At the end of this season Elizabeth Avakian will retire from the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC). She joined the SFGC faculty in 1983, both teaching and serving as the School Director. She currently conducts the most advanced SFGC performing ensemble, Level IV. Her over 30 years of service to SFGC and, as a consequence, to the cultural life of the City of San Francisco was honored this afternoon in the rotunda of the San Francisco City Hall. A proclamation from Mayor Ed Lee was read aloud recognizing her achievements.
However, the real essence of those achievements was honored through the presence of the SFGC performers led by Music Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe. Through the many years of performances by what is now generations of singers, Avakian left her legacy to our city, and the city was kind enough to offer its thanks in return. Still, listening to those voices under that rotunda, one had to wonder whether one of Avakian’s greatest contributions may have been preparing her charges to sing under the most adverse conditions. City Hall is one of those places in which signal barely has a fighting chance over noise. Those who follow the political news know that this is true metaphorically; but under that rotunda, the very core of City Hall’s physical structure, it is just as true literally.
It is overlooked that the success of any choral ensemble, regardless of repertoire or the age of the vocalists, depends heavily on the ability of every member to listen to the others. This afternoon that meant listening through the ambient noise of wedding parties, politicians doing whatever it is they do, and people who just happened to be there (almost all of whom seemed to have the phones in tow). In the midst of all this, one could still relish the crystalline harmonies of the SFGC voices. Sainte-Agathe was wise to avoid any sophisticated counterpoint, sticking instead to homophony and simple canon structures. Still, it was inevitable that the highest tones should fill the space while the lower ones tended to get lost. Nevertheless, there was always a certainty in the intervallic relations that came to the surface and rose to the covering dome. Vowels and consonants may have been swallowed up by the cavernous space (meaning that it was not always clear what language was being sung); but the sonorities themselves could not fail to entice even the most casual listener.
That kind of performing does not arise simply from meticulous attention to every note in the score. Rather, it comes from a recognition that the sound itself matters above all else. Once sonority has been established, how the sonority serves the expression of text should follow naturally. Avakian trained her charges well. Now that she has been duly honored, we can go back to the more conventional concert conditions for further enjoyment of the SFGC talents.