The San Francisco Symphony Chorus at Thirty
by Richard Reynolds
Outside Davies Symphony Hall, the white tents have been set up and trucks are delivering supplies for the gala festivities that will mark opening night of the Symphony’s 2002–03 season the next evening. In Room C of Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, tucked away in a corner of Davies, members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus are arriving for work. Tonight is their second rehearsal of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, which they will be performing in seven weeks, and opening night festivity is the farthest thing from their minds.
Bass Henry Dreger, who is serving tonight as rehearsal attendance-keeper, sits at a table near the door, and choristers call off their numbers for him as they arrive. The dress is casual—jeans, t-shirts, polo shirts; comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. In a large semi-circle set around a grand piano, 160 chairs have been arranged for the singers. There is a constant din in the room as choristers greet each other and fall into conversation. The talented and dedicated musicians who have gathered in Room C come from many different worlds, but once they enter Davies Symphony Hall they put their outside lives aside and devote themselves to the 30-year tradition that has brought the Chorus to an extraordinary level of excellence.
At 7:30, Chorus Accompanist Marc Shapiro begins to play softly on the piano, and Assistant Conductor Josh Haberman leads the group in a series of stretching exercises. A hundred and sixty singers raise their arms to the ceiling, roll their heads, shrug their shoulders in unison. Now the stretching morphs into a vocal warm-up, with the other assistant, David Xiques, leading them in a series of simple exercises using a variety of sounds. When 160 resonant voices roll [flutter?] their tongues in unison, the pitch rising and falling in a smooth arc, the effect is unexpectedly exhilarating. Xiques puts the Chorus through a series of solfège exercises, an ear-training method in which the text is replaced with syllables representing the notes of the scale: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.
Chorus Director Vance George is dressed in black slacks, a black t-shirt, and a gray short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt with an off-white pattern. He picks a passage in the middle of the Britten and begins rehearsing, stopping frequently to work on vowel sounds. “More pucker,” he says to the altos. “Keep the tongues up,” he admonishes the basses. “I see mouths dropping way open.”
After working intently on two or three sections, he lets the group continue for a couple of minutes, until the tenors encounter a problematic pitch. George asks Xiques to lead the tenors through a solfège exercise, which helps them work their way through the thorny passage.
With a total complement of 200 singers, including thirty professionals and 170 committed volunteers, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus is a big operation. It is the busiest symphony chorus in the country, guaranteeing at least twenty-six concerts a season by contract and performing thirty or more concerts for the past several years—significantly more than any other American symphony chorus. Founded in 1972 at the request of then-Music Director Seiji Ozawa, the SFS Chorus celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this season. Louis Magor conducted the Chorus for the first ten years, and in 1982 Margaret Hillis, the long-time director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, was brought in as Director of Choral Activities. She asked Vance George, who was then Associate Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, to be her assistant, and the next year he took over as Chorus Director.
Asked what inspired him to become a choral conductor, George cites a concert given by the Robert Shaw Chorale at Goshen College in Indiana when he was a freshman there. “The Shaw Chorale is still the main inspiration and source in my inner ear,” says George. “From there it all unfolded rather naturally. I sang all through college and did a double degree, one in piano, the other in voice. When I went to graduate school at Indiana there was a brand new degree in choral conducting, the first of its kind in the country.”
During the busy part of the season—and George emphasizes that the fall is always a busy time—the Chorus rehearses at least three nights a week, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. In preparing a given work, the singers will generally have six piano rehearsals with Vance George, one or two piano rehearsals with the conductor—either Michael Tilson Thomas or a guest—and two orchestra rehearsals. The person who “really runs the Chorus,” says George, is Manager Greg Boals, who has been with the group since 1982. Working closely with George, Boals builds the rehearsal calendar, does the budgeting, schedules auditions, writes the weekly newsletter, negotiates the contract for the professional singers, and decides who will sit where in a performance, a task he calls “the bane of my existence.” A baritone, he often sings with the Chorus, especially at the beginning of the season, as it gives him a chance to get to know the new singers.
The size of the Chorus changes from work to work. A Handel Messiah requires sixty to eighty singers; for Mozart and other Classical works the Chorus will grow to 120; big works like the Britten War Requiem call for 150 to 175. And for a performance of Mahler’s Eighth, the Chorus will muscle up to 230 voices. The task of keeping track of all the singers and making sure each one knows which works he or she is singing in, when and where the rehearsals and performances will take place, and who will sit where falls to Boals.
Each spring all of the volunteers who wish to return the following season, and most of the professionals, must reaudition. The average singer stays with the Chorus four or five years, and about forty must be replaced each year. These positions attract about three times as many aspirants as spaces available. “I get calls from people who say, ‘I’ve never sung, but it sounds like fun,’” says Boals. “I don’t discourage them, but I suggest that they do some work before auditioning.”
