Welcome, Ellen!

As we prepare to announce Clerestory’s twelfth season in the coming weeks, we wanted to let you know another bit of news first. Clerestory has hired its first ever administrative assistant, Ellen Leslie. Ellen is a wonderful soprano at the start of what we hope will be a busy career. She is a recent masters recipient and continues to work at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. You can read more about Ellen below and visit her website to hear her sing. 

Clerestory audience members, patrons, and followers on social media will hear a lot from Ellen over the coming season, and we hope many of you will get to meet her in person at an upcoming concert. Welcome, Ellen!


Winner of the 2016 Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions in the San Francisco District, Ellen Leslie is quickly becoming a sought-after singer both in the United States and abroad. Critics have lauded her “absolutely beautiful” (Opus Colorado), “bright, clear” (The Berkeley Daily Planet) and “radiant…lovely trilling soprano” (San Jose Mercury News), and her “sweet, strong tone and earnest demeanor” (San Francisco Classical Voice). 

This summer, Ellen made her German stage debut as Pamina (Die Zauberflöte) in Schloss Merode, and as Rosane (Vivaldi La verità in cimento) in Leipzig. Recent engagements in the Bay Area include Micaëla (Carmen) and Lady Billows (Albert Herring) at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Damigella and Amore (L’Incoronazione di Poppea) with the SFCM Baroque Ensemble, covering the role of Elisabetta (Roberto Devereux) with Pocket Opera, an evening of Vivaldi and Handel cantatas, a horn collaboration featuring Schubert’s Auf dem Strom, and two full solo recitals. A skilled interpreter of the lyric soprano roles in the Gilbert & Sullivan canon, Ellen has most recently sung Josephine (HMS Pinafore) and the title role in Patience with San Francisco’s acclaimed Lamplighters Music Theatre.

A lover of new music in all forms, Ellen sang in the 2015 and 2016 workshops for Santa Fe Opera’s 2017 production of The (r)Evolution of Steve Jobs, with music by acclaimed composer Mason Bates and conducted by Michael Christie. She has also premiered songs and opera roles by several emerging Bay Area composers, and received a grant to commission a full song cycle, “Charmes,” by Bay Area composer Eric Choate, which premiered in 2015.

Having made her oratorio debut at age 19 as the soprano solo in Carmina Burana with the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, Ellen is also an accomplished choral and orchestral soloist. Since the 2012-2013 season, she has had the annual privilege of singing with the Colorado Ballet in their production of The Nutcracker. Recent engagements also have included Porgy and Bess in Concert (2012) and a Fourth of July extravaganza (2014) with the Dallas Symphony, and The Planets (2013) with the New York Philharmonic, all at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. She also sang backup for Josh Groban in his 2013 performance with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Red Rocks Ampitheatre.

Ellen grew up on an Irwin 37 sailboat in the San Francisco Bay and spent her childhood sailing around the world with her family. She earned concurrent undergraduate degrees from the University of Denver–a BM in Voice Performance and a BA in French, both summa cum laude. She returned to California to for her MM at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music under acclaimed soprano Sylvia Anderson.

In 2016, Ellen split her time between San Francisco and Leipzig, Germany, where she completed her studies with soprano Caroline Stein on full scholarship at the Hochschule für Musik “Feliz Mendelssohn Bartholdy,” earning a Postgraduate Diploma in Voice in conjunction with SFCM. She has also lived in Strasbourg, France, where she researched a thesis on the sociopolitical climate surrounding Bizet’s Carmen; there, she was invited to sing Michael Tippett’s A Child of our Time with conductor Carlo Rizzi and the Orchèstre Philharmonique de Strasbourg.

Ellen lives in San Francisco and will marry her fiancé, composer/conductor Eric Choate, in September.

Here we go with Season 10!

Clerestory Opens 2015-16 Tenth Anniversary Season with Brightest Lights

Wide-ranging a cappella song program, selected in part by Clerestory’s audience; Performances September 26 in Berkeley and September 27 in San Francisco.

Clerestory, the Bay Area’s acclaimed nine-man vocal ensemble, launches its tenth anniversary season with Brightest Lights, a collection of highlights from its first decade of concerts. The ensemble will perform songs from the Renaissance, contemporary composers, folk styles, and Americana. To celebrate the ensemble’s 10th year, the program was selected with input from Clerestory’s audience: a survey emailed to past audience members asked which pieces they would most like to hear again in various categories. Brightest Lights includes works by Palestrina, Monteverdi, Poulenc, Samuel Barber and Eric Whitacre, among others.

Brightest Lights will be performed Saturday, September 26, 8pm at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley and Sunday, September 27, 4pm at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. (See calendar listing below for full season details.)

Clerestory kicks off the holiday season with Holiday Lights, a program of favorite carols and contemporary songs from Britain. Traditional British Christmas songs by Vaughan Williams, Britten, Walton, and Howells are featured, as well as new works by Jonathan Dove and James MacMillan. (See calendar listing  below for details.)

Continuing its tradition of championing new choral pieces, Clerestory’s tenth season closes with New Lights, a program of contemporary music. The ensemble will perform works by Eric Whitacre, Jake Heggie, and Aaron Jay Kernis along with new songs written especially for Clerestory’s anniversary by composer friends of the ensemble.

