December 16, 2011

Branding the San Francisco Girls Chorus

By Mark MacNamara

The S.F. Girls Chorus and Susan McManeLast July, after the board of the San Francisco Girls Chorus announced that the contract of the artistic director, Susan McMane, would not be renewed, a great brouhaha arose. Many of the girls wept. Parents threw up their hands. An online petition asking that the board reverse its decision drew 281 signatures. “What are you thinking?” came the cry. “Why would you get rid of the person who has brought us so much success?”

McMane herself was devastated. The decision seemed to come completely out of the blue. She’d had years of glowing performance reports. Indeed, the applause has never stopped for Susan McMane. She felt she was at the very top of her game. At the gala last spring, on the eve of the secret vote that ended her tenure, there’d been no foreshadowing and yet, looking back, perhaps there was the slightest chill in the air.

When McMane got over the initial shock, she asked the board whether she might be able serve for two years beyond her contract to reach age 65, and to help find her replacement. After all, it had taken the organization two and a half years to find her. The board refused this middle road. And that was that.

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You could say it was all a tempest in a teapot. After all, there’s always a commotion when artistic directors leave. Thirty years ago, the San Francisco Boys’ Chorus went through this turmoil. Moreover, the average tenure among directors in nonprofit organizations is around six years. McMane has been with the chorus for 11.

But, four months after her termination, the tempest in the teapot has not blown over; in fact, you could say that it has now wrecked the kitchen and pushed the whole house askew.

And how did it come to this? The Girls Chorus has been riding a huge wave of success in recent years. Everyone seemed happy with “the product.” Everyone agreed on the mission. And, by all accounts, the girls were happy.

Which, it turns out, is something that didn’t seem to matter much in the final decision. No, but what did matter was the perception among some board members, administrators, and even some parents that the Girls Chorus wasn’t getting the proper recognition — and that it should be thought of, if not in the same breath, certainly in the very next breath as the city’s Symphony and Opera.

The board concluded that the Girls Chorus needed to get to the next level — for financial reasons, as well as pride — and that the only way to get there was with a new artistic director, someone with more dazzle than McMane and a household name in the greater arts community, someone who could finally bring them to the pinnacle of pinnacles.

One person with a long association in the Girls Chorus explained the board didn’t think it would be hard to find another, suitable artistic director because they are, after all, “a dime a dozen.”

Prestige and Success

Although it’s quite possible you’ve never heard of them, much less heard them sing, the San Francisco Girls Chorus has been a roaring success. This is not a group of girls singing pop in a church basement, or doing some old Whiffenpoof favorites. This is a chorus with a $2.1 million annual budget (tickets at Davies Symphony Hall run to $65), and an organization that, in 2005, opened the Kanbar Performing Arts Center, a beautifully remodeled 1912 building, which houses not only the Girls Chorus education programs and administration but several tenant arts organizations, as well. During the year, the Girls Chorus fills about 2,400 seats in its December Davies Hall concert and a respectable 350 at each of its other dates.

The Chorus performs regularly with the San Francisco Opera and the Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas raves about them. Composer John Adams had them come down to Los Angeles to sing On the Transmigration of Souls, his 9/11 memorial piece.

As for prestige, they were chosen to sing on the steps of the Capitol at President Obama’s inauguration. They’ve won two ASCAP awards for adventurous programming, the Margaret Hollis Achievement Award for Choral Excellence, and a Chorus America Award from the National Endowment of the Arts. They’ve garnered five Grammy Awards. And they were the “selected performer” at the 7th World Symposium on Choral Music at Kyoto in 2005. They’ve sung in venues from Davies to New York’s Alice Tully Hall.

“You did your country, your city, and your dynamic organization so proud tonight in Europe.” – Brian Newhouse

And the awards keep coming. In October, the Girls Chorus was a finalist in a choral competition in Manchester, England, called Let the People Sing. It was the first American chorus to sing in this competition, which the girls participated in by a telecast sponsored by American Public Media. Brian Newhouse, of APM, wrote a letter to Susan McMane praising the chorus and one of the offerings, Libby Larsen’s Womanly Song of God. Here’s an excerpt from the letter.

You could not have chosen a more persuasive and virtuosic work for this competition. It was absolutely the right choice. As soon as you began singing it, all the little noises in the judges’ room (papers, coughing, water glass, a squeaky chair) went silent. During our intermission break, one judge said that for him (as for me) your performance of the Larsen was the performance to beat throughout the rest of the evening.

