Postcard from Tour – 6/29

Dear SFGC Family,

We have completed our journey. This will be our last Postcard from tour!

When we arrived in Stockholm, we were given the incredible opportunity to visit the Swedish Royal Palace in Gamla Stan (Stockholm’s Old Town). Nicodemus Tessin built the Baroque-style building during the 18th Century, although the site it’s built on has been home to Swedish royalty since the 1200’s.

1“SFGC explores the Swedish Royal Palace in Stockholm”                       Credit: Joseph Fanvu

After our guided tour, we performed a part of “Forest” from Lisa Bielawa’s opera Vireo right out front of the palace’s public entrance. As we sang, I thought about how much history is rooted in the palace. In the United States, we consider something built in the 1700’s to be almost ancient, but in comparison to the rest of the world our country is incredibly young. And, although it’s amazing to sing in a place with such a long story, the opulence of the palace highlighted historical inequalities that persist today. The palace’s grandeur awed me, but it is troublesome to see gold-plated furniture inside the palace and homeless people on the streets outside, just as we’ve grown accustomed to in urban San Francisco.

That evening we rehearsed in the beautiful Maria Magdalena Church, where our concert was to be held on Wednesday the 24th. Like the palace, the church has a long and complex history, dating back to as early as 1350. Although I myself am not religious, I found it moving to be in another place with so much history. When I go to modern churches in San Francisco, I often feel a little uncomfortable, like I’m somewhere I don’t belong. But at Maria Magdalena, I was welcomed with the smell of old books and the feeling that thousands of people had walked through the doors before me. Over the years, the building has been rebuilt many times. The current rendition is designed by Nicodemus Tessin, the same architect who designed the palace. The dome-shaped interior gives a warm and ringy acoustic, accentuating our strong sound. In addition to repertoire from our previous tour concerts – such as Meredith Monk’s experimental Panda Chant and Amy Beach’s turn-of-the-century Three Browning Songs – we sang “Hymn” from Lou Harrison’s Mass for St. Cecilia’s Day. These three American composers differ in style and time period, but share an incredible talent for composing unique, out-of-the-box pieces.

Towards the end of our Stockholm concert, Lisa Bielawa joined us onstage for “Forest” in a duet with chorister Emma Mackenzie.

2“SFGC Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa (third from left) joins in”             Credit: Joseph Fanvu

Their clear voices blended together perfectly, a high B echoing throughout the church. It’s incredible to see multiple generations of SFGC choristers performing something born partly out of the education received here! This heart-wrenching piece of music, written for the current chorus by an alum, reminds me how much we choristers are capable of creating. Growing up in San Francisco, I have always been immersed in communities that celebrate feminism and many of its mantras. But this moment in Stockholm gave me more strength and pride as a woman than I’ve ever felt, even inside my San Francisco bubble.

Looking back on the past two weeks, we have learned just as much about ourselves as we have other cultures. Each piece brought us closer and closer to our audience; our music allowed us to communicate across the language barrier. At this final concert in Stockholm, the audience was lively and kind. They came out just to see us, since we were not collaborating with any chorus or ensemble. It’s humbling that strangers living halfway around the world came to hear us sing.

After nine years, this was my last concert with the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus. Over the years I’ve been given the opportunity to sing for Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi, Philip Glass, Paul Simon and many more. But none of these performances will mean as much to me as our final concert at Maria Magdalena. There were no famous politicians or musicians, just ordinary strangers who were somehow touched by our music. This music has formed a web across the world, helped us grow as people and musicians, and allowed us to share parts of ourselves we don’t yet have the words for.

Evie Hidysmith 3“Evie Hidysmith (on left) in rainy Stockholm”

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Postcard from Tour – 6/24

Dear SFGC Family

Hello again!

Our SFGC tour took us back West for a second performance collaboration in Lund, Sweden. We traveled from Tallinn by boat to Helsinki, where we took a bus to a plane to Copenhagen, and from there a train to Lund. It was such an intense day of travel we could barely cope(nhagen). We arrived in Lund on the Swedish celebration of the summer solstice, Midsummer. Midsummer is the longest day of the year, and is celebrated with all-night picnics and outdoor parties like New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. We got to celebrate with our hosts by dancing around the maypole, singing traditional songs, and making beautiful flower crowns.

