Special Postcard from Guest Artists TENET early music ensemble
Hello to you, our hosts, the San Francisco Girls Chorus community!
We are delighted to be the first-ever Guests to pen a Postcard to you. We are the three singers of Tenet that you will hear in the concerts this weekend—Jolle Greenleaf, Artistic Director and Soprano; Molly Quinn, Soprano; and Virginia Warnken, Mezzo-Soprano. We’ve been working with Valerie and her superb singers all week, and having a wonderful time!
It is so revelatory to hear the girls sing some of the repertoire that the three of us have performed together elsewhere. There are surprises of course. For example, some of the girls’ tempos are super-zippy. But we liked it! It made us think, “When I was 16 that’s probably the tempo I’d like to sing that piece!” Come to think of it, they probably did it that way in the 17th century too!
You can hear some of these differences too if you watch from around 4:24 in this video of one of our New York concerts last season:
This is a performance on Tenet’s Green Mountain Project, of one of the pieces you will hear tonight, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s Deus in adiutorium, which uses a standard Vespers text. If you are reading this after our concert, do you notice anything different about the two versions? Well, first of all—there are men singing. In the New York concert, we created a Grand Festive Vespers program that would not have been done inside a secluded convent. This kind of performance was intended for public consumption. Cozzolani had a double life as a composer. People in the outside world were excited about her music, which was nevertheless largely created within the convent walls for her own private community. She created beautiful works for upper voices for her sisters and novices, then they would be published in mixed chorus versions for boys and men to perform outside.
What we find really cool about our concert tonight is that we get to hear what these women actually would have created for themselves, and not what everyone in the public would have heard. In that sense this music creates a real personal connection between us and our historical counterparts who were living, composing and performing together. There are historical documents from the time describing people standing outside the convent walls, lining themselves up by the wall to listen. But they could never go in, which gave this music a very cool secrecy! Of course, now we can actually perform these original versions—for women and men!
Another difference: in this video you will also see and hear that there are brass instruments enhancing and amplifying the lines, but in our performance with the girls there is no brass, but many people are singing one part. So it is equally amplified and powerful but in a different way. It is uniquely brilliant and moving because of the energy of the young voices.
Being here working with the SF Girls Chorus, hearing that energy, helps remind us that it is really joyful to sing. When singing is your life’s work, you can almost forget the fact that you got into it because it is joyful and you love singing with other people. When this joy feels distant, you need to sort out what else in your life is getting in the way of that joy. Coming here and hearing voices that ring with that quality of joy is so powerful for us! It’s a reminder of why we do it—why we love it.
It’s particularly exciting to work with young singers when they are just at that point of being willing to put themselves out there and take risks, including the risk of feeling less in control. We loved the Master Class we did with Justin Montigne’s Alumnae Artists earlier this week. One of the singers was totally willing to go for it and then was embarrassed that she fumbled the words—No, we said! That’s fantastic! That’s what is important, to go for it! That’s exactly what the music calls for. Making that connection, getting someone to have that first experience where they are just willing to accept: it owns me instead of me owning it—that’s revolutionary.
Training in singing is tantamount to being asked to come out of your shell and express something. At Virginia’s high school, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, she was expected to bring her talent out, to own it. All of her voice lessons were in master class format, in front of her classmates. This school boasts a lofty list of alums, including the Marsalis brothers. She was actually in school with Jon Batiste, Stephen Colbert’s bandleader! The girls in Valerie’s group remind her of herself and her own transformation and discovery of her voice, there at NOCCA.
For the three of us, we love singing with each other because it has made us so much more versatile. Singing in a group, you don’t have to talk—it’s a safe place. There was a great moment in rehearsal this week: a small group of six of the girls sang their piece in a semi-circle, then they did it again with the staging and they were immediately self-conscious about doing it that way. But then as they were walking around, they started looking at each other complicitly as if to say, “let’s just do it - whatever!” That’s how we feel too, the three of us! We loved how Valerie would say, ‘no no don’t talk about it, just do it!’ We’re not gonna have a big discussion about how to do it, we’re just gonna do it and see what happens!
What you will hear this weekend is Powerful—when we heard the girls’ first notes this week, it made us all say to each other, “That’s just what I thought! It’s just like it was back then in the 17th century!” However, this is not just a program of music by women in the 17th century. We are offering an historical window into what was going on in women’s lives at that time. It was harder for women to get around the Vatican rules than it was for men. You had to break laws to sing some of this music. And today it’s illegal for women to make music at all in Iran. To them, and to you, we offer this celebration of a whole secret musical world that grew up among women. Thank you so much for journeying there with us.
Jolle, Molly, and Virginia Tenet