When listening to auditions, says Vance George, “I’m looking for richness of voice, flexibility, the ability to sing deep, rich, vibrant tones with vibrato, then to bring the voice in so you can do a Baroque work with what is still a very beautiful tone, but more contained.” (Vibrato is not used in Baroque performance.) Often, he continues, people will try to impress him in auditions by singing as loud as they can. This is not what he is looking for, says George, quoting Margaret Hillis, who would say, “Never sing louder than beautiful.” Finally, he adds, “I want them to be able to sing languages: Latin, German, French, once in a while Italian, English.”
The most difficult language to sing? “English,” answers George without hesitation. “Because of all the consonants. English takes a great deal of time to prepare before it sounds natural. It’s so easy to mispronounce a word in English. Like angel—‘And the angel said unto him.’ We don’t say AN – GEL. We say AN – gel, with the accent on the first syllable. To get an entire group to do that, I have to sing it for them, and they have to sing it back to me.”
Whenever possible, Vance George and the conductor for whom he is preparing the Chorus confer in advance on matters such as “tempo, breathing, phrase lengths, the general ethos of the work, markings that might not be in the score.” For the singers, says George, there should be little adjustment when they go from rehearsing with him to rehearsing and performing with an orchestral conductor. “Conducting is conducting,” he announces emphatically. “The only difference between choral and orchestral conducting is text, and that does make a difference because you respond slightly differently to an inflection of a word, but that’s not so different from the inflection of an oboe or a flute.” Some choral conductors eschew the baton. Not Vance George. “My recommendation,” he says, “is that anyone who is conducting should use a baton, because it refines and hones your conducting technique. You learn to become more precise.”
The singers who work with George throughout the year represent a broad cross section of the Bay Area’s diverse population. But when they arrive at a rehearsal or performance, they become as one. And whether professional or volunteer, Chorus members’ time commitment is so great that singing with the ensemble almost inevitably becomes a major part of their lives..
Bass Eric Nehrlich, a volunteer, has a demanding job at a biotech startup in San Francisco, but he reports that the Chorus somehow seems to give him energy. “There have been many times when I go to rehearsal and I’m exhausted,” he says, “and halfway through the rehearsal I’m excited by the music, rejuvenated from the experience, and feel better than I would have if I’d gone straight home.
“When you get to concert week, and it all comes together—a group of a hundred people working as one, feeling as one, acting as one—it’s a very special experience. I’ve tried solo singing, and it’s just not interesting to me. I don’t want it to be about me. I want it to be about us. There’s this feeling you get at performance. Everyone breathes as one, sings as one. It’s magical.” Combining his tech and musical lives, Nehrlich has devoted a section of his web site to his experience singing in the Chorus, and you can check that out at www.nehrlich.com/chorus.
Seth Brenzel is another Chorus member who comes from the tech world. A volunteer tenor, he works as the marketing director of a high-tech firm. But music plays a huge part in his life, which also includes serving as associate director of a summer music school for kids in New Hampshire. “The Chorus,” he says, “is an anchor of my life. It’s the constant in a lot of change. The first day back, usually in late August, feels like the first day of school, with the excitement of seeing your friends after the summer.” He continues: “Musically, there is this high bar that is set, and that helps people do even better than they think they’re capable of. The level of singing raises everyone up.”
Meredith Riekse, a volunteer alto who has been in the Chorus for eight years, is another member who has carved out a big space in her life to stay with the group. “I have two passions,” she says. “Music is one, horses are the other. When my husband retired, we realized we could move anywhere we wanted to. My horses live in Southern California, but I wouldn’t leave here. That’s an indication of how important the Chorus is to me.”
The first work she rehearsed with the Chorus was Beethoven’s Ninth, but after going through all the rehearsals, she developed a bad cold and had to drop out. “It was heartbreaking,” she remembers. But then there was Debussy's Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, and she finally got her chance to perform with the San Francisco Symphony. “I looked down from our Terrace seats at this amazing orchestra. You can’t believe you’re there. It’s a huge commitment, but you can’t beat the experience. People come from huge distances. There’s a woman who comes from Stockton. People wouldn’t make the effort if it wasn’t worth it.”
Volunteer bass Chung-Wai Soong sang professionally in Australia before moving to the Bay Area in 1992. He had intended to get away from the pressure of singing, but, as he says, “the little bug called and I thought it might be fun to do some sort of singing.” He auditioned in the summer of 1993 and was invited to sing in a summer Russian Festival performance of Alexander Nevsky. “I had only three rehearsals to learn the Russian,” he remembers. “It was baptism by fire.”
Soong is a caterer and event planner by trade, and also a graphic designer (the cover of the Chorus’s CD Voices 1900/2000 is an example of his design work). But music plays a major role in his life. “In addition to all the time we spend in rehearsals and performances, a lot of my friends are from the Chorus, including my partner.” He attends many concerts and recitals and collects unusual opera recordings, such as a 1956 Soviet recording of La Bohème in Russian and a 1944 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Le nozze di Figaro with Ezio Pinza, Eleanor Steber, and Bidu Sayao.
