Member Spotlight: Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, San Francisco Girls Chorus

"I want to catalyze an international community around our organization and expand the repertoire that we do."

Where did your love of choral music begin?

My father taught music composition at San Francisco State University, so I often heard him composing in the living room and he taught lessons at the house. My mother is an early music performance practice scholar who got her doctorate at Stanford. We had a harpsichord and clavichord at the house, and she was always playing.

My brother and I started studying violin when we were three and piano with my mother when we were five. She also conducted the church choir, so we were singing that glorious Anglican church music throughout our childhood. And then I was a member of the San Francisco Girls Chorus for a number of years, and caught the wave of the group’s first tours. We went to West Berlin. We sang for the Queen of England. We sang for Francois Mitterand, then president of France. We sang at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco when Geraldine Ferraro was on the ticket. There was a surge of pride around women, and the Girls Chorus was a manifestation of that.

It was a unique time for me because I felt I was participating in history. That was incredibly important to me. Later, when I started traveling more, I learned how much more that is true in other parts of the world, like Estonia, for example. Singing as a group together in community can be a way to be part of history.

You went to Yale for college, but not as a music major.

I had such intensive music training as a child that I didn’t feel I needed the formal education. But I always tell people that I am not dissing music programs! Mine was a unique family situation. At Yale, I was a literature major and continued to do private music study. After Yale, I stumbled rather quickly into a freelance music life in New York. I was sleeping on people’s couches and then serendipitously got the job as a vocalist in the Philip Glass Ensemble when I was 22.  I have been a soloist with Philip Glass ever since. On a recent world tour of his Einstein on the Beach, I was choirmaster as well as soloist. That was a very exciting experience.

You also started composing music at a young age.

Because my father was a composer, my brother and I wrote music from the time we were really tiny. And some of it is pretty hilarious. There are pieces I wrote in my teen years that I still feel good about. There is a piece I wrote for my friend, fellow alto section leader in the Girls Chorus, that I still perform.

Your compositions often are very large scale. Your Airfield Broadcasts, for example were performed with 600 musicians on the tarmac of former airfields—first in Germany and then at Crissy Field in San Francisco. It’s been called a “spatialized symphony.” How did those creations come about?

You have to know yourself and what size playground you are comfortable in. I am most comfortable in large-scale ventures, stuff that takes me three years to get to happen. It’s like a chef that has an idea and it requires an entire half of the pig to get it to taste right!

Conceptual ideas as well as music ideas come to me early in the process. In the case of the airfields project, that piece was inspired by the Tempelhof Airfield in Berlin. I walked out there and even though it was 400 meters away, I could hear a dog barking. There was an acoustic experience I had out there.  And then the epic proportions of the space, what that felt like. I imagined that I could partner with that feeling musically. It was the expansiveness of it that inspired me. Of course, I couldn’t capture that with 100 musicians, and I didn’t want to amplify it. So we ended up with 600 musicians.

While working on the Tempelhof piece, I was in San Francisco walking around Crissy Field, a park that used to be an airfield. One of my colleagues said, “Excuse me, duh. You want to do it here too. You grew up here. You have the musical relationships here.” I said, “Yeah, I guess I do.” So now I am looking all over the world for parks that were former airfields!

In 2013 you were selected to be the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, working in tandem with the music director, Valerie Sainte-Agathe. What is your role as artistic director?

Having an artistic director and a music director is a model that is used, for example, at the American Composers Orchestra, but it hasn’t really been tried with choral groups. As artistic director, I don’t work with the girls directly. Valerie is in rehearsal with them every week. My job, which is part-time, is out in the world being an ambassador for the Girls Chorus. I still live in New York and travel extensively, and I often extend my own performance touring to make a side trip to meet a children’s choir or youth choir.

"It all has to do with empowering young women in the music field. That’s one of the reasons why I took the job as artistic director."

The relationships I have developed as composer and soloist have enabled me to introduce new repertoire to the Girls Chorus. For example, Philip Glass and I arranged a piece of music especially for the girls called “Father Death Blues,” based on a text by Allen Ginsburg. And in June 2015, the Girls Chorus will go to Estonia, Finland, and Sweden, and those tours really build upon relationships with presenters and other youth choruses, co-commissions, co-presentations of concerts, and exchanges with other choruses.

I see myself as catalyzing an international community around our organization and expanding the repertoire that we do. Valerie comes from an opera background, and she is developing with the girls a very embodied sound. She is working closely with our master voice teacher, Justin Montigne, and the girls are learning about their voices as soloists and individual singers. It is really an expressive lyrical instrument that she is creating, and when you get singers to sing on their instrument in that way, then you have the whole range of nuance and it expands the kinds of repertoire and collaborations that we can do.

It’s also very important to me that we bring more women into the music field. So at the Girls Chorus we are now teaching composition and conducting, along with our regular music education programs. It all has to do with empowering young women in the music field. That’s one of the reasons why I took the job as artistic director.
The San Francisco Girls Chorus with Valerie Sainte-Agathe, music director, and Lisa Bielawa, artistic director.

Tell us about your current composing projects.

I am involved in creating "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser," an opera-in-episodes that will be released on public television and streaming media on KCET in Los Angeles. It is based on the senior essay I did at Yale about young girls who had had these visions and how they were interpreted by the men around them—like doctors, priests, or townsfolk in Salem. Were they witches, were they hysterics, what were they?

I started writing the score while an artist-in-residence at Grand Central Art Center, a division of California State University, Fullerton. My friend and very talented librettist Erik Ehn pulled a storyline together that is really operatic in scale.

The pilot episode will feature the Kronos Quartet, soloists in the major roles, and the SF Girls Chorus as the official opera chorus. Over the next two years there will be 14 ten- to 12-minute episodes filmed in different locations around the country. We will be capturing everything on film, including what’s happening behind the scenes. So audiences will get to watch us put this together and do it. The first episodes will be released March 31 on KCET. Other public television stations will probably pick it up, and it will also be streamed online.

In your travels around the world, what are developments in music that excite you?

We don’t know yet what is going to happen with the encounter between live performance and new media. I am not a tech head, but I am interested in where we are going with what we call social practice work in the visual arts that is just now making it into music. This is really about stripping away the expectations of “performance” and bringing audiences into a more direct relationship with the music. Musical flash mobs are one recent example of that.

So my piece “Chance Encounters” was presented in an open space, where people can hear it from wherever they want. You don’t set up chairs. You just have musicians playing or singing in different locations. People can walk through and leave, lie on the ground, or move around through the whole space. It is rethinking the relationship of the listener to the sounds they hear.

Choral music seems very well suited to these kinds of experiences.

Right, it’s not like you have to schlep a harp around! There are all kinds of ways to do it. At the Girls Chorus, we are mixing up different kinds of repertoire. And for some pieces, Valerie will have the girls standing around the perimeter of the performance space, or spreading out on the stage, not in rows. Sometimes she will sit down and let the chorus sing on its own, feeling the music together. Even small things like that really change the way it feels to be sitting in the audience. So I think it is a really exciting time for singing.

How has Chorus America been helpful to you?

I appreciate the way Chorus America creates a community among singers who are at every stage of their development. That does not happen that often in other fields where you are working your way from student to amateur to young professional. To have that kind of organizational community around that process is really valuable.

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