60TH ANNIVERSARY CONCERT – San Francisco Boys Chorus celebrates this Sunday Night at the War Memorial Opera House

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

This Sunday the San Francisco Boys Chorus celebrates its 60th Anniversary. The curtain goes up at the War Memorial Opera House at 7:30 PM. Artistic Director and Conductor Ian Robertson will lead the boys in a fantastically designed program that represents six decades of dedicated and purpose-filled work, along with celebrated and world-wide recognition of continuous artistic excellence. Guest performers include mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, baritone Christòpheren Nomura, and as pianist – Maestro Donald Runnicles. During my recent interview, Mr. Robertson ran off a copy of the Program. It begins with a rare jewel – Léo Delibes’ MESSE BRÈVE. In liturgical terms, it means you don’t have to sit through the “Credo”. In entertainment terms, its brevity allows for the complete Schubert Mass, the premiere of two new works, and songs by each of the class levels ranging from the Preparatory to the Men’s Choruses. Ms Larmore will be accompanied by Donald Runnicles. Included in her repertoire is a Japanese children’s song, Hotaru Koi (Ho, Firefly!) and the Schubert Ave Maria. Mr. Nomura will present arias from THE BARBER OF SEVILLE and DIE TOTE STADT. I’m going because of a joint collaboration between the Concert Chorus and the Men’s Chorus – a particular favorite by last turn-of-the-century Broadway-Operetta composer Victor Herbert, “I Want To Be A Prima Donna”. Click right here, right now: CITY BOX OFFICE.

Hang around the Symphony and the Opera and you will start to notice the frequency of appearances by members of both the SF Boys Chorus and SF Girls Chorus. Also notice how excellent they are. Focused, ready for action, with First Class musicianship, proud to show off their stuff in front of the best conductors in the world – Michael Tilson Thomas and Donald Runnicles. The San Francisco Boys Chorus was created 60 years ago to serve the San Francisco Opera. Their relationship obviously works. The Boys work to pay their tuition by selling raffle tickets. Buy a ticket, you might be on the beaches of Hawaii. Either way, it makes The City a whole lot nicer. The parents must participate whole heartedly in all of this, as well as miles of chauffeuring and chaperoning and piles of sheet music. From what I saw at a recent rehearsal – that seemed to be with a great deal of enthusiastic understanding on the part of everybody. I was asked if was an Alumnus. I wish. For ten days this coming July, the Concert Chorus is headed for France. Among the selected venues – the cathedrals at Marseille and Monaco. Really nice. In September, they will be auditioning new members. This is a Good Idea. Get your kid ready now.

It was my pleasure to meet with the boys’ conductor, Ian Robertson, in his office at the War Memorial. On his desk was a 78 rpm recording – protected with its original brown paper sleeve – by a then group of boys known as the San Francisco Boys Chorus. It’s been a long time since that hard disc was pressed. This year, the boys are looking to their next CD project. Sunday night they will be singing at the War Memorial Opera House. It’s a significant event in the history and cultural heritage of San Francisco.

Ian: It’s a celebration of our diversity. Not only the ethnic diversity in our population of performers, but in the repertoire we are singing. We are very delighted to have Donald Runnicles playing for Jenny Larmore. He has been very encouraging of the Boys Chorus over the years. He invited them to sing MAHLER’S 3RD Symphony at the 2006 GRAND TETON MUSIC FESTIVAL and also last year, THE CARMINA BURANA. We’ve listed our history with the SAN FRANCISCO OPERA. It’s about 200 operas. Actually, one of our alumnus was looking at the web site and said, “I think you’ve missed something there.” So, it’s not exhaustive.

Seán: How long have you been the conductor of the Boys Chorus?

Ian: Since 1996.

Seán: How did that come about?

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THE LITTLE PRINCE – Eugene Brancoveanu (The Pilot) and Members of San Francisco Girls Chorus and San Francisco Boys Chorus. Photo, Kristen Loken

Ian: I had always been in charge of bringing the children’s choruses into the opera because I’m the Chorus Director here. I got to know the Boys Chorus very well. After a few years, their current Board of Directors president said, “We’re changing over. Would you be interested?” I said I would be, in an interim capacity. They are keen on supporting the Youth Program. Not just that, but it was a great challenge for me. Although over the years I had been musically involved with children in Scotland, this was like learning how to run and build a non-profit youth organization in America! That is a whole new learning process and a fascinating challenge to me, other than the fact I just adore the repertoire – for boy trebles especially. We developed the Graduate Chorale for when their voices change – when they become tenors and basses. It opens up all the 4-part repertoire from redneck to Renaissance. So, that was a good addition to our program and we’ve had a lot of good response.

Seán: Does the Graduate Chorale give separate concerts?

Ian: They are part of our main concerts. Sometimes we have men only singing. The Anniversary program is rather large, so we couldn’t add that element. But they will be singing with us in the Schubert Mass and several other pieces.

Seán: I saw the boys in CARMEN, the MAHLER 8th, TANNHAÜSER, and THE MAGIC FLUTE. How does the boy get selected to be in these productions?

