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SF Girls Chorus: Postcard from an Alum

This week’s postcard comes from soprano and SFGC alum Michele Kennedy. Michele will be holding a masterclass with our Premier Ensemble singers this week, and will be working with Levels I and III of the Chorus School in the Spring. She was featured as soprano soloist at SFGC’s annual holiday performance at Davies Symphony Hall in 2018, and has recently performed around the country at Carnegie Hall, Bard Summerscape, Getty Museum, Lincoln Center, Powell Symphony Hall, and Washington National Cathedral.

Hello, SFGC Family! I’m so honored to share this postcard with you all.

My first exposure to music was hearing my Grandfather play Bach on the piano as a little girl. He played every morning, and I was mesmerized by the sound. It inspired me to start taking piano lessons at age 3 - I remember sitting at our upright Yamaha and playing for hours on end. I was so short that my feet didn’t even touch the ground!

Before long, my piano practicing sessions led me to singing. Red River Valley and Dona Nobis Pacem were two early pieces that I ended up singing along to the piano parts… I couldn’t resist those sweet melodies. And that was no secret to my parents.

Enter the SF Girls Chorus. At age 7, I auditioned with an a cappella rendition of We Three Kings: I remember being very nervous and excited! I was invited to join Level III and began rehearsals the following week.

At first I was so shy that I could barely look up at the conductor. My parents said that our opening concert was a good challenge for me, because I had to learn to look up for nearly 90 minutes straight!

Over time our weekly rehearsals, music theory lessons, and rigorous concert schedule helped me to gain confidence, and I gradually became more at home on stage. By age 11, I was singing in Premier Ensemble (known then as "Chorissima"): here’s a photo from that first year. Don’t you just love those stylish berets?

Premier Ensemble (known then as "Chorissima") in concert, 1991

While I was still short enough to play a child on stage, I sang children’s roles at San Francisco Opera. I recall seeing Samuel Ramey backstage when he sang the lead role in Attila the Hun in 1991: such a powerful singer, and an elegant man. I had never seen dramatic make-up before, and when I met him and shook his hand on opening night, he looked so fierce! Thankfully, he’s as warm and friendly as he is talented. Last season, I had the pleasure of singing at the War Memorial Opera House for the first time since I sang my last children’s role at age 13 in the women’s ensemble for Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with San Francisco Ballet. And that majestic hall was as beautiful as ever.

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Singing in "Chorissima" taught me so much. We performed regularly all over the Bay Area, and we toured overseas to Shanghai, China and Taipei, Taiwan as well. It was fascinating to meet other youth choirs abroad and to be immersed in different cultural settings. My mother and her family had lived in China when she was a girl - my grandparents spent decades there and loved the culture - so it was extra meaningful to my family that I got to visit, and to sing in Mandarin for the first time! I’m very grateful for those years spent performing in high school, as they formed the foundation for my career to come. I went on to study Music and Political Science as an undergraduate at Yale University, where I could take voice lessons and sing in productions at the Yale School of Music. It was a wonderful education that deepened my skills and sense of possibility as a musician. I also formed many lasting relationships in college that helped to support me when I moved to New York City to pursue my dream of becoming a professional singer. Initially I built my career on ensemble singing - there’s a wealth of great chamber and choral music in NYC! If you are hard-working and dedicated, over time you can become very busy with concert work. So I sang everything from a cappella vocal music in small duos and trios to chamber ensembles of anywhere from 8 to 14 singers. My love of early music found many outlets: Hildegard von Bingen chants, Renaissance polyphony, and especially, Baroque music. After some years of performing in ensembles of all sizes, I gained confidence and started to pursue a solo career. I became a specialist in oratorio works by Bach and Handel, and in Italian and German Baroque music. My first solo recital was with the Folger Consort in Washington, DC - a delightful program of Monteverdi, Francesca Caccini, and Barbara Strozzi - and I’d never worked so hard in preparing a program of music! It was a total delight. Some of my favorite recent highlights are singing Monteverdi’s Vespers and Handel’s Messiah in NYC, and Bach’s Saint John Passion with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Last Christmas, I sang the Poulenc Gloria with the The Bach Society of Saint Louis. Having sung the ensemble parts for several years, I was thrilled to debut as the soprano soloist in one of my all-time favorite pieces. In December 2018, it was my honor to be a featured soloist with the SFGC at Davies Symphony Hall! That hall holds so many memories of holiday programs: from my first time singing there as a shy little girl, to the Colors of Christmas concert when I was 13. I remember we started off the concert with a festive rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing and ended it with a candlelit recession through the aisles with everyone singing along to Silent Night.

Michele performing with members of Premier Ensemble at SFGC annual holiday concert 2018, Davies Symphony Hall

My favorite thing about singing at Davies again was the chance to work with every level of the chorus on such a wide range of styles, and to be up there on stage performing with the girls. From traditional holiday carols to Sephardic songs, to original tunes by Sweet Honey in the Rock, that program was a profound joy to sing. Making music by and for and beside other women is at the center of my career. My SSA trio - called Eos - specializes in early and contemporary music that honors women’s voices. Last year we did a program with The Folger Consort. It was based on chants by Hildegard von Bingen alongside three new works by Susan Botti, Kate Soper, and Shulamit Ram. We had such fun singing that program at Washington National Cathedral! A glorious space for voices. As my eagerness to celebrate women’s voices has grown, so has my appetite for 20th / 21st-century music, and the chance to bring a more diverse range of voices to the table. I’ve begun to perform the masterful art songs of Florence Price and Harry Burleigh more often, and to pair early works - e.g., a Handel aria - with a more contemporary piece in order to spark a conversation about what they might have in common. I’ve also joined the Kaleidoscope Vocal Ensemble, an octet of eight early music specialists, all musicians of color, to help address questions about representation in the field and ensure that we include women, BBI, and LGBTQ artists’ perspectives alongside our well-known masterpieces on the concert stage. One of my newest collaborations is with the Lorelei Ensemble, which was scheduled to premiere Julia Wolfe’s Her Story - about the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote - on a national tour this season. The pandemic has pushed that project back until next year. In the meantime, we’ve been writing blog posts about what the Wolfe piece means to us, and this month we’re recording a world premiere written for female octet by Chris Cerrone! I’m excited to share this music with the world; we’re all in such dire need of it right now.

Women of Lorelei Ensemble, Fall 2020

If I could offer one word of advice to young musicians, I’d say to use this time spent at home to learn even more about the world of music. There are all kinds of vocal festivals and educational resources that are online for a fraction of their normal cost. Take advantage of that! Live-streamed opera, Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method yoga lessons, and recordings aplenty are all available online. Listening to a little bit every day can teach you so much. One of my newest adventures is learning German and brushing up my Spanish on Duolingo, a wonderful language learning app. It’s easy to do a short lesson once a day, and the program is really fun! Being well-versed in multiple languages is always an asset for singers.

SF Symphony Season Announcement party, March 2020 (LR: Michele Kennedy, Alex Taite, Valérie Sainte-Agathe, Corty Fengler)

My last piece of advice is to nurture your relationships. Reach out to a musical or educational mentor, send a note to a fellow musician, and seek out opportunities that capture your interest. If you have questions about this career path, go ahead and ask them! Seasoned musicians always want to hear from aspiring artists, and those relationships can last for a lifetime. Finally, have fun! Imagination and human connection are at the heart of our artistic work. We do well to remember both the seriousness of the craft and the joy of sharing stories through music. Far and away, that has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. Thank you for listening, and happy music-making! Yours, Michele

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