You made it to the finals of a very competitive global contest. You sang passionately and knocked several European socks off at those finals. Thank you, thank you, thank you for exceeding the trust and hope I had in nominating you for this competition. You did your country, your city, and your dynamic organization so proud tonight in Europe.

Despite the praise, the second-place finish did not sit well with a few parents who were puzzled that the girls could lose to a choir from Estonia, and wondered whether McMane should have offered a more varied repertoire.

Still, most parents were delighted and it was all one more reason to wonder why on earth the board had decided to remove the artistic director, especially on the vague notion that another comparable director could be found in short order.

Intensive Training Program

S.F. Girls performing abroadWhat makes the San Francisco Girls Chorus performances even more impressive is that the chorus is an after-school program. The girls sing two hours a day, three days a week, and for seven and a half hours one Saturday a month. The 45 girls who go on tour, in an ensemble called Chorissima, perform seven to 10 stand-alone concerts a year (not including performances with the Opera and Symphony or other guest appearances with other organizations) and travel abroad biannually.

The school, which opened in 1978 in response to a request from the San Francisco Opera, has 355 students, between 5 and 18 years old. There are four levels, and then the best of the best join the Chorissima group of 12- to 18-year-olds, which does most of the performing. The tuition is $2,700 a year, including summer camp (all expenses included). Last year, the board awarded $115,000 in scholarships to 32 percent of the chorus members.

The Girls Chorus is one of 350 or so choruses in the greater Bay Area and stands close to the top in recognition. According to some, they are roughly on a par with Chanticleer, the 12-man professional chorus that performs some 100 concerts a year both regionally and nationally, and Kitka, a professional, eight-member women’s vocal ensemble whose music and style has Eastern European ties.

On a more worldly scale, the Girls Chorus stands a level or two below, say, the Vienna Boys Choir, a boarding school with a 500-year history, where 100 boys, split into four choirs, perform 300 concerts a year. And they are paid, though the money, about $120,000 each over several years, goes not to the boys but to the school.

Interestingly, in 2003, the Vienna choir went through its own period of adjustment, which led to the creation of a rival choir, the Opera School, where, instead of music 24/7, each student takes music classes three times a week and earns approximately $50 per concert. The money goes directly to them.

The Girls Chorus is one of 350 or so choruses in the greater Bay Area and stands close to the top in recognition.

The Opera School offers a more conventional life, and more choice. As one 11-year-old defector put it, “I used to go to the Vienna Boys’ Choir school, but I had to leave because there was never enough time to do anything other than school work and singing. I wanted to learn the guitar, but I couldn’t while I was there, so I left.”

A similar division has been developing in the Girls Chorus. Some parents are wondering whether the board, in its devotion to a prestige-seeking ideal, is aware that the competition for time is already severe and any commitments that add to the stress of meeting those demands — to get to the next level — is not a direction they wish to go. A commonly expressed opinion among those who don’t want the balance between education and performance to tip toward more performances is “This is not what we signed up for.”

It’s this sentiment that in November led a group of seven families to set up a 501(C3) nonprofit and start their own chorus, called the Young Women’s Choral Projects. Only another half-dozen families are yet aware of this move. Whether Susan McMane will be part of it is not clear, though the breakaway group welcomes that possibility. Her friends say she is considering her options and focusing as best she can on her last concert, in Davies Hall on March 25.

Behind a Curtain of Fear

Members of the S.F. Girls ChorusMany people interviewed for this article asked for anonymity — people on all sides — in part because they don’t want to ruffle the different political nests, or else they fear “retribution” against their daughters; fear that the girls might not get a certain role, or a solo, or a summer position or some other well-earned recognition.

“But are you really afraid?” I asked one parent. When you think of all the things to be afraid of these days, and considering the Girls Chorus is supposed to a tight family, fear of speaking out here seems silly and unfounded.

“But you don’t understand,” explained one worried parent. There was the sense after the meeting in September when the board set out a new vision for the Chorus that any opposition, any support of McMane, was disloyal and that it was very important to show the world that the chorus was unified and this little “messiness” should not come out in the media.

The chorus has experienced similar changes in the past, though the two other directors left of their own accord. Still, parents objected then, too, and people got over it. But this time it seems there is a more fundamental issue at stake than simply a change of artistic directors.

“My concern is more than just Susan,” Jim Meredith told me. He’s a former board member (2005–2008). “My concern is with the purview of nonprofit boards: When they start getting into artistic direction — when none of them are artists or performers themselves — then they get into trouble. In this case, the whole thing was handled badly, the board didn’t think through what they were doing, and there was no plan on how to proceed. The truth is that this board is just not accountable to anyone.”

Board Advised to Keep Their Silence

The acting president of the Girls Chorus board is Natasha Hoehn. She was in the Chorissima herself from 1985 to 1990 and has considerable experience in the nonprofit world, serving as a senior partner with California Education Partners and as executive director at the Silver Giving Foundation. She’s been a teacher, policy analyst, fund-raiser, community activist, and communicator, and ran for the San Francisco school board in 2010.

In sum, she has a reputation for “getting things done” and being impartial. During the school board race, which she lost, Laura Wentworth, director of Stanford/SFUSD Partnership, noted that Hoehn is “very data-driven in her decision making, rather than leaning toward special interests.”

Hoehn joined the chorus board in 2006, saying then that she had neither the time or nor the intent to become president. But in recent months she has taken on more of a leadership role, after the former president withdrew for health reasons. She has become the face of the board in the writing of this piece, after sending a note to other board members informing them they were in no way obligated to speak to the press.

As one put it, the board was told “to shut up.”

On the subject of McMane, Hoehn told me she could not respond to any questions because this is a personnel matter. In fact, there is some question whether one can even acknowledge a provision in the contract that forbids comment by the principals. In any case, Hoehn explained that she was bound by law, and while there certainly was another side to the story — as well as “misinformation” circulating — she could not tell the other story or correct what had been misstated.

Which leaves a tiny crevice for the bacteria of speculation to grow. Was this other-side-of-the-story serious? Had McMane committed a crime on the order of abuse or embezzlement? Privately, friends of Hoehn say, “of course, that’s not the case,” but even on background they won’t clarify the matter.

Some in the Chorus family were deeply troubled by the insinuation. “It’s that kind of innuendo that is more than diminishing,” said one parent. “It’s impugning Susan’s reputation, and then they run and hide behind a nondisparagement agreement.”

Pressed for the “other side of the story,” Hoehn said in an email, “I was not referring to any single individual or to anything that had occurred in the past, and apologize that I did not make myself clear.”

She referred me to Rhonda Nelson, an attorney who represents the Girls Chorus, though none of its individuals, and on whose advice Hoehn told the board not to deal with the press. “Yes, I said, ‘do not speak to the press,’” said Nelson, citing a state constitutional right to privacy. I explained that my questions for the board had nothing to do with McMane’s personal situation. Rather, I wanted to engage them in their notions of success, both in the abstract and for the chorus itself.

Nelson responded that the entire matter had already been described in the press and that “Susan McMane is a disgruntled employee.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked. Nelson referred to “several” articles in the press, as well as the Support Susan McMane website, which includes letters from Girls Chorus members and parents. When pressed for specific news articles that might suggest disgruntlement, Nelson finally referred to an item that appeared on Sept. 27 in SFCV.

The piece was a short Music News item (not an editorial) that recounted the story to that point and included a quote from Jim Meredith. But there was no quote from McMane, no matter how disgruntled she may have felt privately.

I asked McMane, by email, about being described as a “disgruntled employee.” She replied, like so many other characters in the drama, in a guarded, wary way: “I have loved my work at the Chorus and of course I am disappointed at the nonrenewal of my contract. However, I want to be clear that I have not instigated any of the public reaction to the Board’s decision. Board members themselves have complemented me on my professional behavior, dignity and strength in light of this unrest.”

Some parents have supported the board’s decision. Among them is Joyce Stern, who wrote this in an email: “Why replace a brilliant, universally esteemed, Grammy-winning director? I will never know, but I have to believe that the reasons are compelling. ... The Board has no specific ‘new direction’ in mind and I gather that such is not within its purview. It has launched an international search for a new artistic director who will provide exactly that vision and direction. I choose to give the Board of Directors the benefit of the doubt ... because they’ve earned my trust and because they know more and see farther than I do.”

Major Initiative to Improve the Brand

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Among the most prestigious awards the chorus has earned is a $464,000 grant from the Wallace Foundation. The purpose of the grant, given out over three years starting in 2008 (the final report is due on Feb. 1, 2012), was to help the chorus clarify its identity, recast its brand, and find ways to broaden audience appeal. The grant paid for a string of surveys and focus groups.

