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A labor of love and music
S.F. Symphony Chorus' cultural soldiers celebrate 30 years
Cicero A. Estrella, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2003
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This week a failed dot-commer, a would-be hypnotist and a morning radio talk-show host will be among the hodgepodge of regular folk making beautiful music together at Davies Symphony Hall.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus will be featured through Sunday as it celebrates its 30th anniversary. Under the direction of Bruno Weil, the chorus will join the Symphony to perform two Bach cantatas and Schubert's Mass No. 5.

The chorus, as it has from the beginning, will present a labor of love. Of the 200 members, only 30 are salaried. The rest are volunteers -- mild- mannered citizens by day, robed singers defending everyone's right to cultural entertainment by night.

"It provides the opportunity to contribute to the enrichment of others," said bass Stephen Lewis. "When we enter Davies Hall, it's like we're silently saying to the audience, 'Glad you're here. Look out, you're going to have a thrilling musical experience.' "

"It's spiritual, it's emotional, it's extra-rational," said alto Rosalie Lang, 52, an accountant from Santa Rosa. "It's the thing we need to feed our lives."

Established during the 1972-73 season at the urging of Seiji Ozawa, then the Symphony's music director, the chorus now gives a minimum of 24 performances each season. Vance George has been its director since 1983.

Alto Sandy Sellin, a 53-year-old clinical professor of psychiatric nursing who is in the process of becoming a hypnotherapist, is one of four charter members still with the chorus. She remembers its humble beginnings, a time of yellow choir robes and not quite the polish of today.

"We were a glorified church choir with all the religious music we were doing," she said. "We had a different image of ourselves. We were just a bunch of happy people getting together to sing."

They are still happy to sing, but the chorus has graduated to a level of professionalism that includes two Grammy awards, well-received choral and movie soundtrack recordings, and performances at Carnegie Hall. It has worked

with some of the world's best-known conductors, including Kurt Masur, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Robert Shaw and, of course, the San Francisco Symphony's own Michael Tilson Thomas and conductor laureate Herbert Blomstedt.

"Making music really is something unlike any other creative activity," said alto and 15-year member Andrea Lewis of San Francisco (no relation to Stephen).

"It takes you away from your worries, from your dealings with life."

Many of the volunteers go to great lengths to perform.

Stephen Lewis, 65 and a retired high school music teacher, commutes 5 1/2 hours and 560 miles round-trip from Arcata (Humboldt County) for performances and three-hour practices. A small stretch of Highway 101 in Mendocino County is always in the back of his mind. Nicknamed Confusion Hill, the road is prone to mudslides; the slightest hint of precipitation is reason for worry. Lewis braves the drive, wisely spending his time behind the wheel listening to recordings of pieces to be performed.

Andrea Lewis, 45, gets minimal sleep during concert weeks. The adrenaline from performing keeps her up until 12:30 a.m. She awakens at 5 a.m. and has two hours to get razor-sharp for her duties as co-host of a radio talk show at Berkeley's KPFA.

Jeanne Schoch of San Francisco joined the chorus in 1984, the same year she was diagnosed with a genetic vision problem. Now legally blind, Schoch can no longer read from sheet music during concerts. She compensates by typing lyrics in large letters and committing each phrase and turn to memory. The conductor's facial expressions are no longer visible to her, but she can still make out movements in silhouette.

"It's not a hardship," said Schoch. "It's something I enjoy doing. The music is in my bones. I could never think of not singing."

The sentiment is shared by all choristers, from 30-year veterans to rookies like Tom Langley, a 53-year-old systems manager getting a second chance with the chorus. As a college student in North Carolina, Langley declined an offer to sing with the Charlotte Oratorio. He then joined the Navy and went on to a successful business career in Virginia.

In 1999, Langley moved to Pleasant Hill but "laid his roots" in San Francisco by attending Grace Cathedral and joining its choir. He started voice lessons again before auditioning for the Symphony chorus.

"It's like being reborn," said Langley, a tenor. "I've never experienced anything like this in my life. The quality of the people has inspired me to push myself beyond where I thought I could ever go."

For charter member Sellin, the Symphony has been a lifelong experience. Her father, Verne Sellin, was a violinist with the orchestra from 1946 (three years before his daughter's birth) until his retirement 10 years ago. For 20 years, father and daughter shared the stage, as well as a special bond.

"Our primary connection was music," she said. "This Symphony has been part of my life since the moment I was born. If I leave, I'll be leaving behind a portion of my life."

San Francisco Symphony: Bruno Weil conducts Bach and Schubert with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The subscription program repeats at 8 tonight, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $15- $87. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.


Number of current members: 200

Sopranos: 63

Altos: 54

Tenors: 43

Basses: 40

Number of singers who have ever been a member: 1,706

Most famous alumnus: Conductor Kent Nagano

Number of singers who audition each year: 120

Number of openings available: 35-40

Age of oldest member: 73

Shortest commute: Four blocks

Longest commute this season: 280 miles from Arcata (Humboldt County)

Longest commute ever: 2,800 miles, from Philadelphia by a volunteer bass for a performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony

Total number of hours contributed by volunteer choristers in the 2001-02 season: 30,630

Total number of times a 30-year chorister has sung Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: 51

Total number of times a 30-year chorister has sung Handel's "Messiah": 71

Percentage of chorus members who use e-mail regularly: 95

E-mail Cicero A. Estrella at cestrella@sfchronicle.com.

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback

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