Hallo und guten Tag, San Francisco Girls Chorus!

Photograph of Justin Montigne, Director of Voice Studies Justin Montigne, Director of Voice Studies

Justin Montigne, Director of Voice Studies

I’m so happy to be writing this postcard to you all. It’s my first, and I’d like to talk with you about something near and dear to my heart—the German language and Germanic music. Although the Chorus School is preparing for An American Christmas at Davies this year and our premiere performance ensemble is steeped in Italian baroque music for its upcoming TENET collaboration, I believe we are in the midst of one of the most intensive German periods in at least my memory of the Chorus. How do you feel about singing in German? Does it excite you? Scare you? Consider the crisp crackle of its consonant clusters caressing your articulators; its vast vocabulary—one of the largest of any language; and the perilous thrill of pronouncing its every letter and syllable, knowing you’ll likely say an entirely different word if you make one small misstep. How could you not love this wonderland of words?

German has been popping up more and more over the last couple of seasons—from the lieder on our “Romantic Imagination” opening concerts last season, to Bertolt Brecht’s sober journey in Ralf Gawlick’s Kinderkreuzzug, which we performed last spring, to the epic An die Freude of eighteenth century poet and playwright, Friedrich Schiller, which members of our premiere performance ensemble sang with Gustavo Dudamel in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony just last month:

It’s no secret that Germany (and its Austrian neighbor) has played a central role in Western music over the last eight hundred years or so. Besides Beethoven, which monumental German composers can you name? If you widen the circle to include Austria, how many more are added? What about a celebrated German who wrote more in Italian and English than his native tongue? (Hint: Hallelujah!) Can you think of any German women who were formidable musicians creating art in the shadows of their more famous male family members, or a medieval nun/mystic/poet/composer who arguably put Germany on the cultural map?
SFGC has such a wealth of languages beyond English that our singers know or study—Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian are all spoken by more than a few of our choristers. But, I know of only one or two who speak German, natively or otherwise. (If you do and I’ve not had the chance to shamble through a conversation with you, please let me know!) Yet, this relatively unfamiliar language is a staple of voice studios, college music programs (I began my German study spending one college summer living in Salzburg, Austria—who was born there?), choirs, and opera companies.

SFGC Alumnae Artists at the German Consulate of San Francisco, October 9, 2015. Photograph by Sofia Elena Alekna

That is why our Alumnae Artists—twelve laureates who are now focusing on their solo voices and individual artistry in weekly classes with me and collaborative pianist Margaret Halbig—will be starting a unit on German language and repertoire next week. In fact, the AAs had an opportunity to attend a very special performance by three Lieder Alive! singers at the German Consulate of San Francisco this past weekend. Lieder Alive! is an organization dedicated to keeping the love of art song in German thriving. They frequently share our space at the Kanbar Center, and they hosted our young women at the Consulate, so we thank them for their generosity and support of the Chorus and the art of singing!

Heidi Moss, Kirk Eichelberger, and Kindra Scharich at the German Consulate of San Francisco, October 9, 2015. Photograph by Phoebe Hicks

Likewise, several of our older choristers had the opportunity to be guests of the fantastic San Francisco Symphony, for Hungarian pianist and conductor András Schiff’s recital/choral concert/liederabend this weekend. They heard a Mozart piano concerto, lieder of Franz Schubert sung by a quartet of soloists, and then those same soloists with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. This spring, our premiere ensemble will sing canons by Haydn, and I’ll be working with our Level IV choristers on a Schubert song or two this spring in voice classes. Does anyone have a favorite lied to recommend?

Elisabeth Easton, Elisabeth Rothenbuler, Ellie Murphy-Weise, and Sarah Ng at Davies Symphony Hall on October 9, 2015

Ach, it seems I’ve written you more of a letter than a postcard, but I hope I’ve made a case for a language I love and inspired you to explore more music in German. We’ll all have the opportunity soon enough in upcoming repertoire, and I look forward to your questions and thoughts about your experiences.

Auf Wiedersehen, Freunde!

Justin Montigne
San Francisco Girls Chorus School
Director of Voice Studies

Posted in Postcards from the Chorus | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hello SF Girls Chorus, again from NYC!

It’s been a busy couple of weeks of singing, composing and meetings. I had an opportunity to meet and talk to students at the Mannes School of Music and then at Bard Conservatory, where I was invited by harpist Bridget Kibbey (those of you who received these Postcards last year will remember her from this one in May) as part of her “In the Artist’s Studio” series of guest lectures, all about living the life of a musician. I got some great questions from the young women and men who are in these programs! Many of them wanted to know more about how to be more entrepreneurial about making a musical life. It seems that these schools encourage creativity not just in music but also in living life!

