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June 14, 2006

And now for the coda

San Francisco Chronicle (CA):

In a cavernous rehearsal room underneath Davies Symphony Hall, 235 singers murmured before a recent practice until Vance George, a barrel-chested figure in black, had them rise, exchange shoulder massages, sigh exaggeratedly, sing scales and make "brrr'' sounds with their lips, like the engine of a motor boat.

Warm-up complete, George, planted in a tall chair behind a music stand, flipped open the 144-page Verdi "Requiem" score before him, trying to dissect problem spots, only to be bombarded by complaints. His microphone was off and no one could hear him. "Hello,'' he intoned dryly, with a smile, turning up the volume. "My name is George, and I'll be your pilot this evening.''

Humor can break all kinds of tension, and it did on this night, one of the last behind the podium for George, who is retiring after 23 years as director of San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Under his watch, the Chorus has evolved into one of the world's finest, earning four Grammys and an Emmy. George is recognized as one of the nation's premier choral conductors for his ability to shape the Chorus' sound in a range of musical styles. In the San Francisco Chorus, 35 singers are paid professionals; the other 185 are volunteers.

George came to San Francisco in 1983, the protege of Margaret Hillis, the choral conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, who'd been asked to fill in after the departure of choral director Lou Magor. Now, after two decades of yielding the baton to Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt, Michael Tilson Thomas and others on show night, the 72-year-old feels it is time to be at the controls from takeoff to landing, guest conducting elsewhere.

"The massive choral works -- the Mahlers, Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis,' Verdi's 'Requiem' -- were a wonderful challenge and delight to conquer with the Chorus,'' he said, contemplating the highlights of his career over lunch last week. "The only downside in 23 years is that I didn't conduct the orchestra and Chorus as much as I would have liked.'' As resident conductor Edwin Outwater acknowledged, it takes a certain type of ego to stay on the sidelines that long: "He doesn't have the final say. He gives up all his works to someone else, but his soul comes through.''

There's a knock -- fair or not -- against choral conductors, who are sometimes regarded as less precise than their symphonic counterparts. George believes he's up to the rigors of the podium. His mentor was the late master conductor and composer Robert Shaw, and he studied under the renowned conductor Otto-Werner Mueller. Though he grew up on a farm in Indiana, music was his calling. He conducted his first opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," at Goshen College while studying music -- and scrounged up an orchestra, costumes and a set. "It was most unusual in our little world,'' said his favorite instructor, Mary Oyer, 83, who flew in for a recent good-bye party attended by 150 friends and colleagues. "He had that kind of imagination."

Composer Alice Parker of Massachusetts, also in attendance, said George "understands the voice ... and the larger implications of the score. Choral conductors are more apt to be flowing, but with this chorus, you have to be just as precise as the instrumentalists. He has fine training and is very disciplined.'' Training is only one aspect of the job. "There's a wonderful exchange we have, singing together, as human beings, experiencing the divine,'' George told his guests.

His use of metaphor to encourage specific sounds is highly regarded among the singers, said soprano Abigail Farrell, 59, of San Rafael. He is descriptive and fun, asking them, for instance, to imagine eating hot mashed potatoes. Though he is a gourmet foodie, he is not trying to evoke a smooth, satiny texture in the voice. He is trying to get them to think "burning hot food in the mouth" to get them to lower their jaws so that the roofs of their mouths won't be scalded. "This action opens up the synovial cavity,'' George explained, touching his fingertips near his temple, where the hinge of the jaw opens up. The jaw and mouth, he said, must be positioned just so for the proper sounds to burst forth.

On the opening night of Mahler's Eighth Symphony last month, he recommended something specific when singing the Latin word "accende,'' relating to fire and illumination. For the first forceful syllable, pronounced "ahhch,'' he urged them to think of the pain involved in dropping a wine bottle on their toes. For the second and third syllables, pronounced "CHEN-day,'' he suggested thinking about lighting a safety match, and the tension between the moment the match is struck and when it bursts into flame.

"You live in a trailer home, you're striking one of those long safety matches and after a pause, 'chhhhh!' -- it explodes into light!"

The most difficult languages for the Chorus have been Russian, Czech and other Slavic tongues, with sounds and consonants that are different and crisper than English. And yet, from gospel to Broadway to classical, the singers have done them all in the correct style, "which is what I've trained this chorus to do," he said, with pride.

Nearing the 2 1/2-hour mark of this rehearsal -- his last ever as Symphony Chorus director -- George tugged and pulled to get the singers to do things his way, knowing it could all go out the window when the guest conductor, James Conlon, takes the baton on performance night. He knows that some people will be happy to see him go, and that others are fretful that things won't be the same, though he is confident that under a new director, "everything will be fine."

When practice was over, he closed his book, looked down and gathered his belongings, preparing to leave as if it were any other workday. The Chorus, however, would not let him go without a standing ovation. He folded his hands together awkwardly and nodded his head. "I just taught you what I needed to learn,'' he said, softly. "Thank you, and good night.''

Posted by acapnews at June 14, 2006 9:28 PM