Tickets for Clerestory’s Bay Area concerts can be purchased online or at clerestory.org; prices are $25; $15 for students and seniors.

About Clerestory

Clerestory’s singers, from countertenor to bass, are veterans of San Francisco’s finest vocal groups, including Chanticleer, Philharmonia Baroque, American Bach Soloists and others. Since its founding in 2006, Clerestory has performed across the Bay Area, including regular concerts in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Palo Alto, along with appearances in Sonoma, Santa Cruz and Lodi. The ensemble has been featured on National Public Radio and on San Francisco’s KDFC. Recordings from Clerestory’s concerts are available for free listening at clerestory.org/free-concert-archive.

The ensemble’s 2010 debut studio-recorded release, Night Draws Near, explores life, death, and mysticism in music inspired by the temporally and thematically close celebrations of Halloween, All Soul’s Day, and El Día de los Muertos. Writing about the CD, critic Jason Serinus noted the “exceptional sincerity and beauty of the singing.”

Clerestory is named for cathedral windows that let in daylight; the group tells the “clear story” of music through sophisticated performances grounded in decades of experience singing together. Clerestory is a tax-exempt non-profit organization with a mission of providing high quality performances to local audiences at affordable prices.

For more information, visit clerestory.org  |  Download Photos

Press contact: Justin Montigne, 415.420.1189, justin@clerestory.org

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Season Calendar Listing
Tickets for Clerestory’s Bay Area concerts can be purchased online or at clerestory.org; prices are $25; $15 for students and seniors.


brightest lights artBrightest Lights

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
2300 Bancroft Way
Saturday, September 26, 8:00pm

San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Sunday, September 27, 4:00pm

Tickets and more info


holiday lights artHoliday Lights 

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
1111 O’Farrell St.
Saturday, November 28, 8:00pm

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
2300 Bancroft Way
Sunday, November 29, 8:00pm

Center for Spiritual Living
2075 Occidental Rd.
Tuesday, December 8, 8:00pm

Tickets and more info


new lights artNew Lights 

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
1111 O’Farrell St.
Saturday, March 5, 8:00pm

David Brower Center
2150 Allston Way
Sunday, March 6, 4:00pm

Tickets and more info

One Hot Mashup

Mashups have been the province of DJs and teenage electronic music enthusiasts, but recently have been given a new and different sort of life in the a cappella resurgence. The fictional Barden Bellas (of Pitch Perfect fame) win all their competitions with vocal mashups of popular songs, while the Pentatonix and other skilled a cappella groups are winning in real life by creatively combining melodies into energetic and often beautiful new arrangements. Long before either of these phenomena took the vocal world by storm, composers and intrepid choral arrangers made ‘mashups’ for their novelty and as an exercise in ingenuity. Our friend, Eric Banks, whose compositions are chockablock with the stuff, made his own fiery mashup of the Great American Songbook classics, Fever and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. It takes a few measures of bell-like tolling in the bass parts, before we even realize what we’re hearing. Then, as the saucy alto (of course!) begins to solo, and the soprano countermelody soars, we know we’re in the middle of one hot mashup.

Listen to the quintessential version of Fever and a tongue-in-cheek one of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes below. If you’d like to do a little homework and know exactly what you’re listening for before our concerts this weekend, Eric helpfully posts scores for all his compositions on his website.

What is Songbook?

What is the Great American Songbook anyway? It’s generally considered the canon of classic American popular song from the first half of the 20th century, although that time frame is debated and doesn’t encompass some more recent songs that fit the style and spirit of the Songbook.

Read the Wikipedia article on the Songbook here.

We’ve included many of the songs on the above article’s list, as well as a few others that expand and inform the development of the Songbook and American popular music in general: folk songs and spirituals in particular. Stephen Foster composed his songs, but they were so popular and enduring that they’ve become a part of the American folk repertoire. Many of us first experienced Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and Camptown Races while singing with Chanticleer; it’s a joy to revisit them again with many of the same faces around the arc. Spirituals may not seem like the perfect musical fit for a group of caucasian classical singers, but they are such an important part of America’s musical history, they need to be heard. African American spirituals influenced all of our popular music styles, and indeed, in many instances, have become a cappella or jazz favorites in their own right. Listen to the great Kate Smith and Nina Simone perform Jeanie and Sinner Man in their own inimitable styles.

Barbershop is a style that grew out of these folk traditions, but has also birthed (in part) the current a cappella craze seen in movie musicals like Pitch Perfect and the break out success of groups like the Pentatonix. Deke Sharon, arranger for the Pitch Perfect movies, producer of the Sing Off television show, singer of the House Jacks, and Bay Area native has given us his blessing to perform his version of the Girl from Ipanema. Hear a more classic take below, and then compare it to Deke’s inventive version at our concerts this weekend.


Songbook Poster

Here’s the poster for this month’s Songbook concerts. We’re excited to sing classic tunes from Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Stephen Foster, Hoagy Carmichael, Meredith Willson, and many more.