Ian: The opera – for the boys and the families – is a big commitment. First, we need to establish with our parent-body that they are prepared to be committed to the opera when it comes along. We just did THE LITTLE PRINCE in Berkeley. A solid six weeks of three to four nights a week. The parents need to latch-on to that and say “Yes, we will help with carpooling, chaperoning, with their homework” so that the boys are not stressed-out with the multitude of responsibilities. The boys are selected on the basis of their musicianship, their voice, their “citizenship” and what we think the commitment of the family is going to be – because it is a major responsibility. It has been 60 years of solid relationship with the opera company. We are committed 100% to make sure it works. We have two operas coming up in the fall – BORIS GODUNOV and LA BOHÈME. After this concert, we’re going to summer camp for nearly two weeks up in Healdsburg. We’ll prepare all the stuff for the fall season.

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SF OPERA’S TANNHAÜSER – with SF Boys Chorus and (background) SF Girls Chorus

Seán: I love Healdsburg! Where will you stay?

Ian: At the RIO LINDO ADVENTIST ACADEMY , three miles up behind Healdsburg. It’s a beautiful campus and with a vegetarian kitchen. They have a big music department, so there are lots of rooms – coaching rooms, two big choral rooms. It’s the Concert boys and the next level, the Intermediate boys, who go to camp. We will have 80 boys going.

Seán: That is amazing. The typical boys – those who rise to that level of involvement with the Chorus – do they start as young children?

Ian: Yes. A lot of our senior boys started in what we call the Junior Apprentice and the Prep Chorus. For those in kindergarten, age 5, it’s fun and games with music once a week. Then they move into the Junior Apprentices, which starts them on a more disciplined approach. Then on to the Apprentice Chorus which meets twice a week and is really disciplined. Then Intermediate and Concert Chorus.

Seán: As you know, when I attended a rehearsal a couple of weeks ago I also visited every one of the classes. The little boys, of course, were being sort of inattentive – but so were the older ones. Then comes this music! And it’s just “boys will be boys”.

Ian: The importance I attach to all of that is simply a kind of inner burning energy that we all have. When you get them really focused into the music it just comes alive. You have to work your way around that. You can do tough discipline, but basically we want the boys to enjoy the music, the singing, the camaraderie, and to express their opinions. Sometimes they’re a little unfocused.

Seán: How long does it take from developing basic reading skills to actually picking up a piece of music and being able to sing it?

Ian: It varies with the individual boy and their talents. When they get to the Concert Chorus level they are expected to read music right away. We do a very quick sight reading but then the second read-through is no longer sight reading – they have to be on top of it. It may take a little going over, but basically they can read very quickly.

Seán: Do they take their skills for granted? When they get to that level is it just something they do?

Ian: It’s something they do. Our concert schedule is so heavy that we don’t have time to spoon-feed reading skills. They are expected to know that. If they find themselves deficient, they can improve very quickly with additional courses.

Seán: Are you the person they “dread the most” – the one they really-really have to be ready to face?

Ian: Well, young boys need a sense of discipline in their life – and in their mental life. They need someone who says, “Know this by Wednesday. I expect you to know this by Wednesday.” And they know they will be tested on Wednesday. I don’t want to appear to be a monster, but I am the head of their discipline, their learning discipline.

Seán: When specific work becomes available – such as the San Francisco Symphony’s production of the Mahler 8th, which only has so many positions available for boys chorus – how are the boys chosen? Is it just automatic that the best get placed? How is it determined?

Ian: It’s competitive – in the merit of the boy’s musicianship, voice, citizenship, and family ability to do the schedule. In that order.

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SF Opera’s CARMEN – with SF Boys Chorus & SF Girls Chorus

Seán: What do the people at the Symphony expect at an audition? What must the boy be prepared to demonstrate?

Ian: The Symphony doesn’t do the audition. They would come to us and say, “Can you give us 24 boys?” Unless it’s a solo role. Both the Opera and the Symphony approach all the Bay Area children’s choruses and say they are holding auditions for certain solo roles – such as the “Magic Flute” boys. They were picked from 24 boys who auditioned from all over the Bay Area. So, in a sense, that’s out of my hands. I prepare them.

Seán: What did you do to prepare them?

Ian: We taught them two of the trios from The Magic Flute. We drilled them in staging, with presentation, how to make a good impression at an audition, projection, memorization, confidence.

Seán: If asked, what would they sing as a solo?

Ian: It depends on what is in our repertoire at the given point. But I can isolate sections of one of our choral pieces. For a while we had the Fauré Requiem – so, the “Pie Jesu” was the perfect vehicle. The twenty-four boys were from groups all over the Bay Area.

Seán: When they’re at that point, do the boys have solos they would prefer to do to show off their skills?

Ian: Sure, they usually have something. But it’s generally from the repertoire we use as the Boys Chorus because that is what they feel most comfortable with, they’ve been drilled in it, they know it. Occasionally a boy will say, “But I’d rather sing that” and I’ll say, “OK, but I want to hear it.” I’m not letting them come to the Symphony or the Opera to audition for a solo role if they can’t pass muster.