Among my various musical excursions was a visit to a rehearsal of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, at the invitation of their Director Dianne Berkun-Menaker.

Like the SFGC, this group has hundreds of singers in multiple levels and age groups, and their premiere ensemble sings regularly with the town orchestra (in their case, the New York Philharmonic). Committed to premiering and commissioning new work, they also have a robust schedule of special projects with a broad range of composers. They often co-commission and co-produce new work. I got to hear them prepare for the big opening week of the new venue that has NYC all a-buzz, National Sawdust.

Meanwhile, I’ll be singing at National Sawdust myself tonight, in a world premiere work for six a cappella women’s voices by my friend and MacArthur Award-winning colleague John Zorn.

This video shows the kind of choral theater that the BYC has developed in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Next Wave Festival:

With a small orchestra, costumes, dancers, simple staging, sets and a general theme without a particular story line, they wove together works by a handful of different composers who were given that theme as a starting point. Is this an opera? Why or why not? Is it a choral concert? Why or why not? What kinds of techniques does composer Caroline Shaw use to give this piece its unique sound? What are they doing with their voices around 3 minutes into the video? Is this music complex? If so, in what way? What kinds of chords does she use? What kinds of rhythms?

It’s a great week for innovative vocal and choral music in Brooklyn, and I’m glad I could share a little of it with you. Off to sound check!



Video | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dudamel at the Greek Theatre

Hi All!

The San Francisco Girls Chorus is just getting back to its standard rehearsal schedule after many vigorous rehearsals for a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We performed with renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. We also sang alongside the Chamber Chorus of the University of California and the Pacific Boychoir Academy. Singing this piece of music was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had, but it took a lot of hard work. We learned to sing the piece just weeks before rehearsals with other musicians began.

Kevin Fox, the Director of Pacific Boychoir Academy (PBA), served as the Chorus Director for this momentous occasion. Our first rehearsal, we sang alone with PBA in Hertz Hall on the Cal campus. It was amazing to sing with young men, which we don’t do very often. The colors of their voices mixed with our very different ones, and created a giant sound that I had never experienced before!

Combined choruses rehearsing Beethoven's 9th Symphony at Cal Performances

Image courtesy Pacific Boy Choir/Twitter.

During our second rehearsal, we were able to sing with both PBA and the Chamber Chorus of the University of California, along with the Chamber Chorus’s director, Marika Kuzma. Once we blended the sound of the Chamber Chorus with the sound that PBA and SFGC had created in the previous rehearsal, I was wowed even more. We were so excited to add that astonishing collaborative sound to the upbeat, energetic sound of the orchestra!

Our third and final rehearsal took place in Cal’s Zellerbach Hall. We met the four soloists who sang in the performance: soprano Mariana Ortiz, mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges, tenor Joshua Guerrero, and baritone Soloman Howard. We met the members of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, who were just as incredible as we had been told they would be. Also, we finally got to meet Gustavo Dudamel! He was the most amazing conductor I had ever met. He was so full of energy and excited about the music. It inspired us, helped us maintain positive attitudes through long rehearsals, and it felt like he brought out parts of my voice that I didn’t know. Dudamel worked on the music as if it were clay, and it felt like all of the musicians were trying to create something more spectacular than we had ever made before.

Dudamel helped us mold our sound to fit the very passionate mood of the music. Once the orchestra joined us, I felt so overjoyed to be singing in such a grand, famous space with such amazing and dedicated musicians.

Photograph of Maestro Gustavo Dudamel ont he podium during rehearsal with the SF Girls Chorus and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela

Rehearsal with Maestro Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Photo by Valerie Sainte-Agathe.

The performance itself took place in the famed Hearst Greek Theatre. Since the Greek is an outdoor theater, I was thankful that we had rehearsed that huge sound and would be able to fill the space. Before we began singing out part in the run-though before the performance, the orchestra played all three movements and got us super excited for the performance that was about to begin. After our final run-through, we ate dinner with all the choirs, and got ready to perform. Everyone was ecstatic to be singing with each other, and it was crazy to see the Greek Theatre filling up with so many audience members! The theatre fit so many people that it felt like one of the biggest performances in which I would ever take part in.

Once we got on stage, we could see the audience even better. I realized that this was the only time we were going to do this! It was very different from normal, since we usually do two or three of the same performances. It was so crazy to be living completely in the moment and to not be thinking about anything else but the music.