Of course, spreading the word is essential—there’s no Songbook without your ears to hear it. Please consider printing the poster and displaying it at your place of work, a favorite haunt, or perhaps emailing it to your friends and family. All are welcome, and we think newcomers to Clerestory concerts especially will enjoy these gorgeous and accessible American songs. Thank you for the help, and we’ll see you at the shows!

songbook poster
Click to download the full sized poster

A Clerestory Songbook

Clerestory has created its own arrangements of the songs we want to sing for a while now—you may remember such favorites as Jesse Antin’s gorgeous Sure on this Shining NightJohn Bischoff’s version of Joni Mitchell’s California, and Dan Cromeene’s uproarious Hippopotamus Song. Arranging songs allows us to illuminate the parts of the music we find particularly interesting, and to showcase the strengths of the singers, not to mention the fabulous arrangers.

Among the joys, arranging has its challenges—mostly legal. It’s difficult to wade through copyright law to make sure the composers of the songs get their appropriate credit and payment, but we endeavor to do so each time. easysonglicensing.com has been particularly helpful in that regard. If anyone has legal expertise around music publishing, copyright, entertainment law, or digital recordings, we’d love your advice. Please write to info@clerestory.org, and thank you!

For our upcoming Songbook concerts, you’ll hear three new covers of popular songs by three of Clerestory’s own. Dan Cromeenes has sent our voices into the skies for Over the Rainbow—written by Harold Arlen for the movie musical, The Wizard of Oz. The song became a signature of the late, great Judy Garland, and has been covered countless times from the 20th century through today. Watch the timeless original below.

John Bischoff resurrected a piece he arranged for his Princeton a cappella quartet—the little-known Frank Sinatra hit, East of the Sun, by early 20th century Princeton student Brooks Bowman. This sultry ballad has received the jazz treatment from greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Krall. Hear Sinatra’s version—the one that caught John’s ear—below.

The final Clerestory Songbook offering comes from our newest board member—lawyer, composer, singer, and renaissance man, John Kelley. You’ve hear his Haunted Heart on Clerestory’s Bacchanalia concerts, and John wanted to arrange the Jerome Kern classic, The Way You Look Tonight for these concerts. We’re happy to step slightly outside our comfort zone to add a little bossa nova groove and vocal percussion to this beautiful song.

Chantey? Shanty? Chantez!

There has been a nerdy little debate rumbling through the ranks of Clerestory’s singers and board: is the word for a traditional sea song ‘chantey,’ ‘shanty,’ or something else entirely.

Oxford dictionary prefers ‘shanty,’ but gives the origin as the French word ‘chantez’ (the imperative plural of the verb ‘to sing’). Merriam-Webster prefers ‘chantey,’ offering the British ‘shanty’ as the first alternative. They are both agreed on the definition of the word: a rhythmic song sung by sailors whilst performing their work.

Jesse discovered this excellent blog post on the word debate, but also the history and practice of singing sea songs.

Clerestory will offer several chanteys in our SeaSongs program, and we invite you to weigh in, not only to our syntactical debate, but in suggesting some of your favorite maritime songs. Let’s sing—chantez!

Give me the nerve… To sing fast

Eric Banks:

20120929-213043.jpgFor the second movement of the cycle, Give me the nerve, I have composed two lightning-fast rounds that are sung by the four innermost voices in the ensemble. In order to create and relieve tension over the course of the piece, I played with three different levels of canonical delay.

The first melody is sung first in unison, then as a duet (two singers against the other two), and then individually, in very quick succession. The effect is completely wavelike, and a little mesmerizing. For the second melody, I begin with the rapid individual foursome, then move to the duet, and then unison – employing the canons in the opposite order. With this architecture, the most unsettling part of the piece is in the middle, exactly where the sailor’s “prayer” can have its strongest effect. The outer four voices, by the way, sing the same texts as the inner four, just much more slowly, providing a reverent backdrop for the chaos of the stormy four-voice rounds. Here is the complete poem:

Give me the nerve
That never will swerve
Running out on life’s ledges of danger;
Mine, mine be the nerve
That in peril will serve,
Since life is to safety a stranger.

When roaring below
The cataracts go,
And tempests are over me scudding;
Give, give me the calm
That is better than balm,
And the courage that keepeth new-budding.

Inspiration II: America’s Cup

Click the picture for the America’s Cup San Francisco page.

The other major inspiration for SeaSongs is the 2012/13 America’s Cup races in San Francisco. The America’s Cup returns to the U.S. for the first time in two decades, and the already maritime-mad Bay Area will be gaga for ships, sailors, swells, and all things related to the sea. SeaSongs aims to capitalize on the zeitgeist, but also to honor the rich repertoire of choral music inspired by the sea. In addition to our own new addition of These Oceans Vast, by Eric Banks, we will sing ocean music of Monteverdi, Brahms, Milhaud, Vaughan Williams, Crabtree, and more. We hope to reprise these fall concerts with a performance next summer in conjunction with the America’s Cup finals. Perhaps Piers 27-29, which are being totally renovated and reinvigorated for the event, will have a Clerestory-sized space ready for some chanteys and SeaSongs! We’ll keep you posted.