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San Francisco Girls Chorus concludes season with Eastern European selections

Igor Stravinsky conducting in Germany in 1929
Igor Stravinsky conducting in Germany in 1929
by F. Man, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Last night the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) concluded their 35th Anniversary Season at Nourse Theatre with a program entitled Rites and Passages. In spite of the comments provided in the program book by Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa and Music Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe, who also conducted, the title was a bit of a stretch. Beyond references to weddings by two of the composers, it seemed as if the program was best unified by the Eastern European roots of its three composers, Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók, both of whom cited weddings, and Bedřich Smetana.

The most ambitious work on the program was the performance of the first and third scenes from Stravinsky’s score for Bronislava Nijinska’s ballet “Les noces” (the wedding). The ballet is a fascinating juxtaposition of ritual (with both folk and religious origins) and the chaos of the human foibles of all of the participants. This was just the sort of theatrical setting the Stravinsky relished; and he originally planned a score using a large orchestra similar to the one for “The Rite of Spring.” The final version, however, brought together four vocal soloists (soprano, mezzo, tenor, and bass), mixed chorus, and a massive ensemble of unpitched and pitched percussion, the latter including four pianos.

Last night’s performance scaled down not only the amount of music being presented. Pianist Kanoko Nishi-Smith prepared an arrangement for two pianos (which she performed with Sarah Cahill) and one percussionist (Nava Dunkelman). This muted much of the shock value of the original sonorities, but it blended well with the vocal strength of the SFGC resources. The only real weakness could be found among the soloists. Soprano Ariel Estébez excellently captured the emotional intensity of the bride; but none of the other soloists, mezzo Teresa Dayrit, tenor Michael Desnoyers, and bass John Bischoff, rose to her level. This was particularly disadvantageous for some of the bizarre two-part harmonies for the male voices. Most importantly, however, Sainte-Agathe displayed a firm and confident command of Stravinsky’s rich fabric of sonorous details; and the SFGC singers were attentively with her for the full duration of the two scenes performed.

Those scenes were set in a context in which they were introduced by a set of four a cappella Russian peasant songs by Stravinsky and followed by a set of village scenes by Bartók. The Stravinsky songs were composed in 1917, the same year in which Stravinsky completed the short score for “Les noces.” (In 1954, ever one for revision to extend copyright, Stravinsky added instrumental accompaniment provided by four horns.) The songs were set for a chorus of voices all in the same register and fit nicely into the SFGC resources.

Since these are peasant songs, the words are both simple and coarse. (The last song is about planting fleas and lice in a turnip field.) However, Stravinsky’s setting is detached from this peasant context and is almost refined in its sonorities, particularly when compared with the wild abandon of “Les noces.” Last night the texts were sung in Russian, which probably did not register with much of the audience, particularly since the text sheets could not be read in the darkness of the seating area.

The Bartók scenes were performed with piano accompaniment (Susan Soehner), again supplemented with percussion. They were also performed in conjunction with choreography by Joe Goode for his Joe Goode Performance Group. The choreography had little to do with the words of the songs (which, again, could not be read during the performance). Indeed, Goode provided an English text about indecision (again, nothing to do with the songs) declaimed by the one female dancer in his company. There were also occasional efforts to provide movement instructions for the SFGC singers, but the overall effect of the performance ran the gamut from frustrating to irksome.

Much more satisfying were the three Smetana choruses that opened the program. These were sung in English with excellent diction. One could thus sit back and enjoy both the poetic language of the texts and the Slavic approach to thematic material and harmony that Smetana mastered so well. This a cappella performance presented both SFGC and Sainte-Agathe in a secure comfort zone, and it would have been nice had they spent more of their time exploring that zone.

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