Seán: Tell me about the selling of raffle tickets. I always buy a couple when I see that Chorus kid on the corner – especially when I’ve see them working my neighborhood, the Castro District – because I know it goes toward their tuition and benefits every other boy. How do you decide where the boys are going to locate themselves?

Ian: It’s an amazing and long-established process. What we call the “Benefit Drawing” became a feature of our fund-raising a long time ago. It’s an annual event a lot of the boys love and some don’t like so much. What is does – it teaches them to use their minds, to think creatively, to build confidence, and to know that they’re supporting the organization. Not only that, they’re supporting themselves. After a certain threshold of tickets get sold, fifty-percent of everything they collect can be used by the parents for their tuition fees, camp fees, or tour fees. So, it’s in their own interests. Some boys can eliminate their entire tuition bill by selling enough tickets. That is the motivation. I never had to do that when I was a boy. This is new to me in America – boys standing on street corners selling tickets. And I say, “OK, let me examine this.” It became such a part of the Boys Chorus over the years – before my time – and came to represent a kind of personal challenge. I was very encouraged to know they could lighten their own financial burden by selling tickets. There is a committee that runs it. They are very supportive of the boys and weekly issue a list of suitable venues.

Seán: What if five boys show up on one corner? [We both laughed at that one.]

Ian: Well, they work it out – you stand on this corner, I’ll stand on that corner.

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CHRISTÒPHEREN NOMURA, Baritone & JENNIFER LARMORE, Mezzo-Soprano

Seán: What if endowments came in and you didn’t need to do that anymore? Would there be another way of building that kind of strength in their character and personality, developing their goals, etc?

Ian: That’s already built into the program. Musically, we encourage the boys to sing solo. During practically every rehearsal I will say, “Any volunteers to sing solo?” The last thing I want to do is to get the young man who maybe feels too shy to audition on his own or to sing a part on his own. But then he sees the other boys say, “Yeah, I’ll do it” – because we always get volunteers – and up they go to sing their bit. Then back to the shy ones. I give them another chance, “Anybody else?” Then they raise their hand, “Yeah, I’ll have a go.” All of a sudden – it’s part of life, to be standing up there – on your own, singing on your own, or with one or two others. So, they’ve learned something from that. “This isn’t as bad as I thought.”

Seán: What is the most gratifying thing for you after a performance?

Ian: It’s under performance conditions that the young boys can actually achieve. It’s the old story – “It’s more than the sum of its parts.” It’s a kind of internal dynamic. When you get on the stage and there’s an audience out there – it’s just a just a trust. You know what that means, I know what that means. In musical terms, it’s like a beauty and an inspiration – beyond anything I had hoped for. There’s always more work. But when it does work, I just think, “I never thought for a moment – in my wildest dreams – they were capable of that!” I know they’re capable, I know there’s a dynamic. The other night we were rehearsing parts of the Schubert Mass for this concert. And some of the sounds – I just thought, “I don’t believe they just did that.” It was so good. Then there are some other places where I’m thinking, “What the hell was that?!” Then it’s the contemporary pieces. If you say, “This piece is really difficult” – you are starting off on the wrong foot with the boys. It’s difficult to me, because I’m conditioned over all these years to realize when music is damned hard. So, you just present them with it and they go, “What’s the big deal? Am I supposed to find this hard?” It may be hard to find the pitches, the notes – but they don’t see it as an obstacle. They just assimilate it. That’s not to say it hasn’t been difficult to do. I commissioned Éric Marty, one of our alumni, to do a piece for the program. [C. elegans (Cænorhabditis elegans)] In all my years – it is the hardest piece we have ever come across. I don’t tell the boys that. It’s based upon a list of genomes and completely off the wall. The music is described as, “surrealistic, exotic, quirky, and deliciously unstable”.

Seán: Oh, no! How could you resist it? Will they sing it at a private party?

Ian: We do private parties. We get lots of requests for bookings. We stage our numbers, we choreograph them. And the boys love it! It frees up another side of their brain.

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THE SAN FRANCISCO BOYS CHORUS

Free up your weekend calendar to attend the San Francisco Boys Chorus 60th Anniversary Concert. To order tickets on-line: CITY BOX OFFICE

Auditions are being held this September. The process is informal and lasts about ten minutes. Boys are asked to sing a song of their choice, clap in time to rhythm, and match a pitch played on the piano. Boys are invited to join the Chorus on a three-month probationary period.
For further information: AUDITIONS

Listen to samples from the SF Boys Chorus CD, “WE’RE ON OUR WAY”. Included in the collection: Handel’s Coronation Anthem No. 1, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, 6 songs from Haydn’s “Missa Brevis St. Joannis De Deo”, and more.

Add these recordings to your Classical Library:
CD – MOVING ON
CD – DEAD MAN WALKING. Composed by Jack Heggie, recorded at the War Memorial Opera House, featuring members of the SF Boys Chorus.
CD – VINCE GUARALDI WITH THE SAN FRANCISCO BOYS CHORUS. Originally released as an LP, the collection includes: Blowin’ In The Wind, Eleanor Rigby, and My Little Drum.

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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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