SAN FRANCISCO BOYS CHORUS – WILL SING AT THE INAUGURATION OF BARACK OBAMA

An Interview with Artistic Director Ian Robertson
Joined by the San Francisco Girls Chorus, the ensemble will perform
during the swearing-in ceremony, January 20th, 2009

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

The SAN FRANCISCO BOYS CHORUS, Ian Robertson, Artistic Director; and the SAN FRANCISCO GIRLS CHORUS, Susan McMane, Artistic Director – Two of the nation’s top choral music groups – have been invited by Senator Dianne Feinstein and the joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies for President Barack Obama to perform as part of the swearing in ceremonies scheduled for Tuesday, January 20, 2009, in Washington, DC. According to Senator Feinstein, the two choruses were selected for their high level of artistic excellence, embodiment of the American spirit and promise for the future. “These two organizations provide musical training to hundreds of boys and girls every year, and have delighted audiences around the world. As a San Franciscan, I am particularly proud that these talented young people will have the opportunity to lend their voices to this historic event.”

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The San Francisco Boys Chorus. Ian Robertson, Artistic Director.
Photo, M. Farruggio

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Prior to last week’s frantic Holiday schedule I met with Ian Robertson to talk about the logistics of getting the Boys Chorus from here to there and what music was lined up for the swearing-in ceremony. The sense of honor and wonderment about how all this happened for the two choruses and for San Francisco is incredible. Mr. Robertson, also the Director of the SF Opera Chorus, was beaming with pride.

IAN: Obama wins the election and everybody thought – “Let’s put in an application to sing at the Inauguration.”

SEÁN: How did you find out about the application?

IAN: You know, people talk and say ‘you should try to sing at that and it will be good for you to drop a few notes here and there and get some support from your community, from your community leaders, be in-touch with Washington and the Inauguration committee.’ We were fortunate in having some good connections who supported us. Laterally, I had a call from the Inauguration Office, from one of the members of the staff, saying Senator Dianne Feinstein would be interested in hearing a section of music – preferably, of a patriotic nature – sung by the Boys Chorus and the Girls Chorus of San Francisco. We immediately set the wheels in motion and selected “America The Beautiful”. The boys had already learned it at camp and had been singing it at various events. The song is in a lovely 6-part arrangement that Margaret Clark my training director had discovered.

The Girls Chorus had also been called. Within 36 hours we were at their building where they have this big hall. Their sound engineer put up a couple of microphones; we rehearsed for about an hour, and then recorded this fabulous arrangement of “America The Beautiful”. By the next morning it was Fed Ex expressed to Washington – and then we didn’t hear anything for a few days. Then the call came, from the same gentleman from the Inauguration Committee, and said that everybody was raving about the recording. Their office was delighted, Dianne Feinstein was delighted, and that we were invited to be the choir singing at the Inauguration. We were to be thinking about a three-to-four minute selection of patriotic music for the actual swearing-in and also another 30-minutes of music, again of patriotic music. We were sworn to secrecy at that point because they wanted to make the official announcement in their due time about who was going to be appearing.

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Members of the SF Girls Chorus with Artistic Director Susan McMane

SEÁN: What day did you do the recording?

IAN: Thursday, the 20th of November at 4:30. The Girls Chorus had a rehearsal with their 43-member CHORISSIMA group and we brought the boys of our Concert Chorus plus some from the intermediate chorus. After it was announced that we had to maintain silence we were in constant contact with the gentleman from Washington who was talking us through when the announcement would be made. Yes, we could inform our families with the proviso that they could not speak to the press or anybody. All the families remained very closed-mouthed about the whole thing. We started having meetings about how we were going to achieve this because there was no financial help coming from Washington whatsoever – not expecting any. It was just a great honor for us to be involved and we were certainly going to fulfill that honor and request. So, we put together working parties on our board and amongst our parents and the Girls Chorus did the same.

Just before Christmas, at the time of the interview, much with what had been done with fundraising on both sides – the boys were still in the position of not being able to confirm where they would stay or how to fly to the Capitol. The Girls Chorus have fixed some residence near Washington, DC and are working with the Boys Chorus to explore chartering an aircraft and finding a donor with an aircraft who might fly them. Arranging tickets on available flights in the days leading up to the Inaugural are scattered all over the airlines, but Mr. Robertson remains positive that the problems will be resolved.

IAN: It’s been an amazing exercise in community effort, energy, excitement, and honor. Gathering the community of both choruses, putting their heads together and saying – “Have you ever had a chance like this in your life before? No! Right. We are going to do this!”

SEÁN: All together, how many will be going to the event.

IAN: We think it’s going to be 107. There are 43 girls and seven chaperones and staff. There are 43 boys – and we need more chaperones because our boys are younger.

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Members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus

SEÁN: At this point, do you have likely donor candidates with a private jet?

IAN: There are lots of leads out there as far as that is concerned. We are using resource that we have, all our contacts, to explore every possible avenue.

SEÁN: Do I need to bake something for a cake sale?

