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Valérie Sainte-Agathe Keeps the SF Girls Chorus Sounding Fresh and Looking Forward

December 2, 2019

The annual holiday concert of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, now in its 41st year, has long heralded the holidays in youthfully energetic fashion. Valérie Sainte-Agathe, the ensemble’s artistic director, assures that this year’s offering will more than ever showcase the elevated level of technique and expanded repertoire which the multi-Grammy-winning SFGC has achieved since she joined the previous artistic director, Lisa Bielawa, as music director, in 2013. The evening at Davies Hall on Dec. 16 will showcase both contemporary music and traditional sing-alongs, and will bring collaborations with the adult male vocal ensemble Clerestory and visionary guitar-percussion duo The Living Earth Show.

It’s the continuation of a dream assignment for the 48-year-old Sainte-Agathe, who’d secured a master’s degree in management years after completing a degree in musicology and studying conducting and piano at the Consevatoire de Montpellier, in France. She’d come there as an 18-year-old, after going as far as she could with piano on her native Caribbean island of Martinique. She happened onto choral conducting at the conservatory and was later put in charge of young singers at the Montpellier National Symphony and Opera, also recording with the Montpellier National Orchestra and the Radio France Festival. In the Bay Area, she’s served as artist-in-residence for the Kronos Festival (2019), performed with DJ Spooky, and served as choir master with Taylor Mac. SFCV enjoyed an extended coffee break with her near her home in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District.

I’d imagine that the music from your childhood home in Martinique is African-influenced.

It is, and European-influenced. And me, I have origins from Europe, Africa, and also India. This is the Caribbean, and it explains a lot why I am doing so much programming [of the SFGC] around from so many places. I’ve always been impressed by the talent in Martinique, and by the warmth, color, and richness of the voices there. I think it’s connected to the language [Antillean Creole French], how the vowels are positioned: they’re placed forward.

How do the girls in the SFGC feel about you having them sing in different languages? That will include Latin, for the Dec. 16 show.

It attracts their curiosity. And it’s part of the training of a singer, if you want to interpret songs.

I noted that with the Orchestre National de Montpellier, you were the pianist for a performance of John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries. Were you familiar with Adams then?

Absolutely not. But even at the Conservatoire, I always loved the contemporary part of the repertoire. Now that I am here in San Francisco, I would love if he would write something for young singers.

After the Conservatoire, did you already want to work with a chorus?

I wanted to work with an orchestra. But that was [still] a time when your conducting teachers were telling you, that’s not a job for a woman.

How did you end up conducting a chorus?

I was rehearsing on piano, and the choir director wasn’t there, so they said, do you want to lead our rehearsal? Then I did that for 15 years. I liked bringing people together, and being able to shape the sound, like pottery.

Why did you depart Montpellier?

I wanted to create my own organization, that’s why I went back to college for that management degree. And I had to do an internship, but I wanted to do something in the U.S. My former piano teacher, Janet Landreth, wanted to have me help create a piano festival [the Odyssiad] in Fort Collins, Colorado. While I was there, I saw the announcement for the job here, after Susan McMane, the artistic director of SFGC, had left.

Did you know anything about San Francisco?

No, not at all, but I’d always heard that it was the most European city in the United States. [laughs] And it was the city of innovation. They interviewed me through Skype.

I’d imagine your energy transmitted well.

Well, it worked. Then I got an update: They’d hired two persons, me as music director, and Lisa Bielawa, an SFGC alumna, as artistic director. It worked well, because we both had very high ambitions for the girls, to put them on the professional stage.

How did you two change things up?

Our idea was that we were leading an organization training young girls’ instruments, and that we wanted to have composers interested in that instrument, not just in writing something for girls.

I believe Vivaldi had approached writing for girls that way. What happened after him?

Women went through a long time when they weren’t supposed to sing, even in church. So after you’d done, maybe, some Brahms, the repertoire wasn’t that huge.

What was it like to make composers pay attention?

Lisa had lived here long enough to have had relationships here, and also from living in New York. So she contacted friends, like Theo Bleckmann and Philip Glass. My role was to work on the girls’ vocal level.

How?

I worked on the curriculum at every level [there are seven in the SFGC]. We did a lot of Bartók. Our director of voice studies [Justin Montigne] trained both the girls and the directors at each level.

Does the pedagogy change with the age of the girl?

I’m trying more and more to have them sing as soloists, with confidence. If you know how to do that with music, you know how to do it everywhere. When they’re younger, they have nerve ... but when they become teenagers, they become self-conscious. But they also have longer phrases, they can work legato. And they listen to more composers.

How many choristers do you have? Do you build something like team spirit?

