Inspiration – May, 2015

Ends of things are so poignant. Ends of songs, ends of movies, ends of books . . . ends of concerts, ends of relationships, ends of eras . . . One such era comes to a close this summer, when Beth Avakian—my supervisor, mentor, and friend at the San Francisco Girls Chorus—retires after 32 years as the Level IV and Chorus School director. The special mix of respect, fear, and awe that students, parents, and colleagues have in common for Beth is far outstripped by the overwhelming love for this inspirational music educator. I’ve known only a few music teachers in my life who were uncompromising in their standards and belief in the capabilities of young musicians. Interestingly, all of them are women, and Beth is among the chiefest of these. She will leave a meaningful and lasting legacy at the Chorus, and we will feel her absence poignantly, even as we rejoice in what I hope will be frequent visits and copious advice.

Read SFGate’s feature on Beth’s career and retirement here, and visit SF City Hall on Thursday, May 28 at noon for a concert to honor her, at which the Chorissima girls (many of whom spent most of their formative musical years under her watchful guidance) will serenade Beth in sweet farewell.

I’ll let Beth’s words inspire, as mine surely fail to do in comparison:

“Music and singing have fulfilled me throughout my life, and I’ve been able to give this gift of music to these generations of girls and young women. I’m very grateful for that. And for the families, who understood that we can change lives with this music. It’s a very demanding art that asks for commitment and sacrifice. And so many of these girls have stepped up to this. Music has filled them.” – Elizabeth Avakian

Photo by Mark Winges
Photo by Mark Winges

This past Sunday, at Z Space—an awesome, architecturally spare, imagination-freeing venue in San Francisco’s booming Mission neighborhood—I saw and heard an awesome, visually rich, imagination-freeing performance by Volti and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir of Pandora’s Gift. The music was by Mark Winges—a primarily, but hardly solely, choral composer who also acts as Volti’s artistic advisor and composer in residence. I’ve always found Winges’ music intellectually fascinating and obviously brilliant, but often mechanical or chilly. Here, Winges intentionally left space for the stage movement to be incorporated, but also imbued his inventive melodies and harmonic crunches with the softness of Pandora’s early discovery, and the hope left at the bottom of her box, rather than just the violence and horror of what was released.

Volti always sings difficult new music with technical assuredness and surprising artistry, given the demands placed upon this 20-voice virtuoso choral instrument. Here, their very bodies became part of the art, bringing Erika Chong Shuch’s stage direction to darting, writhing, reaching life. Choral singers don’t move well. It’s a trope well founded in the countless misguided attempts at what we usually condemn—choralography. In Pandora’s Gift, the Volti singers and the amazingly game, equally masterful PEBCC choristers shredded the choralography epithet. They moved as if trained to do so all their lives, and every gesture was completed, every facial expression married to the text, and all the singers committed 100% to the physical drama as much as the vocalism.

For an organization equally accustomed to risk-taking and accolades, Volti was again able to stretch, grow, and surprise. Two sold out audiences rewarded Volti with rapturous applause, and their inspirational creation of new, vital art was hugely deserving of it.

There’s one more chance to experience Pandora’s Gift this July 16 at the awesome Golden Gate International Choral Festival. Learn more about the Festival and get tickets here.


But wait—what could be more inspirational than the Great American Songbook and a bit of shameless self-promotion?

songbook posterClerestory sings the final concerts of its 9th season at the end of this month. Songbook is filled with a cappella arrangements of 20th century American popular songs—jazz, spirituals, barbershop, folk, and Broadway. We’ve finished about half our rehearsals, and the guys are completely enchanted by these foundational songs of our country’s musical history. All of this music is quintessentially American, and all of  it is easy on the ear and uplifting for the spirit. I’m thoroughly enjoying singing it, and can’t wait for audiences to hear it. Learn more about the program and get tickets here. If you’d like to hear who Clerestory is, you can visit our Soundcloud for some recent tracks. And remember—Clerestory wasn’t heard, nor was music truly made till there was you . . .
🙂 🙂 🙂