IAN: That would be lovely! People have been donating. We were singing at City Hall for the Christmas tree lighting when this splendid gentleman came up to us after the performance to congratulate us. He said, “I have very little money, but this is towards your expenditures” – and handed us a 5-dollar bill. We will, of course, recognize that and thank him for helping us on our way. In other cases, there have been bigger donations – but we are right in the middle, all in the concrete of this.

SEÁN: Just as a side note, I have not seen any of the boys on the corner lately asking me to buy a raffle ticket. And with this opportunity in view, I’m thinking – “Well? Where are they?!”

IAN: Ah, yes – that’s a separate thing called the “Benefit Drawing”. It doesn’t launch until February and runs through May or June. The important thing here is that we approach funders and sources of funding that are outside our normal area. We want to also be able to fundraise from our regular sources for our regular programs. So I think my board was clearly trying to reach out to new sources. We were very happy – once we were given official permission by the office in Washington to release the news – to see ourselves on TV, in the press and on radio. We could now use all that material to go out to further donors. I know that our board has written hundreds of letters with lots of information about where we have been appearing, where it’s being reported, etc. They are very keen on approaching new sources. Next year’s Gala is on February 28th at the St. Regis Hotel. But that is an existing item of fundraising we did not want to interfere with in terms of the on-going running of the organization.

SEÁN: If someone I know has a sock-full of cash and wants to donate it – how do they get that money to you?

IAN: Go to our website: SFBC.org. You can see our letter of invitation from Dianne Feinstein, our up-coming TV appearances, and a direct support link where you can automatically make a gift. It starts at $50 and goes up to $5,000.

SEÁN: What do you estimate to be the individual cost for everyone?

IAN: We think the whole cost of the trip will be $100,000.

SEÁN: Divided by 107 – that’s not bad.

IAN: We’re looking at seminary accommodations; I may be sleeping on a cot in a gymnasium. These boys are mostly used to touring. We tour every year. They also go away to camp for two weeks every year during the summer. We’ve got great counselors. Most of our graduates, our Alumni, become counselors at camp. They know the ropes, they’ve been through camp themselves, and they know what homesickness is like. Most of the boys who are going are tried and true, tested travelers. We were in the south of France this summer with a great bunch of chaperones. We sang at Marseilles Cathedral, Monaco Cathedral, and several other historic churches there. It was a great combination tour of high-profile performances and getting to know the local area. We were in the south, in Provence. It gave the boys an opportunity to know the countryside, the people, and the habits. In previous tours we’ve jet-hopped a little bit between cities doing major events at St. Mark’s in Venice, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In one day we did Notre Dame Cathedral and La Madeleine Church. Three years ago we were promoted by the government of China and sang at Shanghai Concert Hall. It was a complete sell-out. It brought a lot of kids. We could have done three concerts and still have been sold-out.

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[The San Francisco Boys Chorus performs at the Inauguration of SF Mayor Gavin Newsom, 11-08-08.

SEÁN: What else comes to mind for the kids’ parents? How many days will you be gone?

IAN: We’re not sure. We have a rehearsal the day before the Inauguration. We’re looking at arriving on Saturday the 17th, with Sunday being a decompress day. I doubt we can get out of Washington on the 20th. That’s the minimum. As you know, Washington is packed. It’s the busiest Inauguration that ever was. There are no hotel rooms. There is a 4-night minimum, going for a $1,000 and upwards per night.

SEÁN: From your friends, supporters and benefactors here and, possibly, their contacts in Washington – can the boys find housing from them?

IAN: We’ve discovered lots of friends in Washington and home stays are always an option. We would prefer to keep the boys altogether. We’re very experienced in touring. We know what we’re doing, how to control their energy, when to let off steam, when to eat – all in relationship to their performances. We’re very good at that. So, we want them in one big traveling party. The girls will be making their own accommodation arrangements. Our rehearsal schedule is all laid out – beginning the last week in December.

That means, starting today.

The Grammy Award-winning SAN FRANCISCO BOYS CHORUS was founded in 1948 to provide trained boy singers for the San Francisco Opera, and is regarded as a leading music organization that provides transformational life experiences for boys age 5 to 18 through education, performances, and international tours. Over 200 singers receive world-class music education at three training sites in the Bay Area. The Chorus appears at numerous civic engagements. New chorister auditions will be held on Saturday, January 10, 2009. Click here for more information: AUDITIONS, San Francisco Boys Chorus
The San Francisco Boys Chorus relys on our support. Click here for more information: Donate to the SFBC

The SAN FRANCISCO GIRLS CHORUS celebrates 30 years of extraordinary music with its 2008-2009 season. Recognized as one of the world’s most respected vocal ensembles, the SFGC has garnered three Grammy Awards and has become a regional center for choral music education and performance for girls and young women ages 7 through 18. Musicians, critics and audiences laud its level of training, performance, quality and range, passion and leadership in commissioning music for treble voices. More than 300 singers from 160 schools in 44 Bay Area cities participate in this internationally recognized program. Auditions for the San Francisco Girls Chorus are slated January 10, 2009. Click here for more information: AUDITIONS, San Francisco Girls Chorus
The San Francisco Girls Chorus relys on our support. Click here for more information: Donate to the SFGC

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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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