There are about 400, between 4 and 18 years of age. When they leave the chorus, they become alumnae, and a lot of them come back to become assistants to the directors at the youngest levels. Also, we have a summer camp up in Healdsburg, and they come there as counselors. It’s important for women, in particular, the need to support each other.

And that involves breaking musical stereotypes?

The common thought was that choral music, because it came from Europe and England, was the only repertoire we could do. Lisa and I wanted to bring music from nowadays, with composers who write for girls but it doesn’t have to be nice and pretty all the time. Which means the voice can be used in different ways. I really admire the Roomful of Teeth ensemble; you can do whatever you want with your voice.

Was your performing Philip Glass’s music at Carnegie Hall last year a revelation for him?

Oh, I think so. And he was so open with the girls. He asked them if they liked his music, and they asked what it was like to be a composer. It was a matter of their feeling his music; you need to let go of the mental side. [chuckles]

When you took over as artistic director, did you work certain changes?

I’m focusing more on our community, here in San Francisco. That’s why we collaborate more with Kronos, and people like The Living Earth Show. We work with the New Century Chamber Orchestra. We’ll be doing the Mahler Eighth with the San Francisco Symphony, and I want the girls to work with the San Francisco Ballet. With the SF Opera, we’re sharing the children’s part in Hansel and Gretel with the Boys Chorus.

But you’re also getting the girls around the world. You took them to England and France this summer.

They were extremely impressed with our versatility and vocal technique, which they don’t necessarily expect from a youth chorus. And our repertoire: Not everybody can do pieces by John Zorn [they performed his Columbina]. I know some of our parents were worried about our choice of contemporary music, but people don’t want to hear Americans sing music from Europe!

And your promotional literature said the trip helped inspire your choices for December’s concert. The SFGC has done excerpts from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols before; are you now doing the whole thing in a different way?

We’re sharing it with Clerestory, the men’s ensemble, which will sing the tenor and bass parts, while we sing soprano and alto. That’s not done often. And instead of having one group of girls do all the pieces, each of our pieces will be performed by a different level of the chorus, depending on the technical difficulty and the sound. Our little 4-year-olds will sing on the “Recession.”

And you have another Briton, Thomas Adès, his setting of The Fayrfax Carol.

It works for Christmas, He wrote it for mixed chorus, so we’ll have Clerestory singing with us on that.

What will The Living Earth Show do with you?

They’ll play a piece by Nicole Lizée, from Canada. The Christmas concert has always been a bit of a challenge, because you need to represent the community of the girls and their families, but I also want to take in our artist friends. So this piece is Family Sing-Along and Game Night [commissioned by The Living Earth Show].

Does that mean the audience will have to learn the music while they’re sitting there?

[laughs] Yes, if they want to sing along. But we’ll also have the regular sing-alongs: “Silent Night,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “The First Nowell.” We’ll welcome back the alumnae for that, some of them are coming from faraway.

The program also includes Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dona Nobis Pacem.

And we have Wanting Memories by [African-American composer] Ysaÿe Maria Barnwell. It’s written for women with an extremely high range. I like having a piece talking about the people that you love. And [Latvian composer] Ēriks Ešenvald’s Stars. The girls will accompany themselves on glasses, tuned with water. It’s going to be magical.

What about rest of the season, and recordings?

We just released an album at the end of September [My Outstretched Hand], the culmination of five years of work with Lisa. Aaron Jay Kernis wrote this piece which we performed with The Knights after the [2015] bombings in Paris, there’s a piece by Colin Jacobsen, and a third piece, by Lisa, with the Trinity Youth Chorus, from New York. In February of 2020, we’ll have a program with the Berkeley Ballet Theater, contemporary music by Steve Reich and Carla Kihlstedt, and a commission by Angélica Negrón, done with The Living Earth Show, about Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, from the 17th century, who helped girls and indigenous people in Mexico. The dancers will be dancing with our girls’ voices, but our girls will move, too. There’s also a piece by [Iranian composer] Sahba Aminikia, with the Amaranth Quartet.

In June?

That will be inspired by music from the Philippines. I commissioned this opera from Matthew Welch, which we’ll create next season, but we want to start with this preview. We’ll have three Filipino musicians, and the idea is to bring the community to the project. We just opened a campus at the Bayview Opera House, with a program for girls between 4 and 9 years old. They’ll be at the December concert.

Will this result in a more diverse chorus?

Yes. We’re already economically diverse; one out of three girls is on scholarship. But there are specific communities we haven’t had. Like from the Caribbean: I want more people with my hair!

Do you want to go back there some day?

I would love to. I would work with singers, gather composers, and try to find the old tunes and to make arrangements. We have the melodies, but they just sit there, they’re not kept alive enough.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.