On the road
A musical trip to the Golden Gate city
Seven local singers, including myself, traveled to San Francisco to perform at the Davies Symphony Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony, on Aug. 5.
They were part of a group of 65 singers from central and western New York who took advantage of an opportunity arranged by Andy Horn, founder of the Finger Lakes Choral Festival group that has performed major works every summer since its inception in 2003.
Horn lived in the San Francisco area for many years, during which time he was founder and director of the San Francisco City Chorus and San Francisco Choral Society, director of the San Francisco State University Chorus and Women’s Chorus, director of the Olympic Club Chorus, and professional chorister with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.
Upon his arrival in this area, Horn found a wealth of talented singers and choral groups, but most were inactive during the summer months, leaving a void that he decided to fill by creating the Finger Lakes Choral Festival.
The group has performed numerous times at the Chautauqua Institute, the Hochstein School of Music and Dance in Rochester, and notably with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at the inaugural concert at the CMAC Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua.
The Sunday afternoon concert included a 210-member chorus comprised of singers representing 30 choral groups, and the 150-member Redwood Symphony, an all-volunteer group that has earned a reputation for the challenging repertoire of work that it produces at the highest level of quality.
Taking part in the concert were Livingston County singers Ann Hasler and Vicky Rose from Avon, Sally Fox and Nancy Maxwell from Geneseo, Barbara and Harry Helwig from Dansville, and Bob Booher from West Sparta. The Helwig’s daughters Laura and Amanda, recent graduates from Dansville Central School, were also along for the trip to The City by the Bay.
Arriving on Tuesday, July 31, day trips to local sites such as Muir Woods, Sausalito, Golden Gate Park, and Fisherman’s Wharf, were enjoyed by many of the singers and their friends and family who made the trip, but time was also spent in rehearsals to fine tune the performance pieces.
These included the final chorus from Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, and two pieces by Hector Berlioz – The Shepherd’s Farewell, and his Requiem. In addition, the program included the orchestral pieces “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss, best known as the Sunrise music from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture.”
As a member of the group, I can say that one especially gratifying aspect of the experience was working with some truly gifted conductors. A chorus or orchestra may learn the notes, but the final product at that ephemeral moment in time when the paying audience expects its money’s worth comes down to the conductor’s ability to communicate and elicit precision, nuance and feeling out of so many components.
The Finger Lakes Choral Festival held a free “dress rehearsal” performance on Sunday, July 29, at the Hochstein School, conducted by Eric Townell, widely recognized as a versatile and dynamic musician who came here in 2006 to be Music Director of the Rochester Oratorio Society.
That concert, underwritten in part by Wegmans, included the Penfield Symphony Orchestra and other musicians from as far away as Binghamton and Syracuse. Townell conducted the Mendelssohn piece in San Francisco.
Conductor for the Berlioz Requiem in San Franciso was another Eric – Eric Kujawski, Redwood Symphony founder and music director, recognized as one of the foremost conductors in the Bay Area, and “known for his clear, expressive and energetic baton technique.”
Part of being a great conductor includes being able to bring such efforts to fruition while including an element of lightheartedness and fun. In the day-long Saturday rehearsal, when Townell stopped to go back and redo a section, an orchestra member asked where they were to restart, to which Townell replied, “Oh, I don’t know. Let’s take it back to 100 measures before B.”
At a seminal moment in the Requiem rehearsal, Kujawski called things to a halt, saying, “MORE! We need MORE! You, in the back row (of the percussion section), what are you doing standing there! Find something and hit it!!!” An audience member later commented that at that point she thought they might be having an earthquake.
That’s what can happen with six sets of timpani and four brass choirs.
Those FLFC members who were unable to make the trip will apparently get another chance. At the end of the Wednesday evening rehearsal, Andy Horn asked the 200+ chorus members if anybody was interested in perhaps doing Carnegie Hall next. Given his ability to make things happen, nobody considers that outside the realm of possibility.
When asked what his thoughts were on Saturday afternoon as he sat out in the empty house overseeing the final rehearsal, he replied, “I just felt sorry for all the people who won’t be there to hear it.”
West Sparta’s Bob Booher stated, “I’ve never been in a concert where the vocal performance was so close to being perfect.”