Noe Valley Voice May 1999

S.F. Girls Chorus Weaves 'Patterns' by Castro Street Composer

By Jeff Kaliss

When your life is full of music, Noe Valley's a good place to be living it.

Among those singing the praises of the neighborhood are Noelle Peck-Daly, who has been rehearsing her part with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and Jake Heggie, an up-and-coming composer of songs and operas. And the two have a connection.

Peck-Daly, who lives with her parents on Laidley Street, will perform with the Chorus at Davies Symphony Hall on May 24. The program will include the world premiere of Patterns, a piece composed by Heggie, who works and resides in a Victorian flat on Castro Street near 23rd.

"My windows are almost at street level, so I never feel far away from the real world," says Heggie. "I see people walking by, peering in the windows while I'm working at the piano. And there's a beautiful garden out back, where I can take escapes."

It's not that he really wants to escape his cornucopia of musical projects. But his schedule is demanding. It currently includes a performance by Chanticleer of a piece he wrote to a text by former Noe Valley resident Armistead Maupin; the release this fall of an album of Heggie songs sung by a variety of America's best classical vocalists; a recital of his material at New York's Lincoln Center a year from now; and an opera he just finished and is now orchestrating, based on Dead Man Walking and due to debut in the San Francisco Opera's 2000 ­ 2001 season.

Heggie is quick to name the "guardian angel" hovering over many of these endeavors: she's Frederica von Stade, a world-class mezzo-soprano now based in Alameda. Von Stade will sing on Heggie's album and will play the convict's mother in the opera, as well as perform with Chanticleer, at Lincoln Center, and in Patterns with the Girls Chorus this month at Davies. She also provided the Steinway piano now busy in Heggie's flat, an "extended loan" of an instrument formerly owned by her father.

Opera singer and composer met when Heggie was working a day (and evening) job a few years ago in the publicity department of the San Francisco Opera.

"I gave her some songs as an opening night gift, when she appeared there in Dangerous Liaisons," Heggie recalls. "Later we read through them, and she said, 'These are really good, Jake. Would you like to give a recital some time?'" She insisted that Heggie refer to her by her nickname, "Flicka," and the two have been friends and collaborators ever since.

"She's a great actress and a great singer, but there's also this wonderful empathy and warmth which comes over the footlights," enthuses Heggie. "She's a real genuine, honest person ... and there's a throb in her voice, it's a heartthrob."

The composer admits that some of these same qualities may be present in his own music. "It's tuneful, and I write honestly," he says. "It's a combination of accessible and recognizable tunes you can hold on to, with long, lyrical, arching lines, the kind of thing the voice does well."

When the Girls Chorus approached von Stade, she immediately suggested that Heggie be commissioned to create a piece for her and Chorissima, the Chorus' 41-voice concert and touring ensemble. Heggie selected "Patterns," a poem by turn-of-the-century American poet Amy Lowell, about a young woman forced to grow up quickly when her betrothed is killed in battle.

"You have this contrast of an inner voice, which is this young girl, and an external voice, which is a young woman who's suddenly become very mature," notes Heggie. "So it was just perfect for this combination between the girls' voices and Flicka's."

Noelle Peck-Daly, at age 15 a seven-year veteran of the Chorus and one of the singers in Chorissima, is herself a mezzo-soprano and looking forward to meeting von Stade, a longtime role model. Meanwhile, she has been studying "Patterns" in her own garden, and empathizing with the young subject of the poem.

"She imagines herself running through her garden," Peck-Daly points out, "but all the while she's sitting very stiffly, confined in these stiff clothes...and suffocated by the social demands on her that restrict her behavior. So it deals with a lot of women's rights issues which we've all come in contact with."

The Girls Chorus, now in its 20th anniversary season, has helped hundreds of girls like Peck-Daly to overcome female stereotypes, including the assumption that girls can't perform modern works like Heggie's.

"Patterns is harder to learn, but it allows for more expression, because the emotions are more striking," says the young singer. "The style is like impressionistic painting, in a way: it's not so much the form that matters, but the emotions it brings out in the listener."

The May 24 concert will showcase other kinds of music too, Peck-Daly explains. "We're singing a Schubert piece where the chord progressions are all very traditional -- it's what the ear expects -- and we're singing some folk songs. Some of these are very simple, but they have to be because we're performing them with the Chorus School, the younger singers who aren't very experienced. It'll be a group of about 400 girls, and in that context it becomes very significant and comes to life."

For the complete Davies program and more information about the Girls Chorus, including auditions, call 673-1511. For tickets, call City Box Office at 392-4400.