Backstage with Matthew November 28, 2017

Backstage with Matthew: Singing Through the Centuries

This Thursday, November 30, we are presenting a very special concert in the Taube Atrium at the Wilsey Center. It is the second concert of the San Francisco Opera Chorus, and will be conducted by our Chorus Director, Ian Robertson and accompanied by Associate Chorus Master Fabrizio Corona. 

Last December, the Chorus presented their first ever concert of choral music and this week they return in a fabulous program that spans the centuries from the Baroque to the present day. These are proud moments for us to celebrate the collective talents of our Regular Chorus – men and women who dedicate their careers to creating the intensely moving moments that pull us all into the sense of community on the opera stage.


A moment from last year’s Chorus Concert. Hector Berlioz: “Le Ballet des Ombres” for Chorus and Piano. 

For Ian, these concerts are a unique opportunity to explore repertoire outside of the opera canon, but also to undertake some finely detailed work that can only be done in this more chamber context: extremely nuanced work in close-harmony intonation, rhythmic complexity and unaccompanied singing (“a cappella”). All these are, as he laughs with a wry Scottish grin, facets that pervade the choral writing in John Adams’ new opera, Girls of the Golden West

Ian conducting the Chorus in the Chorus Room.
Ian conducting the Chorus in the Chorus Room.
The San Francisco Opera Chorus rehearsing for the Chorus Concert.

In putting these concerts together, Ian delves deep into his own experience but also the Web, going on maze-like journeys through YouTube, exploring new pieces, springboarding from one work to another, and looking for a breadth of styles, periods, and techniques that will challenge and, hopefully, delight everyone in the Chorus and the audience! It was through this YouTube detective work that he came across an exquisite work that will conclude the concert: “Stars” by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvald. It’s one of those choral works that immediately connects you to something very deep in the universe, but it also has a unique twist. It features an accompaniment of water glasses – 12 wine glasses that are filled with water to different pitches and played by members of the Chorus. In what must have been a sight to behold, Ian went to Home Goods in San Rafael, lined up various glasses on the shelves and tested them out for clarity and tone. It’s unclear if Ian will be allowed back into the store…

Ian Robertson demonstrates the glasses to be used in the concertIan Robertson demonstrates the glasses to be used in the concert! 

Working with Adler directing fellow Aria Umezawa, Ian is using the space of the Taube Theater to create fascinating effects. He is dividing up the Chorus into two groups (Chorus 1 and Chorus A), allowing him to create antiphonal effects in which there is an interplay of sound across the room. The Sanctus from Verdi’s Requiem will be on the program – a work that is written with such an interplay but almost never heard as such in the concert hall.

The San Francisco Opera Chorus features an incalculable wealth of experience. Two long-serving choristers spent a little time with me talking about what this concert means to them: soprano Claire Kelm who has been in the Chorus since 1999 and tenor Colby Roberts, a member since 1992. Choral singing is quite distinct from operatic chorus singing, the former being more akin to chamber music and the latter more symphonic in scale. Both Claire and Colby began their careers in the choral field, in such groups as the American Bach Soloists, Philharmonia Baroque, the Gregg Smith Singers and Theatre of Voices. Both have also sung with San Francisco Renaissance Voices, conducted by Colby’s wife Katherine McKee! Claire and Colby are still active choral singers and both have a love for the intimacy of the choral repertoire. 

Regular Choristers of the San Francisco Opera ChorusRegular Choristers of the San Francisco Opera Chorus: Claire Kelm and Colby Roberts

They talk of how opera singing is a much more dramatic, involved medium. In opera, you take energy from the audience, whereas in choral singing you take energy from other members of the ensemble. As noted by Ian, the attributes of intimate chamber singing may be different from the opera stage, but for an opera chorus to be able to excel in the choral repertoire gives huge benefit in those times when opera composers nudge into a more choral world.

Claire is most looking forward to “Stars” which is new to her, and also Verdi’s “Laudi alla Vergine Maria”, one of his Four Sacred Pieces. Colby’s favorite piece on the program is a beautiful version of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, an arrangement that I also come back to time and time again for its soaring spirit.

Ian likes to find intriguing connections to the current season, and he is featuring a few pieces by Massenet, whose Manon concluded onstage last week. One of them is a male chorus from his opera Hérodiade. It’s a chorus, the main part of which is traditionally cut from productions – it was even cut from SFO’s own recording of the opera – and so this is a unique chance not only for us the audience to hear it but also the Chorus to sing it!

It’s a demanding program to pull off – the variety, the styles, the tessituras (where the piece lies in the voice) are constantly varying and the program is not in chronological order so the Chorus must go in and out of those styles in intriguing ways. As Ian notes, there are very few opera choruses in the world who could pull off a program like this: it’s a testament to their ensemble, their experience and their complete versatility. It’s a chorus as at home in Handel’s Xerxes as they are in Messiaen’s Saint François, and that gives them the ability to take on a program of such delicacy and nuance as this.

Ian has been a pillar of the musical excellence of the Opera for 31 years, having been invited here by his predecessor Richard Bradshaw and being part of a lineage of chorus directors that includes Kurt Herbert Adler before he took on the general directorship. Ian was previously Chorus Director and Head of Music at Scottish Opera after beginning his career as a répétiteur (or accompanist) for the Edinburgh Festival and the Scottish National Orchestra. As Ian told me, his then 8-year-old daughter finished on a Friday in a Glasgow school, and was then in an elementary school in the Sunset District here on Monday morning!

Ian is a very active part of the musical fabric of the Bay Area. He has conducted some 9 titles on the podium of the War Memorial, and is also very active as Artistic Director of the San Francisco Boys Chorus

Ian at work in his studioIan at work in his studio in the Opera House.

To be able to showcase Ian and our incredible Chorus in their own program this week is a real thrill for me, and I’m so excited to hear the beautiful architecture of the Taube Atrium come to life with choral music that will soar high into the soul. 

Backstage with Matthew: A Finely Coiffed Head!
Backstage with Matthew: Sitting Side by Side