Photograph at night of the performance at the Greek Theatre for Cal Performance's presentation of Beethoven's 9th Symphony with Gustavo Dudamel, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, the Pacific Boychoir Academy, and the UC Berkeley Chamber Choir

Performance at the Greek Theatre. Photo by Peter DaSilva.

This performance ended up being one of the most exciting, gratifying performances I have ever taken part in, and that’s really saying something when you are a member of the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus. I am so thankful for the experience I was able to have.

Elisabeth Easton
San Francisco Girls Chorus, Alto

p.s. In case you missed it, here are reviews of the performance from SFGate.com, the San Jose Mercury News, and San Francisco Classical Voice. KDFC-FM also live-streamed the performance which is still available for viewing on their website.

Posted in Postcards from the Chorus, Singer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Vireo” and Young Composers

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Hello SFGC Community, from back home in NYC, I had a great couple of weeks out on the West Coast. Not only did I get a chance to meet many of you parents, and your girls, but I also had … Continue reading

Gallery | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome from the Executive Director

Dear Friends,

We’re changing up the weekly postcards from the San Francisco Girls Chorus again this week. As our Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa is off on another global musical adventure, I’m writing to you from home. So, welcome to the new Chorus School year and the new SF Girls Chorus concert season!

There’s a lot going on at SFGC this year. From our upcoming historic concerts with the early music ensemble TENET on October 30 and November 1, to our collaboration with opera superstar Deborah Voigt at Davies Symphony Hall in December, to a spring performance of Brahms and Haydn with young cellist Joshua Roman at the newly refurbished Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to premiere a program of works, written specifically for the SF Girls Chorus, at New York’s Lincoln Center in June–it doesn’t get much more exciting, dynamic or musically satisfying, than this.

There are also many new faces at the Chorus this year, including our new Level III Director, Lucik Aprahamian, and Level IV Director, Anne Hege. On the administrative side, we have a new Communications and Marketing team, including Deborah Hersh, our Communications Manager, and Kara Whittington, who joins us in a new role as Digital Marketing Consultant. We also have a new Director of Development, Samantha Starr, a returning Bay Area native who happens to have attended college and sung with several SFGC alumnae. Next time you’re at 44 Page Street, please stop by the 2nd floor to say hello.

Speaking of our home facility at 44 Page Street, also known as the Kanbar Center for the Performing Arts, you’ll see some changes on the first floor this fall. We’ve installed new carpet and repainted our rehearsal/recital hall, making it more beautiful and useful to the Chorus, and to the many organizations who share our space. Our building is truly a hub of creativity, with different arts organizations rehearsing, performing, and renting office space here almost round the clock.

Some say that creativity begets creativity, and I believe that’s true. The more creative minds, artists, and performers we bring into our physical, mental, and emotional space, the more creative we become as individuals and as an organization. As our choristers are exposed to a wider range of ideas and experiences with new artistic collaborations, new faculty and staff members, new music, and new performance experiences, their own creativity will certainly grow as well.

That’s what this year is all about at SFGC. I look forward to sharing this celebration of creativity with you!

With warm wishes,

Melanie Smith
Executive Director

Posted in Executive Director, Melanie Smith, Postcards from the Chorus, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome Back!

Dear SFGC Family,

Welcome back, SFGC Friends! And a special welcome to our new Chorus Families!

I am thinking of you all as you start your year with us. We are so glad to be back in the swing of things! I’m delighted to greet you in this first of my 2015-16 Postcards from the Artistic Director, in which I will be corresponding with you from where I am in my travels, bringing you a snapshot of the various contexts in which I am serving as ambassador for our girls and our work together. And this year begins with Boise, Idaho, where I have the honor of being the closing speaker of the Andrus Research Center Conference on Women and Leadership! In conjunction with my appearance here, Idaho Public Television broadcast the first two episodes of my TV episodic opera Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser, which means that 32 of our girls were on TV in Idaho last Friday! There are around 700 attendees here, many of whom are young women in various government and public service fields, and a huge group from tech companies (Hewlett-Packard alone sent 200 of their employees!)

My presenter colleagues have set the bar high, and I am taking notes like mad, discovering so many interesting and sometimes unexpected similarities between these women’s experiences in their respective fields, and my own experiences as a woman in a field that has been slow to provide certain kinds of opportunities for women. I’ve had an especially fun time getting to know Colonel Merryl Tengesdal of the US Air Force, the first African-American woman to pilot a U2 spy stealth plane. She grew up in the Bronx and played mellophone in the high school band, loves music and has a fantastic sense of humor.

Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal stands in front of a U-2 Feb. 9, 2015, at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. Tengesdal is the only black female U-2 pilot in history. Tengesdal is the 9th Reconnaissance Wing inspector general and a U-2 pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Bobby Cummings)

Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal stands in front of a U-2 Feb. 9, 2015, at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. Tengesdal is the only black female U-2 pilot in history. Tengesdal is the 9th Reconnaissance Wing inspector general and a U-2 pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Bobby Cummings)

My favorite moment in her talk was this: “On any given day, if no one’s at the International Space Station, I’m the highest person on earth.” Alone for up to 12 hours or more in a tiny cockpit, over 70,000 feet above the earth (that’s 13 miles!!), she must operate with unfailing concentration, physiological control, and psychological and mental balance. She says she was seven years old when she decided she wanted to be an astronaut, and she has taken every step that a shrewd and determined girl could take to get her there. Now she is on the way to a new position at the Pentagon, starting in just a month.

Another young presenter in the tech industry, “Professional Hacker” Marianna Budnikova, was born in Russia and came to the US to study, first with funding from the U.S. Department of State, then with funding from a Google Scholarship. She says that in Russia there is no lack of interest among girls to go into computer programming, whereas in the States, she finds that many more boys than girls express interest in computers at a young age. She and I have been sharing our hopes and dreams for ever-higher skill-building opportunities for girls and young women in our respective fields. She even co-founded the Boise arm of an organization called Girl Develop It!

What would you ask either of these women if you had a chance? Is there any part of the experience of learning music, writing music, rehearsing music or performing music that feels like driving a spy-plane alone high above the earth might feel? What about “hacking” or writing computer code? Which of these two women would you most want to meet? Did you know what you wanted to be as a grown-up when you were seven, like Merryl? Did you feel like there were certain fields you couldn’t really be interested in because you were a girl (or because you were a boy, you men out there!)?

Looking forward to seeing many of you in the weeks to come.

Sincerely yours,

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Postcard from Oregon tour – 8/9

Hello All,


We just got back from Southern Oregon, where the San Francisco Girls Chorus performed two solo concerts and Carmina Burana at the Britt Music & Arts Festival in Jacksonville. Carmina Burana is a well-known piece composed by Carl Orff. It’s written for a large orchestra, a mixed chorus, a children’s choir, and several soloists.

We worked on Carmina with the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, a community chorus with over 150 singers. Even though the singers ranged from middle school students to retirees, we felt connected to each of them because of their passion of singing, which was evident while we were on stage with them. It was an honor to feel like respected colleagues among these experienced singers. In rehearsal that week, we stood next to the bass section, the lowest of voices, who provided a strong core to sing over. For most of the rehearsal, we were not singing, which allowed me to pick up on nuances in the music, such as the subtle entrance of the flutes,  as well as observe the rehearsal process. The conductor, Teddy Abrams, led a fast-paced and effective rehearsal. Abrams would imitate sections of the orchestra and choir in order to demonstrate the quality he was expecting

The Carmina Burana concert was held at the Britt Pavilion. When we got on stage, it was incredible. I felt the intensity of the orchestra, chorus, soloists and even the audience. Since the piece is sung in Latin, Middle High German and Old Provençal, I could not understand what was being sung, but the soloists did an incredible job of conveying the love story between the bass and the soprano. They sang with such confidence and passion, and I could not take my eyes off of them. Carmina Burana is very scenic, so the music alone paints a picture. Orff composed the piece in such a way that the soprano’s run could signify the butterflies in her stomach while she talked to her lover.

Although we came to Oregon to sing, we also got the chance to explore the area and its culture. We spent some time at Crater Lake where we took a beautiful hike. We had time to explore Ashland, where we saw musicians playing in the streets and Shakespeare-themed shops like “To CD or Not to CD.”

We returned to the Britt Pavilion for our last concert, this time on a smaller, more intimate stage for a solo concert. We were all happy to be able to perform a solo concert, because we had the opportunity to share the broad range of our core repertoire that we recently sang on our Scandinavian tour. One of my favorite parts of singing with the San Francisco Girls Chorus is that our repertoire isn’t “traditional” chorus music. We are pushing boundaries by singing songs like Herring Run by Carla Kihlstedt and Panda Chant by Meredith Monk that tend to astonish audience members, no matter their musical knowledge. After 6 years, my own time in chorus has come to an end. It was bittersweet to sing my last concert, but even after just a week of rehearsal with the new members of our touring ensemble, I can tell that they will go far to keep the spirit of the chorus alive.


Shayna Bomfim-Finkelstein​






Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment