The Story Behind the NY Phil Biennial
This week’s postcard is from Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa, who shares the story behind the NY Phil Biennial and the Chorus' closure of the 2015-16 season. Postcards from the Chorus will resume in a few months following a summer break.
Dear SF Girls Chorus Families, Friends, and Colleagues,
On February 13, 2013, Valérie’s and my appointments as Music Director and Artistic Director were announced in the press. That very morning, I sent an email to select colleagues in the music field—composers, performers, venues, potential collaborators. It said, “if you are getting this email, it's because you are a musician or artist who is special in my world. Just wanted to drop you a note with some really fun news, and a gentle invitation to let it into your imagination...I feel so lucky that it is now my job to begin exploring new partnerships from within this amazing organization. And of course—I wanted to reach out to this handful of you, before the ink is dry on this announcement, to tell you that, in my thinking about future ideas, you and your work came to mind—I hope this can be a catalyst!”
Among those I contacted were composers Philip Glass, Theo Bleckmann, and Aaron Jay Kernis, and the brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen, founders and co-artistic directors of The Knights. Over the following year I kept them in the loop, sending them recordings of Valérie’s very first performances with the premier ensemble. Ideas began to percolate—how about a choral-orchestral piece by Aaron Jay Kernis, for example, for The Knights and SF Girls Chorus to premiere together? By November of that year we were already putting together program ideas. Then, in March of 2014, I got a call from Knights conductor Eric Jacobsen: the New York Philharmonic had invited them to pitch a program idea for the 2016 Biennial Festival at Lincoln Center, a city-wide festival dedicated to new music by living composers, and their VP Ed Yim loved the idea of a big program of premieres featuring orchestra and two youth choruses, SFGC and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, both with a reputation for innovation and excellence. We were on our way!
We began gathering new works written expressly for us last season, including those by Philip Glass and Carla Kihlstedt. We proposed these to the NY Philharmonic, they got more excited—they added a program for the choruses alone, without orchestra.
Commissions are planned way in advance, since of course we composers need time to write them! And this event included multiple commissions: each chorus commissioned one choral-orchestral work and one a cappella work (for SFGC, these were the Aaron Jay Kernis piece Remembering the Sea, reprised for our SF audiences this past Sunday with instrumental sextet), and Theo Bleckmann’s Final Answer. The choruses joined together to co-commission a work for all 80 voices, Gabriel Kahane’s Back of the Choir. And The Knights commissioned me (!!) to compose a large-scale work for Absolutely Everyone. By one year ago, all of us composers were hard at work, emailing Valérie with questions about the girls’ voices (range, balance, agility). I kept sending recordings to the other composers as Valérie’s work with the girls deepened and as our repertoire of new music grew.
February was deadline season for all of us composers. We touched base with each other on the phone—“How is it going?” “How long is your piece?” “How many parts are you using?”
Valérie and the girls began work on the pieces as the scores came in, starting as early as Summer Camp in August 2015 with some of the pieces. Theo Bleckmann visited camp to get the sound of the girls in his ears.
Then last week in New York, we all came together for what was a magical week of collaboration. Composers met singers, orchestra players met choral conductors, the choruses met each other! I attended all rehearsals and assisted while Valérie and Brooklyn Youth Chorus conductor Dianne Berkun-Menaker worked together and separately, with composers who tweaked and coached. We put hours of virtuoso music together in four days of intensive rehearsal, punctuated by the gasps of absolutely delighted composers (me included!).
It has been a beautiful journey, and watching the composers and our own singers move through the culminating week of this complex collaboration, three years in the making, was fulfilling beyond measure for everyone involved, including the robust and excited audience.
Hear about the entire New York trip from three choristers at each phase of the exhilarating week: Gabby writes us a Poem from NYC, Rachel shares about leading up to Lincoln Center, and Calla recounts the climax of the trip with the performance.
In the words of Aaron Jay Kernis, our first-ever choral-orchestral commissionee, “The girls have an absolutely pristine sound, and their silences were complete, unified. Their performance was elegant and commanding, a total experience.”
And from Colin & Eric Jacbosen, “It was one of those rare occasions where everyone in the room enters a similar state.” I couldn’t agree more. Thank you all for supporting this ambitious and deeply meaningful adventure.
With this note we sign off on the Postcards season. My colleagues and I at the San Francisco Girls Chorus look forward to sending you Postcards again, next season!
Many best wishes,