Music Mentors

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” – Marian Wright Edelman

Dear Friends,

photo of san francisco girls chorus executive director melanie smith

We’ve been celebrating Women’s History Month in many ways during March. At our recent fundraising gala, we were honored to have Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi join us to say a few words. A warm and gifted speaker, she talked about the importance of education for girls, and especially arts education. In celebrating and honoring strong women at the Chorus, Ms. Pelosi embodies the incredible achievement that American women have made in our nation in the last few decades, and she stands out as a role model for many.

I’ve been thinking a lot about role models and mentors lately, and their importance in shaping the lives of the girls and young women of the SF Girls Chorus. My own life has been transformed by remarkable women who served as professional mentors to me, starting with the late Judith Arron, the Executive and Artistic Director of Carnegie Hall, with whom I was privileged to work, as her assistant, from 1989-1992. Judy taught me, and demonstrated every day, that the field I had chosen, arts administration, was a vocation and a way of life, not just a job. If I didn’t absolutely love what I was doing—making ways for great art and music to happen–I had no business being there. That became a foundational principle for my life, and I still wake up most days excited and eager to get to work.

A few years later I had the opportunity to work with an incredible visionary and entrepreneur, as well as a great artist—the violinist Midori. She invited me to help her establish her foundation, Midori and Friends, which is still going strong in New York City, bringing music education to thousands of kids in public schools there each year. Although she was a few years younger than I was, Midori’s tireless pursuit of excellence in all she did–from giving transcendent performances to teaching young violinists to asking the heads of corporations for financial support–made her a role model and mentor to me as well.

When I moved back to California from New York in 1997, I was fortunate to work with a woman and an organization that helped to set the bar for me in terms of musical taste, quality, and an organizational culture of innovation and collaboration. Working with Ruth Felt, the founder and President of San Francisco Performances, I had access to some of the world's most wonderful classical artists—helping to organize their concerts in SF and taking them to perform in schools and community centers here. Ruth’s intellectual curiosity and the example she has always set of grace, composure and respect for all, continues to be a source of inspiration to me.

This year at the Chorus we’ve been introducing our singers and our community to several musicians whose lives and artistry have been an inspiration to choristers and to the adults working with them. The women from TENET also held a master class with some of our alumnae last fall. The members of TENET will be making their Carnegie Hall debuts in February 2017, performing much of the music we sang with them here!


Our performance with soprano Deborah Voigt in December not only introduced a bit of

SF Girls Chorus and Chorus School in concert with Deborah Voigt, December 7, 2016. Photograph by

operatic glamor to our holiday concert, but also demonstrated that our choristers were more than ready to hold their own with the most renowned soloists in the world! Deborah Voigt has been very candid about many of the challenges she has faced as a woman and an artist and she’ll be back in San Francisco in May for two performances of her one-woman show, Voigt Lessons, at the SF Opera.


And at our recent gala, beloved mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade graciously shared the stage with both our premiere ensemble and Level IV of the Chorus School, in a lovely performance of Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. Next season (spoiler alert!), we plan to bring another great mezzo, Laurie Rubin, to perform with us on one of our concerts. Lisa Bielawa has mentioned Laurie, who is featured throughout her serial opera, Vireo, in several of her postcards. Blind since birth and outspoken about her own childhood experiences with bullying, Laurie is another strong role model for young women in the arts.

Fredrica von Stade, mezzo-soprano, performs with the SF Girls Chorus March 18, 2016 at the organization's annual fundraiser. Photograph by Dana Davis.

All of the faculty and staff members at the Chorus give of themselves, every day, to make this organization vibrant and strong. They care deeply about the quality of our choristers’ education and experiences here, in addition to modeling ways for our singers to develop their own powerful voices, literally and metaphorically, as confident young women. Every day we work together to find ways to make great art and music happen for and with our young artists. We do this by giving them the highest quality music education, by showcasing them in performance with some of the world’s greatest artists and by introducing them to extraordinary people—from ceiling-breaking politicians to ground-breaking composers and performers. In the process of learning and performing great music, our choristers grow in many other ways as well. And in this process, they’re also making history.

As the Chorus performs with renowned cellist Joshua Roman on April 10 and as our premiere ensemble performs at the New York Philharmonic Biennial in June. I hope you will join me in celebrating and honoring our young singers’ achievements, and all of the role models who have influenced and shaped their lives.

With All Good Wishes,

Melanie Smith Executive Director San Francisco Girls Chorus