1“Midsummer chocolate-strawberry cake in Lund”                                    Credit: Joseph Fanvu

We had the opportunity to learn about the long and fascinating history of Lund and its surrounding region on a bus tour. We saw (and sang in) beautiful churches, walked through old graveyards, and saw a pagan ruin called Ales Sten, a circle of stones on the Baltic Seashore surrounding an ancient sacrificial altar. Witches, according to legend, used to practice there. We paid homage to the witches through an informal performance of Meredith Monk’s Panda Chant around their altar.

2“Meredith Monk’s Panda Chant at the ancient pagan altar of Ales Sten”   Credit: Joseph Fanvu

We had a wonderful time (again!) in Lund. It was incredible to work alongside talented musicians like Koritsia, our host choir in Lund. Koritsia is a choir for girls separated into age-specific levels, starting at age nine. There are normally around thirty-five girls in the top level, with which we sang, but only around half were there due to summer holidays.

The director of Koritsia, Karin Fagius, teaches over two hundred girls to sing each year. Her choirs are open to any girl, without audition, and she says she helps every chorister find her own voice. This care is apparent in Koritsia’s vocal strength. The forty-six of us were amazed by the huge sound that Koritsia produced in such small numbers!

Koritsia is part of the Lund School of the Arts, an art conservatory free to all children. It has all sorts of disciplines available, including dance, visual art, and poetry. The headmaster of the school, Håkan Carlsson, stressed the importance of an art education when discussing the school with me. He described a boy he knew who didn’t go to the school. The boy wrote pages and pages planning to write a novel, but never finished it. Håkan said that, with proper guidance from a teacher, this boy would have been able to complete his project. Institutions like the Lund School of the Arts are essential, he went on to say, because he believes it can be difficult to achieve a fully-rounded art education in a regular school.

The school’s founder, John Fernstroem, shared that view. He founded the School of the Arts in 1914, as an all-girls music school (other disciplines were added later on in the century). This was unusual for the time, since back then women were generally not encouraged to be educated. To emphasize the abilities of women, the school is decorated with statues and stained-glass windows of powerful Swedish women throughout history, like Holy Brigit, a Swedish saint.

Today, the school teaches many young artists and is home to the Nordic Youth Orchestra, a two-week summer music intensive program for musicians aged sixteen to twenty-five, conducted this year by Fredrik Burstedt. I believe their hard work and beautiful musicianship would have made the founder of the school proud.

John Fernstroem, besides founding the Lund School of the Arts, was also a prolific composer in his day. His music was often played during his life, but after he passed away his writings became more obscure. According to Håkan, this was because his style was more old-fashioned than was in vogue in the sixties. His widow, who lived to be one hundred and four years old, fought hard to keep his music alive.

We had the chance to honor her commitment by singing one of his Concertino for flute solo, orchestra and chorus, with Koritsia and the Nordic Youth Orchestra. Its lyrics are a Swedish translation of the poem “Early Moon,” by American writer Carl Sandburg, who, incidentally, had Swedish parents. It describes an observer’s visions of Native Americans in the Mississippi Valley.

3“SFGC with Koritsia and the Nordic Youth Orchestra”                            Credit: Joseph Fanvu

We had a lot of fun performing a piece with so many Swedish-American connections. It was challenging to pronounce the Swedish, but both Koritsia choristers and the director of the orchestra helped and encouraged us in our attempts!

We had only three rehearsals with the orchestra, but Frederik said he was happy with how smoothly the chorus and the orchestra worked together. One of the things he loves about directing, in fact, is that he never knows exactly what will happen. This seamless partnership between our two previously separate groups was a pleasant surprise!

This fun and exciting performance marked the end to our collaborative concerts. However, we’re excited for our next stop – a solo concert in Stockholm, one more opportunity to keep polishing our group’s sound.

This is my last blog, so I’ll just say that this tour has been life-changing for all of us, and I’m happy to have given you a small taste of it.


See you back in San Francisco,


Leah Ofman

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Postcard from Tour – 6/22

Dear SFGC Family,

Tere, meil on Eestis! (Hello, we are in Estonia!)