The information gathered has been written up as a case study, in which the chorus’ executive director, Melanie Smith, is, if you will, the chief protagonist. We view the chorus largely through her eyes, as she explains the need to correct the imbalance she and others see between education and performance:

... over time the organization’s attention had gradually shifted toward the school, which brought in more revenue, required more space, and involved a larger number of stakeholders than the Chorus. The majority of girls and families involved with the organization were connected to the Chorus School, not the performing ensemble. As the voices of the school’s stakeholders grew more numerous and more powerful, the organization began to focus more on the benefits the school provided to the girls who studied there — not just education, but also camaraderie, lifelong friendships, and fun.

While Smith appreciated the ways in which the Chorus School enriched the lives of its students, she wanted to bring the organization back to its roots by shifting SFGC’s center of gravity and its identity closer toward the performing element of the organization. “Our founder always intended our mission to be about performance,” said Smith.

There’s no question that, from the chorus’ founding in 1978, the emphasis has been on performance. That was certainly the feeling of Elizabeth Appling, the founder, who went on to become an Episcopal priest in a church outside Seattle. (She did not wish to be interviewed for this article.)

And that has been the feeling of McMane, who wrote the current chorus mission statement, along with Smith’s predecessor, the former executive director, Rachel Malan. And the case study reports complete agreement between SFGC principals (Smith and McMane) that the artistic excellence of the Chorissima is at a completely professional level. Indeed, there has been no disagreement on purpose or direction, no disagreement that great performances are the ultimate goal.

The disagreement may actually be over the organization’s success at meeting the audience development goals laid out in the Wallace Foundation study, as opposed to what you might call the “spiritual values” that define the chorus. The study reports that, after the rebranding effort, two years of audience survey data showed a modest increase in nonaffiliated classical listeners attending Girls Chorus concerts, but overall attendance remained flat. Was that enough for some board members to conclude that McMane lacked the vitality to bring the Girls Chorus a new audience?

In the end, McMane’s friends say, there was no metric to measure the effect of the close but enigmatic relationship between chorus and director. “They didn’t see the value of her humanity,” suggested a friend who asked not to be identified. “They were caught up in marketing. What they didn’t realize was that in choral singing, more than in orchestras or other ensembles, creating the kind of community to perform at this level takes years. And when you upset that process it’s not easy to replicate. Half her job is that relationship with the girls. They also didn’t take into account the effect on girls coming up through the system. The damage done will take years to fix.”

In June, following the Wallace Grant work, the board finally voted, by one account 6–5, not to renew McMane’s contract. The division finally was on the matter of timing. Some board members argued that the chorus was barely meeting its budget; donations were down and change should come slowly. Moreover, it had taken two and a half years to find McMane; the board needed to recognize the difficulty and move cautiously. Others argued that this was all the more reason to act quickly and find a new director. “Why postpone the future?” was the argument.

In the end, and this seems to be the “other side of the story,” it seems that McMane’s undoing was her lack of “sizzle” and name recognition in the wider artistic community. The conviction among her critics was that to get to the next level and to be regarded, at least in San Francisco, in the same breath as the Opera and the Symphony, the Girls Chorus needed somebody with a “wow” factor, somebody who would, on the sheer glamour of her name, bring in larger audiences.

One might wonder how the parents were represented at these meetings. They were not. One board member has a child in the chorus, but no one was included from outside the board. At one of the meetings someone asked about why that was, but no one responded. “It fell like a plop on the table,” in the words of one who was there.

Announcement of Termination Draws Tears

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“I was sitting in my car waiting for my daughter to finish rehearsal,” remembers Tamara Hicks, a psychologist and mother of two girls, one of whom “laureated” from the chorus in May. The younger has just started Chorissima. “She got in the car and told me something horrible has happened, and then burst into tears. This is a girl who cries once every four years. She’s 12. ‘What’s happened?’ I said. I couldn’t imagine. ‘Susan’s not coming back,’ she said. ‘What?’ I just assumed she must have misunderstood. They had sent out an email 10 minutes before the end of rehearsal. I missed it by a few minutes.’”

The way in which news of McMane’s departure was communicated disappointed many parents, and infuriated a few. “The whole way they handled it suggested wrongdoing,” says Hicks. It was not until the end of September, after several months of upheaval, that the board explained the entire matter to parents

That meeting itself was mildly contentious, and one person siding with the board stood up to say that the public opposition to McMane’s firing was “scary.”Throughout, board members and staff referred to the Wallace study as having been the reason for change — specifically, artistic change. “Technical excellence isn’t enough,” said one person. The need is to go “farther into the realm of expressive artistry.” said another.

