New Classical Tracks: Heaven and Earth

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
April 19, 2010
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St. Paul, Minn. — After listening to this new release with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, a colleague told me, "It's like listening to the surface of glass -- smooth, perfect, yet very identifiable." This professional-level ensemble of 41 young girls between the ages of 12 and 17 is incredibly polished, and their new recording, "Heaven and Earth," is filled with exciting, challenging contemporary repertoire.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus, founded in 1978, is an internationally acclaimed center for performance and education for young women. More than 300 singers from all over the Bay Area take part in what's considered "a model in the country for training girls' voices." Each year this choir tours internationally and performs at various prestigious events. Last year they marked their 30th anniversary by performing on stage at the swearing-in of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., and they made their New York debut at Lincoln Center. Artistic Director Susan McMane leads this three-time Grammy Award-winning ensemble.

"Heaven and Earth," is a double CD set featuring 20th and 21st century music for treble voices. As the title implies, the contents are both sacred and secular. The first disc, titled "Heaven," displays the sacred side of this collection. British composer Benjamin Britten's Missa Brevis in D is at the heart of this disc. This work was written to honor George Malcolm when he retired as director of the Westminster Cathedral Choir in 1959. The bright, confident sound Malcolm asked of his singers is captured beautifully in this performance by the San Francisco Girls Chorus. The centerpiece of Britten's Missa Brevis is the Sanctus, which opens with a set of pealing bell-like phrases representing the voices of heavenly angels.

This first CD closes out with a beautiful suite of modern settings of the "Ave Maria," the first of which was written by Canadian composer David MacIntyre. The composer was inspired by a small group of devout children and adults in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina who claimed they were visited daily by the Virgin Mary. MacIntyre believed the visitations were a form of celebration. The San Francisco Girls Chorus is divided into six parts as they joyfully repeat just two words, "Ave," and "Maria (Hail Mary)."

The secular side of this two CD collection is titled "Earth." This CD features several works commissioned by the San Francisco Girls Chorus including Dwight Okamura's arrangement of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." Okamura's jazzy arrangement uses cello, piano and four-part chorus.

Gabriela Lena Frank also explores her Peruvian heritage in "Two Mountain Songs," commissioned by this ensemble. The texts in the mountain songs originated from poetry by descendants of the Incas and were collected by Peruvian writer and folklorist Jose Maria Arguedas. In the second song titled "Picaflor Esmeralda (Emerald Hummingbird)," Frank uses unusual accents at the end of phrases to mimic the sound of Andean panpipes.

Listening to the various contemporary works on "Heaven and Earth," with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, I agree:, their sound is smooth and tight, yet unique. These young women perform all styles of music with precision, passion, and a sense of playfulness.

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