After our performance in Helsinki, Finland with the Sibelius High School Choir, we headed to Tallinn, Estonia! We travelled to Tallinn via ferry, on a boat the size of a cruise ship. The ride across the shining, serene Baltic Sea lasted two hours. Ellerhein Girls Choir, our hosts for the next three days, greeted us upon our arrival at the Tallinn harbor. Ellerhein is one of the most highly-regarded girls’ vocal ensembles in the world, and they can be considered a sister choir to ours— they have a sophisticated and varied repertoire, a choral school with different levels, a summer camp, and rigorous rehearsals three times a week. Choristers from both programs had the eye-opening and unique opportunity to share the similarities of a lifestyle saturated with Chorus while living totally different cultural experiences.

The first day, many of us toured the historic Old Town of Tallinn with our hosts, where we saw the Tallinn skyline, walked down medieval cobblestone streets, and passed dozens of amber shops, a Baltic specialty (the largest known deposits of amber in the world are in the Baltic region).

We spent the next two days rehearsing with Ellerhein in their rehearsal space, which is in a building called the “Hobby Centre” filled with different artistic organizations across various genres, such as dance, fine arts, and orchestras. When we began to sing, the voices of Ellerhein and the SFGC integrated beautifully. The Estonian language has dark, tall vowels that are reflected in Ellerhein’s sound, a beautiful and warm singing tone, which -in combination with SFGC – created a rich and blended sound. We sang two songs by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis with Ellerhein, conducted by Ellerhein’s principal conductor, Ingrid Kõrvits.

222(SFGC Music Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe, Ellerhein Director Ingrid Kõrvits, and SFGC Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa L to R in the photo)                                    Photo: Joseph Fanvu

Ingrid deepened our understanding and embodiment of these songs, which we’ve been singing since our Davies performance, by explaining to us what the words meant conceptually, and their meaningfulness to Estonian culture.  Ellerhein, in turn, joined us on some of our American repertoire, working with Valerie to fortify our collaboration of Meredith Monk’s ‘Panda Chant’, and Amy Beach’s ‘I Send My Heart to Thee.’

                                                                                                                          Photo: Joseph Fanvu

During rehearsal, Ellerhein organized a surprise for us— a traditional Estonian folk dance, by teenagers wearing the Estonian national costume! The girls wore long, colorful skirts with long socks, leather dance slippers, and white embroidered shirts. The boys wore the same shoes, with knee length trousers, leather vests, and a similar white embroidered shirt. It was inspiring to see young people preserving and celebrating their country’s history, tradition, folklore and culture.

Later that day, we visited the Estonian Open Air Museum. We hiked through the forest and had a picnic in a beautiful meadow, where we made daisy chains with our new Estonian friends, exchanging stories about our lives in California and eagerly asking questions about their lives in Estonia. The Open Air Museum is also home to one of the two oldest chapels in Estonia, erected during the 17th century, where each chorus sang spontaneous mini-concerts for each other.

Our stay in Tallinn culminated in our joint concert with Ellerhein. Our performance was at the Estonian Song Festival grounds, a stadium where the famous Estonian Song Festival is held every five years. This festival is one of the largest choir festivals in the world, celebrating one of the most important aspects of Estonian culture— singing. The Estonian Song Festival has been declared a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Prior to our actual performance, which was held inside one of the stadium lobbies, we were granted the great honor and opportunity to sing a song on the incredible outdoor stadium stage, which can seat up to 30,000 participating singers. The grounds of the stadium is the site of one of Estonia’s most influential historical events— the Estonian Singing Revolution.

Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in part through the Estonian Singing Revolution, a series of subversive events that happened over the course of four years. During each of these moments, Estonians came together in rebellion to sing traditional Estonian folk songs prohibited by the Soviet Regime. The largest-ever demonstration occurred at the Tallinn Estonian Song Festival Grounds, where approximately 300,000 Estonians sang their way to freedom.

The Baltic and Scandinavian Regions have always had a special place in my heart. I represented Estonia in Model UN last year, and was able to have a meeting with the Estonian Ambassador to the UN in New York City. I have researched the region extensively, and really admire Baltic and Scandinavian culture, music, and language. Being able to visit – and sing in! – these places that I have always dreamt of visiting and experiencing, has been a privilege that I will forever be grateful for.