“To take nothing away from the growth we have seen under Susan’s tenure,” said Elizabeth Avakian, the director of the Chorus School. “It is my personal belief, and I have high hopes, that the next artistic director will be full of more vitality, greater enthusiasm and depth, musical authority and imaginative variety that will build on the technical excellence that we presently exhibit. ...”

There was little mention at the meeting about what steps might be taken to focus on developing new audiences, or to explore or explain what hadn’t been done in previous years. “One wonders,” says Jim Meredith, “what might have happened if that [grant] money could have been spent on a high-powered PR campaign that put the girls on the Tonight Show or Oprah, or any of a number of stages where they could continue to build a national audience. Building up a local following, and local contacts, is important — remember that it was Diane Feinstein who got the chorus to the White House steps — but at the same time if you really want to widen this audience there are other ways to go about it. And first you need to understand that the ‘next level’ is not to become a world-class organization. The Chorus is already that.”

The most bizarre part of the Sept. 27 meeting was the last slide of a graphic presentation, which offered families three choices:

  • 1. I can support the board and move forward.
  • 2. I can hold my reservations and wait and see.
  • 3. I cannot support the board so I will leave the chorus and support Susan’s future.

“I was absolutely stunned that they would put the future in those terms,” one parent told me. “It was as though to say, ‘It’s our way or the highway.’ I’ve rarely heard such hubris.”

Taken together, the entire process of organizational self-examination, the drive to secure a proper brand, the decision to replace the artistic director, and then the way the process was explained — all left the board appearing to some, as one critic put it, “slipshod” and the “gang that can’t shoot straight.”

Turmoil in the Ranks of Supporters

The public relations disaster has left many parents feeling, at the least, uncertain about the future. Now, news that some parents are leaving, including those with children in Chorissima, has further undermined the organization.

There may also be an effect on financial support. Said one long-time member of the community who is cutting back on giving, “There are people who are very concerned about the way the Chorus is moving and frankly they don’t know if they can go on supporting it.”

One person who is withdrawing, an alumna, says that for years she subscribed to the concerts and brought legions of family members to Davies Hall, but hasn’t heard from the chorus since she stopped. “Did I get a phone call? I get a dozen phone calls from ACT or the Opera where I’ve bought single tickets, but not one call, no one calling to say, ‘Would you like to make your annual pledge?’ Evidently, they don’t realize that it takes years to build up a donation base and then you have to maintain it.”

Melanie Smith forcefully contradicts this doomful portrait as inaccurate. In an email she wrote:

The number of annual fundraising appeals and events has actually increased in the past three years, as has our database of patrons and supporters. Our fall appeal letters in 2009 and 2010 went to more households and brought in more contributions than in previous years. We also launched a telefunding program for lapsed donors following last year’s fall appeal letter, and will continue that effort again this year.

The question remains how one of the very best youth choruses in the country will re-create itself. A highly successful youth organization, like the San Francisco Symphony Youth Symphony, will graduate approximately 20 to 25 percent of its players into music careers. If that rule holds true for the Girls Chorus, then a clear majority of parents may not rally to the demands of an organization looking to boost artistic excellence through more rehearsal time and more concerts. The friction between this version of success and the educational/personal one is hardly settled.

“The primary audience should not be the families but the artists’ community in the Bay Area,” Hannah Appel, a member of the SFGC’s Alumnae Association, told me. “I would love those people to see the chorus as an artistic organization of the same caliber as the Symphony or the Opera. I would love to see them not as girls but as artists.”

Anne Heminger, an alum of the Chorus, responded strongly to that idea: “To suggest that high school girls should be able to perform at the same level as professional musicians who often have decades of musical training behind them is unfair to the girls, who do perform at an incredibly high level. It says to them, ‘you’re not good enough; you could be better,’ when in reality, while there is always room for a group to grow, they are doing an outstanding job.”

Some Singers Feel Their Girl-Power Is Being Threatened

Evie Hidysmith, at 12, is the youngest member of this year’s Chorissima. I asked how she took the news of McMane’s departure. She described the scene up in Healdsburg, where the girls go every July for music camp, and how the girls were called into a room. Hoehn came in and said there was an announcement and then McMane told them. She remembers that McMane took hold of her husband’s hand.

