Student Singers Join San Francisco Symphony for Beethoven's Ninth

Thursday, July 11, 2019
Photo of Professor David Xiques, conductor Gemma New and 15 students rehearsing at Davies Symphony Hall
Professor David Xiques (center) and conductor Gemma New (in black hooded dress) lead a rehearsal with students at Davies Symphony Hall. Photo courtesy of David Xiques.

Fifteen San Francisco State students are rehearsing vocals for a performance of epic proportions: Beethoven’s Ninth with the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony. The concert takes place July 13 – 14 at Stanford University’s Frost Amphitheater.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which debuted in 1824 in Vienna, is regarded as the grandest and most iconic composition in classical music. The students will perform with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, as the work’s final movement includes a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem An die Freude (Ode to Joy).

“To be performing such legendary music in an amazing venue with an amazing orchestra, it feels a little surreal. It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Blaine Robey, a baritone who completed his Bachelor of Arts in Music this spring.

Music Professor David Xiques, an assistant director at the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, came up with the idea to audition students to perform in the concert. He predicts it will be a life-changing experience for them.

“This will rock their world in major ways,” Xiques says. “They’re going to quickly see how fast paced things are, putting together a concert in a short amount of time. Our students are used to working on a performance, at San Francisco State, for a whole semester. But what we have now is students, in essence, only having two to three rehearsals and then — boom — they’re right into performance.”

“This will rock their world in major ways.” — Professor David Xiques

Robey and junior Laurena Alm both were struck by the level of professionalism in rehearsals with the chorus, orchestra and conductor Gemma New.

“Everybody walks in that room ready to go,” says Alm, a soprano. “You walk in that room with your best foot forward.”

Robey says all of the performers in rehearsal knew their notes already, allowing them to focus on the musicality in detail.

“We need to be true to how the language sounds in German,” he says. “Do we use the open ‘o’ or closed ‘o’? How does that sound? There are lots of little pronunciation things that are just as important as the musical things.”

The students also face the challenge of performing a demanding composition that will test their stamina, Xiques adds. “The music that Beethoven writes is incredibly beautiful, but incredibly virtuosic and difficult.”

To prepare, Alm is making sure to stay hydrated, sleep well and eat lots of vegetables. “It’s always good to take a step back; your body is your instrument,” she says.

SF Symphony at Stanford Live

The concert includes two performances: July 13 at 7:30 p.m. and July 14 at 4 p.m. The concert is part of Stanford Live’s SF Symphony at Frost series.

Alm marvels at the power of the text in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

“It’s all about the brotherhood of mankind, the unification of voices and the feeling of unity and togetherness that we want right now,” she says.

For details and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

— Matt Itelson

Jamie Oppenheim contributed to this story


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