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S.F. Girls Chorus Alumna Returns as Artistic Director

February 19, 2013

Lisa BielawaOne of the busiest, most adventurous composers on two continents, Lisa Bielawa, is returning to her hometown as the new Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

Valerie Sainte-Agathe, formerly of France's Montpellier National Symphony and Opera, will serve as SFGC Music Director and Principal Conductor. The two appointments fill leadership positions left vacant a year ago when Artistic Director Susan McMane left the organization.

The board of the five-time Grammy Award-winning Girls Chorus announced that Bielawa will oversee the artistic vision and programming of the chorus, and forge partnerships with other organizations and artists. The announcement says she will hold the primary responsibility for long-range artistic planning and programming for specific performances, collaborations, tours and recordings for Chorissima, the premier performing ensemble of the chorus.

Sainte-Agathe will conduct performances, develop the musicianship of its young artists focusing on vocal technique, music theory, and history, as well as teaching and preparing repertoire for performances. She will work collaboratively with Bielawa in planning concerts, collaborations, tours, and recordings for Chorissima.

Bielawa, an alumna of SFGC, was born in San Francisco. Her father is composer and retired San Francisco State music professor Herbert Bielawa. Beginning in early childhood, she learned piano, voice, and violin, in addition to writing music. Her career as a composer began while still a chorus member: "I'd write cabaret songs and pieces for the San Francisco Girls Chorus, but it never felt entirely serious."

Valerie Sainte-Agathe Bielawa received a degree in literature from Yale University, moved to New York, and became an active participant in the city's musical life. She began touring with the Philip Glass Ensemble in 1992, and in 1997 co-founded — with Glass and Eleonor Sandresky — the MATA Festival (the acronym stands for Music at the Anthology), which celebrates the work of young composers. She said of her appointment:

In addition to composing, and touring and performing as a vocalist, I have always looked for ways to create musical community, both through specific projects and by working within organizations. Now that the MATA Festival is thriving under the leadership of a new generation of young composer directors, and now that my tenure as composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project has ended, I am delighted to begin a new relationship with an organization that has been part of my musical life from the very beginning.

Many of you are collaborators and colleagues — are you a composer who has written music for treble voices? Are you a presenter or are you in a group, and have ideas for projects in partnership with an adventurous group of superb young singers? Are you a commissioner who would like to discuss the creation of new work by interesting composers for young women's voices? I would love to hear from you, and am delighted to begin this journey by reaching out to you — my tremendously talented and variegated community — in this new role.

As vocalist, Bielawa has toured and recorded with the early music group Pomerium, sung in the professional chorus of the New York Philharmonic, and with Paul McCartney at Carnegie Hall. As a solo vocalist she has performed in numerous composer-led projects, including John Zorn's Shir Ha-shirim with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, and with Toby Twining in multiple appearances of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion.

Girls Chorus members in front of their Kanbar Hall headquarters She also served as choirmaster for the current touring production of Einstein on the Beach, and assisted Paul Simon with the development of his Broadway musical Capeman.

Bielawa is a 2009 Rome Prize winner in Musical Composition, a winner of the Dale Warland national competition, and the 1998 Morton Gould ASCAP Young Composers Award for her piece Spinning Flax, commissioned by SFGC. Her spring 2013 season includes New York performances of her major choral work Lamentations for a City by Cantori New York, and the world premiere of Such Another Sleep, for the Academic Male Voice Choir of Helsinki with the composer as soloist.

She has been working recently on Airfield Broadcasts, two massive works for more than 600 musicians, to be premiered on the tarmac of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin in May, and at Crissy Field in San Francisco in October. See next item for her American Pianists Association commission.

A native of Martinique, Sainte-Agathe served as Musical Director for the Junior Opera and Young Singers program of the Montpellier National Symphony and Opera in Montpellier, France from 1998 through 2011. In this capacity she trained young singers for opera and symphony concerts and productions, and also prepared choruses for the International Radio France Festival. From 1996-1998 she served as pianist for the Montpellier National Orchestra and Opera. Prior to that, she served as rehearsal pianist and vocal coach for the Fort Collins Opera in Colorado.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].