Visiting Estonia on tour was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because we were able to experience the power of choral singing, and what choral singing is about, on a global scale. Choral singing has united the Estonian people, carried them to freedom, and now, has connected the San Francisco Girls Chorus to Ellerhein, and San Francisco to Tallinn.

Nägemist, meeldiv kohtuda! (Farewell, and nice to meet you!)

Juliana Iluminata Wilczynski

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Postcard from Tour – 6/19

※These ‘postcards’ are from some of our singers, reporting from their 2015 tour to Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Our three correspondents are Evie Hidysmith (age 15), Leah Ofman (age 17), and Juliana Iluminata Wilczynski (age 18)

Hello SFGC Family

Tervetuloa! (Welcome, in Finnish!)

When we arrived at Temppeliaukio church in Helsinki on Monday, we were greeted by Sonja Saarikoski, a reporter from the Helsingin Sanomat news website, and her videographer. After a quick warm-up, we performed William Schuman’s To Thy Love and Robert Schumann’s Du Bist Die Ruh (these composers share a similar surname, but Robert was a 19th-century Romantic composer and William was a 20th Century American composer) for the camera and an accidental audience of tourists visiting the church. The Temppeliaukio church was built in 1969 by architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. Its walls are made entirely of stone, a perfect acoustic for choral music. The Sibelius High School Girls Choir, made up of students aged 16 to 19 and conducted by the enthusiastic Reijo Aittakumpu, joined us in this incredible space. The Sibelius High School choir has a strong, clear sound and complex repertoire. Aittakumpu looks for versatility in repertoire—the choir sings a diverse mix of half classical music, half pop and folk music. Reijo told me that about a quarter of the girls hope to pursue music professionally, many of them as instrumentalists.

In the first half of the concert, the Sibelius choir sang a set of Spanish songs by Finnish composer Einojuhini Rautavaara, and a composition called Toivomus by Nomi Enckell, who is actually a Sibelius chorister! Enckell soloed her work while her choir sang waves of oscillating chords underneath. I compose my own music, something that many of us in the chorus experiment with, and it was inspirational to see another young woman perform something she’d created, supported by her musical family. Although I don’t connect with choral pop music in the same way as I do classical, Enckell created something that felt incredibly authentic and represented a style and musicality that was genuinely hers. Her song was unique, made up of vivid, structured sections that flowed together to express something in Finnish that I somehow understood.

Reijo’s choir joined us in Meredith Monk’s Panda Chant, an American piece that pushes the boundaries of vocal production and, ultimately, what choral music is supposed to be.


In the second half of our program we sang a set of three Amy Beach songs arranged by Alexander Blachly. One audience member I spoke to after the concert enjoyed these pieces the most because they sounded “free and easy.” For an encore, we encircled the audience, ending with Du Bist Die Ruh. During our time in Helsinki, we shared contemporary American music that is significant to our culture, and experienced choral music from a community other than our own. As I looked out at the audience, I could see how our music influenced each individual, and was reminded of longtime SFGC Chorus School Director Beth Avakian’s favorite saying: if we make a difference in one person’s life, we have done our job as human beings and musicians.

Evie Hidysmith


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Postcard from Tour – 6/16

※These ‘postcards’ are from some of our singers, reporting from their 2015 tour to Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Our three correspondents are Evie Hidysmith (age 15), Leah Ofman (age 17), and Juliana Iluminata Wilczynski (age 18)

postcard2                 (Juliana Iluminata Wilczynski, Evie Hidysmith and Leah Ofman L to R in the photo)

Dear SFGC Family,

Hej från Sverige! (Hello from Sweden!)

We have finally arrived in Scandinavia, and we couldn’t be more excited, or more impressed by the transportation, the nature, the architecture, and the people! The flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam was relatively short, and we proceeded to rehearse and give an impromptu performance in Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, where many fellow travelers and passersby stopped to listen to us sing in the early morning. From Amsterdam, we took a flight to Copenhagen, where we boarded a commuter train to Lund, Sweden, with an incredible view of the Baltic Sea.

