November 23, 2020
It was an inspired match. Ars Minerva, the intrepid San Francisco company committed to staging neglected Baroque performance works, and the invaluable San Francisco Girls Chorus would join forces on Juditha Triumphans (1716), a rarely heard Vivaldi oratorio based on the Biblical heroine Judith and composed for an all-female ensemble. Then the pandemic threw its viral wrench into the works.
With a stage production of Juditha pushed off to a who-knows-when future, the collaborators rolled up their respective sleeves to mount a digital sampler. The hour-long program premiered Friday, Nov. 20, and remains available on the SF Girls Chorus website.
As it happened, the Vivaldi got outshone. In a trio of fine performances, gifted and impressively self-possessed chorus members linked up in duets by the female composers Barbara Strozzi (1619–1677) and Isabella Leonarda (1620 – 1704).
Those numbers resonated in multiple, gratifying ways. They showcased the talent, discipline, and promising arcs of the young singers. They served as gratifying affirmation of women’s artistry across the centuries. And as a technical accomplishment — the girls were isolated from each other, singing to prerecorded accompaniment in separate locations — the execution was a tribute to digital deftness and aplomb.
The evening began with an earnest onscreen conversation between Valérie Sainte-Agathe and Céline Ricci, artistic directors, respectively, of SF Girls Chorus and Ars Minerva. They were subsequently joined by Jolle Greenleaf, of New York-based TENET Vocal Artists. Greenleaf and her colleagues coached and conducted a remote master class with Girls Chorus members.
Some informative remarks about Vivaldi, singing, and the nuts-and-bolts of creating the program notwithstanding, the lengthy all-talk segment was a static way to begin. Some of the Vivaldi excerpts that followed should have been used up front. More music and a lot less talk would have made a much more effective overture.
When the girls got their turn, they made the most of it, albeit in sometimes very brief extracts of Vivaldi arias and choruses. As a digital emblem, a screenful of 30 singers, holding candles and/or strewing flower petals, was lovely to hear and see. The voices synced up perfectly and blended virtually.
The young women also spoke of their own feelings about Juditha, both the character’s patriotic act of slaying Holofernes for the good of her community and the origins of the oratorio, which Vivaldi wrote for the residents of an orphanage. Several of Girls Chorus members compared the restrictions of COVID-19 quarantine to their imagined experience of an orphanage.
In the program’s revivifying final section, the duet teams took over, with the steady Adam Cockerham accompanying on theorbo. While all three pairs sang well, soprano Audrey Johnson and mezzo Kelsey Shei Greenberg stood out in Strozzi’s “Mercé di voi.” The cohesion and interplay of their arresting voices, all the more remarkable since it was happening remotely, was at once liquidly smooth and full of dramatic presence.
Several commenters on the chat panel of the screen had it right. “This song slaps,” wrote one. “This is banging,” said another. Strozzi was trending, thanks to these fully committed singers.
The Leonarda number that followed got a textured, propulsive reading from mezzos Sadie Habas and Isabel Yang. Listeners typed in more capital-letter praise. If it’s possible to read a standing ovation, that’s what these deserving singers got.
At a time when hope seems more necessary than ever, young artists embody it. In their singing voices, spoken testimony, and the light in their faces, the SF Girls Chorus triumphed over the odds. Even as audiences anticipate a full-on performance of Juditha Triumphans, they can look farther ahead, to the bright futures of all sorts for these impassioned young women.