New York has definitely been the most whirlwind of the tours. l'm amazed at how much learning and experience we've been able to pack into six days.

On Monday evening, after a full day of rehearsals, we got to go and see Something Rotten at the St. James Theatre on Broadway. The musical follows the story of two playwright brothers in their quest to become more famous than William Shakespeare. Filled with allusions to Broadway classics like Phantom of the Opera and Annie, the show kept us laughing all night. In rehearsal the next day, we discussed with Valérie how the performance affected us and what we learned from watching the musical. Many of us agreed that the performers were clearly diligent about taking care if their voices both during and out of rehearsal in order to perform every night for as long as a show runs. This was particularly relevant to us because Valérie would sometimes decide that a certain chorister was too close to losing their voice and would forbid them from talking. This led to high levels of miming and wild gesturing during our free time.

After the first hour of rehearsal on Tuesday, Theo Bleckmann, composer of Final Answer, joined us. He uses a track looper to add intricacy and new levels to the sound of the piece. One of the most amazing parts of this tour is that we are lucky enough to be able to meet with the composers. It is amazing how much composers can explain about their compositions in two minutes. It's amazing how much you can learn about a piece when the composer is right there to explain it. We worked hard with Theo Bleckmann to find a balance between our sound and the textures he creates with the track looper. The added level of understanding about his work we were able to get from working with him directly helped us create a sound that best delivers his message the way it was envisioned.


San Francisco Girls Chorus, Valerie Sainte-Agathe touring New York City. Photo by Rachel Clee.

In the early afternoon on Tuesday we took a quick break from rehearsal to explore Battery Park and grab lunch. From there, we took a ferry around the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It was a great chance to see the amazing city we were preparing to perform in. The skyline was stunning, with glittering skyscrapers strikingly set against a bold blue sky. Seeing such important pieces of history was an amazing reminder of the complexity and longevity of the city.


We made our way back to Brooklyn for our afternoon rehearsal with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (BYC) and The Knights, and finally had the chance to hear My Outstretched Hand, by our very own Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa! Lisa talked with us and gave us amazing insight into the piece.

Composer Gabriel Kahane, SF Girls Chorus Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa, SFGC Music Director and Principal Conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus Artistic Director Dianne Berkun-Menaker

The text is from Mary MacLane's autobiographical work The Story of Mary MacLane. The portion which Lisa has set to music is a dialogue between MacLane and her soul. The combination of finally having all of the different parts of the piece together in the same room, with Lisa's notes, led to a greater understanding of the piece. MacLane's diction is captivating. One of the best parts of having both choruses present is that we have the opportunity to really discover the dialogue between the SF Girls Chorus and BYC in the context of the work. Finding the character of MacLane and her dynamic towards her soul helped us to discover the immense emotional range of the work.

Another exciting element of the rehearsal was that we were able to hear Comfort Food, by Timo Andres, in its entirety. As this piece is not written for two separate choruses the way that My Outstretched Hand was, we got to familiarize ourselves with the combined sound of BYC and SFGC. More than doubled in size, I was amazed by the combined power of our voices.

On Wednesday, we began the morning rehearsal with Theo Bleckmann and a continued exploration into the complexities of his music. Later, we were joined by composer Gabriel Kahane and got to work on his piece, Back of the Choir. He discussed his love for the work of poet Anne Carson.


Based on a text of Carson's, Back of the Choir explores the beauty and power of language. After learning about his inspiration for the work, we were able to bring a new sense of understanding to the piece. We also worked to clarify our diction in order to better deliver the inspiring words.

FullSizeRender (6)For lunch, we walked through the lovely Brooklyn Heights neighborhood- but it started pouring rain! Chorister Kathleen Isaza took fabulous pictures of us in front of the Manhattan Skyline for the Chorus Instagram despite the downpour.

We split up into smaller groups for lunch, which gave us the opportunity to explore Brooklyn more independently. I found refuge from the rain in a pizza joint. Over our meal, a group of about six of us discussed the day's rehearsal and our excitement for the Lincoln Center concert. On our way back to rehearsal, we all got drenched in the downpour. When we arrived, Valérie advised us to rehearse in socks, to prevent our feet from freezing in soaked shoes.

In our afternoon rehearsal, we did run-throughs of Aaron Jay Kernis' Remembering the Sea, My Outstretched Hand, and Kahane’s piece. Emotionally, Kernis' work is the most challenging. Inspired by recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the piece tells the story of an explosion on a train. The first movement reminisces memories of a child's youth and questions the path of the speaker's future. The soprano text expresses an amazing level of yearning, care, and tenderness. It ends with a stunningly clear and breathtakingly beautiful duet by choristers Emma Mckenzie and Elizabeth Rothenbuler. The second movement is a violent depiction of the bombing itself. The final line, "life will return," introduces the third movement. Partially in French, the work gives a direct nod to the attack in Paris. As we explore the intense themes and images of the work, we are able to perform with a new level of passion. At many points, we occasionally found ourselves in tears.

As I look forward to the concert, I cannot wait to share the music we have created with an audience. Filled with premieres, this concert looks to be one of the most exciting concerts I have ever been privileged enough to be a part of. This trip will be highly memorable for me. The music we are a part of creating has an amazing level of power and emotion to share with the audience. We're all excited to share the music with you.

Rachel Durney