Upon our arrival in Lund, we were greeted at the central train station by our host chorus and host families, Korallerna. Korallerna is a world-renowned singing ensemble of women ranging in age from eighteen to thirty years old. Our home-stay hosts took us home, which was in some cases a university dormitory, or in my case, a lovely cottage in the countryside, where we used lanterns in our bedrooms for light. During our first night and morning in Lund, we were able to experience the sun setting around 11:30 at night, and the sun rising around 3:45 in the morning. Eye masks are definitely a necessity in the summer here!

The next day during our rehearsal with Korallerna, we exchanged warm-up techniques. We rehearsed the two pieces that we were singing together with Korallerna at the performance. The first, ‘I Lie’, by American composer David Lang, is sung in Yiddish. The second, ‘Sommårpsalm’, is a very important song in Swedish culture, as it is sung as a tradition at the end of every school year by all Swedish students. Each year, the song brings back past memories of the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer. Also, Korallerna taught us the proper pronunciation for the Swedish lyrics. Hopefully, we sounded convincing!

Later in the evening, the performance with Korallerna was held in Lund Cathedral, which is 900 years old! Lund is a historical and cultural capital of Sweden, and was home for many years to both Swedish and Danish nobility, as Lund was a part of Denmark until the Swedes conquered the present region of Skåne in the early 18th century. The Cathedral held the most important social and religious events of Lund for hundreds of years, so it was an honor to perform in such a revered and historical space. The performance was attended by a full audience, and the auspicious locale and spacious acoustics made this performance a very special one for all of us, as well as a fantastic kick-start to our tour!

Korallerna sang a beautiful and varied repertoire of choral music, including one piece titled ‘Inferno’, composed by Korallerna’s conductor, Linda Alexandersson. Inferno is a unique piece because it utilizes unusual vocal techniques, such as forest sounds and chanting. Korallerna has an incredible group dynamic, and it was a privilege to hear all of the choral music on their program.

Today, after a very fast trip to Helsinki, we arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, all of which you will read more about soon. We cannot wait to experience and share what the next few days have in store for us!

-Juliana Iluminata Wilczynski

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Postcard from Tour – 6/12

※These ‘postcards’ are from some of our singers, reporting from their 2015 tour to Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Our three correspondents are Evie Hidysmith (age 15), Leah Ofman (age 17), and Juliana Iluminata Wilczynski (age 18)

postcard2                    (Juliana Iluminata Wilczynski, Evie Hidysmith and Leah Ofman L to R in the photo)


Dear SFGC Family,

Hello everyone, and welcome to the first tour blog post, wherein I won’t be talking about the tour just yet! We recently had our last concert of the year (and for some of us, our last as members of the chorus!) in San Francisco. We were so busy practicing and rehearsing, it hadn’t fully hit us until that night. The program for American Vanguard was chock-full of groundbreaking American pieces like Lou Harrison’s Gregorian chant-like Mass for St. Cecilia’s Day, Meredith Monk’s Panda Chant ululations, and John Cage’s experimental Story from Living Room Music.

It struck me that this program had an incredible amount of diversity and variety within its fourteen-piece set. Each piece had a starkly different energy. We sang in four languages; we had solos, small groups, and trios; we got to play instruments and sing a cappella; and we even got to shout once or twice!

This melange of styles and languages is representative both of our chorus, and of America herself. The San Francisco Girls Chorus is made up of individual girls who come to the Chorus Hall from all over – in and around the city – after our classes in advanced chemistry, or visual art, or algebra, or literature, or world history. We congregate in one room, twice a week, and we sing. We sing all these languages and styles as a unit.

America works similarly. People whose families came on the Mayflower live next to families who just moved here from halfway across the world. Everywhere you go in this country, you can hear different languages and accents and see different customs. America is still young, and our unifying factor in this country is our differences. It was exciting to represent our “tossed salad” nature through song.

Helping us do just that was the indomitable Carla Kihlstedt. She’s written and performed everything from experimental rock to classical. We performed two of her songs on closing night, Herring Run and Hold My Own.