“I was devastated,” Evie says. “We all were. It was a nightmare. Because of Susan and because the chorus is like home to me. Sometimes if I’m having a bad day I wish I were there, not here. We’re all so connected. It’s like this huge, awesome girl-power.”

I asked Evie her notion of success. “For me,” she said, “success isn’t necessarily doing something well — you always hear that — but to me it’s a risk or a challenge and always moving forward any way you can. A lot of people would define it as not making a mistake, but I think even making a mistake can still be a success as long as you’re moving forward.”

“And what about success for the Girls Chorus?,” I asked. “What does that mean to you?” She thought for a while and told a story about a time last year when the level four Chorus was invited to sing early one morning for a group of doctors. The performance was in the Moscone Center, but there was some confusion over the schedule and the girls had to begin the concert with only four people in the hall and three of them were not paying any attention.

“We were all a little upset,” Evie said. “I mean, four people! But we went on and there was this one guy sitting at the closest table to the stage. We sang some sad and depressing song, but a very touching song. I don’t remember what it was. But his eyes were watering ... clearly he was very touched and at the end he got up and clapped and clapped. So I thought, if you’ve touched someone like that, that’s really something. Every director I’ve ever had has told me that if you touch one person in the audience, then you’ve reached your goal. As we were walking out he was smiling and giving us thumbs up, mouthing to us, ‘great job,’ ‘you’re amazing.’ That really meant a lot to me.”

As I listened to Evie Hidysmith it occurred to me that she was herself the “the next level,” and her poise and confidence were the benefits any Girls Chorus parent — or board member — would want for the girls. Perhaps the board didn’t value that enough. In the search to build an ever-brighter brand, they had missed the fact that, whether in class or performance, the San Francisco Girls Chorus is less about what can be drawn out of the children than what can be sown in.

Here’s a compression of what another parent told me about their idea of success for the Chorus. “It’s about building character, helping young women strive for excellence, giving them the tools with which to achieve and sometimes achieve more than they could be expected to achieve. But for me it’s never been associated with performance or awards. That’s not what this is or should be. It’s about building opportunities, about giving them ways to find purpose and fulfillment.”

“I’ll tell you why this is all such a big deal,” says Daria D’Andrea, a Girls Chorus mother. “It’s a big deal because here’s an organization training girls to recognize achievement, and then we’re treating someone who has achieved like dirt. What’s the point if this cabal can be so disrespectful to a woman who has done the very things we say we hold dear? It’s not just a matter of changing directors, it’s how they did it. I would expect better.”

Vocal Splendor Experienced in Japan

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In August 2005, the San Francisco Girls Chorus represented the U.S. at a world choral symposium in Kyoto, Japan. Those invited, approximately one from each continent, are among the best in the world. Suffice it to say, this was a high honor.

It is one of McMane’s fondest memories in her 11 years, facing those 40 girls and young women of Chorissima in the Kyoto hall, all 800 seats filled, singing Libby Larsen’s Womanly Song of God, a virtuosic six-minute piece, full of rhythmic and melodic intricacies. It’s the piece that captivated the judges at the BBC competition.

The girls were particularly fine that night, and the effect was stilling, inspiring, and touching all at the same time. Touching because this piece is such a celebration of women’s strength and beauty. And as she was directing it, it occurred to her that the music held a power to make a social statement to a world that doesn’t always see women as strong.

As the piece went on and McMane led the girls through its emotional nuances, she herself became lost in the passion and intensity of the singing and the complete joy on the children’s faces. Breathtaking, she thought, and she felt as if she were lifted off the podium, much as the girls themselves felt, beyond awareness of place and time, swept up into something greater than themselves, beyond personal identity. As the moment subsided, what McMane will always remember is that portrait of youth and exuberance, that passion for life, the beauty of purpose, not tainted by anything, no filters, no distance — no hope, no fear — a truly transcendent moment. Above all, perhaps, the feeling shared by conductor and singers, and also the audience, of being utterly, unalterably free.

And so what is this all really about? It’s about how fame is ever more like a commodity, a derivative that you can buy and then turn to profit. It’s about misunderstanding the difference between amateur and professional singers, between the professional lives of career musicians and the private lives of young women.

As you think about it, you realize that Susan McMane’s gift, and the reason the teapot exploded, was that she and the girls share a very private bond, based on trust and ritual and nuance, qualities well beyond the hearing of some board members, administrators, and even parents.

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.