Alto Terry Alvord, one of the professional singers, won her position three years ago. Her first year, she says, “was the year the Chorus and Orchestra went to Carnegie Hall and did Stravinsky and Mahler [Les Noces and Das klagende Lied]. This was the first time the Chorus had gone on tour with the Orchestra. We also premiered John Adams’s El Niño that year, so it was a very busy and very exciting introduction to life with the Chorus.” Alvord, who grew up in Chicago, began playing piano in grade school, where she took a group piano class and practiced on a cardboard keyboard. She also joined the children’s choir at her church and says she was “involved in just about every musical group that my high school offered.” She stopped singing while pursuing her master’s degree in piano performance at the University of Illinois. But by the time she and her husband, now a photo editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, moved to the Bay Area, she was singing again. Today her musical life includes the Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Opera Chorus, and San Francisco Opera Guild (she sang the role of Hansel in the Guild’s in-school performances of Hansel and Gretel this fall). She is also music director at an East Bay Methodist church.
Like Alvord, David Peters, a professional tenor, began playing the piano at an early age. “I would sit at the piano and people would always want me to sing. I would refuse. Then, in my senior year of high school, I started taking voice lessons, won first place among the tenors in a regional competition, and was invited to join the Minnesota All-State Choir” He graduated from Concordia College in oorhead, Minnesota with a B.A. in music teaching, but never taught. After moving to the Bay Area he auditioned for the Chorus and won his position in 1987. Peters expresses great respect for the volunteers, whom he prefers to call “non-paid singers.” If he misses a marking in the score, his co-tenor Paul Angelo will lean over and say, “Think ya missed somthin’ there, Bubba.” Peters may not always agree, but, he says, “I have to admit, the guy really does know the repertoire.” Peters has premiered works by several local composers, recorded a radio commercial (a Nescafé ad for the Japanese market), and acts as cantor of a Catholic church.
Micheline Steacy also links her singing with church. She attended an all-girls Catholic school, where music was an important part of the curriculum. But it wasn’t until after she graduated from the University of San Francisco with a bachelor’s degree in English that she began to sing seriously. “I was working as a secretary in a bank and was really bored,” she reports. “My husband saw a notice that the Saint Ignatius Choir needed singers. I decided I needed to take voice lessons, and it turned into more than I ever thought I could do.” Greg Boals, who also sang at Saint Ignatius, suggested she audition for the Chorus, and she won a position as one of the professional sopranos.
Singing in a large chorus, she says, allows for a relaxed experience. “Sometimes the sheer strength of the sound takes my breath away. There’s this magnificent sound. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes it’s so achingly beautiful that I have to remove myself and just sing and become detached, because otherwise I’ll start crying. And you can’t sing when you’re crying.”
If you think you have a long work day, consider that of volunteer alto Andrea Lewis, who is co-host of KPFA radio’s Morning Show five days a week. She gets up at 5:00 a.m. to make her way from her apartment in San Francisco to KPFA’s Berkeley studios for the 7:00 a.m. show. When the Chorus is performing she generally sleeps about four hours a night, then works in a few more hours of sleep in the afternoon. While the two parts of her life may seem disconnected, she sees a clear connection between the necessary skills. “It takes performance skills to sound happy and awake at that hour,” she quips about her work on the Morning Show. “That doesn’t mean I’m making up the news or not taking my job seriously, but to some extent you have to be a performer as well as a journalist.”
Lewis listens to lots of different kinds of music, including jazz, hip-hop, R and B, soul, and classical. She used to sing jazz and plays a bit of keyboard and percussion, but since joining the Chorus fifteen years ago she has much less time for other musical activities. What keeps her coming back? “Getting to work with world-renowned musicians is no small thing,” she responds. “Getting to perform at places like Carnegie Hall is a dream come true. And getting to work with the musicians in both the Chorus and Orchestra. Getting to do recordings that win Grammys. And I count Vance George as one of the musicians I enjoy working with. He’s a Renaissance man, and has to work with everything from Bach to world premieres on which the ink is still wet. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to lead from thirty to 200 singers in such a variety of languages, styles, and sensibilities.”
In its 30 years, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus has grown into a musical organization as talented and distinctive as the Symphony itself. This season alone, the singers are featured in eight programs. But Vance George quickly deflects any suggestion that he is the catalyst that has inspired 200 musicians to make the extraordinary commitment necessary to be members of the Chorus. “Someone recently asked me, ‘How do you get your singers to do that?’ I replied, ‘I don’t.’ The music and the general ferment of what goes on here makes it happen. There’s a synergy. I don’t know any other word to explain how something like this happens. It can’t be just one person. You may call it serendipitous, synergistic, a simple love of singing, but there is something here right now that is unique and wonderful. As we in the Chorus work together concert after concert, season after season, we have the unfailing knowledge that what we are doing—for all its challenges and labor—is a privilege, a ritual, and a joy.”
Richard Reynolds is Communications Director of Mother Jones magazine and a horn player in the Berkeley Symphony, Fremont Symphony, and Lamplighters Orchestra.
This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Symphony’s program book and is used here by permission. Copyright © 2002 San Francisco Symphony.