Herring Run is about, well, herring! It’s sung from the point of view of the herring in Cape Cod on their trip back to their birthplace. They must swim against the current, using smells to guide them home. Then, they give birth themselves. While the herring have to struggle for days to reach their destination, Carla wrote the body of the song in two and a half hours! She said that this was the fastest she’d ever written a song, and added that she continued to work with it for weeks after. By the time we received the score, it was a complex piece in many parts filled with glissandos and dissonance. “I’ve always been drawn to dissonance,” she explains. Because she believes “the most important thing [about composing] is to write what you want to hear,” it’s important for her to use dissonance in her pieces. When I asked Carla about the glissandos, she said they were due in part to her being a violinist (the violin, like the voice, has the ability to slide elegantly between notes), but also to her friendship and collaboration with Lisa Bielawa! She noticed the big slides Lisa often uses in her pieces. Every time she writes a slide like that she said she’s “winking to Lisa in [her] mind.”

While Herring Run is a playful piece, Hold My Own takes a more somber turn. Beginning with the watery, impossibly fast notes of a specially-strung violin then adding two solo voices (Carla and Lisa) and a choir, this haunting piece is a meditation on the death of one of Carla’s friends in a white-water rafting accident. The liquid quality of the violin echoes the sound of the water. The song reflects her friend’s nature; Carla says she was “very complicated.” While Carla wrote Herring Run quickly, this piece took time. She wrote it during the weeks that her friend’s body was being recovered. Originally, it was incredibly difficult for her to perform the piece, and she still thinks of her friend when she plays it.

Clearly, Carla is an emotive musician. When asked if she had any advice for us as young performers, she said “the most important thing is to fully embody what you’re expressing.” This year in our rehearsals, we talked a lot about being expressive and telling the story of what we’re singing not just with our voices, but with our faces as well. Watching Carla perform with her voice, instrument, face and body allowed us to see the importance of this expressive storytelling in action.

This concert was a beautiful ending to our year in San Francisco. Two days after, we had our end-of-year ceremonies, and then we all had to pack for tour! I know at the beginning of this post I said I wouldn’t be talking about the tour, and I’ll admit that was a wee lie. The American Vanguard concert and ceremonies got us incredibly excited for Europe as we realized that the next time we’d be together would be on the plane today! Now we’re all in the airport preparing to board and the excitement is palpable. We’re all thrilled to share our music with other musicians around the world, and to learn about their cultures. We get to meet people, perform in historic buildings, and connect with other people in a language that transcends linguistic boundaries. I know we’ll take Carla’s advice to heart and let it guide us on our trip: “approach each performance as an act of generosity.”

I look forward to reporting to you from tour!

Leah Ofman




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Postcard from Artistic Director – 5/29

lisa_bielawa_web2Dear SFGC family,

I saw so many of you last thursday at City Hall, to honor Beth Avakian with music and hear the mayoral proclamation honoring her achievements as founder and director of the Chorus School for so many years, on behalf of the city and county of San Francisco! I looked around and saw a look on so many faces that matched exactly how I felt: joy, gratitude, pride, admiration, and deep affection.

This is the last you will hear directly from me for the season, but here’s the great news: I’ll be working behind the scenes with three of our own girls, our chosen Tour Bloggers, who will be continuing this thread with their own Postcards from Tour! Yes, we want to bring you all along with us on our Nordic tour, so these three girls will be writing you their impressions and observations, starting with our June 5 tour sendoff concert and continuing through our concert engagements in Lund, Helsinki, Tallinn and Stockholm.

Meet Juliana Iluminata Wilczynski, Evie Hidysmith and Leah Ofman L to R in the photo below):



Juliana is 18 and has spent a fair amount of time in Estonia and the Baltics. In fact, she describes herself as a “Scandinavian/Baltic cultural connoisseur”! She also describes herself as a language geek, so she’s hitting the books these days, learning a few phrases in Swedish and Finnish too!

Evie is 15 and has been in the SFGC for 9 years. That’s way more than half of her life! She is a composer as well as a singer, and brings a deep musicianship and a long history with the organization to her role as blogger.

Leah is 17 and is looking forward to combining three of her great loves: travel, writing, and singing. She has composed poetic travelogues of some local travels, and is looking forward to bringing that same viewpoint to new histories and cultures.

So keep your eye out for our first series of Postcards from Tour!


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